Cozying into your sleeping bag at the end of a long day on the trail is one of the simple pleasures of backpacking. Today’s backpacking bags offer not only exceptional warmth for their weight, but a range of technologies make them comfortable in a variety of conditions and compress quite small. Our top picks for 2017 are mostly insulated with duck or goose down. This natural fill remains the premium option, and hydrophobic coatings are improving on its greatest weakness: moisture resistance. For more background, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks. To complete you backpacking kit, we’ve also written about the best backpacking tents and sleeping pads.
Temperature rating: 20°F
Weight: 1 lb. 15 oz.
Fill: 900-fill goose down
What we like: Premium down and build quality at a reasonable price.
What we don’t: Availability can be hit or miss in peak season.
If you haven’t heard of Seattle-based Feathered Friends, do yourself a favor and get introduced. This small company specializes in down products and makes just about everything in the U.S.A. Climbers stop in religiously before heading to Mt. Rainier, Alaska, and far-off places like the Himalaya, and it’s well worth a visit if you’re in Seattle (Feathered Friends is one block down from the REI flagship store). Most importantly, the down products are awesome and very competitively priced for what you get.
The Swallow Nano 20 is Feathered Friends most popular 3-season bag and for good reason. The spec sheet is impressive: 16.8 ounces of 900-fill goose down, a very legitimate 20-degree temperature rating (Feathered Friends is on the conservative side if anything), and a water resistant 20D shell, all at less than 2 pounds. In fact, the Swallow Nano beats out the popular Western Mountaineering UltraLite in specs (slightly better down and more of it) while costing $70 less. Both are the premier lightweight sleeping bags for backpacking on the market, but we give the nod to the Swallow Nano based on price.
See the Feathered Friends Swallow Nano See the Women's Feathered Friends Egret Nano
Temperature rating: 22°F EN Comfort, 10°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz.
Fill: 850-fill goose down
What we like: A high-end bag at a great price.
What we don’t: No continuous baffles.
Years ago, we simply passed on most REI hard goods like sleeping bags and backpacks. The company was making a concerted effort to make competitive backpacking gear, but the quality just wasn’t quite there yet. In 2017, it’s a much different story and a bag like the REI Co-op Magma is case in point. For just under $350, you get a 10-degree bag with 17.6 ounces of 850-fill goose down, which is slightly more than our top choice above. This bag is “fitted” under REI’s categories, but the dimensions are nearly identical to the Feathered Friends Swallow Nano 20. All in all, the Magma is a top-notch backpacking bag and a great value to boot.
What are the downsides of the REI Magma? One is the lack of continuous baffles. This advanced feature allows you to strategically move down around the bag depending on the temperature (from the top to the bottom in warm weather, for example, or the opposite in cold weather). Instead, the Magma has variable baffle spacing that smartly keeps it tight around the torso with fewer baffles toward the feet. In addition, the Magma has a 15D shell, which requires a little more care than the 20D Swallow Nano. But in terms of warmth to weight and bang for your buck, we love the Magma.
See the REI Co-op Magma 10 See the Women's REI Co-op Magma 17
Temperature rating: 20°F
Weight: 1 lb. 13 oz.
Fill: 850-fill goose down
What we like: A couple ounces lighter than the Swallow Nano and super comfortable.
What we don’t: Thinner shell means you have to more careful.
Similar to Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering is a down specialist and longtime favorite among serious backpackers and climbers. Their bags are supremely comfortable, lightweight, and made in the U.S.A. Aside from the high prices—premium down does cost a lot no matter where you get it—we have nothing but positive things to say about the brand. We’ve used their sleeping bags in unforgiving conditions from Nepal to Arctic Norway and they’ve worked great.
The UltraLite is Western Mountaineering’s most popular 3-season backpacking bag and has been around for years with few changes. Compared to the Swallow Nano above, the shell is thinner at 12D but the bag also weighs 2 ounces less. And given that we think Western Mountaineering’s shell fabrics are ever so slightly softer than Feathered Friends, the UltraLite may be the most comfortable 20-degree bag on the market. For more room, the Alpinlite is a wider version of this bag, giving you an extra 5 inches of girth in the shoulders and 4 inches in hips while only adding 2 ounces of total weight.
See the Western Mountaineering UltraLite
Temperature rating: 32°F EN Comfort, 19°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 2 lbs. 8 oz.
Fill: 600-fill duck down
What we like: A solid value; roomy fit around the shoulders.
What we don’t: Lower fill power than the options above and doesn’t pack down as small.
