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6 Tips For Picking A Sleeping Bag


phdminimCrawling into a cozy sleeping bag after a long day on the bike, knowing that you’re settling down for a well-earned rest, is one of the wonderful pleasures of touring.

Equally memorable, for all the wrong reasons, is a sleepless, freezing night because your sleeping bag just wasn’t up to the job.

Here’s what we consider when picking out a sleeping bag for a bike tour.

1. Think Of The Seasons – Every sleeping bag comes with a temperature rating and you should get one to match your touring destination and the season.

If you only plan to tour during the summer, you can go with something relatively light but don’t skimp too much. Cold weather can roll in without warning and summer is also the ideal time to explore cooler mountain areas. Get a bag that’s rated for temperatures a few degrees below what you expect to encounter.

For 3-season touring in most of the northern hemisphere, this means a bag rated down to -5°C or even -10°C so you can happily sleep through chilly spring and autumn nights. In the summer, such a bag can be too warm but if you’re too hot, you can always doze with the bag loosely spread open on top of your body or leave your tent door open to let in a breeze. It’s much easier to deal with weather that’s too warm than nights that are too cold.

Remember that sleeping bag ratings normally assume a number of things. They expect that you’ve eaten properly before going to bed, that you’re in some form of shelter (not camping under the stars), that you have a sleeping mat for added insulation and that you’re not a ‘cold sleeper’ by nature. If one of these things doesn’t apply, then you’ll have to compensate in another way – by putting on an extra layer of clothes, for example.

2. Decide Between Down And Synthetic – Sleeping bags are either filled with down feathers from ducks and geese or synthetic fibres and there’s a lively debate as to which is best. In a poll on the TravellingTwo Facebook Group, over 60% of people preferred down and 30% said synthetic was better.

A down sleeping bag packs down smaller, weighs less and lasts longer – all reasons why down bags are our choice for bike touring. The disadvantage of a down bag is that if it gets wet, it can take a long time to dry out.

However, we don’t think this is very likely. As long as you store your sleeping bag in a waterproof bag (good practice anyway) and don’t have a leaky tent, your bag shouldn’t get wet in the first place. In 50,000km of bike touring, we have never been kept awake at night because of a wet sleeping bag. Sometimes a down bag can be slightly damp on the surface from morning dew but this has always dried quickly for us.

That said, synthetic bags are good if you have allergies or don’t want to spend too much on a sleeping bag. Synthetic bags are also easy to clean at any laundromat, while down bags should be hand washed with mild soap or taken to a specialist cleaner. Finally, synthetic fillings have come a long way in recent years and sometimes you may have a hard time telling the difference between synthetics and down!

Don’t labour too much over down versus synthetic. Neither will be a disaster on your tour. You may just find a preference for one or the other after a few nights on the road.

3. Consider Going Zipless – It used to be that all sleeping bags came with zips but now you can get bags without zips. How do you get in? Just slide yourself in through the top hole.

The next morning, wrapped up wellWith zipless sleeping bags, there’s no draft coming in from one side of the bag and no rolling onto an uncomfortable zipper in the middle of the night. The missing zipper also means you shave a few grams off the overall weight of the bag and you’ve removed just about the only thing that can break on a bag. Our sleeping bag of choice for the trip was a zipless one, from the PHD Designs Minim range.

Of course, a zipless bag also means you can’t open it up if you’re too hot and it’s harder to get into if too much cycling or age has brought on stiff joints. For couples, it also rules out the possibility to zip the bags together.

If you do get a sleeping bag with a zipper (by far the more common design), choose a bag with a ‘zip baffle’ or ‘draft tube’ that helps seal out cold air. The zipper should also be heavy duty. It’s the one item on your sleeping bag that gets used over and over, and will almost certainly be the first to wear out.

4. Make Sure It Fits - Some bags are rectangular, others are a ‘mummy’ shape that tapers at the feet. We like the coziness of the ‘mummy’ style bags but some people find them too constrictive. Bags also come in different widths and lengths and it can be hard to judge which size you need from the internet. It’s worth going to your local camping shop and trying a few bags to get an idea of what feels good to you.

5. Don’t Forget A Liner – Along with your new sleeping bag, you’ll want a sleep sack or liner. This adds warmth and also keeps the sweat and dirt on your body from penetrating into the bag. It’s much easier to wash your sleeping bag liner than the bag itself! You can make your own out of a cotton sheet (heavy but cheap) or buy a commercially made liner. The two most popular choices are fleece (warm but bulky) and silk (light and tiny but expensive).

