In the past year I’ve tested…I forget how many sleeping bags. But it’s a lot. And for the most part, all of them were pretty good. Say what you will about our outdoors gear-saturated world, but it means there’s little room for or patience with poorly made equipment. Even the least expensive down bags can keep you warm and cozy, and synthetic bags are getting lighter and more compressible by the day. The minute even.
But that doesn’t mean some bags aren’t better than others. Sometimes a whole lot better than others. Often, this is a direct result of how much money you’re willing to drop on a bag, though certainly not always. Personally, I tend to think of sleeping bags like mattresses. Sleeping is crucial to my well-being, and, frankly my sleep is crucial to yours, too, if you’re ever sharing a backcountry experience with me and you want to keep the crankiness to a minimum. I’ve always found it’s best to invest some actual money to be sure I sleep well. As at home, so it is in the tent. But I’m also very, very cheap, so “actual money” to me might not mean the same to you.
With all that said, I sorted through the bags I’ve used this year and picked the three that I kept going back to for one reason or another. Of course, I have not tried ALL bags out there in the world, and there are a bunch of bags that I liked a lot that aren’t on this list. These are just the three that impressed me, a guy who’s slept in a ton of bags this year, in a ton of different places. Your mileage may vary.
Patagonia 19 degree (850-fill down, $519 as tested)
Hoo boy. The Cadillac of sleeping bags. If you’re looking for a bag that’s warm and soft enough to use on an alpine trek and maybe as a replacement duvet for your bed on laundry day, this is your bag. It’s unbelievably roomy and really takes the “mummy bag” moniker seriously, with a sarcophagus-like shape with a huge footbox and wide, roomy shoulders. Voluminous, plush, and soft, this bag reminds you that it’s premium every time you zip closed the center-oriented, full-bodied zipper. Oh, and it compresses like a dream and only weighs 34 ounces in a size long. If I’m camping in any temp below about 40 degrees, I’m taking this bag. No question. Wouldn’t dream of using anything else.
Sea to Summit Spark II (850-fill down, $399 as tested)
Can a sleeping bag be fun? Joyous to use, even? Because I have joyous fun every time I use this bag. It weighs only 18 ounces, and that my friends is very few ounces. You can pack it down to the size of a big grapefruit. It is ephemeral in feel, weight, and the space it takes up in your bag. Imagine taking a paper towel roll, spinning off a couple dozen sheets, and then encasing them in nylon. It’s like a mere suggestion of a sleeping bag. When I stuff it into my pack, I chuckle to myself every single time. Now then—there are tradeoffs. It’s a real, real narrow cut. If you are a large person, uh, width-wise, I’d look elsewhere. The zipper only runs down half the bag’s length. But my word, the lightness. I use this bag in about 35- to 40-degree and up nights, when I don’t want to use a quilt. I think I could make it work even colder than that if I wore my down jacket to sleep, too.
The North Face Hypercat 20 (synthetic fill, $249 as tested)
I do not like synthetic sleeping bags. Except for this one. I like this bag. Simply put, it’s easily the best synthetic down bag I’ve ever used. It weighs only one pound, 14 ounces which is absurdly light for a synthetic bag. It has very few stitches, so the bag has a cool, slick shiny tube look to it, which in addition to aesthetics, shows off the interesting insulation strategy The North Face used to put this bag together—by orienting the insulation vertically, they were able to eliminate stitching and use less insulation, saving weight. There’s also a half-length zipper (saves weight), and a narrow cut (you guessed it, saves weight). The zipper, like on the Patagonia bag, runs down the center, which, as far as I’m concerned, should be mandatory for all sleeping bags. You can sit up and open the zipper to read, cook, pantomime something, play charades, shadow box, build a model airplane, whatever you like. The real kicker is how the bag can deal with a little moisture, and also dries incredibly fast. I’ve used this quite a few times sleeping on the deck of a sailboat in foggy conditions, when EVERYTHING gets wet, something I’d never do with a down bag. Coldest I’ve had this bag was about 35 degrees, truck camping next to a river with the tailgate and camper shell open and I awoke dry, cozy, and warm. If I was thru-hiking somewhere I expected lots of rain or wetness, this is my bag.
Fellow AJ’er Abbie Barronian loves her NEMO Rave (about $300 depending on warmth level) for it’s ventilation, unusual but awesome shape, and all around greatness. I’m a big fan of their quilts too.
For an intro-level down bag, I’d look no further than the Mountain Hardwear Ratio (and Heratio). I have the 15-degree option and it’s a great down bag for less than $300.
Sierra Designs makes good quality gear at surprisingly low prices, and their Backcountry Bed 700 is an interesting zipperless down bag with big warmth at relatively low weight. $290