The sleeping bags above appeal to ultralighters and those with big budgets, but it’s nice to know there still are great values to be had. At a respectable 2 pounds 8 ounces, the REI Co-Op Radiant is much more wallet-friendly than the Magma and other premium bags yet still gets the job done. For just under $200, yet get a comfortable down bag with a 19°F temperature rating that should have you covered in most 3-season conditions. For weekend backpackers or those first taking the plunge, it’s our favorite budget sleeping bag on the market in 2017.
What do you sacrifice by going with the Radiant? The 600-fill duck down isn’t as lofty and doesn’t pack down as small as the 850-fill goose down in the Magma and others. And the extra ounces do matter over time, and particularly if you plan on covering long distances. Surprisingly, the shell fabric on the REI Radiant has more of a premium feel than you might expect, and considerably more so than other bags in this price range like the Kelty Cosmic 20 below.
See the REI Co-op Radiant 19 See the Women's REI Co-op Serrana 20
Temperature rating: 32°F EN Comfort, 22°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 2 lbs. 11 oz.
Fill: Synthetic (Thermal Q)
What we like: You don’t have to worry about moisture.
What we don’t: Not as fluffy or compressible as down.
For backpacking, we almost always favor down sleeping bags over synthetics—they pack down smaller, provide more warmth for the weight, and are more comfortable. And with all the developments in water repellant down, DWR finishes, and dry bags, almost all of our backpacking bags are down filled. That being said, Mountain Hardwear has done some pretty cool things lately with synthetic insulation, and their Lamina series are some the top synthetic sleeping bags on the market.
The recently updated Lamina Z Flame is a great value at $179 with an EN Lower Limit of 22°F (and the same EN Comfort rating as the REI Radiant above for less money). Impressively, the Lamina Z Flame weighs 2 pounds and 11 ounces, only a few ounces more than the Radiant, and won’t lose its ability to insulate when wet. It also compresses down well for a synthetic—much smaller than you might think. What are the downsides of this bag? It doesn’t pack down as tightly as down, isn’t as pillowy soft, and synthetic insulation has a tendency to lose shape over time. Compared to Mountain Hardwear’s HyperLamina bags with half zips that are slightly lighter, we strongly prefer the less restrictive full-length zippers.
See the Mountain Hardwear Lamina Z Flame See the Women's MH Laminina Z Flame
Temperature rating: 33.6°F EN Comfort, 24.4°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 1 lb. 7.3 oz.
Fill: 800-fill goose down
What we like: Light and comfortable.
What we don’t: Lower fill power and less of it than our top picks.
Many of the bags on this list have temperature ratings in the 20-degree range—that’s the sweet spot for a 3-season all-rounder. But for summer backpacking where the temperature won’t really drop, the Marmot Hydrogen is a great way to save weight and money. This lightweight bag should keep you comfortable down to around freezing and a little colder in a pinch, which can work great for warm weather backpacking trips into the mountains, and should be plenty for those staying at lower elevations. And less down fill means the total weight of the bag dips below 1.5 pounds.
Along with the Hydrogen, Marmot also offers the warmer Helium (13.5°F EN Lower Limit) and winter weight Lithium (-4.5°F EN Lower Limit). All use 800-fill goose down instead of the 850 or 900-fill or Western Mountaineering or Feathered Friends, respectively, but Marmot has a good formula going with these backpacking bags. If you like other Marmot products, we bet you’ll like the Hydrogen too.
See the Marmot Hydrogen
Temperature rating: 34°F EN Comfort, 23°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
Fill: 900-fill goose down
What we like: Super light and stretchy.
What we don’t: The 8D shell is just too thin for our tastes.
Montbell is an innovative and alpine-centric company, and you’ll find their gear in serious outdoor shops around the country (and only on their website as they’ve stopped selling elsewhere online). Aside from the premium down and low weight, the defining features of the Down Hugger 900 are the diagonal baffles and stretchiness. Where other sleeping bags pretty much hold their form when you turn over or lie on your side, the Down Hugger stretches and then returns to form once you’re settled. It’s a very cool feature that makes this one of the most comfortable bags on this list.
Our main issue with the Down Hugger is its thin 8-denier shell fabric. Montbell always is pressing limits on warmth-to-weight ratio, and 8D is considerably thinner than the 15D and 20D bags at the top of this list. Even Feathered Friend’s ultralight series uses a 10D shell and Western Mountaineering dips down to 12D. But 8D means you better take the utmost care of your bag and don’t even think about bringing your dog along. And from our experiences, Montbell gear is well built but perhaps not quite to the same level as other top-tier brands.
See the Montbell Down Hugger 900 #2
Temperature rating: 26°F EN Comfort, 14°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 2 lbs. 12 oz.
Fill: 700-fill goose down, synthetic (Heatseeker)
What we like: Value, value, value.
What we don’t: Bulkier and heavier than pricier bags.
