Bikepacking is a fulfilling but demanding hobby. Bikepackers go through all sorts of terrain at different temperatures so being a bit picky about gear is probably wise. One essential piece of equipment on a bike packing trip is a sleeping bag.
So let’s dive a bit into what exactly you need to look for in a sleeping bag when you plan to do a couple of overnighters. From a bikepacking viewpoint it shouldn’t be too heavy, easy to strap on your bike and a dry bag would also be nice.
That’s just for packing, there’s way more to it than that. You don’t want to be too warm or too cold and bring the right type of sleeping bag depending on the season and environment.
Features to Look For
There are about 4 important factors to consider when deciding on which bikepacking sleeping bag us right for you:
- Temperature rating: It would be best to choose from bags that are officially rated using EN/ISO standards. Pick one rated somewhat less than the lowest temperatures you expect on your trips.
- Insulation type: This boils down to synthetic versus down. We will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Weight: This refers to bag shape and insulation quality. They are huge factors when purchasing a sleeping bag. When you contrast weights, do ensure that you do so across bags whose temperature ratings are the same.
- Other features: These are the miscellaneous factors that might make the sleeping bag more suited to your personal needs. These include pad compatibility, stash pockets, adjustment features, and more.
But first, a clarification: camping and backpacker sleeping bags are not the same. They differ in three general ways. Bikepacking Sleeping bags require bags that:
- pack or roll up smaller,
- are lighter
- are more effective in that they supply more warmth per unit mass.
Understanding temperature ratings
Temperature rating refers to how well a sleeping bag can keep a typical user warm given its design. You can find broad guidelines that depend on the season below.
|Bag Kind||Temperature Rating (in °F)|
Temperature Rating Standardization
A great rule of thumb you should follow is that you choose a bag whose temperature rating is below the minimum temperature that you might encounter. That is, if you’re going sleeping bag backpacking to climes with temperatures close to freezing, then go not for a 35 °F sleeping bag but a 20 °F one. Anyway, if the weather is hotter than you anticipated, you can unzip the bag to prevent you from overheating.
It’s wonderful that standardization helps you compare bags across the board, but it’s key that you still try to understand the terms associated with the ratings. There isn’t any going around it if you want to have a great pick. This subject can get involved, but we pared it down to the essentials.
EN or ISO temperature rating means that you can compare bikepacking bags with reliability. This works even when comparing across different brands. (Side note: EN and ISO ratings are nearly the same. ISO is more recent compared to EN, but these two tests remain comparable.)
With EN/ISO testing, a sleeping bag may be assigned a few temperature readings:
- Upper limit: This is the temperature where an average male can slumber without much perspiration. This is measured with arms out of the bag’s confines and with its zippers and hood open.
- Comfort: This is the temperature where an average female can slumber comfortably.
- Lower limit: This is the temperature where an average male can slumber in a fetal position for 8 hours without waking up.
- Extreme: This is the lowest temperature where an average female can rest for 6 hours without risking termination by hypothermia. Note that frostbite may still occur.
Take these ratings with a grain of salt. For one, unfortunately, not all brands are clear about whether they subscribe to EN/ISO standardization when describing their own ratings. Or they may be deliberately vague. Supposedly, most temperature ratings mean their lower limit, although some others may be referring to the comfort zone.
For another, so much of sleeping bag bikepacking depends on other factors. There are assumptions about equipment, habitat, and health. Regarding equipment, these ratings were determined with the assumption that the user would also have a protective thermal underwear layer, a tent, and a sleeping pad. Regarding habitat, the real feel of the temperature varies with things like humidity, wind, altitude, and other natural factors.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, regarding health—your temperature endurance will rely heavily on nutrition, hydration, metabolism, and more. Equipment is hardly any guarantee for safety when your own body is compromised. Which is why in the end, consider temperature ratings as guides but not guarantees.
Considering Insulation Types
In brief—The next key step to unlocking the best sleeping bags suitable for your needs is the insulation. It all boils down to two kinds, synthetic or insulation. The table below is a rough summary of the largest differences between these two fills.
|Type of Insulation||Key Features|
Excellent in dry, cold conditions
|Synthetic||Insulates even when wet
Whichever insulation you end up choosing, do know that plenty of design considerations weigh in as these bags are designed. Insulation distribution between the outer shell and the lining of the bag greatly affects thermal retention. In brief, synthetic fills tend to put together batting formed into sheets, while down fillings are more varied and convoluted in their approach. Your goal will be to achieve an even spread of filling around to avoid chilly spots.
