In this post you’ll learn how to choose the best sleeping bag for cold weather, so you don’t freeze on your next outdoor adventure.
Images of the blazing sun and dry dusty landscapes filled my head as we began a search for camping equipment, more specifically sleeping bags and mats for our 4-month expedition across Africa.
Never in our wildest dreams did we consider that it would be cold during that trip. Not a chance, it doesn’t get cold in Africa. HA!
Well, the joke was on us as we froze our asses off over the first 2 months while we traversed North from Cape Town into Namibia and then headed East to start the climb towards Cairo.
The oversight in proper research and purchase of the best sleeping bag for cold weather left us freezing our tails off for the first two months of our trip.
So much so that we went to the extent of purchasing three extra blankets along the way to supplement our inappropriate gear and attempt to keep warm.
Let me tell you about the time we spent 4 months camping our way through Africa. With the wrong sleeping bags. This is our Moosejaw My Madness story.
How to Choose the Best Sleeping Bag for Cold Weather
Table of Contents
Besides not doing enough research on the weather in southern Africa in July and August, we simply chose sleeping bags based on the following criteria:
Looks – apparently choosing an attractive sleeping bag was important to us
Review Ratings – how did other people feel about the sleeping bags because you couldn’t have someone hating on your new bag
Price – which is a factor I think EVERYONE uses to buy a new sleeping bag
Beyond those three things, we looked at nothing else including temperature ratings. Which now sounds absurd but at the time came down to just plain inexperienced in the task. Don’t be like us! Do your homework.
We learned two key things on that trip when it comes to purchasing gear. Do your research and don’t be so damn cheap. It sounds simple but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Which leads us to our latest quest….
Choosing Gear for Greenland
So now that we have served our penance of shivering nights for ill camping research, we’re a little bit smarter. Bringing us to our current plans to hike the Arctic Circle Train in Greenland this summer.
After doing some research (imagine that!) we learned that we would need to seek out some of the best sleeping bags for cold weather and decide which ones would work for us.
This hike is one of the world’s Top 100 Travel Adventures and traverses 160km of wild Arctic land, literally following the Arctic Circle from the edge of the Greenland Ice Field in Kangerlussuaq and ending on the coast in the town of Sisimiut.
There isn’t any altitude to deal with but the weather is ever-changing and can be wet and cold. Oh and while it’s extremely rare, I’ve heard we should be on the lookout for signs of Polar Bears too.
Needless to say, our chosen gear from our Africa adventures simply won’t make the cut for this grand adventure. So we put together a new set of criteria and set off on the hunt for the right set of sleeping bags.
While you may find this hard to believe, we were not super confident that our old set of criteria would find us the right gear for our upcoming Greenland trip.
This time around we were armed with knowledge, imagine that, and have put together the following list of criteria to not only keep us from shivering but to help you stay warm too!
Without further ado, we give you the best set of criteria for choosing the best sleeping bag for cold weather (ever):
First things first, you need to know what temperature to plan for. Look up your destination, do the research and find out what the weather is like for the time of year you are visiting.
I can’t tell you how many nights I laid awake, shivering in Africa wishing I had done this! With easy access to the internet, this information is very easy to obtain.
With your average overnight temperature in hand, begin your search starting with temperature ratings.
Keep in mind that the listed temperature rating on sleeping bags is typically the lower limit rating, meaning the bag will keep you alive to that temperature but you won’t necessarily have a pleasant night.
Actual comfort ratings in sleeping bags tend to be 10-15° higher than the temperature rating listed.
So what I like to do is add that amount to the listed rating of the sleeping bag and then compare it to the overnight temperature ratings of the destination.
Meaning if your destination low is 30° you wouldn’t go buy a 30° bag because it will really only keep you comfortably warm to 45° unless of course you ‘like’ shivering all night. Subtract 10-15° from 30° and THAT is the temperature rating you should be shopping for to ensure you’ll have comfortable nights.
Temperature Rating Factors to Consider
Of course, the above formula is only going to get you close to your needs. It is impossible to find a sleeping bag that will have the exact temperature rating comfort you need and a number of other factors come into play.
Such as women sleep colder than men, some people sleep hot and some people sleep cold.
Add that to the varying factors of clothing, hydration, nutrition, altitude, tent insulation, sleeping pad insulation and you’ll find it’s impossible to get it exactly right.
