How to Choose A Backpacking Sleeping Bag

Photo: Snap Man

How to Choose a Backpacking Sleeping Bag

Picking out a new backpacking sleeping bag for any outdoor adventure can be super overwhelming. There are so many choices and so many features to consider, not to mention the price tag. We’ve put together a simple guide that breaks down how to choose a backpacking sleeping bag for your next great adventure.

Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating

The sleeping bag temperature rating is the first place to start when picking out a new backpacking sleeping bag. Think about when and where you plan to use it the most.

Sleeping bags can be broken down into three simple categories: summer, 3-season, and winter based on the temperature ratings shown in the table below.

Sleeping Bags

Most people will be happy with a 3-season bag, which will keep you comfortable most of the year. Remember you can always unzip the bag for a summer camping trip or add a liner to your bag for an occasional winter camping trip!

Most 3-season backpacking bags will list an EN testing rating with two temperature ratings known as the “comfort rating” and the “lower-limit rating”. Comfort rating is the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep the average woman or “cold sleeper” comfortable. Lower-limit rating is the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep a man or “warm sleeper” comfortable. (EN ratings are based on a sleeper wearing one long underwear layer and a hat, and sleeping on a single one-inch thick insulating pad.)

Sleeping Bag Shape

While the sleeping bag shape might not seem important, it is for two big reasons:

First, sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping air and holding it in a layer next to your body. Your body heats up this layer of trapped air to keep you warm. The less air space there is in the bag, the faster you warm up and stay warm! Picking a bag based on your body size and shape is important for efficiency and warmth. Roomier bags will often be heavier as well.

We recommend selecting a semi-rectangular bag or mummy bag which is versatile and can work for backpacking as well as car camping. Semi-rectangular bags are good for backpackers with larger frames or those who don’t like the constrictive feeling of a mummy bag.

To Quilt or Not to Quilt?

Some lightweight backpackers won’t even entertain the idea of a sleeping bag, and instead prefer a camping quilt. We’ll include one recommendation for a great quilt if you are interested in going ultralight.

Warmth to weight ratio, down vs synthetic & temperature ratings. What does it all mean? Learn how to choose the best lightweight backpacking sleeping bag for your next adventure.Nathalie Martin

Synthetic vs. Down Sleeping Bag Insulation

Synthetic Backpacking Sleeping Bags

Synthetic bags are often made with polyester, they are quick-drying, and can insulate even when wet. They are much cheaper and non-allergenic. What’s the downside? Synthetic bags don’t compress as small as down sleeping bags, and synthetic tends to be heavier.

Down Backpacking Sleeping Bags

The biggest advantage of down vs synthetic is that down bags tend to be lighter and compress smaller when packed away – key characteristics when you are using the bag for backpacking. Most say down is more durable than synthetic as well. Generally down is more expensive than synthetic and it doesn’t insulate as well when it is wet. However, many down sleeping bags are now coated with a water-repellent finish that will keep you warm and dry in damp conditions.

Synthetic is also a good option for those of you who choose to live a vegan lifestyle, as down is produced from geese or ducks.

Other Important Backpacking Sleeping Bag Features

Warmth to weight ratio, down vs synthetic & temperature ratings. What does it all mean? Learn how to choose the best lightweight backpacking sleeping bag for your next adventure.

Sleeping Bag Hood

Vital for sleeping in cold temperature as we lose heat through our head, it’s essential to have a hood on your bag to keep you warm. Most mummy bags and semi-rectangular bags come with a hood.


Some bags come with pillow pockets to put stash your clothes to create a pillow while others come with stash pockets to keep your glasses, a watch or cell phone nearby.  Some bags also come with sleeping pad pockets or a sleeping pad sleeve to fit a sleeping pad so you don’t roll off the pad in the middle of the night. These pockets are personal preference, and the extra fabric might add to the total weight of the bag.

Double Sleeping Bags

Backpacking with your significant other? Several companies are now making double sleeping bags so you can cuddle why you’re camping.

The Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags

When you backpack, you’ll see lots of people with the same sleeping pads, same tents, and same water filters, but when it comes to sleeping bags rarely do you find one specific outlier that is most recommended or most popular. Below are our personal favorites for the best backpacking sleeping bags.

