Meerkat's sleeping bag guide 101
Are you lost, confused, or overwhelmed by all the information out there about sleeping gear?
You’ve come to the right place.
I spent 4 months designing two specific pieces of sleeping gear. Now that they are finally on the market, I would like to share with you some of the ins and outs I learned during the process. This guide is for you so that you can become smarter when it comes to buying, using and maintaining your sleeping gear.
The goal is to sleep comfortably, safe and conveniently. This guide will focus on these three factors.
Factor I - Comfort
Getting a comfortable sleep in the wild is important for obvious reasons, especially if you’re waking up the next day to a physically challenging outdoor activity. This is where parameters of warmth, functionality and coziness factor in.
Comfortable sleep comes from three major factors:
1. how warm you are
2. what type of cushioning you have underneath you
3. how much moving freedom you have inside the bag
You will be surprised by how many factors are taken into account when talking about warmth. There are a million things to say about this one, but perhaps the most important thing to point out is that this is a subjective matter. Everybody has their own tolerance and preferences. Gear vendors can claim what they want, but the bottom line is that you have to try for yourself to see what is right for YOU.
Factor II - Safety
Safety is key to a happy camp. Sleeping in the wild can be dangerous, especially in cold and wet conditions. This is where you factor in things like keeping body temperature in a safe zone, avoiding getting sick on track, and keeping a good mood during your getaway.
I assume that if you’re going to camp in the cold Himalayas, you probably know what you’re doing. Therefore your knowledge about safety, dehydration and healthy body temperature are beyond this guide.
It is important, however, not to overlook this factor, as choosing the wrong sleeping gear even in common backcountry camping may indeed not kill you, but can certainly turn your sleep into a nightmare.
Factor III - Convenience
Convenience is necessary to get your gear to where you want it to be. As you’re probably going to load your sleeping gear on your back, this is where we talk about weight, size and packing efficiency.
In a perfect world, you want to have the lightest gear possible, that packs as small as possible. Unless you’re on the search for high-tech, expensive materials, this usually means you may have to compromise on the material quality, insulation rating and durability.
One thing to remember here is that what might seem to you a slight difference in weight and size, can lead to very big differences in your experience. A few ounces here and there can make the difference of miles of walking a day. Do not underestimate the weight factor, your back and calves will thank you for this.
Usually, sleeping gear is divided into seasonal categories. Each category has its own focus. Let’s just dive in.
Winter Is Coming
The Winter category is where you need to lock up as much body heat as possible. Why? Well… because otherwise you might simply… die! This is critical when camping in extreme cold conditions. Namely, camping on snow and during stormy conditions. If you’re doing that, then you need sleeping gear that is specifically designed to maintain body heat.
Nowadays, sleeping gear technology is so advanced it can keep you warm even below freezing conditions. Standard temperature ratings in this category can reach below 20F degrees. This is where you need not only a well insulated sleeping bag, but a suitable sleeping pad, quilts and additional protections. Complicated and pricey material engineering processes can drive good winter sleeping bag prices far north of the $300 mark.
Summer is Cool
“Warm” can be too much. So don’t push it. If you're camping in the summer and all what you have is a 20F degrees sleeping bag, don’t rush to pack it yet. Warm weather conditions shift the focus on keeping your body cool and comfortable. This is where you need a sleeping bag that keeps you warm, but won’t suffocate you drowning in your own sweat on the other.
Nobody likes a boiling, wet and itchy bed. Agree?
In this category, you need a sleeping bag that fits the 45-60F degrees range. This is the case if you’re camping in most destinations nationwide during the Summer.
There is not a lot of “warmth technology” in this category. That’s why it’s easy to make a really cheap sleeping bag for Summer camping, as vendors can use commonly used and cheap materials such as cotton and polyester fabrics and fillings.
The problem with using these materials makes the sleeping bag weigh too much. Let alone that some of the most commonly used “cheap materials” are not only heavy but also not very compressible, so you end up with a sleeping bag that can cost anything between $14 to $50, but will feel like a big sack of potatoes on your back.
