Sleeping Gear Guide

A decent night’s sleep after a long day on the trail is one of life’s rich rewards, but how do you guarantee eight hours of relaxation, at just the right temperature, on a mat that protects your back against rocks and with a pillow that doesn’t give you a permanent crick in the neck? Sounds like a hard decision? Not really, just so long as you don’t expect the bag to keep you comfy half way up Mt Everest and in a London YHA, weigh less than a kilo and take up no room in your bag at all!


Of course, the sort of mat that you are sleeping on and the pillow that you choose to use both make a difference to how comfy your nights sleep will be. But let’s first consider perhaps the most important piece of kit you’ll ever buy – your sleeping bag. Every sleeping bag manufacturer has two important fundamental decisions to make when they design a sleeping bag. First, what sort of insulating material to use (synthetic or down), and secondly what sort of design construction best suits the market.

Down or Synthetic Fill?

This is a big question and worth thinking about. Essentially, down gives a much better warmth-to-weight ratio so it will pack down smaller than a synthetic bag of an equivalent temperature. It is also more comfortable and hypoallergenic when kept clean. The main downside is the price, which continues to rise and is beginning to make bulkier synthetic bags a more attractive option.


The other negative aspect of down used to be that it would collapse when wet, reducing its insulation capability to zero, whereas synthetics will still insulate to some degree after a thorough soaking. However, all that has changed with the advent of water-repellent down - a tretment applied to the down that makes it shed water like the coating of a rain jacket without appreciably reducing the loft. As a consequence most manufacturers have switched to DWR down but the treatment should not be regarded as a substitute for waterproof shells (see below).


The other advantage of synthetic fills is their durability. They can better withstand rough treatment and repeated wetting & drying, so are often a better option for global travellers who may not know where they'll end up sleeping on a given night. Being a single-extruded fibre, they will not leak from the bag in the event of a tear, like fine down will.


The quality of down is measured by its 'loft' rating - a numerical figure representing how much air it will trap and thus its warmth (the insulation properties of any fibre are the result of the trapped air which can be heated up by the human body). Finer, quill-free down, whether it be duck or goose, has a higher loft value (with the maximum current figures coming in at around 850 to 900) and a bag using a higher loft will not have to use so much of it so the resultant bag will be lighter.


It is harder to gauge to thermal efficiency of synthetic materials but accross-the-board temperature regulation was standardised with the introduction of European Standard EN13537 in 2005. This is a standard laboratory test which determines the temperature rating of a sleeping bag by using a mannequin furnished with heat patches. Any bag submitted to the test will be given a four part temperature rating consisting of upper limit, comfort, lower limit and extreme. The most commonly quoted temperature for a bag would normally be its lower limit i.e. a -5°C bag would be comfortable to -5, but may keep you alive down to -18°C.


It is important to remember that this is only a relative scale and many other factors will influence the temperature to which your bag is effective, including your own metabolism, your recent food intake and any thermal clothing you may be wearing. On that note, be wary of wearing too much inside your bag in an effort to increase warmth - your body will waste energy in heating up those layers. In this case, less is more. Limit yourself to wool thermals, socks and a beanie if possible.

Bag Design & Construction

Before considering technical construction issues it is important to get inside the bag and make sure that it fits around you properly. The ideal bag should minimise redundant airspace, and neck baffles and the hood should fit snugly. There are two very different types of specialty sleeping bag designs:

Tapered Rectangular

Imagine a rectangle shape and then trim the corners down on one end so that it becomes noticeably slimmer than the other end. The hood of the bag goes at the wider end of the rectangle. This shape is moderately thermally efficient, allows some leg movement, and can generally be opened out into a duvet.

Mummy Shaped

Imagine an Egyptian mummy and there you have it - a sleeping bag that completely surrounds you with no excess room inside. It moves with you as you turn and follows the contours of your body to provide maximum thermal efficiency.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, synthetic bags are commonly of a tapered rectangular design and down bags are a mix of designs, although nearly all high loft down bags are a mummy design. The bottom line is, if maximum warmth for minimum weight is your preference, go with a mummy. However, if versatility and comfort are more important then consider a tapered rectangular sleeping bag.


The longer the zip, the more versatility the sleeping bag will offer. Improved ventilation on warmer nights, the option to open the sleeping bag right out like a doona, even the ability to zip together two similar sleeping bags to make a double on those cold, lonely nights… Most bags come with the option of left side or right side zips and if looking to join the bags together, you’ll need one of each.


Zips usually have an insulated ‘draft tube’ running along the inside of the zip to reduce heat loss, but the trade off is that a sleeping bag with a full length zip and insulated tube will be just a little heavier than one with a shorter zip. Traditionally, mummy shaped bags will have a shorter zip for weight saving and thermal efficiency, while semi rectangular bags have full zips for versatility.


Most footboxes are rounded or fairly flat but some specialist bags may have an inclined foot which is designed to follow the natural angle of the foot when lying down. This ensures maximum warmth for weight. Other bags have special baffling in the footbox to prevent cold spots occurring from toes pushing against the end of the bag.


Protrusions such as toes, knees, elbows and shoulders can push into the inner of the bag, shifting the down away and creating cold spots. To counter this, manufacturers place insulation into ‘sleeves’ or baffles, which are created either by sewing in mesh panels between the inner and outer shell, or by sewing the inner and outer together (sewn-through design).


