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MAR. 17, 2017

Gear Selection Part One: Sleeping Bags

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Probably one of the first investments you’ll make in your outdoor career is your sleeping bag. It really sets the stage for you to get out there and make a night of it somewhere in the woods, on a couch, in the car, or even in your own backyard. It’s the tiny, little portable home you can drag with you to camp, a friend’s sleepover, or high up the Sierra Mountains. Choosing the right bag can be an agonizing task if you start to dig in to all the details and options and it’s only become harder as technology and materials advance so quickly. But if you’re looking to make the plunge here are some tips to help guide you on your first investment.

The first thing to know is that quality costs money. A good sleeping bag that will keep you warm and endure the elements will cost you more than the flannel-clad bag at Wal-Mart. Trust me when I say t hat the extra money will go a long way when you’re dry and cozy on that first wet night. If you’re feeling overwhelmed about where to start, choosing a reputable brand (North Face, Montbell, Marmot) is often a good decision as they stand behind their products with warranties and sometimes lifetime guarantees.

When searching for a bag, here are some tips to consider: First, mummy bags are fitted to the natural taper of the human body and reduce carrying weight and concentrate insulation to vital areas. Second, look for women’s specific bags if that applies to you. These sleeping systems have strategically placed insulation that helps retain warmth in areas where the female body typically loses heat. These bags will also be cut specifically to offer a better fit for women’s bodies.  Next you will want to look at fill, or insulation. Most sleeping bags these days have synthetic or down insulations, and each have unique features. Synthetic fills are more water resistant and maintain warmth and some loft (think “stay puffed”) when wet. Unfortunately synthetics tend to be a bit heavier and do not compress as well as down.  On the flip side, down (or natural feather insulation) is typically lighter for the same warmth rating, easier to compress, and tends to retain its loft quickly after unpacking.  Unfortunately down tends to turn into pancake batter when wet and loses its insulating and lofting properties.

These days there are many brands that push the limit on the materials, making down “water resistant or waterproof” or making synthetic fills that are “as light and warm as down”. Remember the basics and these will help guide your decision. For most trips that involve non-freezing weather, synthetic fill bags are preferred as you can worry less about the need for keeping it bone dry. As your trips move further and further to the sub-zero realm, you’ll look for the hi-heat and immense compressibility of down bags to seal out the cold and add a little weight to your pack. All of this brings us to my last point: compressibility. You’ll never know where your adventures may take you, or how big a pack you’ll have, first and foremost look for a sleeping bag that compresses down small.  Most manufacturers make compression sacks, and there are even some waterproof options out there. Pro-tip though: don’t store your bag compressed.  Make sure you store it loose in the mesh bag you bought it in, or nice and dry in a plastic container.  This will preserve the loft and heat for years to come.

Marlin Sill, Hante Director