What are the different types of sleeping bags and how to use themThe five most common types of sleeping bag are:
How many types of sleeping bags are there?There are 5 types of sleeping bags if you’re a purist. But some will argue there are in fact 12 core designs. We’ll stick with 5 – it’s a smaller number and I’m sure you don’t want to wade through 36 paragraphs of information only to find a pedantic perspective that suggests a stitching style equals a type!
RectangularThe rectangular sleeping is old school and dates back to when sleep technology for campers and hikers was in its very infancy. As you can imagine, this design is simple with few features. At its most basic, this type of sleeping looks like a sheet folded over and then sealed with a 2/3 length zipper (one seam of the bag is either stitched or is a natural fold). The key design feature is comfort – there’s plenty of room to move and it’s a pretty comfortable bag that will give you a good night of sleep. All double-sized sleeping bags, which we’ll come onto soon, are rectangular in shape.
Uses for a rectangular sleeping bagA rectangular sleeping bag is ideal for campers who sleep in vans, or tents in warmer climates. If you’re venturing into really colder conditions you’ll need a different type of sleeping as this design doesn’t have a hood or adjustable draw cords that keep the heat inside. The degree of sleeping bag insulation found in rectangular bags tends to be low, but we have seen some advertised with a rating of 0F/-17C. That said, staying warm requires a tight seal and hood, which this bag doesn’t tend to have.
Semi-rectangularThis type of sleeping bag is similar in shape to the mummy and, like the rectangular-shaped bag, has been designed for campers. The shape provides plenty of space to move around and is a more comfortable sleeping space than some of the more restrictive sleeping bags. As most semi-rectangular sleeping bags are quite heavy, the warmth-to-weight ratio is low and should be avoided if space and weight are important to you.
Uses for a semi-rectangular sleeping bagIdeal for your camping gear stash, on foot or travelling in a vehicle. Some semi-rectangular sleeping bags have been designed for colder conditions, but the bulk and low warmth-to-weight ratio mentioned above make them less than ideal for backpackers and hikers moving over large distances. Additionally, these sleeping bags don’t compress well which means they take up a lot of space in a rucksack. Choose this type of sleeping bag if you’re camping in temperatures ranging from warm to chill. When the thermometer dips well into the minuses consider a mummy sleeping bag.
MummyThe mummy sleeping bag has become the standard design for outdoor activities. Shaped like an Egyptian mummy’s sarcophagus (wide at the neck, tapered at the foot), the sleeping bag is optimised for insulation, warmth to weight ratio, and tends to be lighter than some of the other sorts of sleeping bag we’ve covered already. Mummy bags are my preferred winter sleeping bag and I’ve used various makes in extremely cold conditions. Another type of sleeping bag in this group is the elephant foot, which has a larger foot area to accommodate footwear such as tent boots.
Uses for a mummy sleeping bagEverywhere! I’ve used sleeping bags made by Mountain Equipment Redline as the company makes excellent gear (on a winter crossing on the Alaskan North Slope and during a road trip up the Dalton Highway in winter – it gets cold in the back of a car!), Rab when crossing Greenland, a Softy on wild camps on Dartmoor. These are all models of mummy bags and they’ve performed well above my expectations in extreme environments. If you’re planning a hiking trip in warmer climates, you’ll find many options to suit your needs. Among those we most highly recommend are:
- Rab Ascent 700 – a classic cold weather bag suitable for hiking and camping in cold, winter conditions.
- Mountain Equipment Redline – one of the very warmest sleeping bags available. Packed full of 1000g down fill, and rated to -xxxC, this is a serious piece of expedition gear.
- Therm-A-Rest Coros – a great sleeping bag that works well in a broad range of temperatures and is a good addition to your gear list.
Double sleeping bagThe double bag is basically a sheet of material folded in half, with a zipper running around two-thirds of the hem. I’ve slept in one of these sleeping bags once in my life – alone, I might add – and it was probably the most luxurious camping experience of my life. But these sleeping bags are not designed for extreme environments unless two people feel the need to huddle inside when the temperature drops below -10C. And in the summer, this sleeping bag is simply too warm for two people, especially if your body is like mine and your run warm. Most double bags are designed for temperate environments, ideally camping in a tent. Whilst they might serve a purpose when one of your teammates suffers from a cold injury, they’re not designed to be used in really cold winter conditions.
