How We Tested Camping Sleeping Bags

By:
Jason Wanlass
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Thursday
June 7, 2018
So exactly how did we test? In part, we took a massive road trip to Utah's five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands. If you haven't already seen these beautiful parks for yourself, we suggest you add them to your bucket list.

The Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park.
The Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park.

We put these camping bags to the test as we've never done before. In fact, unfortunately for us, we hardly played at all. The majority of our national parks visit was spent nit-picking apart every inch of these bags to discover which one truly is the best overall traditional sleeping bag.

Sure  we unfortunately didn't get to play much on our trip...but this still is a pretty nice office with a view.
Sure, we unfortunately didn't get to play much on our trip...but this still is a pretty nice office with a view.

During our trip, we put these bags through several side-by-side comparisons in four specific areas: warmth, comfort, features, and packed size. We decided warmth to be our number one measurement and packed size our smallest concern, with comfort and features landing equally in the middle. We ran tests during the day and slept in them each night in temperatures that varied from 50 degrees down to 20 degrees. Sure our opinions are important, but we decided to find out if what our guts told us could be backed up by a little bit of science. Here's a breakdown of how we tested each bag.

Warmth


As fun as cool features and gadgets can be, nothing takes the place of having your toes (and the rest of you) nice and toasty on a chilly night. That's why our testing metrics gave warmth the most weight of the four measurements we examined.

We stacked up the bags and left them outside until dark to allow them to cool off to a chilly 19 degrees
We stacked up the bags and left them outside until dark to allow them to cool off to a chilly 19 degrees

We wanted to see if our perception of each bag's warmth corresponded to measurements we gathered with a laser thermometer. In the early evening, we stacked all of the bags outside on top of the picnic table. We left them there for several hours, to allow the bags to cool down to the outside temperature.

Generally speaking  the thicker the insulation  the warmer you stay inside the bag. We stacked all the bags outside to cool down to the outside temperature before we tested each one for warmth.
Generally speaking, the thicker the insulation, the warmer you stay inside the bag. We stacked all the bags outside to cool down to the outside temperature before we tested each one for warmth.

When the temps of the bags reached the air's temperature, we stripped down to just a pair of nylon hiking shorts and stood in the open air for three minutes to allow our body temperature to drop. Then we crawled into the first bag. Resting flat on our back, we placed our feet on opposite sides of the foot box and placed our hands in our pockets with elbows facing out. We felt this position kept our bodies in the most difficult position to retain heat.

Testing each bag for individual warmth took several hours. It was not fun  but revealed some in-depth results.
Testing each bag for individual warmth took several hours. It was not fun, but revealed some in-depth results.

After hoping in, we started a 10-minute timer and shivered until we warmed up. During the 10 minutes, we made sure not to move and consciously made mental notes as to the bag's comfort, warmth and our overall feeling, including how warm our toes felt.

Not the comfiest or warmest bag we tested  the Brazos still kept us comfortable during testing.
Not the comfiest or warmest bag we tested, the Brazos still kept us comfortable during testing.

After 10 minutes, we carefully peeked under the bag and took a laser thermometer reading of the top inside liner, just above our stomach. We recorded this temperature and our warmth rating and then stood outside shivering for three minutes before starting the experience over again with another bag. In the end, we were pleased to find that our subjective ratings on how warm we felt matched perfectly with our laser thermometer readings.

Whether thermal insulation is keeping things cold or warm  it works the same  trapping temperature in dead-air space. We put our bags to the test in the ice block test.
Whether thermal insulation is keeping things cold or warm, it works the same, trapping temperature in dead-air space. We put our bags to the test in the ice block test.

Another warmth test included a warm, sandy, desert floor in Arches National Park and seven large blocks of ice. When it comes to thermal insulation, it works the same whether it's staying warm or cold. It's just like your house. Thermal insulation keeps the inside of your home warm in colder months and cool in warmer months.

After one hour  we took laser thermometer readings of the top exterior of the bag  directly under the rock  the interior of the bag  and the bottom exterior of the bag.
After one hour, we took laser thermometer readings of the top exterior of the bag, directly under the rock, the interior of the bag, and the bottom exterior of the bag.

