Choose the Right Sleeping Bag for Camping

Choosing a sleeping bag for camping is an important task. A sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of camping gear you will own because it’s what keeps you comfortable at night. Sleeping discomfort is what makes many people shy away from camping. Pick the right sleeping bag and you’re in for a good night’s rest in the woods.

When choosing a sleeping bag for camping it’s important to know the conditions you expect to use the bag in. This will help you know which style of bag to select and which temperature rating you need. Once you’ve determined those things it’s easy to find a bag that will keep you comfortable.

Decide How You Will Use Your Sleeping Bag

Before purchasing a sleeping bag it’s important to consider which activities and conditions you’ll be using your sleeping bag in.

Do you want it to double as a backpacking sleeping bag? If so, you’ll want to get a bag that isn’t too heavy and bulky. If you camp on a cot or a big air mattress you may want to get a roomier bag so you’re not as confined. Maybe you want the option to zip two bags together to create a big double-bag, or just want to get a double bag from the start. If you camp year-round and want one bag to use in all conditions there are modular sleeping bags that fill that niche.

You’ll find that narrowing down the purpose of your sleeping bag makes it easy to limit your search down to a few styles that will best fit your needs. Then you can decide on the temperature rating that will work best for you.

Determine the Temperature Rating You Need

Getting the right temperature rating for the locations and seasons you camp is going to be the most important part of choosing a sleeping bag. Getting a bag that isn’t warm enough could lead to some really uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous, nights. A bag that’s too warm will also be uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, there’s no temperature rating I can tell you that will work well for all situations. You’ll have to determine the temperature rating you need your bag to be based on the places you visit and the seasons you camp. To help you out I’ve developed a guide that walks you through what to consider when choosing a sleeping bag temperature rating. The guide is complete with maps of seasonal low temperatures for the United States so you can know what to expect in different locations.

I always recommend selecting a bag that is EN or ISO rated. EN and ISO are testing standards for sleeping bags so you know that your bag was actually tested to determine its temperature limits instead of a company just making their best guess. You can read more about EN and ISO ratings in this article.

Decide on a Fill Material

Once you’ve decided on the temperature rating you need it’s time to decide what type of fill material will work best for you. Sleeping bags are made with two primary options for fill material: synthetic fill and down fill.

Synthetic Fill

Synthetic fill is man-made insulation. There are many different types of synthetic fill. Each company makes its own variation. In the end, they all end up being pretty similar.

For most camping situations I would recommend a synthetic fill sleeping bag. Synthetic fill has two main advantages over down fill. First, synthetic sleeping bags cost considerably less than down bags. Second, a synthetic bag will insulate you, even if the insulation becomes wet.

The big disadvantage of synthetic fill compared to down fill is that synthetic bags are heavier and bulkier than down bags of the same temperature rating. In camping situations, weight and bulk usually aren’t an issue. Most campers transport gear in their vehicles and only carry it a short distance to a campsite. A few extra ounces or cubic inches won’t make much of a difference in these situations.

However, in backpacking situations, especially in cold temperatures, it may be beneficial to get a down bag. I would recommend this article for more information on choosing a sleeping bag for backpacking.

Generally, synthetic bags will also be available in more styles than down bags. You can easily find mummy-style bags with stuff sacks, square roll-up bags, and double bags with synthetic insulation. You’ll also have the option of different lining materials from the slippery nylons and polyesters that are usually used on mummy bags to the soft flannel-like materials that line many of the rectangular bags.

Down Fill

Down fill has been around for a long time, and it is very effective. It is made from the soft, warm under-feathers of birds. Primarily geese.

There are a few situations you might want to get a down sleeping bag for camping. If you also want to use your bag for backpacking in cooler temperatures, it may be worth investing in down. Also, if you’re planning to camp in really cold temperatures (less than 0 °F) you might appreciate a little less bulk to your bag.

However, for most situations and uses I would recommend a synthetic sleeping bag for camping.

Find a Bag That Fits Your Budget

Once you’ve worked through the process above there will probably be a number of sleeping bags that will fit your needs. That’s great, now you can choose one that works with your budget.

The great thing about sleeping bags is that they’re very simple. You don’t need a lot of features for a sleeping bag to be comfortable. However, if you do have some extra dough to spend you can always splurge for features like snag-proof zippers or integrated sleeping pads.

As I mentioned above, I always spend a little more for a bag that is EN or ISO rated. It costs manufacturers to put their bags through the rigorous testing process and that cost gets passed onto the consumer, but it’s worth it to know your bag will keep you warm when it’s supposed to.


I love sleeping outside. There’s something special about feeling the cool evening breeze on your face as you sleep, and opening your eyes to see the stars through a clear sky. Some summer nights when I was in college I’d go up a nearby canyon just to spend the night away from the muggy city air.

They key to a good night’s sleep outside is being comfortable and being comfortable starts with having the right sleeping bag for the situation you’re in. Hopefully this guide helps you pick a bag that gives you a good night’s sleep in the outdoors.

Konrad Hafen

Konrad is a natural resource scientist who spends much of his free time hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking on America's public lands.

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