Staff Picks: The Best Sleeping Bags of 2020

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August 21, 2018
Staff Picks: The Best Sleeping Pads of 2020
August 23, 2018

sleeping bag sleeper

Editor’s note: Inventory can be unpredictable this year with COVID-19, so some of the items in this list might be temporarily out of stock when you read this guide. We’ll do our best to update it accordingly. Considering how much time you spend in it, your sleeping bag may be the one piece of gear […]

The post Staff Picks: The Best Sleeping Bags of 2020 appeared first on REI Co-op Journal.

sleeping bag sleeper

Editor’s note: Inventory can be unpredictable this year with COVID-19, so some of the items in this list might be temporarily out of stock when you read this guide. We’ll do our best to update it accordingly.


Considering how much time you spend in it, your sleeping bag may be the one piece of gear you think least about while you use it—assuming it’s doing its job. If you’re sound asleep at your campsite, it’s doing its job. If you’re hiking blissfully along not cursing the shoulder-crushing Bagzilla in your pack, it’s doing its job. All we truly seek is a bag that keeps us warm enough to sleep well without being a burden to haul, store or pay for.

The job is simple, but the technology to do it is anything but. And the complex science and standards behind bag testing can give even the gear-nerdiest among us a headache. So first, get a primer on how to understand temperature ratings at the end of this article. Then come back and let’s look at some of our favorite sleep sacks for backpacking and car camping.

 

Sleeping Bags for Backpacking

 

REI Co-op Trailbreak 20

Best Budget-Friendly Backpacking Bag

  • VersionsMen’s regular and long; women’s regular and long
  • ISO lower limit: 18°F (men’s), 5°F (women’s)
  • ISO comfort: 29°F (men’s), 18°F (women’s)
  • Weight: 3 lbs. 7 oz. (men’s), 4 lbs. 13 oz. (women’s)
  • Insulation: Polyester
  • Price: Starting at $99.95

Finding a serious backpacking bag for less than $100 is a rarity. And finding a budget-friendly bag like this is especially nice if you’re just getting into the activity, because it frees up dollars for other big-ticket items like your tent, pack and sleeping pad.

The Trailbreak is suited to cold nights (18° is the lower limit rating for the men’s), as well as soggy conditions, thanks to its heavy-duty, water-resistant polyester fill that will help keep you warm in damp conditions. It also offers other nice touches that are typical of REI Co-op bags, such as multiple drawcords the can be adjusted by feel for fast, fumble-free cinching of the neck and hood openings at night.

A few compromises at this price are inevitable: At nearly 3.5 pounds, it definitely sits at the heavier end of the weight spectrum. And some co-op reviewers have complained about a snagging zipper (though that’s an affliction that affects many bags). On balance, though, new backpackers could hardly find a better value. One customer reviewer sums it up nicely: “It’s a great combination of comfortable, practical and affordable.” Buy here.

 

Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 30

Best All-Around Synthetic Backpacking Bag

Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 30

  • Versions: Men’s regular and long; women’s regular and long
  • EN lower limit: 26.2°F (men’s); 18.7°F (women’s)
  • EN comfort: 36.1°F (men’s); 29.7°F (women’s)
  • Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz. (men’s); 2 lbs. 5 oz. (women’s)
  • Insulation: Synthetic blend
  • Sustainability attributes: Both insulation and shell contain recycled materials.
  • Price: Starting at $148

One camping specialist at the REI Tualatin, Ore., store describes this bag as her “go-to synthetic bag.” She goes on to say: “I love the Marmot Trestles. The weight is really good for a synthetic bag, and it feels more like down than any other synthetic bag I’ve ever fluffed.” Synthetic bags, which are more water-resistant than their down counterparts, will still insulate when wet, making them great options for campers who live in wetter climes. (The downside of synthetic is that it tends to be heavier and bulkier than down. Learn more here.)

This year’s Trestles is also a completely different animal from its predecessor—it’s a lean, clean, sleeping machine. Marmot used a new HL-ElixR™ Micro synthetic insulation, which slashed the weight by almost a full pound (2 lbs. 5 oz. in this year’s women’s regular bag vs. 3 lbs. 3 oz. previously). It’s cleaner because the bag’s synthetic fill, unlike the previous stuff, is made using fibers that are made up of 96 percent recycled materials. Another upgrade this year is the softer ripstop polyester lining (and shell) material, which is made using 20 percent recycled materials.

Marmot wisely chose to carry over several likeable features to this year’s bag, including an anti-snag zipper, handy stash pocket and the inclusion of a compression stuff sack to squeeze it into the smallest possible packed size. Buy here.

