How to Choose a Cold Weather Sleeping Bag

Camping in winter? You may shudder at the thought, but an early winter’s morning can be one of the most beautiful times to be outdoors.

I’ve done my fair share of cold weather camping, from Scottish winters (and summers!) to high altitude Alpine bivvies and camping on glaciers in Iceland and Greenland. I hate being cold at night, so it’s really important that I have a decent sleeping bag that’s up to the job.

In this article, we’ll look at some things you need to consider when buying a cold weather sleeping bag. I’ll also be finding the best winter sleeping bags at different price points so you can find something to suit your needs.

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What to Consider Before Purchasing a Cold Weather Sleeping Bag

It's not difficult to buy a cold weather sleeping bag, but more than their warm weather counterparts, it's kinda important to get it right. You don't want to spend a night freezing or carry around a bag that's the wrong material!

How Much Are You Willing to Pay?

Usually, I put budget much further down the priority list of considerations when choosing outdoor gear, but when it comes to winter sleeping bags, this is the first question you need to ask yourself.

Why?

Because sleeping bags that will keep you warm when it’s freezing outside come at a price. There are cheaper options (which I’ll cover below), but you’ll have to make major compromises on weight, bulk, and warmth.

Personally, if I was looking to buy a winter sleeping bag, I’d be looking at bags that cost $150+. But… I’m a cold sleeper and I would usually choose a down bag over a synthetic bag for weight and packability. Also, I’m a big believer in buying kit that lasts – I’ve had my current sleeping bag for over fifteen years.

If you’re struggling to find a sleeping bag that’s as warm as you want within your budget, another option is to use a silk sleeping bag liner. This will add extra warmth plus it helps keep your sleeping bag clean.

Down or Synthetic Insulation?

Most cold weather sleeping bags use down insulation due to its high warmth-to-weight ratio. It’s also more expensive than synthetic insulation, which is one reason why warm sleeping bags are expensive.

If you’d prefer a synthetic sleeping bag either because of cost or for ethical reasons, then expect to have a heavier bulkier bag to get the same level of warmth as an equivalent rated down bag.

The quality of down used in a bag also makes a huge difference to its warmth and weight. This is measured by “fill power”. Fill power is a measure of the volume filled by an ounce of down feathers. The bigger the volume (or the greater the loft) the more heat can be held between the feathers and the warmer the sleeping bag.

As you may expect, sleeping bags with a higher fill power are typically more expensive. There’s usually a trade-off between cost and weight – high fill power bags will be lighter and more packable but they’ll also cost more.

One disadvantage of down is that it can lose a lot of its warmth when it gets wet. If most of your camping is done in cold, rainy climates then a synthetic bag may a better option for you.

Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings

Sleeping bag manufacturers will usually provide one or more temperature ratings to help you judge what conditions the bag is suitable for. However, it isn’t always clear whether the temperature given is a minimum survival rating (indicating you shouldn’t get hypothermia at that temperature) or comfort rating (meaning you should be warm enough to sleep comfortably).

Premium sleeping bags from established outdoor manufacturers usually come with an EN/ISO rating, which is a standard you can use to compare different bags. This gives different ratings for “comfort”, “lower limit” and “extreme” temperatures.

Unless you’re a very warm sleeper, I’d advise looking only at the comfort rating for the sleeping bag when deciding if it’s going to meet your needs. As a cold sleeper, I’ll typically go for a bag that’s at least 5°F lower than the minimum temperature I’m likely to be sleeping at. As I said, I don’t like to be cold!

If you’re looking at a bag and the description is a little vague about the temperature rating, it’s worth erring on the side of caution and assuming it’s an extreme rating.

Weight and Packability

I’d almost always recommend a down sleeping bag for backpacking in cold weather as it’s much easier to compress down and lighter to carry. The only exception would be if you are camping in a situation where it’s highly likely that your sleeping bag will get wet – in that case, synthetic insulation may be a better option

Even a down filled cold weather sleeping bag will take up a fair bit of space in your backpack, so the trade-off then becomes a battle between price, weight, and warmth.

The 5 Best Cold Weather Sleeping Bags

Whether you’re going on a high-altitude expedition, a winter backpacking trip or just want a cheap sleeping bag for a few nights car camping, here are the best options for every camper and every budget.

Price

$$$$$

$$$

$$

$$

$

Insulation type

Down

Synthetic

Down

Down

Synthetic

Weight

2.7 lbs

7.3 lbs

2.4 lbs

3.3 lbs

5.8 lbs

Pack size

13 x 9.4 in

12 x 15 in

10 x 8 in

11 x 7  in

17 x 12  in


Best Down Cold Weather Bag: Rab Neutrino 800

If you’re going to be camping regularly in the winter, then this is one of the best cold weather sleeping bags money can buy. Seriously, I have been lusting after this bag for years.

Rab is a British manufacturer so if you’re in the US, you may not have come across them before. They’re an established brand who have a wealth of experience in making mountaineering kit and it shows in the quality of their products.

This is a 4-5 season bag that’s light enough to be used for backpacking but warm enough to keep you comfortable at -4F (women may want to add 5-10°F to this). It’s stuffed full of 800 fill power ethical goose down and is quite possibly the fluffiest, coziest sleeping bag you will ever snuggle up in.

Although it’s not waterproof, the down has also had a hydrophobic treatment, meaning it dries faster and will retain its loft if it gets damp. The Pertex outer is windproof and contains an odor control treatment to stop your bag getting pongy.

The bag comes with either a left or right zip and you get a cotton storage sack in addition to the compression sack. The regular size will fit people up to 6 ft 1 in and there’s a long version for taller people.

