So exactly how did we test? In part, we took a massive road trip to Utah's five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. If you haven't already seen these beautiful parks for yourself, we suggest you add them to your bucket list.
We put these camping bags to the test as we've never done before. In fact, unfortunately for us, we hardly played at all. The majority of our national parks visit was spent nit-picking apart every inch of these bags to discover which one truly is the best overall traditional sleeping bag.
During our trip, we put these bags through several side-by-side comparisons in four specific areas: warmth, comfort, features, and packed size. We decided warmth to be our number one measurement and packed size our smallest concern, with comfort and features landing equally in the middle. We ran tests during the day and slept in them each night in temperatures that varied from 50 degrees down to 20 degrees. Sure our opinions are important, but we decided to find out if what our guts told us could be backed up by a little bit of science. Here's a breakdown of how we tested each bag.
As fun as cool features and gadgets can be, nothing takes the place of having your toes (and the rest of you) nice and toasty on a chilly night. That's why our testing metrics gave warmth the most weight of the four measurements we examined.
We wanted to see if our perception of each bag's warmth corresponded to measurements we gathered with a laser thermometer. In the early evening, we stacked all of the bags outside on top of the picnic table. We left them there for several hours, to allow the bags to cool down to the outside temperature.
When the temps of the bags reached the air's temperature, we stripped down to just a pair of nylon hiking shorts and stood in the open air for three minutes to allow our body temperature to drop. Then we crawled into the first bag. Resting flat on our back, we placed our feet on opposite sides of the foot box and placed our hands in our pockets with elbows facing out. We felt this position kept our bodies in the most difficult position to retain heat.
After hoping in, we started a 10-minute timer and shivered until we warmed up. During the 10 minutes, we made sure not to move and consciously made mental notes as to the bag's comfort, warmth, and our overall feeling, including how warm our toes felt.
After 10 minutes, we carefully peeked under the bag and took a laser thermometer reading of the top inside liner, just above our stomach. We recorded this temperature and our warmth rating and then stood outside shivering for three minutes before starting the experience over again with another bag. In the end, we were pleased to find that our subjective ratings on how warm we felt matched perfectly with our laser thermometer readings.
Another warmth test included a warm, sandy, desert floor in Arches National Park and seven large blocks of ice. When it comes to thermal insulation, it works the same, whether it's staying warm or cold. It's just like your house. Thermal insulation keeps the inside of your home warm in colder months and cool in warmer months.
We thought we would put this principle to the test with each of our bags by placing a block of ice in each bag for an hour and recording how well each kept in the cool air. In theory, at the end of an hour, the bags with the warmest outer shell temperatures and the coldest interior temperatures would be the best insulators. At the end of an hour, we grabbed our laser thermometer and measured the outside surface temperature of each bag directly over the ice. Then we measured the inside top liner of the bag directly over the ice. Then we rolled the bag over and measured the bottom, exterior temperature of the bag directly below the ice. The bags performed well. All kept ice from melting.
What's the point of being warm if you're miserable all night trying to get comfortable? After all, isn't the whole idea of car, tent or trailer camping to have as many of the conveniences of home, while you enjoy the beauty of nature?
That's why we chose mostly roomier rectangular bags for this review and weighted the comfort metric at 25 percent. Here's how we came to our conclusion on how each bag stacked up.
In addition to sleeping in the bags each night and rating each on comfort, we wanted to establish a real baseline to measure each bag. So, with the help of sandstone slabs and hard-packed campground roads, we flopped each bag down without a pad and rolled around for several minutes to get a real idea of the bags natural padding as well as our ease of movement. We rated each bag according to padding, ease of movement, and roominess.
Special features that make the bags unique are just as important as comfort, and that's why we also weighted features at 25 percent of our metric. During our stay in Utah's five national parks, we examined every last feature of every last bag.
The most important feature for us was each bag's resistance to water. This feature directly correlates to our most important metric - warmth. Let's face it — if your bag is wet, you're miserable or worse.