 

REI Co-op Magma 15

Best Cold-Weather Backpacking Bag

REI Co-op Magma 15

  • VersionsMen’s regular and long; women’s regular and long
  • ISO lower limit: 16°F (men’s); 2°F (women’s)
  • ISO comfort: 28°F (men’s); 17°F (women’s)
  • Weight: 1 lb. 12.2 oz. (men’s); 2 lbs. 6 oz. (women’s)
  • Insulation: 850-fill-power water-resistant goose down
  • Sustainability attributes: Both insulation and shell contain bluesign®-approved materials; insulation also meets responsible down standard (RDS).
  • Price: Starting at $379

Judging by customer reviews alone, REI Co-op’s Magma lineup (these 15° bags, the quilt below and our men’s and women’s 30° bags) includes some of the most beloved sleep sacks we’ve ever made. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a gear expert at the co-op who doesn’t get just a little misty-eyed over a Magma bag. Our gear editor’s take: “I use my women’s Magma 15 when winter camping or generally heat-hogging year-round. At just 2 pounds, 6 ounces, it makes it into my pack every trip.”

The Magma’s amazing warmth-to-weight ratio comes from ultrawarm, water-resistant 850-fill-power down that garnered a 16°F lower limit rating (2°F for the women’s). The ultralight Pertex® nylon shell also aids the weight-reduction cause and is woven tightly to keep down plumules from slipping through. The whole thing packs down to the size of a loaf of bread. Other nice touches include a roomy footbox, a cozy draft collar at the top of the bag, an anti-snag zipper and differentiated drawcords that let you discern the neck from the hood drawcord by feel.

Our camping specialist at the REI store in Colorado Springs, Colo., puts it this way: “When I’m talking to customers, I tell them that the Magma is the best sleeping bag REI sells. Period. That’s based both on the bag’s specs and my personal experience.” Buy here.

 

Big Agnes Torchlight 20

Best Extra-Roomy Backpacking Bag

Big Agnes Torchlight 20

  • Versions: Men’s regular and long; women’s petite and regular
  • ISO lower limit: 15°F (men’s); 11°F (women’s)
  • ISO comfort: 27°F (men’s); 23°F (women’s)
  • Weight: 2lbs. 11 oz. (men’s); 3 lbs. 1 oz. (women’s)
  • Insulation: 600 fill-power water-resistant down
  • Price: Starting at $299.95

People come different shapes and sizes, clothes come in different shapes and sizes, and now sleeping bags are starting to follow suit. With the Torchlight, Big Agnes has ingeniously created a more generously sized bag without adding a ton of weight or bulk.

The secret? “The expandable panels are the whole story with this sleeping bag,” reports our camping specialist in the Farmington, Utah, store. The Torchlight features two panels, one on each side, that expand, allowing you to add up to 10 inches of girth (5 inches per side). Unzipping the panels creates a mummy-shaped bag that’s proportionately larger overall and a blessed far cry from the rectangular and barrel-shaped options that the sleeping-bag industry has traditionally trotted out for extended-size customers. One customer reviewer summed it up this way: “Big Agnes certainly lived up to their namesake, ‘Mother of Comfort,’ on this one.”

And you get all of this in a down-fill bag that weighs just a tick over 3 pounds and can be pushed into subfreezing temps. Even better, that down fill is treated to give it water resistance, so you can rest easy when a storm blows in. Buy here.

 

NEMO Forte 20

Best Backpacking Bag for Side Sleepers

NEMO Forte 20

  • VersionsMen’s regular and long; women’s regular and long
  • ISO lower limit: 22°F (men’s); 10°F (women’s)
  • ISO comfort: 32°F (men’s); 20°F (women’s)
  • Weight: 2 lbs. 14 oz. (men’s); 3 lbs. 5 oz. (women’s)
  • Insulation: PrimaLoft® RISE synthetic
  • Sustainability attributes: Insulation contains recycled materials.
  • Price: Starting at $199.95

Side sleeping in a mummy bag always presents a dilemma. Do you attempt to roll both body and bag simultaneously? Or, do you pull arms and legs into a tight fetal position as you attempt to pivot sideways inside of it? Both methods work OK, but NEMO came up with a third and, in our opinion, better option. Thanks to added room at the elbows and knees, the Forte lets you casually rotate those joints sideways without bringing the whole bag with you. Simple.

The spoon shape might look a little odd at first, but it works beautifully. “Once someone is in this bag, they’re buying it,” says our Farmington, Utah, REI camping specialist. (Given current COVID-19 protocols, testing out  bags in REI stores is not an option at the moment.) It’s also worth noting that the Forte’s hood articulation and oblong opening are also conducive to side sleeping because they help preserve breathing space after you roll.

