How to choose a sleeping bag: 5 tips to help you make the right choice

Is it time for you to get a new sleeping bag?

Maybe your current one is showing the signs of wear and tear?   Or you want to upgrade to a warmer or lighter sort of bag?

Possibly, this could be your first ever purchase of a sleeping bag (which means you could be a little amazed by the variety on the market).

But how do you choose a sleeping bag?    

What do you look for in a sleeping bag?

sleeping bag funny

I am going to tell you straight up – it’s not easy.

There are so many things to consider.

If you go into a camping store there are a few things you need to know before you go, to make the right choice.   It's thinking about how you like to camp, where you camp, and of course, the weather you camp in.

With that in mind, read on to find out 5 tips to choosing the right sleeping bag.

1.   Temperature Rating

cold camping
Photo Credit: Christopher J. Morley via Compfight cc

The temperature rating on a bag is a guide (and I stress the word, guide) on the lowest temperature the bag is designed to keep you warm in.

So a bag that has a rating of 5 degrees Celsius, should theoretically keep you warm when the mercury gets to 5 degrees.

But will it?

The manufacturers testing of this temperature rating isn’t known, and a lot of factors also need to be considered on how effective that bag will be.    Your sleeping mat, if you are a warm or cold sleeper, the clothes you are wearing in the bag, the shelter you are in during the night, etc.

All factors that might alter how you feel in the bag.

So what do you look for in a rating?

Think about the lowest temp you think you will be camping in with this bag (not just the first trip, but any trip you are planning on using it).    Then subtract 10 degrees from that temperature.    And with that new temperature, choose a sleeping bag with that rating.

eg.  You think the coldest place you will camp in will be about 0 degrees.    Choose a bag rated to minus 10 degrees.

This might seem a little excessive, but it's easier to cool down in a too-warm sleeping bag, by  unzipping it.     Trying to get warm in a not-warm-enough bag is harder (and can lead to a sleepless night).

Further reading:  How to choose a self inflating mat

What about the ratings on the bag?

You might see on a sleeping bag, 3 levels of comfort rating and this is based on the EN 13537 rating, which means it's the official European standard for the labelling of sleeping bags.

Comfort - that's what a standard night sleep would be like for a 'standard' woman, because women need more insulation than men apparently.    It's the warmth level that women would like for a comfortable night's sleep.  

Limit of comfort
- This is the lowest temperature that a 'standard' man would need for a comfortable nights sleep.     I am not sure what constitutes a 'standard' man, or woman (as above mentions)  but it assumes you are not sleeping naked and have some insulation underneath you.

Extreme - This is the coldest temperature you can survive in, in this particular bag without freezing to death.     Now under the standard EN13537 for sleeping bag ratings, they classify this 'extreme' rating as follows, "a strong sensation of cold has to be expected and there is a risk of health damage due to hypothermia".     Of course, you shouldn't be relying on any sleeping bag to save you from hypothermia, and use this as a guide only.

Here is an example of what you can see on the bags:

sleeping bags how to choose the right one for you?
Found on One Planet bags

How to choose a sleeping bag?

If you want to read more about the EN 13537 rating standards and validity, there is a paper from the Outdoor Industry which discusses in detail.

2.   Synthetic or Down filled 


marmot plasma
Marmot Down filled

Another big choice will be the filling for the bag.   Do you choose synthetic or down?       

What is the difference?

Synthetic –
  • cheaper than its same rated down counterpart
  • heavier and bulky
  • has insulation properties when wet
  • easy care
  • hypoallergenic
  • Not as long lasting – will deteriorate over time

Down –
  • lighter
  • longer lasting than any synthetic when cared for
  • expensive
  • no insulation when wet
  • highly compressible so takes up very little room
  • warmer than any synthetic available
  • more difficult to care for
  • not hypoallergenic

They both have pro’s and con’s about them as you can tell.

But what one to choose?

That will come down to your budget and your style of camping.        