In terms of value, you won’t find a better backpacking bag than the Furnace 20 from The North Face. The key factor is the mix of down and synthetic fill, which offer less warmth for the weight than the premium options above. However, this keeps the cost down considerably, which is why many people love this bag. At 2 pounds 12 ounces and with a 26°F EN Comfort rating, the Furnace 20 is a solid 3-season sleeping bag for those on a budget.
In terms of features, the Furnace 20 has a ProDown hydrophobic finish and synthetic fill along the bottom of the bag to help prevent moisture from soaking in, and the bag is wide through the shoulders and hips for those who like a roomier fit. Considering its $179 price, it’s a great match for most trips and conditions. Keep in mind that the Furnace 20 won’t pack down as small as higher-end bags and is quite a bit heavier than even a mid-range option like the 650-fill Marmot Sawtooth below, but again, it’s the price that we like most.
See the North Face Furnace 20 See the Women's North Face Furnace 20
Temperature rating: 22°F
Weight: 1 lb. 6.1 oz.
Fill: 900-fill goose down
What we like: Premium build and functional, quilt design.
What we don’t: Need to wear a beanie or hooded jacket in cold weather.
All of the options above are mummy bags, but some ultralighters favor a different design altogether: a sleeping quilt. Gone is the large mummy hood, which can work out if you bring a beanie or a lightweight down jacket with a hood. You can sleep in them like a traditional sleeping bag, but most people open them up and connect them to their sleeping pad (make sure to get a pad with a proper R-value for insulation from the ground). The result is a little less comfort because you’re sleeping directly on the pad, significant weight savings, and a minimalist design that thru hikers and other ounce counters love.
Our favorite sleeping quilt for backpacking is the Flex 22 from Colorado-based Katabatic Gear. With this quilt you get a premium build with soft touch fabrics (better than the Revelation 20 below), a solid 22-degree temperature rating, and about a 9-ounce weight savings over our top two sleeping bag picks. The bag also is extremely adaptable with a cinch cord and snap closure at the bottom that can be opened in warm conditions and a zipper securing the lower third of the bag.
There are sacrifices with the Flex 22, however. The bag is a slender 54 inches in the shoulders, which is pretty snug when used like a regular sleeping bag and not open. More, when using a quilt you do lose some of the cozy sleeping bag feel. And connecting the Flex 22 to the pad takes quite a bit more time than just laying out a standard sleeping bag—something you may not appreciate after a long day on the trail. But if you want to go minimalist, you won’t find a better quilt for the job.
See the Katabatic Gear Flex 22
Temperature rating: 27.1°F EN Comfort, 15.6°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 2 lbs. 7.5 oz.
Fill: 650-fill duck down
What we like: Lots of warmth for the price.
What we don’t: Relatively heavy.
Most sleeping bags in this price range have an EN Comfort rating around freezing or just above. For those that run cold or want a little extra warmth for the shoulder seasons, try the Marmot Sawtooth. This bag is warm, comfortable, and the 650-fill down offers a nice compromise of performance and value. And with the added Down Defender treatment for water resistance, it’s a great all-around sleeping bag at under $250.
Keep in mind that the 27-degree EN Comfort rating is ample for most backpacking jaunts into the mountains and won’t have you checking the forecast incessantly before the trip, but the Sawtooth may be overkill for warm summer conditions. And it’s not warm enough for true winter camping, so again, it’s best for those who run cold or get out in spring and fall. For higher fill power options from Marmot, see the Plasma series.
See the Marmot Sawtooth See the Women's Marmot Angel Fire
Temperature rating: 20°F
Weight: 1 lb. 4.3 oz.
Fill: 850-fill down
What we like: Inexpensive and tons of customizations.
What we don’t: Lengthy shipping time.
We explained the quilt-style design in our write-up of the Katabatic Gear Flex 22 above, and the Revelation 20 quilt from Minnesota-based Enlightened Equipment is an even more affordable option. To start, we absolutely love Enlightened Equipment’s website and the incredible number of customization options. You can get the Revelation in 3 different fill powers, 6 temperature ratings, 5 lengths, 4 widths, and 16 fabric options. You can even add optional 20D weather resistant strips. Shipping does take 3-5 weeks as these bags are custom made, but it’s a pretty darn cool system.
The word on the Revelation 20 is that it's an outstanding value for a quilt but slightly inferior in build quality to the Katabatic Flex 22 above. Given the significant difference in price, it’s really up to whether you want to save or spend up for the premium build. The shipping time can be a downside too, making it out of reach for those who don’t plan far ahead (Katabatic Gear has a shorter turnaround at about 1 week). Either way, we can’t help but love a small U.S.-based company like Enlightened Equipment that takes the time to do it right.
