That means you have to pick a bag based on four major variables: size, weight, cost, and temperature.
Let’s take the last one first, because it can cause the most confusion. Temperature ratings for sleeping bags are not necessarily to be taken as the gospel truth. In most cases, if your bag is rated to 30 degrees, that means it will keep you alive at that temperature. If you want to be warm and cozy at that temperature, you will need to sleep in a tent and wear a couple of layers of clothing as well. And you will need to zip up and lace up the bag so only your nose is showing. And it will work that way. On the other hand, it doesn’t usually get below freezing in the summer in the Sierra, and a bag that will keep you warm down to 0 degrees will also boil you alive at 60 degrees. We have a couple of bags that are rated to 0 degrees, and we use them a lot---but we also sleep on top of them half the nights, and keep the zipper open completely on warm nights. And we’re wearing very light clothes to sleep in.
So what kind of bag is best for you? If you're going up into the High Sierra, we suggest something between 40 and 10 degrees as a rating…and a bit of adaptation on your part to make sure that whatever the temperature, you’re going to be able to sleep comfortably.
Now let’s talk about the other variables; size, weight and cost.
We used to backpack with normal sized sleeping bags—the kind that is bigger than a toaster oven when it is packed up. They kept us warm and worked fine—but they also took up about half the space in our backpack—not a problem for a two day trip, but a bit of an issue for a whole week. You can buy these at sporting goods stores, and they won’t cost you $50 each. They may weigh a little more, and take up more space, but if you are only going for a few nights, there is no reason to buy a more expensive bag. They are filled with synthetic down, and this stuff works quite well, even when it gets a little wet. Compared to the old blanket bedroll, these bags are pure magic.
On the other hand, we’ve now gone with extreme pack versions---and we love them. They pack down to the size of rugby ball or smaller, and that leaves plenty of room for the accordion. They cost us about $75, and it was money well spent. So our bags are 0 degree rated, they weigh about 3 pounds, and fit into a shoebox. You can’t beat that!
Well, yes you can. But you have to pay a lot more money. If you take that same bag, and fill it with #800 goose down, you can get the weight down to about a pound and a half, all in about the size of a loaf of bread. These are the ultimate bags, but they also cost upwards of $300-400. We love them. We want them. But we haven’t bought them, because we can’t afford them. Sigh.
UPDATE! Thanks to a little extra cash this winter, we were able to buy two nice 20 degree down bags that only cost us about $200 each--and weigh less than a kilo. They are soft, light and very puffy. And they will save us one pound each in our packs. We love them! That's them in the photo above.
And don't forget a comfortable pad. P slept for years on a 1/2 inch piece of closed cell foam. M was always trying something new, and usually in combination with at least one other pad. But then we switched to the new Neo-Air pads. They are relatively light (under a pound) and inflate to a VERY comfortable 2 inches or more. Luxury. All part of your home away from home. We used these pads for about four years, and found that over time they began to leak and flatten out over the course of a night. After living with them for a couple of years that way. we finally contacted Neo-Air about getting them fixed.
Very simply process, and they made it easy. And instead of fixing all of the leaks in our older model mattresses, they sent us brand new ones that don't leak.
Can't beat that for customer service.
Welcome to Backpack the Sierra > Gear: Our Thoughts on What Works and What Doesn't in the High Sierra >