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Rip & Equip: Sleeping Bags

Mummy or semi-rectangular? Sleeves vs. clips? Choose the right sleeping bag and keep it in top shape with these tips.
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Shop Smart
Ask yourself five key questions before buying a new sack.

1. How warm? Determine the lowest temperature you expect to encounter while camping—then subtract up to 10 degrees for insurance. (See EN ratings, below right.) Be realistic: Do you tend to sleep hot or cold? Is your pad a deluxe, well-insulated mattress or a minimalist model that’s only an inch or so thick?

2. What type of fill? Two choices: down or synthetic. Down offers superior compressibility, warmth-to-weight ratio, and long-term loft, but unless it’s paired with a highly water-resistant shell, down is a bad choice for damp conditions. Synthetic bags insulate better when wet and, especially for entry-level models, usually cost less, but specific performance characteristics are associated with filament type. Better warmth-to-weight ratios, compressibility, and durability add cost to bags of both types.

3. How roomy and how long? A mummy bag’s tapered, snug cut enhances heat-trapping efficiency, but can be uncomfortably tight for large or restless sleepers. A semi-rectangular shape offers more roll-around room, but increases weight and bulk. Beware of a too-tight fit: compressing insulation causes cold spots. Most bags come in several lengths (excess space at your feet means excess weight, but the benefit of added storage space), as well as women’s-specific models (which have different proportions and extra insulation).

4. What features? Zippers vary from full-length (great for venting) to none (great for cutting weight). Do you need a stash pocket for a headlamp and iPod? Brushed linings add a little weight, but are cozy and wicking. 

5. Is it comfortable? Use warmth and features as a guide to narrow your list. Then crawl into the finalists and cinch the hood around your face to check for scratchy fabrics and drawcord access.

Shopping Tips

In-store
Lay all the bags you’re considering on the floor, side by side, to compare loft. Wet the bags’ shells with water (a good store will have a spray bottle on hand) to see how well it beads. After crawling in for a fit and comfort test, stow the bags in their included stuffsacks and compare compressed sizes of bags in the same weight and warmth categories.

Online
Buy in the off-season: Summer bags are cheaper in January, while winter bags cost less in July (one editor nabbed a top flight -20°F Sierra Designs bag for under $200 at steepandcheap.com). Save bucks by purchasing a lightly used bag online. Look for sales from gear-rental companies with generous return policies like LowerGear (lowergear.com) in case of a deal-breaking defect.

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