Don’t panic though, you still want to choose a bag that is going to keep you comfortable in projected overnight temperatures but be sure to plan accordingly if you know you sleep hot or cold.
Hot sleepers can shed layers at night and forego using a sleeping bag liner to keep the sweat away.
Cold sleepers can plan ahead by packing wool base layers and planning to sleep in a hat, gloves, and jacket for extra warmth. Don’t forget a high-quality sleeping bag liner either.
Sleeping Bag Weight
Let’s be honest, this is a backpacking trip and weight matters. You have to lug this thing around for many days, 10 in our case, and the last thing you want is to feel like you’re carrying around a bunch of bricks.
However, don’t be swindled in the early stages. A warm sleeping bag is going to come with weight so don’t be tempted to gobble up that ultralight bag that’s staring at you on the rack, it won’t cut it and you’re going to freeze!
Instead, look for that sleek, sheepish bag that gives you a balance of warmth, comfort, and weight.
Down vs Synthetic Fill
Not all sleeping bag insulation is created equal, I know, major let down. The two main types of fill are down and synthetic.
Down tends to be more expensive but wins the awards in the important weight category we mentioned above while synthetic can be much cheaper but be bulky and heavy.
As you can see, it’s a complicated trade-off. Personally, I’ll spend money all day to make my pack lighter. If you’ve ever spent days slogging up mountains with a full pack, you’d feel the same way.
If you’re new to this and just can’t bring yourself to heed the advice, well, know that you’ll be earning your stripes the hard way.
Down Fill – sleeping bags tend to last longer and retain their loft better after being repeatedly packed down. The sleeping bags will be more expensive but oh so cuddly after a long day on the trail. Remember that the quality of down varies though, so be sure to look at the fill power of any bag that you are considering. The higher the fill power, the less weight, and better compression you will get from the bag.
Synthetic Fill – the only thing they really have going for them, besides the price tag, is that they perform better when wet. But let’s be realistic, nobody is going to enjoy sleeping in a wet bag, synthetic or not. So my personal opinion is that the extra weight and bulk in these sleeping bags are not worth the trade-off.
Giving in to Mummy Bags
Being in a sleeping bag is all about warming up the space that surrounds you, so if you have a big roomy bag, chances are you’re never going to produce enough heat in a cold environment to warm it up.
Sleeping bags work their magic by using the insulation to trap your body heat in a confined space.
Originally, neither of us could fathom the idea of sleeping in mummy bags. They don’t even look comfortable and the thought of being trapped in the fabric and not being able to move kind of freaks me out. However, don’t knock it until you try it.
The first time I actually tried a mummy bag I could not believe how fast the temperature warmed up when I crawled inside it.
No messing around, no cramming extra blankets around me, no hat, no jacket, and no triple wool socks. It was instant love and I daydreamed about never being cold in my tent again.
We’ve been on several backpacking and camping trips since we camped through Africa and you know what’s been in my backpack every single time since? A mummy sleeping bag.
The Dreaded Price
In giving you all the information above I also need to be realistic that the supreme power of this entire conversation is the almighty dollar. Sleeping bags are not cheap and should be considered an investment (and treated like one).
It’s not uncommon for some of the Holy Grail bags I’ve mentioned – lightweight, high down, mummy bags – to cost upwards of $300-$500USD.
As the price goes down, so does the quality and you need to know that for every price drop you are compromising one or more of the features that will make your sleeping bag perform the best.
With that said, the best you can do is find the very best balance between quality and value that you can afford.
But above all, pay attention to the temperature rating so you’re at lease not shivering your way through an adventure because that’s a total drag. Trust me on that.
Our Chosen Gear
Women’s Marmot Ouray 0
Needless to say, I picked this bag because it’s purple…. Just kidding! This women’s sleeping bag packed the best punch for quality and price for our upcoming adventure in Greenland.
Research told me a 15-degree bag would be sufficient but some people admitted they would have slept better in a 0-degree bag and I wasn’t taking any chances.
The Marmot Ouray 0 is stuffed with loads of water-resistant down meaning it will be lightweight and will compress down easier, ultimately taking up less precious space in my backpack – that also needs to carry 10 days of food.
From the Manufacturer: We filled the Ouray with a water-resistant 650+ fill goose down with down defender piled extra deep around the torso and feet. Numerous innovations and cutting edge technologies, including updated fabric liner, shape and baffle height, create a lightweight, portable environment that’s just begging to be tested in the wild.
