How to Choose the Best Camping Sleeping Bag

How did each bag stack up against each other? We committed hours and hours testing each bag to find out...so you didn't have to.
Article By:
Jason Wanlass
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday
May 24, 2017
Choosing a sleeping bag for car camping or general use can be quite simple. On the most basic level, it needs to be warm enough for a good night's sleep and roomy and comfortable to accommodate the way you like to sleep. Camping bags designed for general use (rather than for backpacking) use heavier, less expensive, and often more comfortable materials.

You're not looking for a bag to keep you warm while you spend your final night clinging to life at Camp 4 (the Death Zone) before you and your Sherpa push your way to the summit of Mount Everest. You're shopping for a traditional sleeping bag — the kind you use to sleep in your camp trailer or tent for a few blissful weekends each year.

What is a camping sleeping bag?


In this review, we tested two basic types of camping bags: 1) Big, rectangular ones that have lots of space to move around inside. These are either built with cozy and durable cotton linings and shells, or synthetic fabrics that are better suited to situations where your bag may get wet. 2) Inexpensive mummy-shaped camping bags that provide reasonable crossover use for the occasional backpacking trip.

If you are choosing a sleeping bag for backpacking trips, warmth relative to weight should be your primary focus. A down-insulated mummy is the most thermally efficient design out there. All the details about loft, insulation types, construction, temperature ratings and all the technical parts aspects are covered in our Backpacking Bag Buying Advice article .

What's the difference between a camping bag and a backpacking bag?


Folks who are backpacking for several days and need to keep the weight light usually choose a slim-fitting, down-insulated, mummy-shaped sleeping bag. The shape is warm but restricting (down right claustrophobic for some) and the price is often upwards of $300. For car camping and occasional backpacking, users typically don't need the benefits that these expensive models offer. On the other hand, the camping bags in this review are all roomy inside and insulated with relatively inexpensive synthetic fibers, making them heavier, but also more comfortable and more affordable.

Shape


Large, rectangular-shaped sleeping bags are the most comfortable, owing to the extra room inside and lack of a confining hood. When we think of comfort (exclusive of warmth) the largest consideration is how much space there is to move around inside a fully zipped bag. Semi-rectangular bags taper the width dimension towards the foot of the bag to save a little weight, but still have wide dimensions through the shoulders and hips. The inexpensive mummy-shaped bags we tested here are still generously cut; they have several inches more girth than the average mummy bag for backpacking.

Camping sleeping bags can be designed with generous, roomy dimensions because weight doesn't matter. A rectangular or semi-rectangular shape has much more room inside for a comfy sleeping experience than the slim-fitting mummy bags designed for backpackers.


The contoured shape of a mummy bag is warmer than a rectangular bag because it reduces the amount of unused space you must keep warm inside the bag. The warmest for the weight bag shapes are those that leave only a small amount of space for you to move around in.

Type of Insulation


Backpacking bags need to be as light as is feasible, and most are insulated with down. Down, the fluffy warm under layer of feathers from geese and more rarely ducks, is the loftiest insulator available, and the warmest for its weight. With all our advances in synthetic fibers, humans have yet to create a synthetic fiber that is as warm for its weight as high quality down. Down has its drawbacks though. It is expensive, but most importantly loses most of its loft and warmth when it gets wet.

The camping bags we tested in this review are insulated with batts of polyester fiber insulation, while technical bags for backpacking generally are insulated with goose down. Down is warmer for its weight, but is more expensive and requires more complicated and therefore expensive construction techniques.


Camping sleeping bags keep you warm by layering batts, or blankets, of polyester fibers to hold in the warmth your body creates. The thickness of the insulation is referred to as the loft. Regardless of the type of insulation, the greater the loft, or thickness, the warmer it will be. In other words, the more insulation you stack up inside the bags inner lining and outer shell, the warmer - and heavier - it's gonna be.

Weight & Packed Size


Synthetic insulation is both bulky and heavy relative to down, and products built for car camping are large when packed for transport. Some of the models we tested weigh more than 10 lbs, but who cares? When car camping you rarely carry your kit more than a couple hundred feet, and being cozy and comfortable is worth the extra weight and bulkiness. A few of the camping bags in this review are just small and light enough to carry on brief backpacking trips. Synthetic insulation can be a good choice for a backpacking bag if you're almost certainly gonna get wet, but will always be heavier and less compressible than a similarly warm down-insulated product.