The warming and cooling systems in this bag are also unique. Insulated with PrimaLoft® RISE—an incredibly lightweight and efficient synthetic fill—it’s rated for warmth down to 22° F, yet weighs less than 3 pounds. (The fill also is made from 80 percent post-consumer content, which warms our hearts.) The “cooling” comes from two gill vents on top, which dump excess heat efficiently when temps start to rise.

If all that weren’t enough, the Forte also includes a pillow pocket that lets you stuff clothing inside to create a dreamy perch for your noggin. Buy here.

 

REI Co-op Magma Trail Quilt 30

Best Backpacking Quilt

REI Co-op Magma Trail Quilt 30

In general, you either are a quilt person or you aren’t. There aren’t many fence sitters on this issue. Quilt fans tend to be ultralight hikers, ultralight thru-hikers or hammock campers. On the whole, quilt detractors share the same fear, worrying that they simply can’t stay warm without the full bag.

Occasionally, you’ll find a convert, like this Magma quilt customer reviewer: “This is my first time as a quilter, but this item is sublime. I was dubious about a quilt keeping me warm and worried about drafts, but my fears were unfounded. The weight and packed size are astonishing, even compared to other higher-end bags.” It helps that the Magma isn’t a four-cornered quilt like your comforter at home; rather, it has an enclosed, sleeping bag-like footbox. The two top corners can then unfurl like a standard quilt or cinch around you. You attach the thing to your pad with cords that keep you centered and allow for slight venting adjustments.

If you compare this to sleeping bags in this temperature range, it’s worth noting that the 30°F estimate was determined solely by the REI Co-op Testing and Concept Lab because there’s no industry standard test for quilts, like there is with sleeping bags. The 850-fill-power water-resistant down insulation, though, is the exact same ultra-efficient stuff that’s in all of REI Co-op’s Magma sleeping bags. Buy here.

 

Therm-a-Rest Polar Ranger -20

Best Bag for Extreme Cold

  • Versions: Unisex regular and long
  • Approximate temperature rating: -20°F
  • Weight: 3 lbs. 4 oz.
  • Insulation: 800-fill-power water-resistant down
  • Sustainability attributes: Insulation meets responsible down standard (RDS).
  • Price: Starting at $689.95

Mountaineers and winter backpackers types don’t take their gear purchases lightly. If that’s you—the sort of cold-seeking, masochistic type—then you can rest assured that this bag does exactly what you need: Keeps you extremely warm (-20° F temp rating) without weighing you down (just 3 pounds and change). Having water-resistant 800-fill-power down is also key, because dampness in extreme cold is a serious problem.

Therm-a-Rest added other intriguing features to this expedition-quality bag. The “snorkel” hood is ingenious, creating a chimney above your face to expel moisture-laden breath away from the bag. The walls of the snorkel itself have synthetic insulation to ensure its warmth won’t get compromised by all of the moist air passing through it.

Lastly, for those of you who consider a cuppa hot brew as essential to starting one’s day in subzero temps, the Polar Ranger has zippered armholes that let you enjoy that steaming elixir while wearing your bag in the morning.  Buy here.

 

REI Co-op Kindercone 25

Best Kids’ Bag

  • Versions: Kids
  • Approximate temperature rating: 25°F
  • Weight: 3 lbs. 4 oz.
  • Insulation: Synthetic
  • Price: $69.95

REI Co-op has been making (and updating) the Kindercone seemingly for as long as outdoor adventurers have been having kids. It was developed in the early 2000s to fill a need for parents who wanted a legit bag for a child that they hoped to introduce to a lifelong love of the outdoors. Then and now, the bag has just the right mix of tech and hardiness that tends to keep both kids and parents happy.

The ripstop nylon shell stands up to wear and tear, as does the sturdy polyester fill. Using an inherently water-resistant synthetic fill instead of down keeps the price reasonable and the fear of water spills and splashes at bay. The Kindercone is estimated to 25°F, which should keep tykes plenty warm on most three-season backpacking trips, and because it tips the scales at just a hair over 3 pounds, budding backpackers can carry the thing, too.

Nice touch: a size-adjustment feature that lets the bag grow with your child. The included stuff sack is attached to the bottom of the bag, allowing you to snug extra length of the bag away, then cinch it taut to accommodate whatever growth-spurt stage your child is in. (Also nice: You’ll never lose the stuff sack. Win.) Buy here.