PROS

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    Extremely warm
  • Lightweight and packable
  • High-quality fabrics
  • Lots of additional features

CONS

  • Price!

Best Synthetic Cold Weather Bag: Big Agnes Elk Park

The Big Agnes Elk Park is a beast of a bag. Its rectangular design is specifically designed for people of larger stature or those who just like a bit more room to move during the night.

Big Agnes bags have a rather unique design. They eliminate much of the stuffing underneath the bag to save weight and instead provide a sleeve which you can insert a sleeping pad into to provide the insulation you need between you and the ground. Most sleeping bag manufacturers assume you’re sleeping on a pad, but if you opt for this bag you may want to buy the pad Big Agnes recommends as being compatible.

The Thermolite Extra synthetic filling simulates down and gives a cozy, plush feel, but it’s neither as light nor as compressible as a down bag. And the generous sizing comes at a price – the Elk Park weighs over 7 lbs and packs down to 12 x 15 inches.

But there is an upside to this. The sleeping bag has a temperature rating of -20°F and retails for under $250 – much cheaper than an equivalent rated down bag. And, as it’s synthetic and durance, if you expect your gear to stand up to whatever conditions you camp in, this may be a good option.

This isn’t a sleeping bag for lightweight camping, but if you want a bag for car camping or hunting trips that will keep you warm during cold, damp weather, this is the one.

PROS

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    Generous sizing
  • Good for damp/wet conditions
  • Durable

CONS

  • No insulation in the bottom half – you may need to invest in a new sleeping pad

Best for Backpacking: Outdoor Vitals Summit

A 4-season bag weighing less than two and a half pounds for under $200? I thought I was dreaming, but such a thing does exist! The Outdoor Vitals Summit bag uses 800 fill power down and lightweight ripstop materials to keep you warm down to the low 20s (its official temperature rating is 20°F) without the bulk you get from most cold weather sleeping bags.

Even better, it comes in three sizes so you can get a bag that fits your shape without having to lug around excess material if you’re on the short side. Recommended sizes are:

  • Short, for people up to 5 ft 6 in
  • Regular, for people between 5 ft 6 in and 6ft
  • Long, for people up to 6 ft 6 in (this also comes with an extra 2 inches of width)

The sleeping bag comes with a four-way compression sack that allows you to cinch the bag down to a pack size of approximately 10 x 8 inches. This is a decent pack size for a summer bag, let alone ones will keep you warm all year round.

The regular size weighs just 2 lbs 10 oz, including the stuff sack and even the long version comes in at under 3 lbs. It’s not clear if the 20°F temperature rating is an “extreme” or “comfort” rating (users have reported it to be warm at temperatures in the 20s) but a sleeping bag liner will add an extra 5 to 10°F to the temperature rating for not much added weight.

As it uses lightweight materials, it may not be as robust and durable as other bags – this isn’t a flaw, it’s a design choice, but it’s something to be aware of if you tend to treat your kit roughly.

PROS

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    Very lightweight and packable
  • Three different lengths
  • Great value
  • Good compression sack

CONS

  • Zipper can snag
  • Sheds feathers

Although many people switch from their hammock to attend for winter camping, if you’ve got the right kit, you can stay strong up in your hammock all year around. Hyke & Byke’s hammock compatible sleeping bags serve as both an under quilt and top quilt to keep you snug in cold weather.

The warmest bag in the Antero range is given a 15°F lower limit rating (for men) and a 30°F comfort rating (for women). It’s stuffed full of 800 fill power goose down which means it is pretty compressible and lightweight.

The bag is designed to be 4 inches wider than standard sleeping bags to give some wiggle room inside your hammock. If you’re a larger person who finds standard sleeping bags too restricting, it may be worth checking out the Antero range for use in a tent.

This seal around the hammock at the head and the toe may not be quite as tight as you like and if you can feel a draft coming through, you might want to stuff some clothes in the ends to prevent icy toes.

PROS

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    Flexible design – can be used on a hammock or on the ground
  • Lightweight and compressible
  • Good value

CONS

  • Draughty at the foot end

Best Budget Winter Bag: Coleman North Rim

I said at the beginning that sleeping bags that will keep you warm when it’s freezing outside come at a price. Well, the Coleman North Rim is a bit of an exception to that rule.

It’s rated down to a 0°F and although I suspect most people would be chilly if the temperatures dropped that low, it should definitely keep you warm between 20°F and 30°F. And for a bag that costs less than fifty bucks, that’s a pretty good deal.

The trade-off comes with the size and weight. The North Rim is a bulky, heavy sleeping bag (though not quite as heavy as the Elk Park). This won’t be an issue if you’re camping near to your vehicle, but you’ll struggle to squash it into your backpack if you’re going hiking.

It’s got most of the features you’d expect a winter sleeping bag to have, but be aware that as it’s a cheap bag, the materials aren’t likely to be of the same quality as a bag that costs five times as much. If you’re planning on doing a lot of winter camping, it may be worth seeing if you can stretch your budget a bit, but for occasional use, the North Rim will be more than adequate.

PROS

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    Awesome value for money
  • Warm down to 20°F and below

CONS

  • Bulky and heavy
  • Lower quality materials

Your Turn to Wrap Up

Camping in winter isn’t for everyone, but with the right sleeping bag, it doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. In fact, you may find you get a better night’s sleep in your new sleeping bag than you do in your bed at home.

So take your pick of the sleeping bags above, don your thermal tights and get out and enjoy camping in winter. And if you’re still worried about camping in the cold, check out our tips on how to stay warm.

I’ll see you in the snow hole!

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