We thought we would put this principle to the test with each of our bags by placing a block of ice in each bag for an hour and recording how well each kept in the cool air. In theory, at the end of an hour, the bags with the warmest outer shell temperatures and the coldest interior temperatures would be the best insulators. At the end of an hour, we grabbed our laser thermometer and measured the outside surface temperature of each bag directly over the ice. Then we measured the inside top liner of the bag directly over the ice. Then we rolled the bag over and measured the bottom, exterior temperature of the bag directly below the ice. The bags performed well. All kept ice from melting.

Generally speaking  all of the bags we tested kept the blocks of ice nice and chilly  with very little melting  even after an hour in 75 degree weather.
Generally speaking, all of the bags we tested kept the blocks of ice nice and chilly, with very little melting, even after an hour in 75 degree weather.

Comfort


What's the point of being warm if you're miserable all night trying to get comfortable? After all, isn't the whole idea of car, tent or trailer camping to have as many of the conveniences of home, while you enjoy the beauty of nature?
That's why we chose mostly roomier rectangular bags for this review and weighted the comfort metric at 25 percent. Here's how we came to our conclusion on how each bag stacked up.

Can your bag keep you comfy on a gravel road? The Wenzel Grande can.
Can your bag keep you comfy on a gravel road? The Wenzel Grande can.

In addition to sleeping in the bags each night and rating each on comfort, we wanted to establish a real baseline to measure each bag. So, with the help of sandstone slabs and hard-packed campground roads, we flopped each bag down without a pad and rolled around for several minutes to get a real idea of the bags natural padding as well as our ease of movement. We rated each bag according to padding, ease of movement, and roominess.

Again  the Wenzel Grande transforms solid rock into a comfortable place to sleep.
Again, the Wenzel Grande transforms solid rock into a comfortable place to sleep.

Features


Special features that make the bags unique are just as important as comfort, and that's why we also weighted features at 25 percent of our metric. During our stay in Utah's five national parks, we examined every last feature of every last bag.

These naturally occurring sandstone dishes found at Canyonlands National Park were perfect for our water resistance tests. They allowed us to form a natural basin in the bag to hold water.
These naturally occurring sandstone dishes found at Canyonlands National Park were perfect for our water resistance tests. They allowed us to form a natural basin in the bag to hold water.

The most important feature for us was the each bag's resistance to water. This feature directly correlates to our most important metric - warmth. Let's face it — if your bag is wet, you're miserable or worse.

These naturally forming dishes that occur in the sandstone of Canyonlands National Park were created from rainwater settling in the same place for thousands of years.
These naturally forming dishes that occur in the sandstone of Canyonlands National Park were created from rainwater settling in the same place for thousands of years.

During our stay in Canyonlands National Park, we found several natural, small, sandstone basins that worked perfectly for our water-resistance test. One by one we unzipped the bags and placed them over a natural bowl shape in the sandstone with the exterior shell facing upward.

We doused each bag with 16 ounces of water and let it sit for 5 minutes to see which bag had the best water resistance.
We doused each bag with 16 ounces of water and let it sit for 5 minutes to see which bag had the best water resistance.

We then poured 16 ounces of water into the natural bowl and turned on a five-minute timer. We left the standing water in place for the full 5 minutes or until it had completely penetrated the bag, whichever came first. Results were then recorded and graded on the curve. Those bags that resisted water for the full 5 minutes received a score of 10.

Synthetic bags do a great job of keeping water out.
Synthetic bags do a great job of keeping water out.

The best performers in this test were bags with synthetic exterior shells. The worst performers were bags with natural fibers like cotton.

Cotton and canvas bags are warm and cozy but don't do a great job of repelling water.
Cotton and canvas bags are warm and cozy but don't do a great job of repelling water.

Here are the other features we looked for.

Ease of Cleaning/Washing


Ideally, a sleeping bag should be easy to keep clean by simply washing and drying it in consumer-grade washers and dryers in your own home. Unfortunately, we found that usually wasn't the case. To receive a 10, a bag would be able to be laundered at home in a regular washer and dryer.