Best Sleeping Bag Buy

Kristen used an older model of the REI Joule (Women’s) sleep bag on her John Muir Trail hike. For a 21 degree bag, it is one of the lightest out there for the price. Kim also used an older model for her 2016 hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and ran into numerous other thru-hikers with the exact same bag. The REI Joule is continually a best seller and also comes in a 30-degree women’s sleeping bag if you’re looking to save some money (or don’t need the lower degree rating). Kim’s dad even used an older model of the male version of the bag when he joined her for 9 days and was very pleased with the bag– Igneo 25 (Men’s) Sleeping Bag.

Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags // REI Joule

 Best Warmth to Weight Ratio

Western Mountaineering arguably make the best sleeping bags out there. They have 30 degree down, 20 degree down and 10 degree down bags that are some of the lightest for their weight class. Kristen has the Western Mountaineering Versalite 10 degree bag, which weighs a mere 2 pounds, and it’s 10 degrees warmer and a few ounces lighter than Joule. Western Mountaineering sleeping bags come in 3 different lengths and you can choose whether you want it to zip on the right or left side.  Be prepared though, these come with hefty price tags.

Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags // Western Mountaineering Versalite Sleeping Bag

Best Sleeping Quilt

Weighing in at only 1lb, 6oz, we can’t argue against the excellent Therm-a-Rest Corus HD Quilt Sleeping Quilt. It’s a 35-degree quilt, however, so it’s better for warmer climates. The foot box is rounded with elastic, forming a nice pocket for your feet, and the quilt comes with snaps that allow you to attach it to your sleeping pad.

best backpacking sleeping bags / Therm-a-Rest Corus HD Quilt Sleeping Bag

 Best Synthetic Summer Bag (And CHEAPEST OVERALL)

Marmot’s Trestles 30 Sleeping Bag is the best synthetic bag for the price and weight. It’s EN comfort rating is 29 degrees, but at 3 lbs 8 oz and a low price tag of $99 (you read that right), this is one of the best sleeping bags for beginner backpackers who tend to camp in summer or warmer climates and don’t want to throw down a ton of cash. If you’re looking to slash that price check out the REI Co-op Helio Sack, it has a 55-degree temperature rating, weighs less than 2 pounds & is under $60. You can’t beat either of these deals.

Best Double Sleeping Bag

Want to snuggle with your honey? Many companies are now making double sleeping bags. In the past, double sleeping bags were heavy and cumbersome to pack up. Not so much now. The North Face Campforter Double 20 Sleeping Bag has a 20-degree temperature rating and is only 4 lbs & 16 oz. If you do the math on price & weight it’s not bad for two.

If you’re just looking for a car camping sleeping bag go with the NEMO Jazz Duo Sleeping Bag, it’s rated for 20 degrees. NEMO is highly praised for their sleeping bag line so we can guarantee you on the quality. The bag does weigh 7 lbs. & 9 oz. so it’s a little on the heavier side, hence a great car camping double sleeping bag.



Bearfoot Theory is a big proponent of Leave No Trace. Learn how to reduce your impact on the environment so we can save these special places for future generations of adventurers.

Disclosure: The links in this post are affiliate links which means if you make a purchase, I receive a tiny bit of compensation at no added cost to you. Any purchases you make help keep this blog going…so thanks for all of your support! If you ever have any questions about any of the products featured on my site, please email me. Thanks! Kristen

There are 7 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

7 Comments on “How to Choose A Backpacking Sleeping Bag

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  1. I really enjoy these pieces on picking out key gear.

    What do you recommend for someone who can only sleep on her side with the top leg at a 90 degree angle? Even if I’m desperately tired I cannot fall asleep on my back. I can’t stand the mummy bags, but the large, thick rectangular sleeping bags of my youth are too heavy and cumbersome for more than car camping.

    Great article, thanks. I recently purchased a new bag to add to my stockpile of bags – the klymit 20* down bag with baffles and an overstuffed foot box. I haven’t tried it in the wild yet, but in the living room I have more freedom than a normal mummy bag. And I’m hoping the extra down will keep my feet warm.

      Oooh sounds great. You’ll have to come back and tell us how you like it.

    I got so close to purchasing a Versalite when I read a troubling comment about it being too big for a smaller female frame (I’m 5’3″ 135 pounds). Kristen, do you find that the bag feels too big for you ever? Does it prevent you from keeping warm?

    Is there a newer version of this list? Or will there be if not? Most of the links sadly lead to nothing.

      Hey Austin, we updated with the newer models! Hope that helps!

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