A sleeping bag might be the most essential and important piece of camping equipment you'll need. You'll want to choose the right one for all types of camping situations so that your body temperature is maintained no matter what the weather or environment. Pronto's Buying Guide to Sleeping Bags will help you identify all of the most important components in choosing the best one for you.
Sleeping bags come in 3 general design types: rectangle, mummy, and those with arms & legs. The rectangle bag is the roomiest, ideal for summer camping or indoor uses. The latter two are more tight-fitting and more suited for cold climates or wintertime camping.
A shell is the outside of the sleeping bag, which serves as the first line in protection for the lining and fill. Generally, you'll want to stick to materials that are more water-resistant and on the breathable side.
Lining can be considered the second line of defense in your sleeping bag. To avoid sliding around in your bag, you'll want to get lining made of polyester, cotton or fleece. Otherwise, lining also come in silk, taffeta, or nylon.
The main divide in the types of fill are synthetic and down. The fill of your bag will be your insulation, so you should consider factors of durability, compression capability, water-resistance, and of course, the environment you're expecting to encounter the most with your bag. Generally, down is more durable, less heavy, though less water-resistant harder to clean, and more expensive than synthetic.
Generally, you'll want to get a bag rated to stand up to the coldest night temperatures you think you're going to encounter. There isn't a standard rating system for this, so when you're looking though your sleeping bag selections, ratings will look differently and vary by brand.
Though there is no standard temperature rating system, the EN13537 Standard is used in Europe, and uses 5 main temperature ratings. The “transition zone” rating is the most desirable of these.
This is a measure of how much space down fill occupies in cubic inches and how much insulation it will provide for its weight. Essentially, the higher the fillpower, the better the bag, though be advised that American measurements differ from European ones.
This is a nylon or polyester shell material with heavier threads woven for reinforcement. It's more water-resistant and breathable than standard nylon. This type of shell is best for 3-season camping where conditions are relatively dry.
A tightly woven shell material that is strong and water-resistant. Softer than Ripstop, and a good choice for either 3-or 4-season camping, provided you winter camping has ideal conditions (not a lot of snow exposure, etc).
This is the most durable and water-resistant of shell materials, with all the advantages and none of the breatheability problems of GoreTex. DryLoft is ideal for 4-season, backcountry, or canoe camping.
Rectangle sleeping bags are inexpensive and roomy, providing more flexibility in sleeping position options. They're generally heavier weight-wise, though aren't great at providing warmth. They work well for mild conditions, car camping, and indoor slumber parties, though inadequate for anything beyond.
Mummy sleeping bags, as they taper from head to foot, keep you warmer and are less heavy and bulky than rectangle bags, because the overall volume and surface area are reduced, which is good for heat retention. Unlike a rectangle bag, these cannot be rolled, and are instead usually stuffed into a stuff or compression sack, which is much easier in terms of portability.
Sleeping bags with arms and legs offer the advantage of increased movement coupled with the warmth and portability of regular mummy sleeping bags.
Most bags come with full- or half-length zippers, though some come with none at all to improve heat retention and cut down on overall weight. Sometimes, mostly with rectangle bags, one can zip 2 bags together in cases where you want to sleep with someone else, or just for added warmth.
Sometimes sleeping bags intended for below-freezing temperatures include insulated draft collars. These are intended to wrap around your neck to trap air inside the bag for added warmth capabilities.
Cord locks on drawstrings are features on most bags that also help cut down on escaping air.
Expansion sections are an option for those who might feel claustrophobic or limited in mobility in a mummy sleeping bag. The disadvantage to expansions sections is that they add weight and bulk to your bag.
Sleeping pads are an accessory to be used in conjunction with sleeping bags aimed to increase ground comfort, and come in 3 types: air mattresses, foam pads, and self-inflating pads. The former are better for indoors or car camping, whereas foam pads are better suited to the outdoors and are much easier to transport. The latter is a combination of the first two, having most of the advantages of both.
Though you may transport your sleeping bag in a stuff sack, the life of your sleeping bag can be prolonged by storing it by hanging or laying out.
Sleeping bags can be washed either by hand in a bathtub, or in a front-loading washing machine. Use warm water and soap specifically geared to clean the type of fill you have. Bags can be air dried or thrown in a dryer on the lowest possible setting.