During our stay in Canyonlands National Park, we found several natural, small, sandstone basins that worked perfectly for our water-resistance test. One by one we unzipped the bags and placed them over a natural bowl shape in the sandstone with the exterior shell facing upward.
We then poured 16 ounces of water into the natural bowl and turned on a five-minute timer. We left the standing water in place for the full five minutes or until it had completely penetrated the bag, whichever came first. Results were then recorded and graded on the curve. Those bags that resisted water for the full five minutes received a score of 10.
The best performers in this test were bags with synthetic exterior shells. The worst performers were bags with natural fibers like cotton.
Here are the other features we looked for.
Ease of Cleaning/Washing
Ideally, a sleeping bag should be easy to keep clean by simply washing and drying it in consumer-grade washers and dryers in your own home. Unfortunately, we found that usually wasn't the case. To receive a 10, a bag would be able to be laundered at home in a regular washer and dryer.
Zipper Baffle/Draft Tube
A quality bag should have a quality zipper baffle to protect the user from cold air that can penetrate the micro openings that exist along the entire length of the zipper. To receive a 10, the bag must have a zipper baffle that is thick, with insulation matching or exceeding the insulation of the bag. The baffle must run the entire length of the zipper.
A nice feature for any bag is a quality shoulder baffle that helps to keep body heat from escaping the bag from its main opening. To receive a 10, the shoulder baffle must circle the entire opening of the bag, should have insulation equal to or greater than the overall insulation of the bag, should be adjustable with a drawstring that creates a good even circle when tightened.
Full-Length Zipper/Can the Bag Lay Flat
A nice option for any car camping bag is to open it fully and lay it flat for a picnic or to be used as a comforter.
Velcro Zipper Closure
A nice feature of any car camping bag is the Velcro closure tab at the top of the bag. The tab helps to keep the zipper from pulling open while you sleep. About half the bags in the study had this feature.
Interior Storage Pocket
A nice feature of any bag is an interior storage pocket to store important items such as a cell phone, wallet, or keys. To receive a 10, the pocket must have a Velcro closure, be large enough to fit multiple items, be placed where it won't bother the user, be easy to reach, be a different design or color, so it's easily found.
Can the bag's zipper open from either end? Some users like the bottom of their bag to be open. The bottom foot box zipper should lock securely into place and should have a locator tag on it so it can easily be found and used.
Zipper Quality and Function
Nothing is more annoying than catching the fabric of your bag in the zipper. We zipped and unzipped each bag fully five times, in the same fashion, and counted how many times the zipper caught on the interior fabric. We looked for larger quality zippers with a zipper head that has a reversible handle. The head should have a tab/handle to grab onto and to find the head easily. We also looked to see if the interior of the bag had a protective fabric strip on both sides of the zipper to help prevent snags and tears to the liner.
What type of warranty does the bag come with? Ideally, the bag has a lifetime or limited lifetime warranty. We found some bags only have a limited 5 or 10-year warranty.
Extra Unique Individual Features
Let's face it, when it comes to tent or trailer camping, size doesn't matter. But there are other circumstances when it does.
Can the bag double as a backcountry bag? Some users may have a desire to crossover from car camping to the backcountry, but don't want to splurge on gear for a sport they may only do just once or on a very limited basis.
We studied each bag and rated them from 1 to 10 on whether they could be used in the backcountry. Can the bag legitimately fit into a 75-liter pack or smaller? If not, could they be strapped to the pack with reasonable ease?
Does the bag fit into its stuff sack, and if so, does it fit easily? There's nothing worse than trying to fit a sleeping bag into a stuff sack that's too small. We unpacked and packed each bag into its storage sack five times and then rated them an overall rating of 1 to 10 based on the combined factors of does the bag fit into its stuff sack and, if so, does it do so easily.
Size of stored bag. We already touched on the fact that size doesn't matter when it comes to front country camping. But we were still curious to see how big each bag is when it is stored in its stuff sack. (Who knows, maybe someone out there reading this still drives a Yugo). The smallest bags received a 10, and the remaining bags were then scored on a curve as to their respective size.