When it comes to sleeping in the great outdoors, or just an unfamiliar environment where you don’t know what to expect, choosing the best backpacking sleeping bag can make a world of difference.
A good sleeping bag will keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. But, even though these requirements seem pretty straightforward, picking out the right sleeping bag for your next adventure can be more difficult than it sounds.
There are other posts in this series:
- Choosing a Rucksack
- Choosing Rainwear
- How to choose hiking boots
- My Packing List
- What is the best camera for the Camino
- Best lightweight rain jackets
Table of Contents
- 1 My Experience
- 2 The Shape of a Sleeping Bag
- 3 Sleeping Bag Length
- 4 Should I Choose a Down or Synthetic Sleeping Bag?
- 5 Temperature Rating
- 6 Additional Sleeping Bag Features
- 7 How to Choose a 3 Season Sleeping Bag
- 8 How to Choose a Winter Sleeping Bag
- 9 How to Choose a Summer Sleeping Bag
- 10 How to Choose a Double Sleeping Bag
- 11 How to Choose an Ultralight Sleeping Bag
- 12 Can I Choose a Quilt Over a Sleeping Bag?
- 13 Can I Use a Bedroll Instead?
- 14 What About a Sleeping Bag Liner?
- 15 Do I Need a Pillow?
- 16 What About a Sleeping Pad or Camping Mattress?
- 17 Bedbug and Sleeping Bags and Liners
- 18 Which Sleeping Bag Would I Choose?
There is much debate on whether you need a summer sleeping bag or a sleeping bag liner during the summer on the Camino de Santiago. Here I want to look at both sides of that argument and help you choose a sleeping bag, quilt, bedroll, or liner; then which one and do you need it treated against bed bugs.
I have always used a sleeping bag on each of my Caminos to Santiago and I have only walked in the hot weather of July, August, and September, in both France and Spain on the Camino Frances and the Via Podiensis, (next on my list is the Portuguese route).
Each time I walked it was very hot, some days in the high 30’s Celsius, (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit). However, when in the mountains I was cold even in the height of summer and I was happy to have my bag. That said, a lot has changed since my first Camino in 2005; many more albergues now supply bedsheets and blankets.
My last reason for using a sleeping bag is that I like some weight over my body while sleeping – maybe growing up in Scotland has me conditioned to sleeping with more than a sheet over me at night.
The Shape of a Sleeping Bag
There are two main shapes used for a sleeping bag; the mummy and the rectangle, (there are some slight variations on these).
Each of the sleeping bag types can have various extra features like a hood, a tape that covers the zip for better insulation, a stash pocket, and even loops to hold a sleeping mat – though you will not need a sleeping mat on the Camino.
Mummy Sleeping Bag
In colder weather the mummy bag is certainly the best as it is designed with maximum thermal efficiency, they are also usually lighter due to being slightly smaller – an important consideration on the Camino de Santiago where you want to keep your backpack as light as possible.
The shape of a mummy bag is contoured to the body, hence the name. A typical mummy bag offers more width through the hip and shoulders, but the footbox and leg area are highly tapered.
Most mummy bags feature a fitted hood that you can tighten with a drawcord. Due to their tapered shape, mummy bags may not be the best choice for restless sleepers that like to turn and wriggle during the night.
Best suited for:
- Draft tube that runs the length of the bag
- Small pack size
- Hood with drawcord
- Good warmth to weight ratio
The rectangle sleeping bag is my favorite. I find mummy bags too restrictive while sleeping or trying to get to sleep – though after walking all day falling asleep was never an issue.
Normally these bags can open up and be used as a blanket or as a duvet (for couples walking the Camino, you can also buy rectangle bags that zip two bags together).
A rectangular sleeping bag translates to plenty of space for posing and turning. But, since rectangular sleeping bags are not airtight like mummy sleeping bags, they don’t do such a great job of retaining body heat. The average rectangular sleeping bag doesn’t come with a hood.
Best suited for:
- Tent camping
- Warm-weather camping
- Can open out flat
- Zip compatible with other sleeping bags
- Lots of foot space
Double Sleeping Bag
Two-person sleeping bags, also called double sleeping bags, can comfortably fit two adults inside.
Well-designed double sleepings bags allow you to gain more warmth from the combined body heat. However, if the fit of a double sleeping bag is too loose, it will let in cold air.
