The White Monkey Talks Gear: Sleeping Bags

Jun 25, 2012 by

Sleeping bags are like cars – they come in all different sizes, shapes and colors.

And if you priced some of the higher-end models, you might think you’re buying a car complete with auto debit plans. But not to fear, there are some excellent bags out there that won’t cost you a mortgage. You just have to shop around.

Sleeping bags come with a rating. You’ll see bags referred to as “0-Degree,” “25-Degree” and so on. The rating is determined by some crazy formula that has lots of “X’s” and “Y’s” and to the nth power divided by weight times height and so forth.

Go with this. Unless you are buying a super high-end bag, just add 10 degrees to the rating to be safe. In other words, a 30-Degree bag is probably more like a 40-Degree bag.

So what does all that mean? Scientifically, it means a normal person would stay warm in a 30-Degree bag when the temperature gets down to 30 degrees. Here’s the problem: who’s “normal” and everyone defines “warm” differently. Some might define “warm” as I didn’t freeze out in the woods last night; others might define it as “I was sweating.”

Look at it this way, if you or your kid have to have tons of covers on, even when it’s 90 degrees outside, you might want a warmer bag.

The key point to remember is a sleeping bag does not keep you warm. It simply traps the air and thus the heat coming off your body. That’s what keeps you warm, not the sleeping bag itself.

So what’s a good rating? It depends on where you live. If you are backpacking in the snow a lot, then you’re looking at a 0-Degree or lower. The Writer and the SONS of Thunder live in Georgia, and have bags in the 30-Degree range. That’s a good year-round bag. In the summer, they just use it as a pad or open it up and use it as a light blanket.

There are two types of sleeping bags and three basic shapes.

Bags are either filled with down or some synthetic material. There are plusses and minuses to both.

In a nutshell, down bags are lighter, can be compressed way down so they take up very little space (the Writer has one he can compress down to the size of a water bottle), and are usually warmer for their degree rating. Downsides are they are usually more expensive, and if they get soaked, they are worthless. I don’t mean a little water getting on them, but if the inside down gets wet, you are hosed.

Synthetics are usually cheaper and can still function if they get really wet. Downsides are they more often heavier and don’t compress as small as down.

There are three basic sizes: mummy, rectangular and a hybrid. The first two are just what their names imply; the third is a cross between the two. Think of the hybrid as shaped for a fat mummy.

Mummy bags are lighter simply because they are smaller and thus have less material. They also will keep you warmer for their degree rating because there’s less space to cover. On the other hand, if you’re like the Writer, mummy bags might freak you out. The Writer gets in a mummy bag and immediately starts thinking people will start throwing dirt and bury him.

The Writer needs his space, so to speak. And mummy bags are just too confining for him.

Rectangular bags are rarely seen in the backpacking world. They are usually too heavy and take up too much space in the backpack.

A good compromise is the hybrid, which like I said earlier is a wider version of the mummy. This is what the SONS and the Writer use. Not as warm as a mummy, but not as confining. Lighter than a rectangular, but still plenty of room.

Another thought – don’t get a “junior” size bag. Your son will outgrow it soon enough and then what? Go ahead and get a regular – usually six feet, or even a six and a half, like the Writer has.

The other issue you’ll need to look at are the zippers and the hood – or where your head lies. Rectangular bags won’t have hoods, mummies and hybrids will. Hoods are nice for those colder nights when you can pull it tight around your face.

Zippers are key. You want to make sure the zippers have pulls on the inside and outside of the bag. And really test the zippers. There is nothing worse than needing to answer nature’s call and your zipper gets stuck on the material and you can’t get out and …

Make sure your bag has good, strong zippers. Some of the better bags even have material running along the zipper specifically designed to keep the zipper from snagging.

And finally, think about how far you want the zipper to go. Eldest SON is quite happy with a bag that has a three-quarter zip, meaning it unzips about three-quarters of the way. His also has a separate zipper at the bottom so he can unzip the area at his feet if he gets hot.

The Writer has as full zip – meaning he can unzip it all the way and basically turn it into a blanket/comforter. He also has a foot zip. They all love those foot zips.

Just remember, the more zipper, the more weight.

So what’s the right bag? That’s up to you, just like buying a car. It’s based on where you live, what the normal temperature will be when you’re backpacking, the weight you’re comfortable carrying and your budget. Do you want a hybrid or a mummy, full zipper or three-quarter? How much do you want to carry on your back?

For the Writer and the SONS, their bags are in the 30-degree range and they each weigh less than three pounds.

Hope that helps

Until next time.



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