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How to Choose Sleeping Bags

While backpacking bags focus on minimizing weight, sleeping bags for car or family camping are all about comfort. What's the best sleeping bag for you? This article discusses what features to look for when shopping for a sleeping bag for car camping.

Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating

A sleeping bag's temperature rating identifies the lowest temperature at which a bag is intended to keep the average sleeper warm. When a bag is described as a "20-degree bag," it means that most users should remain comfortable if the air temperature drops no lower than 20°F. These ratings assume that the sleeper is wearing a layer of long underwear and using a sleeping pad under the bag.

Metabolism varies from person to person, and sleeping bag temperature ratings vary from one manufacturer to the next. Use these ratings as a guide only—not a guarantee.

Select a sleeping bag with a temperature rating a bit lower than the lowest temperature you expect to encounter. If you're headed for near-freezing temperatures, then choose a 20°F bag instead of a 35°F bag. If temperatures remain higher than expected, you can easily vent the bag to provide more air circulation.

Sleeping Bag Shape

Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping and holding a layer of "dead" (non-circulating) air next to your body. Your body heat warms this dead air, and the bag forms a barrier between it and the colder ground or outside air. The less air space there is to heat, the faster you warm up and stay warm. Camping bags are roomier than backpacking bags for greater comfort, with the tradeoff being less efficient warming of this dead space.


Most camping bags are designed with a rectangular shape for maximum comfort and roominess. If you choose 2 bags with compatible zippers, it's easy to mate them and create a double bed. You can mate bags if one bag has a "right-hand" zipper and the other a "left-hand" zipper. (Note: A right-hand zip means the bag opens and closes to your right when you are lying in the bag on your back.) The zippers also need to be the same size, style and roughly the same length. You can lay 2 bags on a queen-size air mattress for the utmost in outdoor sleeping comfort.

Semirectangular (or barrel-shaped)

These can be used for both camping and backpacking. Their tapered design offers greater warmth and efficiency than rectangular bags, but they're still plenty roomy for a comfortable night's sleep. They are popular with larger-frame backpackers or restless sleepers who don't like the tight fit of a mummy bag.


If you think you’ll be doing some backpacking as well as car camping, you may want to choose a mummy bag. Mummy-shaped bags have narrow shoulder and hip widths in order to maximize warmth and reduce weight. However, some people have trouble getting comfortable in these more restrictive bags. 


Designed to comfortably sleep 2 people, roomy double-wide bags can be combined with an air mattress (or foam sleeping pad) for a cozy night's sleep. Most models zip apart to create 2 individual bags.

 sleeping bag Insulation Type

Synthetic Insulation

Most campers choose synthetic insulation (versus down insulation) for its strong overall performance and friendly price tag. Typically made of polyester, a synthetic fill has many advantages: It’s quick-drying and insulates even if it gets wet. It’s less expensive than down-filled bags, it’s durable (stands up to roughhousing kids and dogs) and it’s nonallergenic. However, synthetic insulation doesn't pack down as small as down, so it's less versatile if you plan to use your bag for backpacking also.

Goose-Down Insulation

Offered in some camping bags, it provides a more durable and compressible alternative to synthetic fill but features a slightly higher pricetag.

Water-Resistant Down Insulation

The downside of down is that it loses its insulating power when it gets wet. To help alleviate the problem, some sleeping bags feature down that has been treated to protect the feathers from moisture.