One of the keys to enjoying camping and canoeing is knowing that you can have a good sleep at night. Working hard all day whether fighting a headwind or conquering a portage is part of the adventure but if you end up spending a cold night because you don't have the right sleeping bag then you aren't going to be a happy camper.
Sleeping Bag Styles
The shape and style of your sleeping bag really is more than just a fashion choice. It affects not only how comfortable you will be but also how warm the sleeping bag will be.
If you asked most kids to draw a sleeping bag, I'm guessing that they would draw a rectangular bag with a zipper down one side and an opening at the top. This would be your typical square sleeping bag and the top may or may not have a drawstring to pull it closed. The nice things about a square style sleeping bag are that they tend to be fairly roomy and if you get 2 matching bags then they can zip together if you are travelling with a close partner.
For summer camping, an inexpensive square style sleeping bag will work just fine. Look for a sleeping bag with a synthetic fill, most likely polyester based, over a bag with a cotton fill as it will retain less moisture and should it get wet, it will dry quicker.
A tapered sleeping bag is usually a step up from a simple square or rectangular sleeping bag. Both men and women are wider at the shoulders than they are at the feet. A tapered sleeping bag takes advantage of that shape to reduce the total volume of the sleeping bag. For once this isn't a matter of cutting corners to safe on manufacturing costs. Rather the smaller volume means that there is less air that your body needs to keep warm. This means that you will be warmer and use less energy to stay warm than you would in a roomier square sleeping bag.
The sleeping bags that Wendy and I use the most are a couple of tapered bags from Mountain Equipment Coop. They have a synthetic fill and are still going strong after 20 years of use. I believe these sleeping bags were rated to about 0°C. I've comfortably used this sleeping bag with an extra fleece liner and a touque in temperatures down to about -8°C.
While the taper is the big benefit to this style of sleeping bag, some folks do find it a bit too snug and are more comfortable with a roomier square sleeping bag.
Once you start looking for a sleeping bag rated for temperatures below 0°C most of the bags that you will find will be mummy bags. A mummy bag has a built in hood with a drawstring to pull the hood snug around your head. Of course sleeping bags rated for colder temperatures are going to be thicker and have more insulation, but the hood on the mummy bag also provides a lot of warmth.
Scott's North Face sleeping bag is a synthetic fill mummy bag that is rated to 0°F/-18°C. This bag has a couple more nice features to it. The first is the shoulder baffles. These are like a collar inside the sleeping bag, just above the shoulders. The benefit of the shoulder baffles is that they further reduce heat loss out of the top of the sleeping bag, even more than just having the mummy hood pulled tight. The second is a fairly roomy foot box. Tapering a sleeping bag is a great way to reduce the air volume inside, but once you get down to your feet, they need some room to wiggle around. A higher quality sleeping bag will flare out at the feet to form a foot box and give you that wiggle room to take the pressure off your ankles.
Synthetic vs Down
Down sleeping bags have the benefits of being lighter than synthetic sleeping bags for the same temperature rating and they compress much better that synthetic sleeping bags do. With these two characteristics combined, a down sleeping bag will be smaller and lighter than a comparable synthetic sleeping bag. You will also find that if you are looking for a sleeping bag rated for temperatures below 0°F/-18°C that they are almost exclusively down sleeping bags. The risk with a down sleeping bag is that if it should get wet, or even damp from several nights use, then it loses most of its insulating ability.
For canoe tripping my personal recommendation is to stick with a synthetic fill sleeping bag. While you never plan on dumping a canoe or getting a hole in a canoe pack, the one time it happens might well be the time you most need a warm sleeping bag. On the other hand if you are heading out winter camping at temperatures below -20°C, then down is a great choice.
Most sleeping bags will be labeled with a temperature rating. If the bag you are looking at isn't labeled with a temperature rating, then I would assume it is meant for summer use when nighttime temperatures are likely to stay above 10°C or so.
It is important to understand that the temperature ratings aren't an absolute number but really should be used as a guideline for how warm the sleeping bag is. After all, as most married couples know, not everyone needs the same # of blankets at night. The same is true with sleeping bags. Some people are "warm sleepers" and some are "cold sleepers" and what is perfectly comfortable for one person might be too hot or too cold for another.
As a general guideline, if you are planning on mostly summer camping then I recommend a sleeping bag rated for about 5°C. That might sound pretty warm, but even by the end of August the nights can be getting cold and it is easier to open up the zipper on the sleeping bag to cool off than it is to try and make it warmer.
For a May trip I would recommend a sleeping bag rated for -5°C or colder. Our first trip of the year is usually the last weekend of April or first weekend of May. While we have had trips with temperatures up over 20°C, we have also had plenty of trips where we woke up to snow on the ground and ice in the water bottles.
Sleeping Bag Liners
A sleeping bag liner can be as simple as a sheet that has been folded over and sewn along 2 sides. It isn't quite as easy to get in and out of as a sleeping bag with a zipper, but it isn't too bad.
In the summer, a sleeping bag liner made from a cotton sheet will let you get more use out of your sleeping bag without having to wash or dryclean it. Instead, you can just toss the liner in the wash after a trip - which is pretty much the same as using a pillow case. Of course if you do have a really warm night you might find that the liner is all you want to sleep in.
In the spring or fall, a fleece sleeping bag liner can add that extra warmth you need to comfortably camp out without having to buy a warmer sleeping bag. My completely unscientific estimate is that my fleece liner adds about 5°C of insulation to my sleeping bag. This is a standard part of my gear for those spring fishing trips!
©Loon Island Outdoors 2013