Camping sleeping bags are heavier than products designed for backpacking, and not nearly as compact when compressed and stowed. Roominess for comfort is a higher design priority than packed size and weight.

Types of Camping Bags


Rectangular Bags with Cotton Materials



Rectangular camping bags: from bottom to top  the Country Squire  Dunnock  Grande  and Conquest. These cotton-lined bags are the roomiest and most comfortable... if you can count on staying dry.
Rectangular camping bags: from bottom to top, the Country Squire, Dunnock, Grande, and Conquest. These cotton-lined bags are the roomiest and most comfortable... if you can count on staying dry.

One of the huge advantages of a camping bag is the option for cotton materials. Backpacking bags do not use cotton because it's heavy, sucks away your warmth if it gets wet, and is slow to dry. But cotton and polyester/cotton blend linings are much cozier than nylon or synthetic linings, and cotton duck shells can be rugged and durable. When camping near the car, there is a low chance your bag will get wet, it's often easy to dry it out if it does, and weight is not an issue. The right cotton lining, whether flannel or standard, can feel like bringing your favorite bed sheets to the outdoors. These bags are great for car camping and use around the house.

The Country Squire and Grande are the warmest two bags we tested, good for temperatures below freezing. They have significantly thicker insulation, and the warmest construction technique for batts of synthetic insulation, layered offset quilting, where one layer of insulation is sewn to the shell fabric, and an inner layer is sewn to the lining, creating a warmer bag for the weight. These bags both have rugged cotton shell fabrics.

The Dunnock and Conquest both have cozy flannel liners, but far less insulation than the other two. Both use sewn-through construction, which means that the stitching that secures the synthetic insulation passes through all layers of the bag: shell, insulation, and lining. This is the fastest and most cost effective construction technique, but it's also the least efficient at keeping you warm. These two bags are best suited for temps around 40 or higher.

Rectangular Bags with All Synthetic Materials


These bags incorporate the roomy, rectangular shape, but include only synthetic shell and lining fabrics that are more functional if wet, and lighter than cotton.

Synthetic shell and lining fabrics aren't as comfy next to your skin as cotton, but soak up little moisture and are lighter than cotton. While it's often easy to stay dry when car camping, this isn't always the case in rainy areas or on extending car camping trips far from civilization. When you hang a damp bag during the day, these models will dry out much faster than a product with a cotton lining and shell. Gonna be out there for a week that threatens to be rainy, far from the laundromat? We recommend a bag with all synthetic materials.

The Callisto's rectangular dimensions are several inches narrower than the other rectangular bags we reviewed, making it warmer for the weight. For average sized campers, it's still plenty roomy, and best suited for nights in the 30s and 40s. The Celsius XL has similar loft even though the nominal rating is lower, and is similar in warmth. The Celsius is notable for its soft, brushed polyester lining. The Mavericks 30 is one of the least warm products we tested, and makes a great summer bag. The tapered, semi-rectangular shape also makes it one of the lightest and most compact models we reviewed.

Synthetic Mummy Bags


We did test a few generously cut, inexpensive mummy bags that can be great for car camping. Some campers just sleep like a rock, and don't mind the close confines of a mummy bag. These are good, affordable options for short backpacking trips as well.

As we discussed above, the mummy shape is the most efficient for retaining warmth with the minimum of insulation and fabrics. While we feel roomy, rectangular bags are far more comfy when weight and bulk don't matter, some folks do want a single, affordable, sleeping bag they can take everywhere, including infrequent backpacking trips.

The Crescent Lake is the warmer of the two mummies we tested, and the Bozeman Flame is a little roomier. With a warm draft collar, the Crescent Lake can keep you warm enough in the 20's, but both bags are best suited to temps in the mid 30's and up.

Understanding Temperature Ratings


If you're asking yourself, "What do the temperature ratings on these bags actually mean?" you are not alone. Does a product with a rating of zero degrees mean I can comfortably sleep outside when it is zero degrees? In our tests, we find not. The majority of the products we tested here are not as warm as their manufacturers claim. When minimal clothing is worn to bed, most are best suited for use when the nighttime minimum temperature is about 20 degrees warmer than the bag's rating.

20 Degree Rule
When selecting a camping sleeping bag, we recommend purchasing a product with a temperature rating 20 degrees or so colder than the expected minimum overnight temperatures. For example, the Slumberjack Country Squire 0 and the Wenzel Grande 0 are best suited when overnight temperatures reach down into the high teens.

