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 affected 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 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 are only 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 several multi-day backpacking trips, go with a down bag because it will be lighter for its warmth. If you are on a multi-week journey 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 useful 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 crucial factors in a 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 backyard or going to the campground for the weekend, consider checking out the 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, let's just acknowledge that everyone's bodies are different and many factors 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 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 significantly 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.
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 are shaped differently than men, so manufacturers also cut their bags differently for women's models. We have discovered that although manufacturers make the hip girths slightly larger (an average of 2 inches wider), the shoulder girths are much smaller (an average of 2-6 inches less), creating smaller volume bags all around. This results in models that fit females better, have more insulation, and will ultimately keep its occupant warmer and more comfortable.
Unfortunately, possibly because of the extra insulation, the women's bags we tested are not any lighter than the men's versions. In fact, most of the bags are the same weight as corresponding men's bags. Even our Editors' Choice winner, the women's Rab Neutrino 400, is only 0.2 oz lighter than the men's. So, unfortunately, weight savings is not a benefit of getting a women's bag like it is with Women's Sleeping Pads.
This year we have noticed a trend of fewer high quality women's bags to choose from, especially from Mountain Hardwear, who has taken their top of the line women's bags (Phantasia and Ultra Laminina) off the market and replaced them with sub-par models, such as the Mountain Hardwear Heratio 15 and the Mountain Hardwear Laminina Z Flame.
There is an unfortunate phenomenon that we call "shrink it and pink it" that happens with some women's gear, meaning the manufacturer has not put any real thought into how to make a product work better for a woman. So who has done their research and created a great women's bag and who has not? Read on to find out!
Selecting the Right Bag For You
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of bags on the market, and all are made for different purposes and sold at different price points. OutdoorGearLab has tested almost a hundred of these bags for different activities over several years. The bags in this review are women's specific, typically mummy style, and predominantly for backpacking and/or car camping. Keep reading to find out more about the considerations you should think about when checking out the bags we tested.
Are you going to be carrying this bag on your back for many days in a row, or will you be throwing it in your boat or car? The weight of your bag is an important factor when choosing a contender, but not so much for activities where you're not carrying it. The Rab Neutrino is the best bag to be carrying for extended backpacking trips, but we may go with the Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed or The North Face Cat's Meow when on shorter trips because they are so comfortable.
Down or Synthetic? The age-old question. Down insulation is typically lighter, more durable, and more compressible, but will lose its loft, and therefore, a significant amount of its warmth, when it gets wet. Synthetic insulation tries to solve the problem of wet down and maintains its loft when wet. It is typically heavier, less durable, and bulkier than down insulation, but usually significantly less expensive. All of the down bags in this review have some water resistant or "hydrophobic down" coating to compete with synthetic bags. Hydrophobic down has been treated with a waterproofing treatment that tries to create the perfect solution to all insulation's problems. Each manufacturer has its proprietary version of hydrophobic down treatment. The insulation is still down, so it is light and compressible, but supposedly it is more resilient to moisture and helps the down maintain its loft longer. The verdict is still out on this technology, but more and more companies are using it in their products.
In general, the synthetic bags in this review are at a disadvantage when it comes to the rating metrics since they are all inherently bulkier and heavier — we highly prefer down sleeping bags overall, and if you can afford it, would recommend going with down. They are warmer, lighter and more durable over time; in short, a worthy investment.
Some manufacturers are moving towards bags with no insulation on the backside of bags in place of sleeves for sleeping pads to slot in. The thought behind this is that when a bag is laid on, the loft of the insulation is being compressed and is therefore ineffective. By removing the insulation along the backside, the weight is reduced, and you are meant to be insulated from the ground by your sleeping pad. The Big Agnes Roxy Ann and the Backcountry Bed both have this feature. We are not sold on these sleeping systems and think they can sometimes lead to a colder, more uncomfortable sleep.
Caring for your Sleeping Bag
You are making a significant investment in your new bag, and it should be able to last you for several years. Most manufacturers provide some cotton or mesh storage sack with your bag, as it is essential to store it fully lofted when you're not carrying it around. This helps with the longevity of your investment. Keeping the down compressed damages it over time and even more so with synthetic fibers. The more you compress synthetic fibers, the more it breaks down, resulting in less loft each use. This means that ultimately a down bag is more durable and will retain its loft and warmth more over time.
The best thing you can do for your down bag is to wash it once and a while. When down gets dirty, it does not loft up as much and will not keep you as warm. When you wash your bag, be sure to use a front loading washing machine and use a detergent made for cleaning technical down; materials like Nikwax Down Wash can be used to rejuvenate your down bag. Don't be afraid to throw your bag in the dryer. Get yourself two or three clean tennis balls and toss them in there with it to break up the clumps of down and tumble until it is totally dry. You will be amazed at how much loftier your bag will be after a good wash. Washing your synthetic model is even simpler and will help it with its loft as well. Doing these few things will help the longevity and ensure you get the best value from your investment.
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 primary factor, and this can be modified in three ways. The first is to resize the bag to fit a woman's, on average shorter, frame. Women's bags are also cut differently to fit a women's form better - 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 models 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 more down in it per square inch — making it warmer. The EN rating system also helps to initially determine if the bag is 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 women's version of the Cat's Meow from The North Face bag has extra insulation in the foot box and hood to keep ladies' icicle feet toasty. The REI Joule 21, Heratio, and Marmot Angel Fire all have extra insulation in heat loss areas for women.
The bottom line is that there is a lot less selection in women's specific bags. If you are looking for a very specialized type of bag, like an ultralight quilt for fastpacking, or have a specific brand you really love, you might have to go for a unisex bag — but make sure that it is one that fits you and isn't too big! Regardless, the principles for buying a sleeping bag for a woman (even if you're buying a unisex one) are the same. Decide what you want it for, what materials you prefer, and how much you want to pay. Then, get one that fits you properly and is warm enough — potentially with extra insulation in strategic locations.