Sleeping Bags and Mattresses

The first issue always raised when speaking about sleeping bags is the eternal battle about which is better - down filled or synthetic filled. Let's look at the advantages / disadvantages of each.

Down bags are wonderfully soft, light and very warm. On the downside, they are also terribly expensive - after all, someone has to go out and gather up all of that down by hand and sort, grade and clean it. Another purported disadvantage is that down loses its insulating quality when wet. I don't know how much of a disadvantage that really is. Call me unsympathetic, but anyone that has to deal with a wet sleeping bag deserves to sleep in a wet sleeping bag. Waterproofing a sleeping bag is a simple process - there's no reason that anyone has to should have to deal with a wet bag.

Synthetic fills for sleeping bags have come a long way in the past ten years. Many of the synthetic bags approach the same warmth-to-weight ratio that was only possible with down fill before. Again, you will read that an advantage to synthetic bags is that they retain some of their insulation quality even when wet, but why would anyone ever get their sleeping bag wet?

Your next deciding factor in choosing a sleeping bag will be shape. You have a choice of rectangular, tapered or mummy bags. The more more tapered the bag, the less room inside for you body to heat up - this means that tapered bags are warmer than rectangular bags; and mummy bags are warmer than tapered bags. The trade-off is the leg room in the bag.

  Mummy Bag      Rectangular Bag


If you're the type of person that has to sprawl out and move their legs while sleeping, a mummy bag wouldn't be a good choice. If you don't have any claustrophobic tendencies at all, and can lay flat on your back for the entire night without tossing and turning, a rectangular bag would be a waste of size and weight for you. The tapered bag is the happy medium - it's roomier and heavier than a mummy bag, but narrower and lighter than a rectangular bag. You have to make the decision based on a few personal factors :

  • How claustrophobic am I? Could I stand to be constricted in a mummy or tapered bag?
  • How much weight do I want to carry? Am I willing to carry the extra weight associated with a rectangular bag?
  • How warm do I have to be? If warmth is a real issue, as in early spring or late fall paddling, a mummy or at least a tapered bag may be a must.
  • How rich am I? If you can afford down, go for it! It's wonderfully luxurious. Otherwise, go with synthetic - it's almost as good.

As far as mattresses go, there's only one type as far as I'm concerned and that's the self-inflating type. These mattresses (Thermarest and other similar brands) are warm, comfortable, and compact. Even if they get punctured on a trip, you still have a couple of inches of foam between you and the ground. If the $60 or $70 price tag scares you off, divide it by the number of nights you'll be sleeping on that mattress over the next five years, then ask yourself if a good night's sleep is worth that few dollars per night.

Thermarest brand self-inflating mattresses

Closed cell foam mattresses are cheaper and lighter, but they're as comfortable as sleeping on a bed of nails. This is the voice of experience speaking - I slept on this type of mattress for years.

Open cell pads (the white foam rubber variety) are a no-no. They look like a sponge for a reason... they are a sponge. Any bit of moisture they encounter gets sucked into the middle of the mattress. By the time you finish a trip, you will have a mattress weighing 125 lb. and a very wet sleeping bag.

Air mattresses are heavy, bulky and cold to sleep on. Under inflated, they feel like a half-filled waterbed, and over inflated, they feel like a row of logs. A leak or puncture means you're sleeping on bedrock. Besides, there's always someone in the group who can't resist the temptation to pull the plug during the night