Best suited for:
- Romantic getaways
- Car camping
- Can be unzipped to make two single sleeping bags
- Two zippers
Barrel-Shaped Sleeping Bag
A barrel-shaped sleeping bag is a solid choice for those who want to get the space and comfort of a rectangular sleeping bag, but don’t want to make compromises when it comes to warmth.
To retain body heat, a barrel-shaped bag has a tapered footbox and shoulder area. Higher-end barrel-shaped sleeping bags come with an adjustable hood.
Best suited for:
- Car camping
- Solid temperature rating
- Tapered shoulders
- Tapered footbox
Elephant’s Foot Sleeping Bag
This type of sleeping bag is ideal for minimalist mountaineers and backpackers. Elephant’s foot sleeping bags are designed solely with low weight in mind.
Similar to mummy sleeping bags, elephant’s foot sleeping bags are highly fitted. A typical elephant’s sleeping bag is shorter than a traditional sleeping bag, and it doesn’t include a hood.
When sleeping in an elephant’s foot sleeping bag, you should wear an insulated jacket. Elephant’s foot sleeping bags usually don’t include zippers. If they do, they are ¾ length. However, they come with fasteners that allow you to attach the bag to a sleeping pad.
Best suited for:
- Minimalist mountaineering
- Shoulder straps
- ¾ length zip
- Small packed size
- Good warmth to weight ratio
- Very lightweight
Sleeping Bag Length
Sleeping bags generally come in standard and long lengths, though this is changing all the time and more variation is available. If you are small, maybe consider a children’s sleeping bag, but beware of the insulation as often children’s bags are not as thermally efficient as adult bags.
You need to have an accurate measurement of your height in order to determine the right length of your sleeping sack. And don’t buy a sleeping bag that’s an exact match for your measurements. For instance, a six-foot sack will fit too tightly if you are exactly six feet tall.
For men: Men’s sleeping bags come in two sizes—regular and tall. If you are between five feet six inches and six feet tall, a regular-length bag will be a good fit.
If you are taller, you’ll definitely need a longer sleeping bag. If you are under five feet six inches, do know that some brands offer shorter sizes.
For women: Women’s sleeping bags come in regular and tall lengths. They are shorter than men’s. If you are up to five feet four inches tall, it’s best to get a regular sleeping bag.
Tall women’s sleeping bags are designed for women that are up to five feet ten inches tall.
If you are under five feet four inches, it may be best to check out children’s sleeping bags. On the other hand, if you are taller than five feet ten inches, you may want to get a unisex bag.
More Tips for Sizing Your Sleeping Bag
Here’s how you can make sure your sleeping bag will fit perfectly:
Try it before you buy it: To get an overall idea of the way each type and brand fits, put on appropriate layers and crawl into a few different sleeping bags.
Integrate a sleeping pad: If you are considering buying a sleeping bag that has straps or a sleeping pad sleeve, attach a sleeping pad to it while you’re in the store. The fit of a sleeping bag greatly depends on the sleeping pad because the pad reduces the bag’s interior volume.
Check the closures: If the zipper of a bag snags in the store, it will snag in the field as well. Zip it up and down a few times.
Cinch the draft collar and the hood down. See whether the bag offers a snug seal around your head and a comfortable fit. Moreover, check how easy it is to get out of the bag.
Roll around: Make sure you’re able to comfortably roll around inside the bag if you are a side sleeper or thrasher.
Should I Choose a Down or Synthetic Sleeping Bag?
On average, down insulation (especially goose down) is more expensive than synthetic insulation. On top of being warmer, down insulation is more compressible and lighter than synthetic insulation.
Down is also more durable than synthetic fabrics. If properly cared for, your down sleeping bag will last for decades. When backpacking or camping in colder weather, down sleeping bags, are a better choice.
But it’s important to mention that down loses its insulating properties when it gets wet. If you think your gear is probably going to get wet, a synthetic sleeping bag may be a better option.
However, many higher-end bags feature hydrophobic down (down that has been treated with a water repellent).
Not all down is created equal. Down insulation comes with a “fill power” rating. A higher number indicates that the down generates greater warmth.
Down that has a fill power rating between 800 and 900 is considered to be super toasty. 800-fill-power down is usually used in bags that are intended for ultralight backpacking or camping in very cold conditions. These sleeping bags are the most expensive.
Down sleeping bags have two types of construction: box baffle and sewn through. The box baffle construction is simply bags sewn between an outer shell and the inner liner.
Sewn-through bags stitch the shell and liner together. The box method leaves no possible cold spots on the sleeping bag, where that can happen in sewn-through bags.