In-depth—If you require a deeper discussion of the differences between the two so that you’re sure to optimize your sleeping bag bikepacking, here they are:
Down insulation typically runs at prices higher than synthetic insulation. This is for good reason, as they tend to be more compressible and lightweight. They can also withstand more wear and tear than synthetics, so they’re able to deliver more consistent and reliable thermal regulation through the years.
One term that commonly pops up when discussing down is “fill power.” What could this mean? In simple terms, it informs users on down quality. Higher numbers mean that the down fill lofts or aerates higher so that it can generate more warmth. The most expensive down-filled bags tend to possess the highest grade for fill powers—say closer not to 500 but to 800.
On the other hand, synthetic insulation delivers great performance at prices that are more affordable. This choice may be preferable for you if you don’t expect to encounter extreme weather, anyway. Plus, unlike down, synthetics can insulate even when they get wet, so they’re the fill of choice if you will be sleeping bag bikepacking to damp climates.
Synthetic fills are sold by a broad range of brands. Most of them are composed of polyester. Their downside though is that they have no metric similar to down’s fill power. This means that backpackers may have difficulty comparing across brands.
Finally come the synthetic/down blends, which are pretty much what the name suggests. They’re designed with down above, so they loft better, and synthetic insulation below, so the bag doesn’t compress too much. But the advantages of this hybrid are lost when it’s rolled on its side.
Tackling Misconceptions About Sleeping Bag Mass
The main contributors to sleeping bag weight are shape and insulation. The more efficient the insulation is, using fills such as specialized downs and advanced synthetics, the greater the thermal retention per unit mass. Since a sleeping bag needs more insulation in order to have a minimal temperature rating (meaning that it’s warmer), you should remember to compare bag weights across bags with similar temperature rating.
Another thing you should beware is that insulation fill mass is not the same as bag weight. Bag weight includes the weights of insulation fill, liner, outer shell, and whatever additional features your bag may have. Another misconception is that some refer to insulation fill mass as a shorthand for temperature rating because they reason that more fill mass means more warmth. That isn’t true. The better gauge for warmth is still temperature rating.
Understanding Sleeping Bag Shapes
The shape of your sleeping bag affects how warm you will feel using it. There are two main categories, mummy and rectangular. Mummy-shaped bags fit more snugly around the contour of your body and reduces airflow to keep you warm. But a natural consequence of this is that you might feel restricted, and when you curl up on your side, the bag rolls with you.
On the other hand, rectangular-shaped bags have more room inside. They aren’t as good at keeping you warm because they let more air inside. But they also don’t constrain you as much because of all the space, meaning that you could sleep in more varied positions.
The bottom line is that for sleeping bag bikepacking, there isn’t a bag that works for all seasons and all people. If you intend to bicycle tour, backpack, or hike across different climes and terrains, then the truth is there is no one bag for you that will keep you comfortable all the time. But what you can do is take all these factors into consideration so that you can maximize the use of only one or two bags.
These are what we consider more minor things that may nonetheless make your sleeping bag bikepacking trips more enjoyable. Look through them all so you can gain a rough idea of what’s in the market.
Draft blockers: These refer to draft tubes that run throughout the bag to prevent warmed air from leaving. These may also be positioned near the neck, in which case they’re called draft yokes or collars.
Bag fabric: It can be made with polyester or ripstop nylon. Sometimes, manufacturers treat it with durable water repellent (DWR) to keep moisture from seeping through. On the other hand, lining fabrics are usually softer because of their brushed texture.
Hood: Having a hood for your sleeping bag helps with keeping warm. They can cinch about your head through the use of drawcords. Some of them may even have different drawcords for the opening of the hood and the fit around the neck.
Zipper anti-snag: Snagging your zipper when you handle your bag can add to the wear and tear of the fabric. Some designs have shields around their zippers so that they’re completely protected.
Pad compatibility: Several bags may replace underside insulation with a lip for a separately sold sleeping bad. A similar feature is the addition of pad loops, again so that you can strap a pad to your bag.
Stash pocket: This is a small pocket you can find in the upper half of the sleeping bag. It’s great for keeping items like lip balm or a watch handy.
Pillow pocket: This is a lip in your bag that lets you put clothes inside so you can fashion a pillow. Otherwise, you could also simply have a separate pillow with you.