Season is Smart
Between the two extremes there is the 3-season category. This is the category where most camping needs fall. Temperature ranges between 32F and 45F degrees dominate most of the year’s nights. Temperature tolerance is not the only property you need to look for here though, 3-Season gear means that vendors have the flexibility to use a combination of materials that provides not only the warmth, but also the lightness, compressibility and durability. This is where designing sleeping gear gets tricky. This is due to the trade off between how technologically advanced the materials are, and their cost.
Price ranges in this category can be anywhere between $30 and $200. There can be a huge difference between the different products, but there can also be a big difference in price that is a result of mere branding. This is where you can find a not-so-special sleeping bag costing over $100, just because it’s branded with big names.
In order to make a decision that best fits your needs and pocket, you have to learn how to read and understand a product specification.
So how do you do that? And what exactly do you look for?
Let’s have an overview of the different materials used in the making of sleeping bags.
This is the outside part of the sleeping bag, which is exposed to both air and ground elements. It is the front line of your gear protection. When we talk about an outer shell, we mainly refer to two design aspect: the fabric and its treatment.
The outer shell fabric, in most common sleeping bags, is usually made out of a synthetic fabric like nylon, polyester or a mix of the two. Weight and packability do not factor much here, but rather the focus is on durability, resistance to stress, scratches, breathability and moisture.
It is not sufficient to know the fabric type though, but you also have to check what is the density of the fabric. Fabric density is usually expressed in units called Tex or Deniers among other metrics. This is an expression of how much material there is in the fabric. Without getting too technical, the higher these numbers are (e.g. 70D or 210T), the higher the tolerance to stress and the more durable the fabric is.
Density give you strength, but other factors are taken into account too. For example, nylon is usually stronger, more durable and breathable, but it is more expensive to manufacture. This is why most sleeping bags use polyester in their shell, and while you can reach a good quality of polyester, this is usually a compromise on durability.
The other factor in understanding the outer shell specification is the fabric treatment. This typically refers to the chemical coating applied on the fabric to control its water resistance. Coating can be done in two ways: either built into the fabric as it leaves the factory, or applied manually by the user as part of the regular maintenance of the gear. “PU coating” is widely used, which is done by giving the fabric a polymeric bath. The most durable coating that is best for water resistance is called Durable Water Resistance, sometimes referred to by DWP or DWR. I strongly recommend staying away from sleeping bags that did not go through a DWP treatment. This is not only to protect you from wet sleeps, but also to protect your gear from the elements, making it last longer.
Lining is the inner fabric layer that wraps around your body while you’re inside the sleeping bag. The key here is to get a sleeping bag with a liner that is comfortable, soft, and breathable. A sleeping bag with bad lining can make your body sweat more and breathe less. For many, it can also mean facing allergic symptoms as many people are allergic to certain types of synthetic fabrics.
Some vendors eliminate allergies by making the lining out of natural silk, usually taken from mulberry tree silk worms. The downside of this type of lining, you guessed it, is the high price of natural silk. One solution to this problem is to buy a separate sleeping bag liner which can be a good fit for those who are allergic, but it also means that you have to drag more stuff with you on the track. A Mulberry Silk liner sold separately can cost around $60 alone, so for most of us it is smarter to carefully pick a sleeping bag with a good built-in liner.
Filling is what’s between the outer shell and the lining materials. The sleeping bag is stuffed with different materials in order to lock in body heat but at the same time remain breathable to avoid bad odors and provide a comfortable night's sleep. This is where sleeping bags differ the most. The varieties of filling materials is vast, and they can make a huge difference in price, weight and compressibility.
Once again, Mother Nature provides the best materials for filling. The high end of sleeping bags usually contain a mixture of down and feathers from real birds. If you’re like me, I would always make sure the filling is coming from a sustainable and responsible source, as some down is taken from birds in the meat industry. But some factories, especially in Asia, often offer cheaper down filling taken from a brutal evil industry of live picking. Yes, you heard it right. Down and feather are brutally plucked out of the birds body in a mass production process, which, to say the least, is a very painful and inhuman process.
The Chinese standards for the down industry are becoming more and more sophisticated in the recent years, which eliminates a lot of the concern about the source of your down. This is especially important as many of the outdoor gear, good or bad, is made in China.
But not all down is created equal. As the quality of it depends on the health of the bird, its age, its diet, as well as other factors.
