Cold weather sleeping bags are essential if you are planning a winter camping trip.
Cold weather bags have a number of features that help to keep you warm and comfortable, no matter what the weather.
It's your job to get warm before you get into the bag. Don't get into your bag if you are chilled. Run around or do some brisk exercises first.
It's your sleeping bag's job to keep you warm, by trapping the warm air created by your body and not letting it escape.
Most hardcore winter campers prefer to use down filled sleeping bags.
Down is definitely the best insulation material available - although synthetic sleeping bags are being improved upon all the time. Down forms pockets that efficiently trap and hold air. Click here to learn more about down filled sleeping bags.
In general, a high quality down bag will be more expensive than a similar synthetic bag - so if cost is a factor, you might want to consider synthetic. Click here to read about synthetic sleeping bags.
If maximum warmth is your only consideration, then choose down.
For cold weather camping, choose a mummy bag. Mummy sleeping bags are designed for maximum warmth.
Remember: your body warms the air, and the sleeping bag holds in the heat. The more room there is in the bag, the longer it will take for you to warm the air.
A mummy bag's tapered shape minimizes air space for maximum warming efficiency.
A mummy bag has an attached hood with a drawstring.
On cold nights, you can cinch up the drawstring so that just your face peeks out.
Sleeping bag ratings vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
As a general rule, cold weather sleeping bags are designed for temperatures from about +10 to -10 Fahrenheit. (That's -12 to -23 Celsius.)
If you are going to be camping in temperatures below -10 F (-23 C), get an extreme cold weather bag.
Whether you choose a down bag or a synthetic bag, make sure that it has these important features.
This is a quilted fabric yoke that fits snugly over your shoulders and around your neck, keeping cold air out of the bag and warm air in.
See the black thing? It's a flap that runs between your body and the sleeping bag zipper to prevent warm air from leaking out through the zipper.
Be sure that it runs the full length of the zipper.
A few cold weather sleeping bag models have no zipper at all. This is to prevent the loss of heat through the zipper. I haven't tried such a bag, but I imagine that it would be difficult to climb in and out of it.
This bag will be too warm for most camping trips, but if you are camping in extremely cold conditions, this might be the bag for you.
If weight is not an issue, consider a military-type sleeping bag.
These are heavy, but they are warm!
No matter how good your sleeping bag is, there are steps you can take to maximize your comfort.
A good sleeping pad keeps you off the cold ground. This makes a huge difference in your comfort.
I highly recommend a Thermarest pad or a similar self-inflating pad.
A silk or fleece sleeping bag liner inside your bag will keep you warmer by at least several degrees.
In extremely cold weather, even the best cold weather sleeping bag won't keep you toasty warm - but it will keep you alive.
When I lived in the Arctic, my roommate and I did a lot of camping, all year round.
One night, on a very cold winter camping trip, I was bundled snugly in my down mummy bag. The draft yoke was in place, and my body heat had warmed the air in the bag so that I was relatively comfortable. (Note that I didn't say "warm"! At -22F/-30C in a tent, there is really no such thing as "warm".)
The only part of me that was really cold was my face - and it was very very cold.
I hit upon a solution: I covered my face with my fleece neck warmer. This helped.
However, the fleece froze to the edges of the face opening!
I felt entombed. I panicked. I thrust my hand up through the face hole, ripped off the fleece, and gratefully took big gulps of fresh cold air.
Then the frigid air burned my face! I replaced the fleece.
Then I panicked and ripped it off - and so on, and so on ... all night long!
The part of my body that was protected by my down sleeping bag, though, was quite comfortable.
A good quality down mummy bag is the best cold weather sleeping bag for winter camping trips. If the cost of a down bag is prohibitive, a good quality synthetic mummy bag can work, too.