Down is a good long term choice, and will suit anyone – and where weight and bulk is a consideration, you can’t do better.  There are different sorts of down too, and that affects price and warmth in the bag as well.    The higher the concentration of down feathers, the better.  So a down of 850+ is superior to one of 600+.   Simple!

(read our reviews on 2 Down-filled sleeping bags at

Synthetics are good if you plan on being on in wet conditions, and on a budget.    And if you don’t plan on being a regular camper – the more casual or not so sure about camping sort of person, then this will be a good choice and an economical one.

You might find if you enjoy camping, that you need to upgrade later.

synthetic Black Wolf sleeping bag
Black Wolf Synthetic


Looking for  a good range of sleeping bags?

We use and recommend:    Cotswold Outdoors 


The Ethical Use of Down


Before we move onto the next point, it's very important that we mention the use of down and the ethical treatment of animals to produce this down.     This was raised in comments when we first published this story, and it was remiss of us not to address at the time.

When purchasing a down product (whether it be a sleeping bag or a jacket), you should check that it was ethically sourced.

Unfortunately, big business means ill treatment of animals in the past, and the down from ducks and geese have meant extreme cruelty against these animals.      It still goes on, but you as a consumer can make a choice.    That means looking for companies that follow the Responsible Down Standard.  It's a voluntary standard, so not every company will participate so you need to do some homework.

Read about the Responsible Down Standard and what it means here.

The list of outdoor companies that use this standard can be found here.

Patagonia has their own Traceable Down Standard.

Is this RDS a guarantee?    I am not sure....there can be no guarantees.

PETA has recently put out information saying the unethical treatment of animals continues.    You can read their current story on live plucking.    It is very distressing to read and see.


3.  Shape

The shape of the sleeping bag varies, and the main shapes you will come across is the mummy, tapered rectangular and rectangular.

mummy shapedA mummy shaped is probably the most efficient.   Its wide at the shoulders and then narrows down to the feet, which means less air needs to be heated in the bag.    Less room to wriggle about, though, so if you like to toss and turn in your sleeping bag, this might be a little restrictive.

Tapered rectangular is just as it sounds.   They taper down to the foot of the bag,  like the mummy, but not as much.    More wriggle room and a good all-rounder shaped bag.

tapered rectangular

A rectangular bag is…..rectangular!    Even more wriggle room, and tend to be the sort of bag you would use if you don’t have to worry about weight or size.     Plenty of room inside, and a generalist camping bag.













4.    Fit

This goes together with the shape (point 3).  It’s about finding the bag that suits you.     Not only do bags come in different shapes, but different sizes too.

Some bags are different lengths to cater for tall or short people.

Other bags are based on gender – some female bags might be narrow at the top, but a little wider at the hips.     And typically (but not always), women are considered “cold sleepers” and some bags cater for women, with woman sleeping bags with extra insulation provided.     A pink colored sleeping bag doesn’t make it a women's sleeping bag.

With other bags, regardless of gender, the fit of the bag will depend on the individual, so trying the bag out in a shop is a good idea (if that is possible).

Are you looking for a double sleeping bag?

If so, read how to choose a double sleeping bag in this story.

5.  Extra features

The little touches are important when choosing a bag.  Easy to overlook in favour of the above 4 points, but still worth considering.

Look at the zippers – Do they close up easily, or snag a lot on the lining? Do the zips lock in place when pulled up?  Do they go all the way to the bottom or only half way (the former means the bag can be opened up easily to cool you down if you get too hot)?

What is the lining made of?   Polyester or nylon breathes and draws away moisture.  Cotton (like flannelette) is comfortable but moisture stays with you and can leave you feeling damp.

Neck muff – holds the warmth in the bag, not letting it seep out.

A hood – allows you not to wear a hat when in the bag, and provides a soft spot for your head.   Some hoods will have a drawstring that will only show your face when drawn in.

Whatever the sort of sleeping bag you want to choose, do your homework.      

(Double sleeping bag information is found in this story)

Some bags are not cheap – so make sure you get the one that is right for you and your camping.   

If you liked this story, you can subscribe here

Editors Note:   This story was originally published in 2014 but has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.