Staying Warm at Night: Sleeping Bags & Backpacking

I can actually think of no worse situation while in the bush than being cold at night.

I have lived it. Oh buddy, have I lived it.

Don't do what I done, son. This is one of those life lessons that I do not recommend learning the hard way. Luckily for you, the fact that you're here reading about how to choose a sleeping bag for backpacking tells me that you're already on the right track to successfully staying warm through the night and choosing the best sleeping bag for your trip.

High altitude views means high altitude temperatures

The thing that tricks people when choosing a sleeping bag for backpacking is that we often don't realize how cold it can get at night when you're at high elevations.

Your sleeping sack is one of the most critical pieces of hiking gear you're going to pack. The night is for rest, relaxation and recuperation. After a day of hiking you are going to want to be comfortable on your specially selected sleeping pad, dry in your quality decision lightweight tent and able to sleep peacefully with your backpacking pillow. The right camping equipment is critical, and the final ingredient to a good night's sleep while on the hiking trail is the right sleeping bag.

So once again, we are going to try and keep this short and sweet. We've put together a list of some things to consider while shopping for your sleeping bag as well as a few recommendations of the best, ultralight and compact sleeping bags for back country hiking.

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag

You should have a few questions answered in your mind prior to choosing your sleeping bag.

Question 1: What shape of sleeping bag should I get?

With a quick google search you'll notice that there are rectangular bags, barrel bags, mummy bags and camping quilts to choose from. Not all sleeping shapes are made the same, as in there are perks and downfalls to certain shapes. So, assuming that you are reading this because you are heading out on an ASCEND Beginner Backpacking tour, it is worth noting that you should really be paying attention to mummy bags, camping quilts and in the right event a barrel bag.

A rectangular bag, while usually more affordable, is definitely going to be more bulky. And if you've been keeping up with our Outdoor Equipment recommendations, then you know that you want equipment that is compact. Barrel bags are less bulky, also more affordable, but honestly, they are better off as camping equipment. You're here because you are going backpacking on a multi-day trek. So lets look at ultra-light, compact mummy bags and quilts.

Question 2: What temperatures will I be tenting in?

Okay -- so lets be clear here. If you think that "it might get down to 0 degrees, but idk hahaha lawl" -- you need to purchase a sack that is rated for less than that temperature. I am not kidding, it is such a bummer to be cold through the night.

You are cold when you get in, even though you are entirely layered up, and then at some point around ten o'clock or midnight, you will be just warm enough that you drift off to sweet, sweet sleep. But then something terrible happens right around the witching hour. You begin to feel the night cold on your back, so you roll onto your back and off your side. This works for a bit and you almost get to sleep again, but then you need to roll and tuck into fetal to try and keep your overall warmth in. Once again, you're almost asleep when, oho? What's this? Now your back is cold again.

Don't even get me started about the approaching dawn. Have you ever heard the old idiom "it's always darkest before the dawn"? -- yea, well little known fact: its also the coldest point of the night right before the dawn somehow.

Wow, sorry, just relived my rookiest backpacking mistake on the Milford Trek in New Zealand. Where the heck were we?

So there are three general categories your sleeping bag's temperature rating will fall into. I'm going to list them with their corresponding seasons.

So, my recommendation here?

I, personally, am much more keen to be better prepared than under prepared. When hitting those high altitudes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains (and other mountain ranges for that matter) it can cool off quick at night.

A nice, compact 3-season sleeping bag is always my "go-to".

I find that you just can't go wrong with being prepared for up to -15° celsius throughout a summer trek. By going with this kind of bag you're ready for any kind of sudden twist of weather, unexpected emergencies and a multi-season investment means that you can say "Yes!" to going camping with your friends during the early spring or fall!

Question 3: How many litres is my sleeping bag when in a compact sac?

This is up to you, ultimately.

Your trip. Your gear. Your choice.

A bag like the Women's North Face Furnace (good to -7) compresses down to 18.6L -- I show this example because this sleeping bag is high quality, with a price tag to confirm that, mid-grade 3-season temperature rating and quite a large compact litre size also.

Does that make the Furnace as bad choice? Absolutely not. I think you'd be super happy and warm in this sleeping bag. It all depends on what YOU are looking for.

Question 5: Do I need to buy a brand name sleeping bag?

That is a hard no. Is there more of a guarantee with shopping known name brands? Absolutely.

There are sleeping bags available for purchase on Amazon. You'll find that the price difference of the mummy bags listed on Amazon can be anywhere from $100.00 (as in the case of Teton Sports Trailhead (on Amazon) vs. the Marmot Trestles (on VPO))

On the other hand, you will see price differences of $400 and $500 dollars.

If you're going to buy a sixty dollar sleeping bag off of Amazon, the only thing that I would seriously recommend is making sure that it is compact, has good reviews, you know the temperature rating and that you're at peace with the risk of buying a poorly made zipper.

Unfortunately, this is a reality with Amazon sleeping bags. Some people swear by them, love them, they last forever, others -- no such luck.

Question 4: Do I need a sleeping bag liner?

Short answer. No. You do not need a sleeping bag liner.

A sleeping bag liner is a nice idea, I know a lot of people get it twisted and think their liner is going to help keep them additionally warm. Or add to the sleeping bag cold rating.

For the most part, this is not the case.

A sleeping bag liner is actually more for keeping your camping equipment clean.

Sleeping bags aren't always the easiest to clean. Sleeping bag liners on the other hand? Super easy to clean.

Pro Tip: If you buy a sleeping bag and find you're too warm in it, a sleeping bag liner is awesome to have because you can flip your sleeping bag on and off as needed and sleep in the liner on hot nights.

Okay! Well, that's all for now. Happy shopping, happy hiking. And as always, feel free to reach out with any questions or additional thoughts you have surrounding your preparation for the trail!

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