When it comes to products derived from animals, there are always some ethical concerns. Higher-end brands use ethically sourced down. If you want to get a sleeping bag that’s “cruelty-free,” look for the RDS label.
The advantages of down insulation:
- Often has water-resistant treatment
- Performs well in cold, dry weather
- Can last up to 25 years
- Doesn’t lose its thermal efficiency over time
- Easy to compress
- They take longer to dry; (they are water resistant not waterproof)
- Can smell, (usually the duck down)
- More expensive
- Can be allergenic
- Care required when washing the sleeping bag
Synthetic insulation is usually made from polyester. There are many proprietary synthetic insulation materials on the market. PrimaLoft, ThermoLite, Quallofil, and Climashield are considered to be among the best ones.
Synthetic insulation is more affordable than down, but still offers solid performance. Sleeping bags that use synthetic insulation don’t come with a “fill power” rating, but you can refer to their temperature rating for comparison.
Synthetic insulation will keep you warm even if it gets soaked in water. Moreover, it dries quickly. However, synthetic insulation is heavier than down. It also has a much shorter lifespan.
In most cases, you are better off with a high-quality down sleeping bag. But, if you are on a very limited budget, or if you are going backpacking in damp conditions, a synthetic sleeping bag is a great choice.
Synthetic bags have two common constructions; layered and shingles. Layered bags often have two separate sheets; one is stitched to the shell the other to the liner.
Shingle bags are like roof tiles where the cut pieces of fabric overlap within the shell and liner. Both types are as good as each other.
Advantages of synthetic insulation:
- Will still insulate when wet and damp
- Quick to dry
- Easy to wash
- Difficult to compress
- Each compression loses thermal efficiency
- Take more space
- Less warmth for its weight
Some sleeping bags feature down on top, where it lofts better, and synthetic insulation on the bottom, where it compresses less. This design loses its advantages when you roll the entire sleeping bag onto its side.
When it comes to packed size, the type of insulation is the biggest factor. To better understand size differences, look for “compressed volume” specs.
The Shell of a Sleeping Bag
The shell in both types of bag is usually made from nylon or polyester with some sort of waterproof treatment.
Cheaper sleeping bags are treated with a water repellent which helps prevent water from seeping into the bag. More expensive bags have a breathable waterproof shell, which is considerably more expensive.
Sleeping bag linings are made from nylon and polyester fabrics which are comfortable and let body moisture evaporate.
Within the EU there is a legal standard for the thermal efficiency of sleeping bags to ensure all manufacturers adhere to a common standard. In the US there is no legal regulation, but many manufacturers and suppliers, including REI, have started using the European EN13537 temperature rating guide.
However, this is still a little opaque, as tests assume the person is sleeping on a mat and wearing full-length underwear. It is also worth noting, as any married person will know, that women sleep with a slightly colder body temperature than men – and almost all bags are tested to suit men.
This problem with the rating, I believe, is only an issue if you are sleeping outside in freezing weather. Most sleeping bags fall into the following categories: summer, two seasons, and winter. Use your time of year on the Camino as the guide, bear in mind you will likely never sleep outside – though in the winter you may be sleeping in an unheated hostel.
Additional Sleeping Bag Features
Draft-blocking features: To help keep the cold air out, some sleeping bags feature draft tubes that run along the zipper. Some also feature yokes or draft collars at the opening to help seal in the warmth.
Hood: When cinched tightly around your head, a hood offers extra warmth. Most sleeping bag hoods are adjustable. So that you can easily tell which cord adjusts the hood opening and which adjusts the neck fit, some models have “differentiated drawcords.”
Anti-snag zipper features: Snapping the zipper causes extra wear and tear on the sleeping bag—on top of being incredibly annoying. Some models shield the zipper with a simple cover while others feature a guard along its full length.
Other zipper features: It’s easier to adjust ventilation if your sleeping bag has more than one zipper slider. Two-way zippers are also great for ventilation, and they make the sleeping bag more versatile.
Left or right zip: Unless you are planning to zip two sacks together, you don’t need to worry about this. If you do, one of you needs to have a bag with a right-hand zip and the other person a bag with a left-hand zip. It’s also important to have the same zipper type.
When a brand sells the same sleeping bag model for both men and women, the women’s version is a right zip and the men’s is a compatible left zip. If you are backpacking or camping with your partner often, getting a double sleeping bag is usually the simpler solution.