See the Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20
Temperature rating: 32°F EN Comfort, 21.6°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 2 lbs. 7 oz.
Fill: Synthetic (ElixR HL polyester)
What we like: Lightweight and budget-friendly.
What we don’t: Budget-oriented build; not as compressible as down.
Marmot’s Trestles sleeping bags have been popular crossover backpacking and camping options for years, but the addition of the “Elite” lightweight model pushes them squarely into the backpacking realm. The new 20 Elite uses modern synthetic fill that keeps weight in check at a competitive 2 pounds 7 ounces in a regular size. Its 22°F EN Lower Limit makes the bag a great choice for most backpackers, but what really stands out is its $149 price. For the weekend warrior or those on a budget, the Trestles Elite is a fantastic choice.
The downsides for the Trestles 20 Elite are what you expect from a budget-oriented synthetic bag. Even with a relatively trim shape and compressible synthetic fill, the bag just can’t stuff down as small as down insulation. And the polyester fill lacks the loft and premium warmth of a down bag. But we commend Marmot in making a truly backpacking-friendly synthetic bag for $149.
See the Marmot Trestles 20 Elite See the Women's Marmot Trestles 20 Elite
Temperature rating: 30°F EN Comfort, 19°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 2 lb. 2 oz.
Fill: 850-fill goose down
What we like: Warm, comfortable, and nice colorways.
What we don’t: Center zipper wasn’t a game changer for us.
Released in spring of 2017, we’ve never seen a sleeping bag release get this much press. But Patagonia pretty much is synonymous with outdoor gear and the 850 Down Sleeping Bag doesn’t hold back. At $500, it’s priced right up there with high-end options from Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering. The specs are impressive: 850-fill goose down, a whopping 19.7 ounces of it, and a 15D shell. We have the 19-degree version listed here, but Patagonia also released a 30-degree version that weighs 25.9 ounces total.
Why is the Patagonia 850 Down Sleeping Bag ranked towards the bottom of our list? We still like the Feathered Friends Swallow 20 best at a lower $429, and the similarly priced Western Mountaineering UltraLite comes from a long lineage that has stood the test of time (there were a couple of quirks with the first run of this bag). And in terms of features, the center zipper on the Patagonia 850 wasn’t a game changer in our opinion. It’s still a really nice high-end bag, and we look forward to continuing to test it in the alpine this spring and summer... Read in-depth review
See the Patagonia 850 Down Sleeping Bag
Temperature rating: 15°F
Weight: 2 lbs. 9 oz.
Fill: 800-fill down
What we like: Super comfortable for side sleepers; great feature set.
What we don’t: Heavy and a little pricey for its warmth and weight.
Building on their successful "spoon” shaped Nocturne, Nemo has expanded their lineup of roomy sleeping bags for 2017. The focus here is on comfort: Nemo bags are wider than a typical mummy, particularly in the elbows and knees so side sleepers and others can roll around without restrictions. The Riff and women’s Jam are their premium offerings with high quality 800-fill water-resistant down, a waterproof panel around the toe box for added protection, and a built-in sleeve for a pillow. An additional feature is 2 zippered “gills” running lengthwise at the top of the bag. Unzipping them creates intentional cold spots to release hot air in warm conditions. We found the system—along with a blanket fold that can be pushed out around the collar—very helpful on a mild night in Utah.
Where the Nemo Riff suffers some on this list is value and weight. The Magma above uses a higher quality down and costs $50 less. And the Magma undercuts the Nemo in weight by a significant 11 ounces, although it does have a much more tailored fit. Another issue is that the Nemo’s interior fabric is soft but not as luxurious as we prefer at this price point. But if the roomy fit, impressive feature set, and adjustable gills appeal to you, the Riff is a great option.
See the Nemo Riff 15 See the Women's Nemo Jam 15
Temperature rating: Not rated
Weight: 2 lbs. 12 oz.
Fill: 900-fill down
What we like: Premium double bag with amazing warmth to weight.
What we don’t: Expensive for something you may not use every trip.
Double sleeping bags aren’t for everyone, but for two backpackers who don’t mind getting cozy, they offer unbeatable warmth relative to weight. Our favorite model is the Spoonbill from Feathered Friends. It has the same premium down fill and build quality as the Swallow Nano above, but with 2 collars, hoods, and half-length zippers to allow each person to customize fit, warmth, and airflow. Feathered Friends does not provide a temperature rating, but we’ve had it down to 15°F and were still very warm (we think it’s a viable option down to 0°F or even less). Weighing 2 pounds 12 ounces, the Spoonbill is lighter, warmer, and more affordable than purchasing two high-end bags separately.