For example, down taken from older ducks and geese is better, because under the microscope, it provides better insulation and higher compressibility than down taken from immature birds.
Perhaps the most important and yet most misunderstood element here is fill power. Fill power is a measuring unit, expressed by volume per weight. The higher this metric is, the better the insulation and the smaller your sleeping bag can compress to. That’s because it basically shows how much air can the down trap.
Fill power can range anywhere between 200 and 800 cubic inches per ounce, even up to 1100c In/Oz can be achieved with advanced manufacturing techniques. Also here, once again, cost is an important factor. High fill power means you have to wait longer for the bird to do its own thing. Honoring the slow growth of nature is key to high quality, but it also means that you will pay significantly more for a down sleeping bag with 800 fill power than a sleeping bag with 500 fill power. And that’s not to mention other chemical treatments that can be applied to down in order to make it more durable and more water resistant.
Most sleeping bags do not use natural down due to the high cost. With the advancement of material engineering, one can find truly amazing filling materials that behave just as good or even better that down insulation, compressibility and weight. Reaching this kind of quality though can be even more expensive, so I recommend get a sleeping bag that has a natural down filling.
As a rule of thumb, any filling power higher than 650 is considered a good fit for 3-season sleeping gear. You don’t need more than that it you’re camping in moderate weather conditions. What’s more, the filling is where trust is your only way to ensure good materials, as you cannot actually open a sleeping bag and examine its filling without ruining it. So make sure you trust your vendor. One reasonable way to do this is take the price into account. A 800 fill power sleeping bag will most probably not cost less than $150 anywhere in the country, offline or online. Any vendor that offers you a 800+ fill power sleeping bag for much less is… well, you just have to rely on your personal judgement here.
Comfort factors come not only from the sleeping bag itself, but also depend on your body form, size and preferable position of sleeping.
If you move a lot during your sleep, you probably want a sleeping bag that is more roomy. This is a no brainer, but keep in mind that more room means less insulation, less compressibility and heavier weight. So don’t jump on the biggest size directly, but think about your sleeping preferences before you pick your sleeping bag.
If you are 6 feet tall or more, a standard size sleeping bag will probably feel too tight of a fit for you. I recommend getting a long size. In general, having a long size sleeping bag won’t hurt if you’re taller than 5’8".
There are so many intricacies to zipper technology that I was dazzled by it alone. There are many zipper vendors out there. A zipper can cost anywhere between few cents to 2 digits in US dollars.
For most applications, you want a molded plastic zipper, some of them even have a waterproof structure. But the most important property of zipper is ease of use. High quality zippers will zip back and forth without considerable effort from your side. Cheaper kinds of zippers might look good, but they will soon give you a headache getting stuck even on the first use.
When I started working on Meerkat’s sleeping bag, I examined dozens of zippers from different products and samples. The difference in price was huge, and the difference in quality and durability was obvious as well.
YKK is perhaps the most renown company to make zippers targeted for the outdoor industry. If it’s YKK, this usually means that the vendor has chosen an expensive zipper over other cheaper options, which can say a thing or two about the design quality.
The number of zippers is also important. Having only one zipper means that you only have one way to get in or out of the sleeping bag. Some sleeping bags offer a two-zipper opening, which can be used to create a ventilation window where needed.
The Bells and Whistles.
Like any gear, sleeping bags can be loaded with miscellaneous features. Some are really nice to have, but many are merely meant to drive the retail price up. So be careful here and use your personal judgement. An internal pocket to keep your wallet, keys or phone is really useful, but you don’t really need your sleeping bag to have a USB plug to charge your laptop.
Meerkat’s sleeping bag comes by default with a self-inflating camping pillow. This way you can ensure maximum comfort without having to compromise on weight. More about the Meerkat camping pillow will follow in a future post.
There are a million difference guides you can read about sleeping bags and I tried to sum up the information you need to make a buying decision that is best for YOU. The best advice I can give here is to ask questions. Sleeping bag design has become more technologically advanced, so don’t hesitate to ask questions and dig deeper. I will be more than glad to give you more specific details about Meerkat’s sleeping bag, or refer you to information sources that I personally use and trust.