Sleeping pad compatibility: Some models feature a sleeve to fit a sleeping pad on the underside. Other sleeping bags feature pad loops and straps that make it easier to connect your sack to a sleeping pad.
Stash pocket: This feature is handy for keeping small items close at hand, such as lip balm, medicine, or your watch. It’s usually located on the chest near the top of the sack.
Pillow pocket: Some models come with a “pillow pocket,” and it’s not a pocket for storing your camping pillow. If you don’t bring a pillow, you can create one by stuffing clothes inside the pillow pocket.
How to Choose a 3 Season Sleeping Bag
If you like camping in colder regions as well as hot climates, it doesn’t mean you need to get two different sleeping bags. Finding a sleeping bag that can handle the cool spring nights and warm summer conditions is no easy task, but it’s possible.
The most versatile bags have a temperature rating between 15 and 35°F. When choosing a 3’season sleeping bag, ventilation is also an important factor.
Go for a long zip bag. Sacks that feature zips on both sides, two-way zips, or zip panels make for the best 3-season sleeping bags. These features allow you to easily get rid of excess warmth.
Make sure to get a bag that has an adjustable hood and baffles that separate the shell from the lining. The hood will allow you to seal in the warmth and the baffles ensure there are no cold spots.
How to Choose a Winter Sleeping Bag
Since there’s plenty of snow, ice, and rain in the winter, you need a sleeping bag that can handle moisture as well as freezing temperatures.
Mummy-shaped or semi-rectangular sacks that feature hydrophobic 800+ fill power down are your best bet. Even if you are a restless sleeper, go for a bag that’s more form-fitting.
Sacrificing freedom of movement for greater warmth retention should be well worth it. If you are willing to spend a bit more, go for a model that features goose-down insulation.
The shell of your bag should be made from water-resistant fabrics. It should also be treated with DWR (durable water repellent). Don’t forget—water resistance is vital since down doesn’t insulate when wet.
The best winter sleeping bags have a temperature rating of 10°F or lower. Keep in mind, these ratings assume you are wearing warm clothes. When you are trying out winter sleeping bags in the store, make sure you have thick layers on you.
How to Choose a Summer Sleeping Bag
Without the right sleeping bag and clothing, you may get cold even in the summer. To find a perfect sleeping bag for warm weather, you need to find the right balance between ventilation and heat retention.
It’s best to go with a lightweight sleeping bag. Most high-end lightweight sleeping bags are designed to keep you cool as you sleep.
So that you’ll have enough airflow, you may want to go with a regular or elephant’s foot sleeping bag. If you need more warmth, you can always wear extra layers during the night.
Summer sleeping bags come with a 35°F temperature rating or higher. Even though it’s summer, it’s best to get a sack that is rated to a temperature that’s a bit lower than the lowest temperature you’re expecting.
How to Choose a Double Sleeping Bag
Everything that goes for other types of sleeping bags also goes for double sleeping bags, and yet, it’s most difficult to find a good double bag. Why? If you have ever been mattress shopping with your other half, you’ll understand.
Make sure you both agree on what makes a good sleeping bag. Get a model that is a bit roomier. That way, if you are feeling colder than your partner, you can easily layer up. It’s also a good idea to get a model that has two separate hoods.
How to Choose an Ultralight Sleeping Bag
If you want to lighten the load and save space in your pack, it’s best to choose a bag that features 800+ fill power goose-down. The higher the fill power, the less insulating material you need to stay warm.
The thing about ultralight sleeping bags is that they don’t have a lot of features. Some sacrifices have to be made in order to bring down the weight.
When it comes to ultralight sleeping bags, adjustable hoods and full-length zippers may be considered extras. If you want to get an ultralight sleeping bag, first you need to determine what features are an absolute must for you.
Can I Choose a Quilt Over a Sleeping Bag?
If you really want an ultralight sleeping system for your outdoor adventure, it may be best to get a backpacking quilt. The average quilt is about 20 to 30% lighter than the average sleeping bag. For more depth read quilt vs sleeping bag.
Backpacking quilts are all about minimalism. A backpacking quilt doesn’t have a hood or a zip. Pad straps are pretty much the most significant feature on a quilt.
Instead of providing insulation underneath the sleeper, a backpacking quilt puts the insulating material on top of them. This way, the sleeper’s weight doesn’t negatively impact the loft.
Compared to a sleeping bag, a backpacking quilt will take up less space in your pack. Moreover, a quilt doesn’t take ages to re-loft when you take it out of your backpack at day’s end. You are potentially prolonging the lifespan of your quilt by minimizing compression over an extended period.