Clearly, the Spoonbill’s double bag design has inherent limitations. The most significant is that you’re spending $750 for a piece of gear that you may not be able to bring on every trip. More, the lack of insulation along the bottom means it’s best to use a double mat to avoid cold spots between the pads (this happened to us even when using a “coupler” that kept the two pads together). While the Spoonbill isn’t super versatile, the weight savings and unique design make it an intriguing option for adventurous duos. To cut even more weight, Feathered Friends makes a Spoonbill UL that saves you 4 more ounces.
See the Feathered Friends Spoonbill Nano
Temperature rating: 30°F EN Comfort, 19°F EN Lower Limit
Weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz.
Fill: 600-fill down
What we like: Great price for a down bag.
What we don’t: Build quality and feel can’t match pricier bags.
Kelty makes inexpensive backpacking gear that can pleasantly surprise you with its quality. The Cosmic Down 20 is one of the cheapest down sleeping bags on the market—definitely from one of the major manufacturers—but the EN Lower Limit rating of 19 degrees should keep you reasonably warm in most 3-season conditions. The 600-fill power ties it with the Radiant and isn’t particularly impressive, but you get the bonus of treated hydrophobic down for wet conditions.
Make sure to have realistic expectations for a down bag in this price range. Past versions have received some complaints about cold spots and the sleeping experience won’t be as comfortable as pricier bags. But for those new to backpacking or only get out a couple times a year, the Cosmic Down 20 is another nice budget option.
See the Kelty Cosmic 20 See the Women's Kelty Cosmic 20
Temperature rating: 20°F
Weight: 3 lbs. 8 oz.
Fill: Synthetic (PolarLite)
What we like: Budget price and decently warm.
What we don’t: Heavy for backpacking.
The sub-$100 price range typically is where you’ll find car camping bags, but Teton Sports’ LEEF is a solid value option for casual backpackers. Despite being less than $80 on sites like Amazon, the LEEF has a host of features you usually find on premium sleeping bags: a full-length baffle along the zipper to prevent cold spots, insulation mapping that places more synthetic fill around areas prone to being cold, and an adjustable hood that cinches evenly around the face. The LEEF is only available in a single size—most bags above are offered in regular and long—but its 87-inch length makes it a fine choice for tall backpackers.
The 20°F temperature rating puts the Teton Sports LEEF in-line with our top picks, but at 3 pound 8 ounces, it’s by far the heaviest bag on our list. The culprit is the cheap synthetic “PolarLite” fill, which weighs more and is less compressible than down or a more advanced synthetic like you get with the Mountain Hardwear Lamina Z above. As a result, backpackers who get out a lot or are looking to trim weight will want to steer clear of the LEEF, but for quick weekend trips with friends and family, it’s a nice way to get out without breaking the bank.
See the Teton Sports LEEF +20°F
|Sleeping Bag||Price||Temp*||Weight||Fill||Fill Weight||Shell|
|Feathered Friends Swallow Nano 20||$429||20°F||1 lb. 15 oz.||900-fill down||16.8 oz.||20D|
|REI Co-op Magma 10||$349||22°F (EN)||1 lb. 14 oz.||850-fill down||17.6 oz.||15D|
|Western Mountaineering UltraLite||$500||20°F||1 lb. 13 oz.||850-fill down||16.8 oz.||12D|
|REI Co-op Radiant 19||$199||32°F (EN)||2 lb. 8 oz.||600-fill down||16.6 oz.||30D|
|Mountain Hardwear Lamina Z Flame||$179||32°F (EN)||2 lb. 11 oz.||Synthetic||30 oz.||30D|
|Marmot Hydrogen||$329||34°F (EN)||1 lb. 7.3 oz.||800-fill down||10.9 oz.||20D|
|Montbell Down Hugger 900 #2||$559||34°F (EN)||1 lb. 8 oz.||900-fill down||12 oz.||8D|
|The North Face Furnace 20||$179||26°F (EN)||2 lb. 12 oz.||700-fill down||13.8 oz.||50D|
|Katabatic Gear Flex 22||$385||22°F||1 lb. 6.1 oz.||900-fill down||13.5 oz.||15D|
|Marmot Sawtooth||$239||27°F (EN)||2 lb. 7.5 oz.||650-fill down||23.5 oz.||30D|
|Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20||$255||20°F||1 lb. 4.3 oz.||850-fill down||13 oz.||10D|
|Marmot Trestles 20 Elite||$149||32°F (EN)||2 lb. 7 oz.||Synthetic||25 oz.||40D|
|Patagonia 850 Down Sleeping Bag||$499||30°F (EN)||2 lb. 0.2 oz.||850-fill down||19.7 oz.||15D|
|Nemo Riff 15||$400||15°F||2 lb. 9 oz.||800-fill down||21 oz.||20D|
|Feathered Friends Spoonbill||$750||Not rated||2 lb. 12 oz.||900-fill down||23 oz.||20D|
|Kelty Cosmic 20||$160||30°F (EN)||2 lb. 13 oz.||600-fill down||18 oz.||50D|
|Teton Sports LEEF +20°F||$74||20°F||3 lb. 8 oz.||Synthetic||Unavailable||40D|
* For the purposes of this table, we have included the EN Comfort rating, which we feel is the most accurate point of comparison. When available, we've listed both the EN Comfort and EN Lower Limit in the product specs above. For more on the differences, see our buying advice below.