6. Consider The Packed Size – Last, but not least, make sure you have room to pack away your new sleeping bag in your bike panniers or trailer. All but the cheapest bags should be compact enough. Ideally, your bag will fit easily inside a small front pannier, with space leftover. What you don’t want is some long and bulky thing from your boy scout days that takes up almost as much room as the tent!

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9 Responses to “6 Tips For Picking A Sleeping Bag”

  1. Ingrid says:

    Instead of a liner we prefer wearing a silk pyjama. We always got tangled up in a liner.

    • friedel says:

      Good tip, Ingrid! Silk PJs on a tour sounds very luxurious. I like your thinking…

      • Ingrid says:

        Silk is easy to clean and easy to wear, it dries quickly. It is comfortable in hot conditions and keep you warm when it’s cold. It is very lightweight and need no space. For me it’s more handy than an a liner/inlet. In one word: perfect for bike travellers.
        It looks like that:

  2. Tara says:

    I second Ingrid’s thought! We don’t have silky pajamas, but we did have a good quality silk liner and loathed it. We got tangled up, too! We just carried it around with us until it got wet and moldy and gross and then we threw it away. Fleece sounds cozy though.

  3. Marcey says:

    I haven’t tried silk (love the pj idea). I prefer Coolmax. I have a sleeping bag liner that I use outside of my sleeping bag in hot weather.

    I finally found my perfect sleeping bag. I always was hot on the non zipper side and cold on the zipper side. Plus, the area I needed to vent was my chest area. I found a sleeping bag that has a center zip. It is also the bag that provided the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had backpacking. The bag is Snugpak’s Special Forces Sleeping bag. Thanks to an Air Force officer in WA for the bag name. My outside trips are now full of good sleep.

    • Brian says:

      At last someone who thinks like me. I also have the Snugpak Special Forces and it is brilliant. (Prior I have always used center zip military down bags.) Side zip entry are a pain in the butt. As age has begun to tell on me finding a center opening liner is very difficult, what is the point of having a central zip if you have to slide into the liner! This also applies to side opening bags as well. In fact it is almost pointless having zips on your sleeping bags at all if you have to slide into the liner.

  4. Pawel says:

    A couple of tips for touring with kids:

    - go synthetic – little accidents do and will happen and, as mentioned above:
    a. synthetic will keep your little one warm even when wet
    b. synthetic is much easier to wash and dry on the go – on our recent trip we had to pack a wet bag in the morning (no washing machine), arrived at the next campsite at 6pm, by 8pm the bag was washed and dried, ready for the night’s sleep.

    - consider buying identical bags in L and R zip versions – can be easily zipped together allowing you to cuddle if and when needed.

  5. Ha-haah, you obviously didn’t travel with children! A holi-day of biking and exhaustion can bring the healthiest kid to a comatose sleep where bladder control is a word unheard of in the world of dreams. Hence wet sleeping bags are more common in our tent than in yours. And yes, that may include daddy’s synthetic bag or mommy’s down bag if they get in the way.

    Often, around 22:00 hrs daddy leads sleepwalking kids (who don’t ever remember this in the morning) just outside the tent for a quick drain just in case.

    Ah, and “Make sure it fits”: Daddy’s mummy-shaped bag is extremely tight in its widest point, around the shoulders.

  6. Brian says:

    I am a very cold running person, cold being my main enemy, have been known to shiver in the lower 60′s F. Due to age and ailments vigorous exercise is now out of the question. With both clothing and sleeping gear I have to make sure I stay warm at all times (like sitting on a park bench at (6C). I have spent about 2 years experimenting with different types of clothing and sleeping bags and have found what is best for me. I used to use a 58 pattern military down bag which was excellent and can recommend it to anyone who sleeps cold. They do migrate a few feathers but this is a minor problem. They are always available on eBay at a reasonable price. I have about 8 sleeping bags altogether 7 being synthetic. Side entry bags are a pain and some of the cheap rectangular bags are pretty useless in anything other than a hot summer. Do not go for the “Bouncing Bomb” military cold weather bag unless you have plenty of room in the car and can pitch tent next to it. It is far too bulky and heavy for casual use. I have found the Special Forces 2 synthetic bag to be excellent and the best of the bunch, central zip, easy to get in and get out. Like my name sake has said previously where do you find a liner with a centre zip! I also cannot understand why bivi bags are slide in, if you are getting on a bit getting into one is bad enough (I gave up). Imagine a Squadie with his boots on having to get out of one in an emergency, what a nightmare!

    NO matter what the season or weather it is better to go over the top with your sleeping bag and put up with the added weight and bulk, you can always do something if you are too hot but not very much if you are too cold.

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