 

 

Sleeping Bags for Car Camping

 

Kelty Discovery 30

Best Budget-Friendly Car-Camping Bag

Kelty Discovery 30

  • Versions: Unisex
  • Approximate temperature rating: 30°F
  • Weight: 5 lbs.
  • Insulation: Synthetic
  • Price: $49.95

This is Kelty’s ultimate “Hey, I’m going car camping for the first time and I need a bag” bag. Compared to other sleeping bags on the market, it’s the most affordable choice for sleepovers, summer camps, cabin camping and backyard camping. The rectangular shape gives sleepers plenty of room to move around, and the polyester shell and fill are both water resistant.

As it is it is with all rectangular bags, the 30° temp rating is a rough guideline rather than a rigorously tested evaluation, which is fine for situations where warmer refuges are typically close at hand. Buy here.

 

The North Face Dolomite One Duo

Best Double Bag for Car Camping

The North Face Dolomite One Duo

  • Versions: Unisex double and unisex single
  • Approximate temperature rating: 15°F / 30°F / 50°F
  • Weight: 8 lbs. 13 oz.
  • Insulation: Polyester
  • Sustainability attributes: Insulation contains recycled materials.
  • Price: Starting at $199.95

Quality sleeping bags for two can be hard to find, but this one definitely qualifies. We might just as rightfully have called Dolomite One Duo our most versatile car-camping bag, though, thanks to an elegant design that allows you to deploy it at three different warmth levels.

This bag features a classic rectangular shape rendered in modular form: The base is separate from the top layers, each of which can be used by itself or doubled. Using just the lightweight blue layer on top works fine on balmy nights; the cozier yellow top layer is better when things get chillier. When temps dip below freezing, it’s time to zip-on both for a double-whammy that The North Face rates to approximately 15°F.  All of the zippers in this elaborate setup work smoothly to make quick work of layer reconfigurations. One customer reviewer sums it up this way: “Ingenious design and high-quality construction. Truly three great bags in one.”

Finishing touches in the Dolomite One Duo include a silky soft lining and a handy stash pocket. Buy here.

 

REI Co-op Kingdom Sleep System 40

Best Sleep System for Glamping

REI Co-op Kingdom Insulated Sleep System 40

  • Versions: Queen size
  • Approximate temperature rating: 40° F
  • Weight: 15 lbs. 9 oz.
  • Insulation: Synthetic
  • Price: $299

The best glamping setup will always be relative to how much you otherwise like to rough it outdoors. But if it’s a full-on luxurious feeling you seek, then this REI Co-op sleep system delivers. It comes complete with an insulated queen-size air mattress, quilted mattress cover and its own bedding—a top sheet and insulated bed quilt.

REI Co-op store staff report that more than a few customers have told them that the setup is more comfortable than the mattress they sleep on at home, offering a true bedlike feel. One customer reviewer described the Kingdom Sleep System as “a must-have when comfort camping. It’s also great to have at home for guests.”

Interestingly, this glamping setup does not come with an electric pump. The consensus about the hand pump, though, is that it’s blazing fast and easy to use. Even better: no batteries required. Buy here.

 

Buying Advice

When the vehicle is doing the heavy lifting, weight is not a pressing issue, which changes (simplifies) your choices when it comes to car-camping sleeping bags. You can simply pick the warmest, roomiest bag in your price range. For a rundown on all the things to consider, read How to Choose Sleeping Bags for Camping.

When backpacking, however, you’ll want the lightest bag that will keep you warm enough for a cozy night’s sleep and still fits your budget. Not surprisingly, the lighter and warmer the bag, the more it will cost. Read How to Choose Sleeping Bags for Backpacking for a deep dive into the subject. Below are some of the article’s key points to keep in mind when choosing a backpacking bag:

Temperature Rating

Insulation in a bag is key to how warm it will be, but factors like how snug it fits also matter. (Generally, roomier bags are harder for your body to keep warm.) Thankfully, you don’t have to contemplate that complexity because sleeping bag ratings do it for you.

For the backpacking bags in this guide, your choices roughly break down into moderate-weather bags (Marmot Trestles 30), cool-weather bags (REI Co-op Trailbreak 20, Big Agnes Torchlight 20 and NEMO Forte 20), cold-weather bags (REI Co-op Magma 15), and extreme cold-weather bags (Therm-a-Rest Polar Ranger -20).

You might quibble about whether 20°F is “cool weather” or 30°F is “moderate weather.” Consider, though, that you’re seeking a bag that will keep you warm at a temperature that’s slightly lower than the lowest nighttime temperature you might possibly encounter on your trips. Most people err on the side of getting extra warmth, too, because they always have the option to shed layers or to unzip their bag in milder conditions.