- Seasons and Temperature Ratings
- The EN Rating System Explained
- How the EN System Translates for You
- Sleeping Bags Without EN Ratings
- Down vs. Synthetic Insulation
- Down and Synthetic Fill Weight
- Down Quality: Fill Power
- Hydrophobic Down
- Dimensions: Length and Cut
- Women's-Specific Sleeping Bags
- Sleeping Bags vs. Quilts
- Your Sleeping Pad R-Value Matters
Summer and Two-Season Bags (32°F and Above)
We are careful when recommending warm weather bags because they leave the least room for error. If it’s summer and you’re camping in a hot place like Utah or at low elevation in a place like Colorado, a 32-plus degree bag should do the trick. The advantage is that you can keep your pack lighter as these bags weigh as little as one pound and compress down incredibly small. However, one cold night can make for an uncomfortable trip. When carrying a true summer bag, bring a beanie and other layers that can help you keep warm if there happens to be an unexpected drop in temperature. To avoid any mishaps, we usually prefer to use three-season bags unless we are going ultralight, and a borderline option like the superlight Marmot Hydrogen (34°F EN Comfort) is a good compromise. You can open them up at night when necessary or sleep on top on balmy nights.
Three-Season Bags (32°F to 20°F)
The majority of backpacking sleeping bags are of the three-season variety. We love their versatility: in the summer you can unzip and stay reasonably cool, but they also allow for spring, fall, and alpine backpacking where the temperature drops to freezing or below (this often happens in the night in the mountains even during the summer). In this category we love the REI Co-op Radiant, which hits that temperature sweet spot for a wide range of trips and comes in at a very reasonable price point. If price isn’t an issue, Western Mountaineering makes some of the finest backpacking bags on the market.
Cold Weather Bags (20°F and Below)
You really have to know your gear and the conditions when climbing mountains or heading out into the backcountry during the winter. For the purposes of this article, we’ve made our temperature cutoff at just under 20 degrees and provided a couple of great options like the Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20 and Feathered Friends Nano. Anything colder than that—think mountaineering or winter camping—and you’re in the market for a true cold weather bag. There are a number of options from climbing-centric companies like Western Mountaineering, Montbell, Mountain Hardwear, and Marmot that are rated down to 0°F or even lower.
Instead of depending on the manufacturer and their marketing whims for a temperature rating, the Europeans have standardized the system. EN 13537 (or just EN for short) establishes guidelines for how to test the warmth of a bag and gives us two very important numbers:
EN Comfort Rating: The temperature at which an average woman can sleep comfortably. Generally, women sleep colder than men, hence the importance of the comfort rating.
EN Lower Limit: The temperature at which an average man can sleep for eight hours without waking. We rarely sleep for eight hours without waking on a backpacking trip, but you get the idea.
In addition, you may see references to the EN Upper Limit (the temperature at which an average man can sleep without excessive perspiration) and EN Extreme (the minimum temperature at which a standard woman can remain for six hours without risk of death from hypothermia). Of course, all of the EN ratings are based on averages and in general we've found them to be optimistic by around 10 degrees (we cover this in greater detail in the section below), but they are helpful in comparing two EN-rated bags. The majority of outdoor gear manufacturers use the EN system but certainly not all of them—compliance is optional.
First and foremost, we think that you should always leave a reasonable buffer in temperature so as to not to be disappointed (and save yourself sleepless nights). We've found the EN ratings to be too low, even when wearing a warm baselayer. For chosing the right EN rating, try to get an idea of the coldest temperature you'll be experiencing overnight. Check the weather forecasts and averages of areas you’re planning to visit to gauge the conditions. Once you have an approximate number, it’s a good idea to build in a buffer (we like 10 degrees) or more to avoid getting cold. Other factors to consider are your age (people typically don’t sleep as warm the older they get) and whether you are a cold or warm sleeper.