- Fold-Down Second Zipper Provides added Ventilation and Easy Access, Main Zipper Anti-Snag Slider reduces Snagging
- Anatomical Wrap-Around Footbox Increases Insulation and Room for Your Feet, More Warmth, and Comfort
- Certified 650 Fill Power Down with Down Defender to Improve Water-Resistance in Wet Conditions
- Women’s Specific Fit – More Insulation in Key Areas
- Nautilus Multi-Baffle Hood
- Down-filled Collar with Easy Access Draw Cord
- Full Length Locking YKK Two Way Zipper with Draft Tube to Reduce Heat Loss
- Internal Stash Pocket and Heater Pocket in Footbox
- Ground-Level Side Seams
- Hood Draw Cord
- Zipper Garage
- Stretch Tricot Baffles
- Two Hang Loops
- Stuff and Storage Sack Included
- Pack Volume: 683.5ci – 11.2 liters
- Weight: 3lbs 10oz (1640g)
Men’s Nemo Sonic 0
David is insanely picky when it comes to gear (I can say that because I’m his wife), so choosing the best sleeping bag for cold weather adventure for him was a bit of a challenge. However, we succeeded.
Enter the Men’s Nemo Sonic 0, the ultimate lightweight, down-filled backcountry camping sleeping bag for men.
From the moment he opened the box he’s been impressed with this bag. We even took it out to the beaches of Lake Superior on a windy day to test it out and he couldn’t believe how it held the heat and blocked the wind.
From the Manufacturer: The Nemo Sonic 0 Sleeping Bag is a zero degree sleeping bag for cold weather sleeps in the mountains. Fish aren’t the only ones with gills these days, as this bag has Thermo Gills™, which helps regulate the internal temperature. Little warm? Open ’em up. A little cold, keep ’em closed. The 850 fill power down delivers the heat while compressing down for space-saving in your pack.
- Winner of a 2015 Backpacker magazine Editors’ Choice Award, Sonic has been praised for being the only bag you really need from 0° F to 40° F
- Adjustable Thermo Gills allow you to control the internal temperature of the bag without letting in cold drafts, extending your comfort range by 20° F or more
- Stretch construction at the knees helps maintain bag shape, thermal efficiency, and loft while offering enhanced volume so you can sleep on your side or with your knees bent
- Stretch construction at the knees offers extra volume for side sleeping but keeps the bag close to your body for thermal efficiency
- Oversized draft collar
- Insotect Flow vertical baffles
- Temperature regulating thermo-gills closed
- Included Accessories: Cotton storage bag, drawstring stuff sack
- Pack Volume: 671.3ci – 11 liters
- Weight: 2lbs 11 oz
Wild Camping – Our Chosen Tent
Lastly, while you need sleeping bags to keep you warm at night, you also need a place to put them and your gear. The Arctic Circle Trail involves a lot of wild camping, so choosing the best sleeping bag for cold weather wasn’t our only challenge.
Enter the task of choosing a tent. Since the weather in Greenland at the beginning of August constitutes what they call ‘summer’ we opted for a stylish – have to look good in photos – yet functional 3 season tent to accompany us on our adventure in the Arctic.
Sierra Designs Sweet Suite 3
One of the things we like to do is keep our gear in our tent with us (Patagonia, foxes, missing snack bags, long story).
It is possible with a 2 person tent but moving the backpacks inside makes it pretty cramped. We still own a 2 person tent but decided to add a 3 person tent to our gear arsenal and this tent made the grade.
It’s insanely lightweight for its size, features doors on both sides and very cool no-see-um mesh, which is my favorite feature of this bad boy. Oh, and it folds up and packs down into Sierra Design’s signature Burrito Bag. Seriously, who doesn’t love burritos?
Without going too far into the science that goes into choosing the perfect tent, we chose this tent for its size, lightweight and space-saving packing features and tight mesh.
- Unique pre-bent pole geometry creates exceptional interior space at a minimum weight
- Two-door and two-vestibule design / provides all the space and convenience you need
- Compact storage size / takes up minimal space in your pack
- Fast and easy setup
- Tent architecture so unique it creates the perfect combination of lightweight, livable space
- Packed Weight: 4lbs 4oz
Disclosure: Thank you to Moosejaw for kindly sponsoring this post. All opinions and cold nights are 100% honest & completely my own.
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