CHOOSING THE RIGHT SLEEPING BAG
As a hunter, you generally have quite a few options for sleeping arrangements. But when the cold sets in, you want to make sure you made the right choice in a sleeping bag. This is an article that talks about the technical aspects of sleeping bags for hunters and how you can maximize value for money and sleep comfort.
Note: the author has spent more than 500 nights in a sleeping bag, in temperatures below 20 degrees, in all types of climates, and has a very definite technical slant on this subject. Most of the gear the author has used is made by hiking/backpacking/mountaineering specific vendors (which many hunters would not be in the market for normally). Your mileage may vary, but don’t let preconceived notions limit your ability to consider higher grade gear just because you aren’t sleeping 60+ nights a year in a sleeping bag
Before the technical aspects are discussed, here are some basic rules of thumb:
The first lesson of any purchase in the realm of sleeping bags is that if you are like the majority of sleepers, the rating for the bag is not going to be super accurate. Usually, you will want to increase the rating by at least 10-15 degrees. That is, you want a bag that’s rated 10-15 degrees warmer than you would normally need. Even if you sleep hot, you want the temperature rating “padded” in case you need to rely on it in tough winters, or during unexpected storms.
Hydration is crucial. The better you are hydrated the warmer you will sleep. Be careful though, because too much hydration can cause mid-sleep bathroom trips, which means you’ll be getting out of your bag.
A sleeping bag liner is super beneficial, especially if it’s a silk or other technical type fabric (silk is natural but has certain benefits), because they keep your sleeping bag clean and add 10 degrees of warmth generally.
Even though this concept doesn’t hold true in other industries, in sleeping bags, it’s almost guaranteed that you get what you pay for, and that says a lot when some technical sleeping bags can be over $1,000. Simply put, the industry segment is very self-policing and very competitive, meaning you get good across-the-board value within pricing tiers.
This isn’t to say that you cannot get great performance from an inexpensive bag, rather that you will get added benefits from a vast majority of more expensive bags. The real question you need to ask yourself is: do you want, or need, to spend the extra money to get the added benefits?
If you hunt in wet areas where you know you will have issues with rain or wet clothes, opt for synthetic fill materials. Try your best to get high lofting fills that have lower weight per fill measure. Buying new, from a legitimate brand will solve this problem for you, as the synthetic fill material innovations are fast and often.
When you know you will be needing the best insulation value and you can control the moisture levels, down is going to be superior. There is basically only one drawback to down, and that is that its loft can be ruined by moisture and it can be dangerous if you get the fill wet. On high-end technical bags, you can get Gore-based Dry-Loft or similar materials to keep the inner fill dry (these fabrics are very expensive).
Most top-quality nylon fabrics that are otherwise untreated for water repellency will still offer enough water repellency for a slow drip in the tent or some basic moisture concerns. It won’t be enough to sleep outdoors during even a light rain/drizzle.
The higher the “denier,” the denser and more abrasion- and rip-resistant the fabric is. It also increases stiffness, so rule of thumb: lower denier is generally more desirable inside the bag and higher denier is better on the outer shell.
If you’re big, don’t buy a super technical bag (you won’t be comfortable) unless you have a chance to try it out in person. Instead opt for a semi-rectangular or a bag made for bigger people. Most bags aren’t even long enough for people over 6'5".
Some full mummy-style bags can accommodate full-sized hunters, but you might not need the benefits of the shape and those benefits might not be worth the sacrifice in “breathing room.”
A full rectangular bag is best for wiggle room or side sleepers, but the extra open space will make it hard to retain heat and difficult to get warm, meaning that unless you have additional heating sources (other than your body) you won’t be comfortable from a temperature control perspective.
The Basic Science of Sleeping Bags
The way sleeping bags work is that the loft of the fill traps body heat escaping from your body. Your body has two sources of heat that produce more than the other parts of your body (your head and core); the rest of your body cools rapidly thanks to the brain telling the body to conserve heat around your brain and your core organs.
This is why a mummy bag, which presents loft around your head and minimizes space around your legs and feet, are more efficient. The higher the loft, the better capacity to keep heat trapped in the bag itself, meaning the longer it takes to lose heat generated from your body.
Down lofts the highest. Synthetics are getting better, and have the benefit over down of being warm when wet (within reason). This is thanks to their hollow fiber cores. Down also has some hollow structures, but the wispy tendrils of the fluffy ends of the down cluster is what traps the heat (in a web-like structure). When down gets wet it loses that wispy, lofty structure, defeating its capacity to hold heat, because it’s not based entirely on a hollow inner infrastructure.
What’s the point of all this? How does it translate to choosing the right bag?
You need to know which attributes you require. Once you know that, you can compare apples to apples between brands. And don’t discount the big box outdoor shops. Many of the bigger retailers that are outdoor-specific offer very good bags for much less than their “hardcore” competition. Unless you are scaling craggy mountaintops and sleeping in hard conditions on a regular basis, you probably won’t need a $450-$800 bag. But that price point can make a good option for those who don’t want to ever have to worry about conditions/scenarios and have the disposable income to spend. Consider this: What did you spend on your home mattress and comforter set? Scale your expectations.
Generally speaking, you can get a quality down bag that will take you to mid-winter in most areas of the USA, with good quality construction, for between $275-$400.
You can drop about $50-$120 off of that price tag if you move to a synthetic fill variant.
Go to a store brand with similar specs and you can expect to be around the $145-$215 range. Most hunters who expect to camp in winter settings in a tent (not a cabin) will probably be in this range and given those conditions, you will likely want to opt for a sleeping pad to avoid conductive heat loss through the ground (where loft can be sustained under your body weight), and a sleeping bag liner to amp up the temperature comfort rating. These accessories will bring you back up to the higher tier for bags pricewise.
That isn’t an endorsement to overspend, it’s a reality check for what you can expect if you want to be in -5 to 25 degree weather and actually be comfortable.
A summer bag is easy to make out of a winter bag. Use a sleeping pad, undo the zipper and lay it on top of you like a blanket; adjust for comfort.
Some Final Notes
Sleeping bag choice is a holistic measure based on what else you have planned. If you are sleeping in a cabin with a woodstove, you won’t even want a bag. Instead, opt for a nice blanket. If you are sleeping in a small tent with another person, you can expect to sleep warmer than if you are in a large tent alone.
In the case where you can have frequent freak storms, you will want to over prepare. And preparation is key…not just in buying a good quality, sufficiently designed bag, but in finding a competent sleeping pad and preparing your campsite and sleeping arrangements to benefit from strategic wind deflection, heat retention, etc.
So, opt for the most technical and warmest bag you can afford and buy from the most credible bag maker you can find. But also remember, if you don't need the features of a $600 bag, you shouldn’t feel obligated to buy one, especially since hunters actually enjoy the best discounts in the world of sleeping bags thanks to the volume created by big box outdoor and hunting-specific store brands.