It’s also a good idea to have some extra clothing in case you need it. A warm hat can help keep a lot of heat in, and some wool baselayers will help add some warmth as well. And make sure to consider the R-value of your sleeping pad (more on this below), which will help to insulate you from the cold ground. Many people overlook their sleeping pad then become confused when their bag isn’t as warm as they had thought.
Some manufacturers do not EN rate their sleeping bags, and typically it's smaller companies like Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends, and Katabatic Gear. From our experiences, these brands actually are on the conservative side and take pride in offering very realistic temperature ratings. For example, the Feathered Friends Swallow Nano 20 is a very warm bag and will keep the average man comfortable into the 20s, whereas the REI Radiant—with a 19°F Lower Limit EN rating—will be cold if the temperatures dip below freezing. As such, we've found that the higher EN Comfort rating is a better basis for comparison than the EN Lower Limit, and therefore have listed it in the table above (both ratings are included in the product specs). If anything, being cold can be uncomfortable or even dangerous, and we recommend using the EN Comfort as the more realistic of the two. If you're bag ends up being a little warmer, take that as a bonus.
The down vs. synthetic debate is not unique to backpacking sleeping bags. Midlayers, camping bags and even sleeping pads are all insulated with these fill types. For a certain piece of gear or apparel, one has the leg up on the other, and for backpacking sleeping bags, we still give the clear edge to down fill. There are a few major reasons for that, including the best warmth-to-weight ratio, far better packability (i.e. a smaller compressed size), and a more premium warmth. The last one is a bit subjective, but it’s a clear consensus from us that down’s lofty warmth feels more luxurious. Down does vary in quality, which is measured in fill power (covered below), but even a mid-grade down fill is the superior insulator.
So why consider synthetic? The most common reason for most is price. Even a premium synthetic bag like the Mountain Hardwear Lamina easily slides in under $200, while a nice down bag doubles that (and more). In addition, synthetic performs far better than down in wet weather. While there have been improvements in down’s performance in the wet thanks to the application of hydrophobic coatings on the feathers, synthetic will insulate far better if moisture enters the bag. So, for starting out, if you’re looking for a budget option, or you backpack in really wet conditions, synthetic bags remain a great choice. For an even more in-depth explanation of this topic, see our article on down vs. synthetic insulation.
Fill weight is the actual amount of insulation stuffed into a sleeping bag. If it’s a close call between two bags with the same types of insulation (down or synthetic) and one or both don’t have EN ratings, you can compare fill weight to get a better idea of which one will be warmer. Cut does matter here: a bag with a slender cut may have less insulation than a bag with a roomy cut despite providing similar or even more warmth. Fill weight is more helpful for a category like down jackets, which don’t have EN ratings, but it’s good to know here too. And it's a good visual for how much more insulation is required for a synthetic bag to compete with down. For comparison, the Lamina Z requires 13 additional ounces to achieve approximately the same temperature rating as the down-fill REI Radiant.
If you decide down is going to be your insulation of choice, one of the first specs to look at is the quality of a specific down, known as its fill power. Specifically, it’s a measure of how much loft or fluffiness the down clusters have, and this correlates with warmth (note: both duck and goose down are measured in the same way). The highest down fill power is 900, and you’ll see cheaper sleeping bags closer to 500. Generally, the higher the fill power, the more expensive the sleeping bag. The lower the fill power, the more it must weigh to provide similar levels of warmth. High fill powers in the 800s are great, but don’t necessarily be turned off by 550 or 600-fill—it’s a great way to save money on an otherwise excellent bag.
Unfortunately, down feathers lose much of their ability to insulate when wet, and synthetic insulation does a much better job in this department. Synthetic insulation, conversely, is much heavier, doesn’t pack down as small, and isn’t as warm, which are reasons that down is so prized. Gear manufacturers recently started treating down to make it more water resistant. Essentially, a polymer is added to the down before filling the bag, and the result is the feathers are better protected from the moisture and don’t clump up as quickly. In use, this means you don’t have to worry as much about brushes with moisture inside or outside of your backpacking tent. A number of companies have named their proprietary treated down such as Sierra Design’s DriDown, Mountain Hardwear’s Q.Shield Down, Marmot’s Down Defender, etc.
We love the hydrophobic down movement. Yes, it adds a tiny bit of weight to the down, but it also adds a noticeable level of protection. Synthetic insulation still has its place for budget backpackers but nothing beats down, and particularly treated down. If you’re headed out in a wet area like the Pacific Northwest or New Zealand, buying a sleeping bag with hydrophobic down is a wise move. Fortunately, many manufacturers are moving in this direction, and it’s now the majority instead of the minority.
In addition to considerations like warmth and down fill, the cut of a sleeping bag is critical to how much you enjoy it. The three most common points of measurement for sleeping bags are at the shoulders, hips, and feet (59"/51"/38", for example), which give you an idea as to how roomy or tapered the bag is.