Zipper Baffle/Draft Tube


A quality bag should have a quality zipper baffle to protect the user from cold air that can penetrate the micro openings that exist along the entire length of the zipper. To receive a 10, the bag must have a zipper baffle that is thick, with insulation matching or exceeding the insulation of the bag. The baffle must run the entire length of the zipper.

Shoulder Baffle


A nice feature for any bag is a quality shoulder baffle that helps to keep body heat from escaping the bag from its main opening. To receive a 10, the shoulder baffle must circle the entire opening of the bag, should have insulation equal to or greater than the overall insulation of the bag, should be adjustable with a drawstring that creates a good even circle when tightened.

Full-Length Zipper/Can the Bag Lay Flat


A nice option for any car camping bag is to open it fully and lay it flat for a picnic or to be used as a comforter.

Velcro Zipper Closure


A nice feature of any car camping bag is the velcro closure tab at the top of the bag. The tab helps to keep the zipper from pulling open while you sleep. About half the bags in the study had this feature.

Interior Storage Pocket


A nice feature of any bag is an interior storage pocket to store important items such as a cell phone, wallet, or keys. To receive a 10, the pocket must have a velcro closure, be large enough to fit multiple items, be placed where it won't bother the user, be easy to reach, be a different design or color, so it's easily found.

Two Way Zipper


Can the bag's zipper open from either end? Some users like the bottom of their bag to be open. The bottom foot box zipper should lock securely into place and should have a locator tag on it so it can easily be found and used. T

Zipper Quality and Function


Nothing is more annoying than catching the fabric of your bag in the zipper. We zipped and unzipped each bag fully five times, in the same fashion, and counted how many times the zipper caught on the interior fabric. We looked for larger quality zippers with a zipper head that has a reversible handle. The head should have a tab/handle to grab onto and to find the head easily. We also looked to see if the interior of the bag had a protective fabric strip on both sides of the zipper to help prevent snags and tears to the liner.

Warranty


What type of warranty does the bag come with? Ideally, the bag has a lifetime or limited lifetime warranty. We found some bags only have a limited 5 or 10-year warranty.

Extra Unique Individual Features


Some manufacturers/product designers consider the end user when they go to the drawing board. This extra thought into the design can give a product an x-factor that makes the bag more appealing to the consumer in terms of use, convenience, comfort, etc. We took one final look at each bag to find the options/extras that each bag had that no other bag possessed.

The Slumberjack Country Squire's duffel bag is huge and can be unzipped from the bag to serve as a stand-alone duffel. All this and more can fit inside for a weekend getaway. Sleeping pad  tent  extra clothes  a pillow... we learned to love it for ease of packing.
The Slumberjack Country Squire's duffel bag is huge and can be unzipped from the bag to serve as a stand-alone duffel. All this and more can fit inside for a weekend getaway. Sleeping pad, tent, extra clothes, a pillow... we learned to love it for ease of packing.

Packed Size


Let's face it, when it comes to tent or trailer camping, size doesn't matter. But there are other circumstances when it does.

Can the bag double as a backcountry bag? Some users may have a desire to crossover from car camping to the backcountry, but don't want to splurge on gear for a sport they may only do just once or on a very limited basis.

We studied each bag and rated them from 1 to 10 on whether they could be used in the backcountry. Can the bag legitimately fit into a 75-liter pack or smaller? If not, could they be strapped to the pack with reasonable ease?

We found the REI Siesta 30 and the Northface Dolomite 20 (seen here) could easily fit into a most backpacks  down to a 58 litre pack.
We found the REI Siesta 30 and the Northface Dolomite 20 (seen here) could easily fit into a most backpacks, down to a 58 litre pack.

Does the bag fit into its stuff sack, and if so, does it fit easily? There's nothing worse than trying to fit a sleeping bag into a stuff sack that's too small. We unpacked and packed each bag into its storage sack five times and then rated them an overall rating of 1 to 10 based on the combined factors of does the bag fit into its stuff sack and, if so, does it do so easily.

Size of stored bag. We already touched on the fact that size doesn't matter when it comes to front country camping. But we were still curious to see how big each bag is when it is stored in its stuff sack. (Who knows, maybe someone out there reading this still drives a Yugo). The smallest bags received a 10, and the remaining bags were then scored on a curve as to their respective size.