In most cases, you'll need to wear lots of warm clothes to bed inside the bag if temperatures dip close to the stated rating. The individual reviews for each product we tested detail what we found to be the lowest comfortable temperature and the upper range of comfort. While you don't want to be too cold to sleep, sweating inside a bag too warm for the conditions is also not good. With camping bags, following the 20 degree rule, and wearing more warm clothing if it is colder, provides the largest temperature range for comfortable use as the seasons change.

Some technical sleeping bags (not like the ones in this review) will have a set of temperature ratings based on the European Norm 13537 standardized test of sleeping bag warmth. Many manufacturers invest in having their bags' warmth tested by an approved lab in Europe, but not all. Real world testing, where we can consider how much clothing is worn, and how products are most commonly used, provides us the best information for describing the range of temperatures a sleeping bag will keep most users comfortably warm in.

If you need a seriously warm bag (and have a seriously generous budget), consider checking out our review of the best winter bags.

Should I consider a double bag?


We noted in our review of these bags that several are large enough for two folks to squeeze into together. Two average sized people fit into the Country Squire no problem, but you're gonna be snuggling all night whether you like it or not. If you want to regularly share your camping sleeping space, we recommend two bags zipped together. The main reason we love inexpensive camping bags so much is the generous, roomy interior. And the best way to have plenty of space for two people to snuggle when they want, but claim their own sleeping space when they need it, is two rectangular bags zipped together.

A Wenzel Grande zipped together with a Wenzel Conquest makes an enormous flannel lined bed for two, and switching between the heavier or lighter bag on top adjusts for a side temperature range. However, zipping two of these large rectangular bags together almost creates too much room inside when it's cold out (there can be big empty cold air spaces). Our favorite two bag combo for couples is the Kelty Callisto Doublewide. A single rectangular Callisto is several inches narrower than other rectangular models, and two zipped together - doublewide - provide just the right amount of room for two folks to have their own space, without lots of extra empty space.

Morning stretching on the soft linings of the Wenzel Grande. The Grande and Conquest complement each other well  and in addition to making great blankets  can be zipped together to make a giant flannel-lined mega bag.
Morning stretching on the soft linings of the Wenzel Grande. The Grande and Conquest complement each other well, and in addition to making great blankets, can be zipped together to make a giant flannel-lined mega bag.

Laundering Tips


A major plus for sleeping bags with synthetic insulation is ease of laundering. Down insulated products need to be washed with down specific detergent and are a pain to dry and re-loft. Camping bags - no problem — just unzip and throw them in the washer and dryer like any other bulky garment. A large front-load washer is the best choice, rather than a machine with an agitator.

These bulky bags take a while to dry. Ideally you'll do your washing on a warm and sunny day and hang the bag out to dry, but synthetic bags can also go right into the dryer, no special tricks needed. While you can dry the cotton shelled products on high heat, medium heat is a better choice across the board. Especially with synthetic shelled bags, you should use medium heat and keep an eye out to make sure the liner and shell don't get melting hot before the insulation dries. We'll usually throw the bag straight into the dryer after the washer for a short cycle and then hang it outside in the sun.

The final step for a completely dry bag, ready for storage or to travel, is a two part cycle in the dryer. First completely zip the bag up and give it ten minutes of medium heat. Stop the cycle, turn the bag inside out, and give in a final ten minutes. It can be difficult to tell if the insulation is completely dry because the shell and lining materials dry quickly. This final "go at it from both sides with the heat" assures you have a ready for storage, completely dry sleeping bag.

So much cozy space to sleep in  and easy to throw in the washer and dryer when needed. We've been converted... we take a roomy  cozy bag for car camping.
So much cozy space to sleep in, and easy to throw in the washer and dryer when needed. We've been converted... we take a roomy, cozy bag for car camping.

Do you like to be warm at night?


Of course you do. So look at the bag's temperature rating and buy a bag that fits into the temperature range of the places and seasons you plan to camp in. If you hate the snow and never plan to camp during colder months, don't buy a 0-degree bag — you don't need the insulation. Quite the same, if you love desert or warm weather camping, don't buy a 0-degree bag — it will be too hot.

Side note


Look up the temperature rating on the bag you want and add 10 to 20 degrees. Most likely, that's the real comfort zone for the bag if you're sleeping in just your underwear… Most manufacturers base their warmth rating on you wearing long underwear, a sweat shirt, or footie pajamas or something.

Do you like to be comfortable when you sleep?


Um…Duh. Of course you do! Car camping is all about conveniences. And one of those conveniences is your not constrained to size, like you would be if you're planning to backpack the Pacific Coast Trail.

