A sleeping bag is one of the "Big Three" items that, as a backpacker, will have the most impact on your backpacking experience (along with your backpack and shelter). It will affect the weight of your pack and how well you sleep — which both effect how efficient and energized you will be. The more you can do upfront to choose the right bag for your needs, the better your experience will be in the long run. In this article we will attempt to help you make the best choice for that big purchase and discuss why a women's specific bag may be the best choice for you.
There is a lot to know about sleeping bags in general. You need to consider what you will really be using yours for — are you trying to break speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail, or are you just doing short overnight trips with friends? The lighter and more high tech your bag is, the more expensive it will be. If you will only be car camping in warm climates, you don't need to worry about weight as much, but instead could purchase the most comfortable bag or least expensive bag on the market. If you are in the market for the lightest bag you can find, learn about the bags we evaluated in our The Best Ultralight Sleeping Bag Review.
Consider what fill material you want your bag to have. If you are not going to be doing much wet weather camping or plan on a several multi-day backpacking trips, go with a down bag because it will be lighter for its warmth. If you will be on a multi-week trip on the coast in November, consider going with synthetic since it stays warmer when wet than down. Synthetic bags are also less expensive, and can be good budget options. However, now with new hydrophobic down technology, getting your down sleeping bag wet is slightly less of an issue and many manufacturers are using this treated down in their bags.
Other things to consider would be how warm your bag needs to be, if you will be winter camping or on a high altitude expedition you should get a bag that is appropriate for that activity, probably rated to zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower — none of which are in the women's review. We discuss these important factors in the separate buying advice article.
Also consider what shape and style will work best, and what features you want. If you or your children are just camping out in the back yard or going to the campground for the weekend check out our Best Camping Sleeping Bag Review. But if you're hopping on the John Muir Trail for three weeks, you'll probably want a lightweight backpacking sleeping bag like one of the down bags in our Women's Review or something from the Best Backpacking Sleeping Bag Review. Features we like are stash pockets, draft collars and soft liner materials.
Why Do Women Sleep Colder?
First off, lets just acknowledge that everyone's bodies are different and there are many factors that affect our internal temperatures, including diet, age, fitness, and how much sleep we typically get. It is, however, common knowledge that women tend to feel colder more often than men, and this is especially true when it comes to sleeping outdoors. It's not because we're wimpier. Believe it or not, it's because we have more evenly distributed body fat. We have a layer of fat on our bodies that men do not — that's why our skin has a softer feel and look overall.
Because of this wonderful fat layer, women are actually better at moderating body temperatures and conserving heat than men. The problem is, when keeping the core heated, the body pulls warm blood away from the hands and feet. Extremity temperatures vary greatly when compared to internal organs, and this in turn dictates how hot or cold we feel. Women tend to get cold extremities more often, and therefore feel colder. But you know how the saying goes ladies, cold hands = warm heart.
Female Specific Features
Now that we know a little more about women's physiology, it may seem more obvious what to look for in a women's specific bag. Many manufacturers are starting to get it too, although there are still some companies out there who unfortunately just "shrink it and pink it" to make their products female specific.
When it comes to differences between men's and women's sleeping bags, the warmth of the bag is the main factor, and this can be modified in three ways. The first is to resize the bag to fit a woman's frame. Typical women's specific bags are made to fit a woman who is about 5'6",while a men's regular is made to fit a 6 foot to 6'2" man. Women's bags are also cut differently to better fit a women's form - they are a bit wider in the hips (an average of 2 inches) and narrower in the shoulder (an average of 2-6 inches less). A better fit will help your body warm the air inside the bag more efficiently. If your bag is too large, your body won't be able to warm up all that air quickly, leaving you cold– so get a bag that fits you. We like the traditional mummy fit of the Mountain Hardwear Heratio and the Rab Neutrino 400 — Women's.
Secondly, look for a bag that has more insulation. Many women's bags have more insulation in them than the same model in the men's version. The Rab Neutrino has the same amount of down in its women's version as the men's, but it is a much smaller volume bag, meaning there is actually more down in it per square inch — making it warmer. The EN rating system also helps to initially determine if the bag is actually the right temperature. The first comfort rating temperature is meant to represent the temperature at which a woman would find the bag comfortable.
Thirdly, as we mentioned above, women feel colder because their hands and feet are colder. Some manufacturers have realized this too, and decided to be strategic about where they put the extra insulation: the feet. For example, The North Face Cat's Meow 22 - Women's bag has extra insulation in the foot box and hood to keep ladies' icicle feet toasty. The REI Joule, Heratio and Marmot Angel Fire all have extra insulation in heat loss areas for women.