Many ultralight sleeping bags save weight by tapering the cut of the legs for less fabric and down. If you toss and turn at night or just prefer more space, make sure to consider a roomier bag (the spoon-shaped Nemo Riff 15 is a great example). The downsides are that these bags can feel draftier and may not retain heat quite as well, and often weigh more because more fabric and insulation are required to fill the larger surface area. The good news is that many manufactures make the same bag in varying widths. The Western Mountaineering Alpinlite is the wider version of the UltraLite, for example.
In terms of length, most sleeping bags come in two or three lengths that are meant to fit men and women of varying heights. For men’s bags, the regular size often is 72-inches long and the tall is 78-inches long. If the bag doesn’t have a women’s-specific version, you’ll often see a short 66-inch option. If you are on the border and want the hood to extend over your head, it’s a good idea to size up. Keep in mind that larger sizes do cost and weigh more and have a larger packed size.
Some backpacking bags have a women’s-specific version with a different name, and others simply have a “short” version of the same bag. What can you expect with a women’s-specific bag? They usually have a slightly different cut than men’s or unisex models that is narrower at the shoulders and roomier around the hips. More, the bags will have a little more insulation, and often in targeted areas (Therm-a-Rests’s Adara HD, for example, has a foot warmer pocket at the bottom of the bag to fight the common problem of cold feet). And as is typical in outdoor gear, women’s sleeping bags often come in what are considered to be more feminine colorways. All in all, we know women that buy women’s bags and others that buy men’s or unisex bags when they fit. The differences are small and it’s mostly a matter a taste.
Along with your tent, your sleeping bag is one the heaviest and bulkiest items in your pack. Sleeping bags run the gamut from around 1 pound for a true ultralight up to 2-3 pounds or more for less expensive options (for a comprehensive list, see our sleeping bag weight comparison chart). Like other gear categories, down is king in the lightweight sleeping bag world, and premium fill power (800+) is ideal if you're willing to pay for it. Make sure to keep an eye on the whole package as weight often is saved by using thinner shell fabrics and a trimmer cut. Ultralight sleeping bags are great for some people but certainly not necessary for everyone.
Outside of the premium warmth and low weight you get from down, another selling point is compression. Natural goose and duck feathers stuff down in a way unmatched by anything manmade, although the synthetic Lamina bags are a significant improvement in this area. In general, higher-end down bags like our top pick, the Feathered Friends Swallow Nano 20, will be the most compressible due to their quality of the down and use of thinner fabrics. A cheap synthetic bag will be the least compressible option. Other indicators include the cut of the bag—a tapered cut will trim fabric and stuffed size—as well as the temperature rating. Summer bags can get away with using less insulation and will be more compressible as a result.
To take full advantage of the small stuffed size potential of your sleeping bag, you’ll want to pick up a compression stuff sack. Most sleeping bags these days only include a non-compressible stuff sack. One of our favorites, thanks to its creative waterproof construction, is the Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack. Take care when using a compression stuff sack—cinching it down too much can damage the insulation over time. It’s a better idea to lightly compress the bag so that it fits easily into your pack and not overdo it. And don’t store your sleeping bag in a compression sack for extended periods.
This article is about backpacking sleeping bags and quilts really are a separate category, but we have included a couple of our favorites for those who are interested. Essentially, a sleeping quilt is a minimalist backcountry sleep system popular among ultralighters and thru hikers. You technically can sleep in a quilt like a normal sleeping bag, but the narrow design favors opening up the back and connecting it to your sleeping pad (make sure to get a pad with the proper R-value for insulation). The end result cuts weight significantly and comfort too.
The sleeping bag vs. quilt debate comes down to personal preference. Certain people swear by quilts and love that they can shave even more ounces off the total weight of their pack. We’ve found that quilts aren’t as comfortable as mummy bags and have their downsides. You have to bring proper head coverage, which can add weight, the quilt/sleeping pad system isn’t perfect, and it takes a bit of time to set up each night. All in all, we prefer the coziness and simplicity of a lightweight mummy bag for most of our backpacking trips, but quilts are a viable option too.
We’ve written a lot about the temperature rating of your sleeping bag, but remember that your sleeping pad matters too. Keep an eye on the R-value, which is a measurement of how well the pad insulates you from the ground. R-values range from 1.0 (almost no insulation) to 9.5 (winter-ready warmth). A summer backpacker can get away with a low R-value, while the average 3-season backpacker should look for something in the 3 range or more. A true winter camper will want an R-value that exceeds 5 depending on the conditions. For more information, see our article on the best sleeping pads for backpacking.
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