For car camping, you can be less temperature focused, because your vehicle is your backup option if your bag’s warmth isn’t a match for an unexpectedly frosty night. Car-camping options in this guide are nominally rated at 30°F (Kelty Discovery) and 40°F (REI Co-op Kingdom Sleep System), and one that lets you adapt it to 30°F, 40°F or 50°F (The North Face Dolomite One Duo), depending on how you mix and match the sleeping bag’s top sections.

Type of Insulation

Down or synthetic? Synthetics offer solid performance and lower cost. Down is warmer for its weight, lighter and more compressible—and costs substantially more. Down’s knock used to be that dampness degraded its insulating ability, but many premium down fills have a water-resistant treatment to mitigate that problem. A higher fill-power rating indicates a down grade that offers more warmth for less weight.

Weight

Insulation is the big factor, but materials and shape (roominess) also matter. Related to weight is compressibility—how small a bag stuffs down for packing. Generally, though, lighter bags stuff down smaller, too. When you compare weights, make sure you compare bags with the same temperature rating. (Also make sure you compare bags of the same gender—see our not-so-fun fact about ratings standards and women’s bag weights, below.)

The REI Magma 15, thanks in part to its 850-fill power down insulation, has an astoundingly good warmth-to-weight ratio. At 1 pound, 12.2 ounces for the men’s regular, it’s both the lightest and the warmest ISO-tested backpacking bag on this list. At 1 pound, 14 ounces for the men’s regular, the Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 30 features a respectable warmth-to-weight ratio among this guide’s synthetic bags.

Temperature Ratings Explained

Being able to compare one brand’s 20° bag against another’s used to be a problem because outdoor brands tested them differently. Decades of work to standardize those ratings thankfully means nearly all brands play by the same rules now, though those rules are complicated:

An “ISO” or “EN” temperature rating indicates the test standard used. Either requires rigorous, standardized testing and the two standards are roughly comparable. So, as long as a bag has one of those acronyms, you can compare their temperature ratings. Read Understanding Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings to learn more.

Note that, while these test standards can be applied to most backpacking bags, certain sleep sacks are not covered by the standards. Sleeping bags without hoods (Kelty Discovery 30, The North Face Dolomite One Duo and REI Co-op Kingdom Sleep System 40), quilts (REI Co-op Magma Trail Quilt 30), bags rated for extreme cold (Therm-a-Rest Polar Ranger -20) and kids’ bags (REI Co-op Kindercone) all were assigned temperature ratings by varying tests used by each brand.

Bags are assigned two temperature ratings: comfort and limit ratings. Comfort rating is the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep the average cold sleeper comfortable and is generally the temperature assigned to women-specific bags. Lower-limit rating is the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep a warm sleeper comfortable and is generally the temperature assigned to men’s or unisex bags. If a temperature rating omits the term “comfort” or “limit,” then it’s likely a brand’s estimate, not an ISO or EN test result.

Not-so-fun fact: Women’s (cold sleeper’s) bags that use the warmer “comfort rating” as their standard will inevitably be heavier than the equivalent men’s (warm sleeper’s) bags. It simply requires more of a given insulation to achieve more warmth. The rating standards aren’t intended to give women bag buyers a weight penalty, but the net result is that’s exactly what happens for most bags. (Because of this fact, some women will choose to buy the men’s version of a bag.)

A temperature rating is not a guarantee of warmth. Standardized ratings are super important because you can reliably compare bags from different brands. But metabolisms vary greatly from person to person, as do variables like humidity, wind, type of shelter, ground conditions, clothing and personal preferences.

Sleep Systems

One big factor in your warmth level is the sleeping pad you pair with your sleeping bag. This combo is your sleep system, which gives a more accurate picture of how warm you’ll sleep.

If you use a less-insulated pad at colder temps, your sleeping bag might not live up to its temperature rating. To learn more about pad warmth ratings and get a look at how bags and pads work in tandem to keep you warm, read How to Choose a Sleeping Pad.

 

How To Choose a Backpacking Sleeping Bag How To Choose a Car-Camping Sleeping Bag

 

Methodology

REI Co-op’s gear buyers, in-store experts and our community of member and customer reviewers have strong opinions about their gear, so we turned to them. We also laid out a range of categories to meet the needs of readers in different situations. Some of the bags here are all-time greats, others are a perfect fit for someone on their very first backpacking adventure. We also sprinkled in a few one-of-a kind items and some up-and-comers that are a good bet to become classics in the seasons to come.

The post Staff Picks: The Best Sleeping Bags of 2020 appeared first on REI Co-op Journal.

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