For a backpacker, hiker, or camper, there is almost no gear more important than a decent sleeping bag. Whether you’re sleeping under the stars on a warm summer’s night, hunkered down in a tent in the depths of a winter gale, or wrapped up in the boughs of a tree to escape the alien hoards, your sleeping bag is intended to keep you warm, provide the comforts of our beds at home, and give a sense of security in an unknown environment. Not true? Who among us hasn’t emitted a contented sigh of comfortable satisfaction whenever we climbed into our bag for the night?
A good night’s sleep is essential to the successes (or attempted successes) of the following day, and sleeping bags play an important role in your nightly rejuvenation. However, there are many different styles of bags broken down into a couple of different categories, namely: Summer, winter, and three-season, all directly relating to the temperature range for which they are designed.
A sleeping bag is only as strong as its insulation, and quality bags are made from either down or synthetic insulation. Down is warmer, but isn’t suitable for wet conditions; synthetic is heavier, but isn’t affected by water. Be wary of the source of the down. Some companies use down that is painfully live-plucked from the geese (geese produce the best down), while others merely kill the birds before harvesting the down. Ethical companies harvest molted down that falls off the birds naturally or from birds that use it to line their nests. The synthetic materials used in the bags, however, are less compressible but shed water easier and are less expensive and easier to care for.
Types of Bags
Mummy Bags: These are the mainstay of the industry because they offer a great deal of performance in a small package and are what people think of when they think of a winter sleeping bag.
Bottomless Bags: These are weight-saving bags that lack insulation on the bottom, with the idea that you will use a sleeping pad instead.
Quilt Bags: These usually lack any sort of zipper, but instead offer an attached quilted blanket that can be wrapped around you when it is cold or folded down during warmer weather.
Wearable Bags: A recent development in design that allow the user to kick out his feet and wear the sleeping bag around camp, as it is much more efficient at keeping you warm than a jacket.
Since sleeping bags are rarely out of the tent or spend time on the open ground they are designed with lightweight fabrics that are more sensitive to snags and tears than if the same material was used to make a jacket. Some people will swear your sleeping bag needs to be made of a waterproof fabric, but — with the exception of certain parts of the bag that might contact condensation from inside your tent (the foot end, for example) — three season bags don’t need it. However, since there is considerable more condensation inside your tent during the winter (as well as snow, rain, and cold-related dew), keeping you dry, as well as the insulation inside your bag, is much more important and waterproof fabrics should be used.
At just over four pounds in weight, the Recon 5 sleeping bag is rated to -4 degrees (F) and is filled with 400gm per square meter of Dupont Thermolite Micro insulation, including a anti-bacterial element that increases its heat retaining ability. The top half of the bag is made from 210-Denier Ripstop nylon with a Teflon coating, while the bottom is 210-Thread count Oxford nylon, which is a very rugged version of a Taffeta. This same material is used in the interior foot box to protect against boots. The bag can be laundered in a normal fashion but hang dry it.
The bag is 86.5 inches rolled out with a width of 33.5 inches at the shoulders and 21.5 at the feet, but it can be compressed into a 10.6 x 10.2-inch stuff sack that features four nylon straps and a cover that increases the waterproofing of the sack. Everything together weighs just five pounds. Not a lightweight by any means, but a rugged sack for sleeping in the wild.
There is a double zipper with a hook and loop storm flap, and there is an interior pocket to keep valuables close and secure while sleeping. The draw cord for the hood features a barrel lock to keep the hood tight against the head. According to the manufacturer, this is the sleeping bag of choice for the RAAF, commandos, and NATO, and is in use by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This bag has the most bang for its buck.
The Backcountry 800 is a hybrid two-season sleeping “bed” that combines the qualities of a mummy bag with the attributes of just sleeping with a quilt or bedroll. Its strongest suit is its ability to allow the sleeper to manage their temperature better by adjusting the coverage of the attached quilt. It is perfect for stomach sleepers that like to sleep with their arms above their heads while still under the cover of the quilt. However, its best quality for some is its worst for others. Because there is no zipper to close up the bag and the upper portion of the quilt is loose this allows cold air to seep in and coveted heat to escape as soon as the quilt is even slightly fluffed up from movement.
At 2 pounds it is light but, at 29 degrees (F) it is the highest of the bags we reviewed here. However, because there are no zippers there is nothing to snag you in your sleep, no places for air to seep in and nothing that will eventually break.
At the foot end is a “self-sealing foot vent” that allows for the sleeper’s feet to stick out if overheated or if he or she needs to relocate for some reason. On the back are sleeping pad sleeves since this bag has a significant reduction in down on the bottom. Underneath the quilt are hand pockets used to not only help tuck in the quilt to the sides of the sleeper’s shoulders but also to keep your hands warm when the quilt is outside the bag. Regular is 80 inches long while the long size is 86 inches.
Therm-a-Rest Antares HD
The Antares has no insulation on the bottom, a three-quarter-length zipper, a hood and two elasticized mesh loops that slip over sleeping pads so the bottom of the bag stays attached to a pad, which insulates you from the ground. The bag’s design — similar to its sister bag the Altair, merges some ultralight components, such as the absence of insulation on the bottom, with traditional features like a zipper and hood.
The rating is listed at a relatively warm 20 degrees (F), and the 2-pound, 2-ounce weight is rather heavy for a three-season bag. But with that slight increase in weight comes a wider cut, which means more room on the interior and not an experience as constricting as some mummy bags. On the downside, the extra bulk wouldn’t fit in the stuff sack that was provided, so we had to use the double-cinch storage bag instead, which is hardly backpack-ready.
The 750-fill down, which is 10,500 cubic inches of down, is a middle-of-the-road fill but all of it is spent at the top of the bag, which provides the most warmth with the understanding the pad attachments would indeed be used with a pad.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.