Choose a Sleeping Bag: the Beginner’s Guide

 “How exactly do I get a good night’s sleep when camping with no mattress or pillow?” By doing a little research and investing in the best kit for your camping needs, you’ll be ready for your nights under the stars. 

A quick guide to sleeping mats

Before you even start thinking about sleeping bags, make sure you’ve got the base covered. Having a sleeping bag is great but you’re not going to have a great night’s sleep without a suitable layer between your body and the ground. 

A lot of newbie campers forget mats on a camping trip but these items are essential to a good night’s sleep. They separate your body from the ground, providing insulation and a bit of comfy padding. 

Sleeping mats are typically available in three forms: 

  • Self-inflating
  • Non-self-inflating
  • Closed-cell foam

Self-inflating mats arrive flat with foam inside and an air valve attached. Once the valve is opened, the air is absorbed and the mats expand to form a cushioned, insulated surface. They’re particularly easy to store and transport, requiring minimal maintenance. 

Non-self-inflating mats work on a similar principle, although they will only expand when air is blown directly into the valve. 

Closed-cell foam mats are the toughest to transport given their non-compressible nature and large dimensions, but they do offer the greatest levels of insulation. 

There are pros and cons to each type of sleeping mat. Things to consider when shopping:

  • Do you need to carry your pad over a long distance? 
  • Is weight going to play a factor in your decision? 
  • What time of year are you planning on camping? 
  • Are you more concerned about comfort or penny-pinching? 

Closed-cell foam mats may be a pain to carry, but they will help to keep you warmer if the weather is particularly chilly or wet. Make use of sales staff in camping shops- most are experienced campers and can help you pick the right gear for your needs. 

Choosing your sleeping bag material

We know, the material isn’t the most enthralling topic but it’s an important one. Your sleeping bag is going to be your one source of comfort when the temperature drops. Camping in the summer months can get surprisingly chilly, so don’t underestimate the need for a little research into the best sleeping bags.

Let’s break the types of material available on the market down into “insulation” and “fabrics”. 

Natural “down” insulation gives you a snuggly interior, with the material consisting of bird feathers. These bags are compactable, lightweight, and easy to transport, but are expensive and vulnerable to wet weather. Look for the “down” percentage on the bag too – 85% minimum denotes great quality. 

Synthetic insulation bags are your best bet for a family camping trip. Made with poly fibers, they don’t offer quite the same comfort as natural “down” insulation, but they are considerably cheaper, more resistant to dampness, and relatively easy to carry. 

Nylon or ripstop fabrics more than suffice when the weather is mild. These can be put in the wash too so they’re great for camping trips with kids. If you’re expecting colder climates, it’s worth grabbing a bag with DryLoft material rather than splashing out on lining fabrics like silk, which are extremely luxurious but also super expensive.

Sleeping bag ratings explained

The ratings you’ll see when out shopping for a bag give you an idea of two things: comfort and season.

A sleeping bag’s comfort ratings are separated into four labels: 

  • Upper Limit – the highest temperature the bag can resist for a sound night’s sleep
  • Comfort – the temperature at which the bag offers optimum performance
  • Lower Limit – the coldest temperature the bag can resist for a sound night’s sleep
  • Extreme – the absolute lowest temperature in which the bag can facilitate survival

Comfort ratings can be a little misleading as everyone has their definition. With this in mind, it’s often best to opt for the warmer option, as it’s much easier to cool down than it is to get warm. If there are big gaps between the Upper and Lower Limits, this suggests the sleeping bag is adaptable for multiple seasons.

Season ratings do what they say on the tin, signifying the time of year the bag is designed for. 

  • Bags with Season One are for summer evenings (5°C +), 
  • Season Two bags are ideal for spring (0 – 5°C). 
  • Season Three bags are for when temperatures dip below freezing point,
  • Season Four bags are required for frosty conditions. 
  • Season Five bags are for extreme conditions down to -40°C. 

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