The baffled version usually incorporates fine mesh panels which form a wall between the inner and outer. The degree of thermal efficiency needed will determine the type of panel wall used, eg vertical walls are known as box wall baffles, but slant walls are better and trapezoidal baffles are the most thermally efficient.


Sewn-through designs keep insulation fills in place but create cold spots where the inner and outer meet. This method is generally used on budget bags for indoor conditions where minor cold spots don’t matter. Tapered rectangular bags have versatile baffle systems that permit some down movement.


Sleeping bags need to handle a lot of abuse - from sleeping on a rough floor, coping with snow or ice, accidental spillages, wet weather and harsh travel conditions. Most bags therefore use a tough outer fabric and a softer more luxurious inner. Pertex and Apex Taffeta nylon are popular fabrics because of their soft handling characteristics, high breathability, a dense weave which prevents down leakage, and they can be treated with a DWR (durable water repellency) finish.


For those adventurers looking to spend sustained periods of time in wet or alpine conditions, a wind-proof, water-resistant outer is a better choice. Popular breathable, weather-resistant outer fabrics include Gore Windstopper®, Conduit SL and EPIC® from Nextec.


TIP: To increase your sleeping bag’s lifetime we also strongly recommend that you store it in a large cotton sack so that the down can ‘relax’ and breathe.

Sleeping Mats

A decent sleeping mat can make all the difference between a great night’s sleep or waking bleary eyed, with a painful back. There are four general styles of mats:


1. Air Mats — Airbeds do not have any foam insulation so they are ideal for summer camping. When inflated they can be very comfy, although you may require a pump. The larger designs are fine for 4WD and family campers but too heavy for serious trekkers.


2. Closed Cell Foam Mats — If you only want insulation from the ground and aren’t too concerned about comfort then you can also consider foam mats. Ideal for yoga, extra insulation on ice or snow, or just as a light weight mat for occasional use, a 10mm closed-cell foam mat is inexpensive and weighs almost nothing.


3. Self-Inflating MatsTherm-a-rest originated the first self-inflating foam mattress over 40 years ago and still make them in the States today. For a long time they were the smallest and most comfortable way to sleep in the outdoors and many people still love them. There are plenty of copies around nowadays.


4. Insulated Inflatable Mats - In recent years a new mattress leader has emerged in Switzerland's Exped. Their mats are fully inflatable by hand, mouth or pump sack, and have a variety of insulated fills from foam to down to the same synthetic used in sleeping bags. They are thicker and therefore more comfortable, yet also pack down surprisingly small.

Inner Sheets & Pillows

Inner Sheets

To help prevent your sleeping bag from absorbing body oils and moisture we recommend that you use a sleeping sheet. Sewn off along the sides and sometimes with a pillow slip, sleeping sheets are extremely handy for the adventure traveller – especially when you want to unzip your sleeping bag and use it as a duvet. Sleeping sheets are made from three different materials: cotton, silk and thermal fabrics.


Cotton sleeping sheets — These are ideal for travelling in hot climates where you need the absorbency of cotton, or if you just enjoy sleeping between cotton sheets. As cotton absorbs body moisture it will provide a cooling effect, and is therefore not recommended for cool to cold climates. These sheets can be bulky and sometimes slow to dry when laundered.


Silk sleeping sheets — Far more compact and lighter than cotton, silk sleeping sheets are by far the most popular. The natural fibre of silk helps to regulate your body temperature, and of course, they provide a little luxury while out on the trail. These sheets are very easy to launder and dry, which also makes them ideal for travellers.


Thermal Fibre sleeping sheets — If you want a little extra warmth or you want a sleeping sheet to keep comfy on a cool night then a thermal sleeping sheet is ideal. There are a couple of popular fabrics, polypropylene and Thermolite®, which are both very breathable and provide an extra few degrees on insulation. Of the two, Thermolite® is the more efficient insulator.


For many a pillow is a down or fleece jacket stuffed into their sleeping bag stuff sack. However, there are alternatives for those who want an extra touch of comfort. Therm-a-rest make a variety of pillows with the left over foam sections from their die-cutting procedure. They compress down extremely well and yet offer your head support throughout the night. Exped inflatable pillows can also be a good idea, especially for adventure travellers who may spend many hours on a bus or train trip.

Cleaning Your Sleeping Bag

Hand Wash

This is the gentlest way to clean your sleeping bag and is the recommended method should time be on your side. Soak your sleeping bag in a bathtub with lukewarm water and mild soap or detergent. Rinse thoroughly to remove cleaning solution. Drain the tub, and then press the water out of the sleeping bag. DO NOT WRING. Supporting the bag carefully, remove from tub and place flat on towels to air-dry, or drape carefully over two or more clotheslines. It will be necessary to periodically pull apart the clumps of down within each baffle to aid the drying process, which may take a couple of days.

Machine Wash

Wash only in a heavy-duty, commercial front-loading, tumble-type of machine. Use mild soap or detergent in lukewarm water. Dry as directed for hand washing (above). Alternatively, use a heavy-duty dryer on the gentlest cycle; first zip sleeping bag shut and USE LOW HEAT ONLY, then regularly remove the bag and pull apart any down clumps that may have formed. More than one drying cycle may be needed.

Dry Cleaning

IS NOT RECOMMENDED FOR BAGS FILLED WITH POLYESTER INSULATION. It’s not easy to totally remove the cleaning fluids from the bag, and remaining vapours can be irritating or sometimes cause allergic reactions. It is important that you fully air a down bag after dry cleaning.