So splurge on size and weight!

Rectangle bags are the most comfortable because they provide the most space. Make sure you look at the size of the bag before you buy it. Nothing is worse than feeling wrapped like a burrito all night in a bag that's too small. I'm 6 feet 5 inches, and I'm not what you would consider thin. I'm only comfortable in the largest bags like the Wenzel Grande or Slumberjack Country Squire 0. So take time and do the math. Figure out what size you need and make sure you research the dimensions of a bag before you spend your money. If you don't have the time or opportunity to test the bag first, get the dimensions of the one you want to buy and make one out of newspaper or an old sheet or something else to see if you'll fit.

Don't just go big to go big. We totally respect the "go big or go home" mentality, but bigger bags have more interior space to heat. Make sure you don't buy a bag that is WAY too big for your body type or your body will fight all night to heat parts of the bag that don't need to be heated. Keep this idea in mind when buying a bag for kids.

Conclusion


That's about it folks… Stay warm and stay comfortable. It's about as simple as that. We hope our advice will help you in your quest for the ultimate car-camping sleeping bag.

…Huh?


What was that you said? Not enough?

You're and over-achiever and even though you won't be reaching the summit of Everest anytime soon, you still want that feeling that you've researched as if you're headed to Nepal next week?

Okay, we'll give you some more to think about, the rest of you who don't care, can go mow your lawn or something.

Do you want feathers or man-made stuff?


Hands down, in my opinion, goose down is better, lighter and the most effective insulator when it comes to sleeping bags. That being said, I really don't think they're worth it for car-camping. But, if you're going to pursue a down bag anyway, good luck. There aren't very many rectangular, goose-down, car-camping bags on the market.

If you can find a down bag, I personally recommend going big (in price), and small (in feathers). What I mean is, I would only buy a bag will 700 fill or higher (the higher the fill number, the smaller the feathers). Smaller feathers are better insulators, are lighter, dry faster, and are much more durable, because they're too small to break apart when you violently shove your bag into its stuff sack.

In the end, you'll most likely decide to just save your dough and buy a synthetic-fill bag for car camping anyway. They're cheaper, can be just as warm, and you won't have to worry every time someone spills something or steps on your $750, 900-fill, car-camping bag…

So you're Type-A and you're NOT going to take my advice on buying a car-camping bag that uses synthetic insulation… The answer is YES, when wet, down loses its ability to insulate. Down can also be affected if you're camping in really humid areas. Personally, I feel that if you're bag is THAT wet, you're going to be spending a miserable night in the great outdoors — whether your bag has synthetic fill or down fill.

As if you're still going to try and get a good night's sleep in a sopping-wet bag because you were told that "it has synthetic fill and synthetic fill insulates even when wet?"

Come on… you're car-camping.

What will most likely happen is the theater in your mind is going to vividly imagine that your situation is just as serious as trying to stay alive at Everest Camp 4. Then you'll gather every ounce of gumption you have…
and run to the car, jump inside and sleep in the front seat with the heater on.

So the ball is kind of in you're court. If you want to drop tons of money on a down-filled, car-camping bag to take to Jellystone, go ahead. If you can find one.

You still want more?


Of course you do! Here's a list of other stuff you may want to look for. But trust me, when it comes to car-camping, warmth and comfort trumps all.
  • Does the bag have an interior pocket for your keys or cell phone?
  • Does the bag unzip all the way so you can lay it flat for a picnic or zip it to another bag and make one big bag for you and your sweetheart? (Two days in the woods without a shower… I'll pass on that one).
  • Does the bag have two zipper heads, so you can unzip the foot box and keep your feet cool? (personally ever done that. Ever.)
  • Is the bag water-resistant? Most natural fiber bags, like the Wenzel Grande or the Slumberjack Country Squire 0 are not. Most synthetic fiber bags are. That being said, please refer to the section above where I discuss your bag being soaked and you running to your car to sleep in the front seat.
  • Does the bag have a draft tube along the full length of the zipper? Basically, it keeps cool air from penetrating the tiny holes in the zipper.
  • Does the bag easily fit into its stuff sack? Next to warmth and comfort, this is my next important factor in any bag. There's nothing I hate more than wrestling with a sleeping bag on the morning you're packing up to leave.
  • What kind of warranty does the bag have?
  • Where is the bag made?
  • What is the price? In our experience, we found excellent car-camping bags that are super warm and super comfortable for $100 or less.



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