Of course, all of this comes at a significant cost—less warmth. However, the high-end quilts of today come pretty close to sleeping bags. Top-notch backpacking quilts are designed to keep dead air space to a minimum and eliminate bracing drafts, without sacrificing freedom of movement.
Backpacking quilts are more affordable than sleeping bags. If you are expecting nice weather, and like to pack as light as possible, it may be best to get a quilt.
Can I Use a Bedroll Instead?
If you are into old-school camping, you can make your own bedroll instead of buying a sleeping bag. A classic bedroll is made up of a quilt and mattress rolled up in one big piece of canvas.
Alternatively, you can buy a bedroll—a modern one. Modern bedrolls aren’t designed for solo use, they are designed to complement sleeping bags. Read sleeping bag vs bedroll for more information.
A bedroll protects your sleeping bag during transport and provides extra support during the night. If you are sleeping in a tent or somewhere indoors, a comfortable bedroll, without a sleeping bag may be all you need. Alternatively, you can pair it with a quilt or a blanket.
You can go cowboy camping and sleep on the ground, under the open sky, in nothing but a bedroll, but this can be a bit rough.
What About a Sleeping Bag Liner?
From the middle of June to about the end of August a sleeping bag liner could be enough on the Camino.
There are some parts of the Camino Frances which are mountainous and can be chilly, so either bank on blankets being available or take a fleece blanket which is very light.
A survival blanket is also a possibility – they are also very light. Though you will be carrying the blanket for 30+ days to use on only two nights.
Liners come in cotton or silk; the silk ones are better quality and more comfortable against the skin.
Do I Need a Pillow?
When camping or backpacking, a good night’s sleep is vital. If you are a back sleeper, you may not need a pillow to get some quality shuteye. But, if you are a side sleeper, sleeping without a pillow can easily lead to neck pain.
If sleeping without a pillow is too uncomfortable for you, this isn’t something you have to get used to when you’re backpacking.
Bringing a pillow should be worth the extra weight. Of course, you want to get a pillow that’s specifically designed for camping and backpacking.
Camping pillows are smaller and significantly lighter than regular pillows. Backpacking and camping pillows are very similar to travel pillows. They can be inflatable or filled with foam.
It’s best to go with an air pillow because you can inflate it to your desired level of support. Air pillows are easy to compress and roll-up. If you get one, you won’t even notice it in your pack.
A typical air pillow comes with a soft cover. If it isn’t comfortable enough for you, chances are you can stuff a t-shirt between the pillowcase and the air pillow.
What About a Sleeping Pad or Camping Mattress?
If you will sleep on the ground, bringing a camping mattress or a sleeping pad is a must. A sleeping pad doesn’t just serve to provide comfort and prevent soreness from rocks and roots. It also prevents the ground from sucking away your body heat.
Because of this, a sleeping pad is an essential piece of winter camping gear. A sleeping pad also helps protect your sleeping bag and prolong its lifespan.
If you don’t have a sleeping pad, and can’t get one in time for your adventure, you can try one of the following alternatives:
- Thick yoga mat
- Thick blanket
- Gym pad
- Air mattress
- A thick pile of leaves
Anything that will keep your sleeping bag off the ground will help comfort-wise. But, you need something a bit thicker if you want to prevent heat loss.
Bedbug and Sleeping Bags and Liners
I have never encountered bedbugs on the Camino, and every story I have heard so far usually starts with “someone I know…” rather than it happened to them. Taking the hyperbole down a notch, there are likely bedbugs, it would be more a surprise if there were not – given the number of people moving in and out of hostels day after day.
You can though take steps to look after yourself regarding bedbugs. In the US and the UK, you can buy pre-treated walking gear – treated with permethrin, (interestingly you cannot buy this in Canada due to its toxicity levels…).
Permethrin can be bought as a spray and be used on your sleeping bag and rucksack – both will need a while to dry well before you set off. This spray can be used on down and synthetic sleeping bag – though I have no idea of the long-term effects, if any, on the person or equipment.
In France on the Le Puy Camino many Gites, hostels, will spray your rucksack before allowing you entrance to their accommodation.
Which Sleeping Bag Would I Choose?
As stated I am not a fan of liners, though many pilgrims love them. I prefer a high-quality extra light summer down sleeping bag, in the rectangle shape.
Costs: a silk liner will cost about 40 UK pounds and about 50 US dollars, a good quality light sleeping bag will be about double these prices.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.