Uses for a double sleeping bagAt best, camping. This is not the kind of bag you should consider taking on a long trek, or expedition. I’ll draw the line at a two-day hiking trip because you run the risk of spending a cold night on the tent floor when you have a falling out with your partner or teammate.
Kids/Children’sKids sleeping bags are a relatively new addition to a demographic of hiker and camper that has for too long been ignored. Not too many years ago, children had two options: use an out-sized sleeping bag, or share (but with little of the luxury that comes with diving into a double bag). The key issue faced by our diminutive hiking and camping buddies was that sleeping bags sized for adults provided poor insulation and the outdoor experience became a horror story when the outside temperature dipped. The answer to this issue was to make an updated bag that was shorter, narrower and minimised ‘dead space’ to provide the amount of insulation and heat retention young children need to stay warm.
Uses for a kids sleeping bagYou can use this type of sleeping bag for most outdoor activities, including camping for a long duration. The only piece of advice we want to offer is not to take your children into extreme conditions (unless you really know what you’re doing). Mild cold injuries associated with very cold winter conditions can have long-lasting effects.
Key factors to think about when choosing a sleeping bag type
Sleeping bag temperature ratingThe temperature rating of your sleeping bag is a key piece of information you need to understand. Every quality sleeping bag has a range label – normally located along the zipper – which shows the temperature range/comfort range, but there is more to this than meets the eye. Don’t worry – we’ve written a guide that explains the temperature rating system, and the additional precautions you should take in extremes of temperature.
Sleeping bag insulation typeThe most often asked question is: duck/goose down or synthetic sleeping bag? Your first choice might be to choose the lightest, or warmest bag, but each of these types of fill, or insulation, has its own distinct and unique qualities. We’ve written a complete down vs synthetic sleeping bags guide to help you pick the right bag for your choice of activity.
SeasonsWhat does season mean in sleeping bags? CHECK PAA: A season is simply a way of rating a bag for different times of year (seasons). Here’s a quick view of each:
- 1 season – rated for 5C and upwards. Ideal for warm nights of camping.
- 2 season – rated between 0C and 5C. Ideal for those cooler summer nights.
- 3 season – rated between -5C and 0C. Ideal for early winter.
- 4 season – rated down to -10C. Ideal for campers and hikers travelling close to the extremes of weather.
- 5 season – rated down to -50C. Ideal for expeditions.
Sleeping bag linersGiven the amount of questions on sleeping bag liners, this section could a complete page in its own right. But we’ve kept it simple and answered the biggest liner questions thrown at us. The most obvious use for a sleeping bag liner is when you embark on a winter camp, but they have more applications which we’ll look at in just a moment. Sleeping bag FAQs: Are sleeping bag liners a good idea? Yes, a liner is a good idea no matter where you’re hiking. They provide an extra insulating layer in cold weather, and help keep your bag clean as sweat is absorbed by the liner. A sleeping bag liner is useful in the following conditions
- They’re a really useful and cost-effective way to raise a 2, or 3 season sleeping bag to the next level. Often, the cost of new gear, especially sleeping bags, is prohibitive, but for a small investment you can add an additional layer of insulation (usually only a few $/£).
- Extreme cold environments. The liner provides an additional layer between which warm air is trapped, improving insulation. Most liners designed for sub-zero conditions are made of fleece or some similar materials.
- Hot weather environments. Using a silk liner inside a warm weather sleeping bag will reduce the amount of sweat that soaks into your bag and will also help keep you warm if the nighttime temperatures get cold. Let me explain: many years ago I spent several months in the Sahara Desert. In fact, I paid several ‘visits’ to that hot, arid climate and, whilst there, I slept in a sleeping bag liner inside a lightweight sleeping bag. During the day the silk layer wicked away sweat, and at night, a time when the desert gets really cold, it helped keep me warm. Seem crazy, but it works.
- You want to keep your sleeping bag fresh. We’ve written a guide on how to wash a sleeping bag, and here’s a snippet from the last section: no matter how little you sweat, your sleeping bag will start to smell after repeated uses. Use a liner to soak up sweat, and other ‘stuff’ that bacteria feed on, to leave your sleeping bag fresh for longer.