Ultra lightweight sleeping bags are purpose-built for long-haul treks where space is at a premium and weight is counted in grams, but they can also be used on your ordinary family camping trips. I call that win-win!
The sleeping bag is part of “The Big Three:” your backpack, your tent, and your sleeping bag. These three items comprise the most weight, and take up the most space of all your gear. Also, they are items (aside from food and shoes) that can make–or break–your hike or tour. Be prepared to shell out good money up front (and not have to re-purchase something better later). This is an investment you’ll be putting to very good use. A sleeping bag is a camper’s best friend.
- Bag girth and length. You want enough room to be able to roll over in your bag but not so much that you are floating, or there is a lot of room at your toe. Air is insulating, but too much air will be drafty and cold. If you’re big or small, do take advantage of special bag sizes out there! Most bags come in varying sizes, and women’s versions with a wider hip.
- Synthetic vs. down. I would say most thru-hikers carry down bags, and are just careful to keep them dry. My bag gets damp occasionally, but dries quickly in the sun. Some ultra-light hikers carry handmade synthetic quilts and are very happy with them, but commercially-available synthetic bags are usually bulkier and heavier than down.
- Quilt vs. bag. Again, this is a personal preference, but if you’re not an experienced camper and the adventurous type, stick to a mummy bag with a floor and a hood.
- What temperature rating? This is another personal preference, but most people I have talked to are happy in the 15-25º range. It gets really cold in the desert at night! If I had to buy another bag today, it would be a 20º bag. My bag is too warm to sleep inside in Oregon in the summer, and since I cowboy camp, things get awkward.
- Does it have a continuous baffle? This feature allows you to shake down to the front/top of the bag if you’re too cold, or to the back/bottom if you’re too hot.
- Right or left zip? Seriously? Toss the dice!
- Down comes at a terrible price. Sure buy it, but make sure to speak up – you want to know where your down comes from! Encourage the brand to join the Cruelty-Free Down Challenge! Three, almost four, of the bags reviewed below are made with down from humanely-treated geese: ZPacks, Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering, (and Marmot in the near future).
- Bottom line: your UL backpacking or bikepacking bag should definitely, definitely, definitely be under 2.5 pounds and should pack down to a bundle less than 14″ x 8″ x 8″ with ease.
Sleeping Bag Comparisons
These comparisons are for the men’s medium (~6 foot) lengths in a 15-20º range.
|ZPacks 20||Marmot Helium 15||Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20||Feathered Friends Swallow UL 20||Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15|
|FILL||900 fill power down, Bluesign certified, not live-plucked||850+ fill power goose down, will be RDS certified starting spring 2016||Down, not force-fed or live-plucked||900+ RDS certified goose down||800-fill Q.Shield™ down|
As you can see there are some USA-made bags out there that are really light and compressible, and cheaper than some of the big names. They’re also the only ones treating the source (geese) with respect. I tried to get the big players side-by-side here. I hope I’ve made it more of a no-brainer for you!
Hey, you: what is this table missing for warm down bags that are < 38oz (2lbs 6oz)?
RDS stands for Responsible Down Standard. According to responsibledown.org, “The Responsible Down Standard ensures that down and feathers come from ducks and geese that have been treated well. This means enabling them to live healthy lives, express innate behaviors, and not suffer from pain, fear or distress. The standard also follows the chain of custody from farm to product, so consumers can be confident that the down and feathers in the products they choose are truly RDS. The Responsible Down Standard is an independent, voluntary global standard, which means that companies can choose to certify their products to the RDS, even if there is no legislation requiring them to do so.”
There is always the option to make your own gear (MYOG)! I like this option best. Unfortunately one of the best tutorials online about making your own sleeping quilt is not hosted anymore, but there is still evidence of it in the archive. It’s written by my pal Burrito Grande, a cool German 2013 thru-hiker. There is another tutorial available here, written in 1999.