Crawling 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.
With 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!