This past summer of camping rentals was eye opening to me regarding people's expectations of sleeping bags, or maybe it had more to do with people's expectations of summer camping. Elsewhere in the US summer camping consists of fairly warm, reliable weather, even if it can be rainy and wet in some areas. However, the Rocky Mountains have extremely variable weather most of the year and it can snow at any time. Our daily temperature swings can be extreme going from 70 or 80 degrees F to freezing temperatures. I found our renters who brought their own sleeping bags were often cold and uncomfortable.
My goal with this post is to shed a little light on the options available when buying a sleeping bag and how to choose a sleeping bag for overlanding or car camping. As you become more experienced you will find a setup which works well for you in the climates you routinely camp in.
The first step to selecting a proper sleeping bag is to determine your intended use. I know I said this post is about car camping, but often car campers are also backpackers, bikers, hunters or some other recreational enthusiast. It can be a good idea to determine all your sleeping bag needs and buy one to fit them all if possible. The difference between bags for different uses will be weight, warmth and cost. Warmer, and lighter usually equal a higher price.
Don't let yourself get pigeonholed into sleeping bags marketed for your specific activity. There are some great products marketed to different sports which may have the perfect product for you such as hunting sleeping bags (usually really warm and cozy) or ultralight quilts (my preferred method which keeps me warm and able to move at night).
Determining the temperature rating of the sleeping bag you need will help you narrow down options. To me this is a non-negotiable spec of any sleeping bag I buy. If you will be car camping in winter then you will want a bag rated well below your expected lowest temperature. If you only camp in the hot summer months you can get away with a much warmer rated bag. In my experience the listed temperature ratings on bags are the point at which you will not die of hypothermia - not the temperature at which you will be comfortable! This is why I use a 20 degree F bag even in the summer.
Sleeping bags are usually rated between 15 and 50 degrees F. I would never buy a 50 degree bag to use in Montana as the nights are generally going to be colder than that in the mountains - the highest I would buy is 35 degrees F. If you want a really cold bag you can find them rated as low as -40 degrees F designed for mountaineering, anything below 0 degrees F is probably overkill for most people!
Here is a breakdown of suggested temperatures from REI:
There are two main types of insulation in sleeping bags. Down and synthetic which is generally made of polyester. Down is great for cold, dry weather as once the down gets wet it looses insulating power. However, down gives more warmth for the weight. Synthetic performs well in warmer and wetter conditions. If synthetic bags get wet they still keep you insulated. Synthetic bags are generally cheaper than down bags and a typical car camping sleeping bag will only be offered in synthetic. Either option is good for Montana since we are dry most of the year. Down bags seem to regulate temperature well even in the summer, but they may be too warm for hot sleepers. Down will also pack down smaller than synthetic bags if you are also hoping to use it backpacking.
When shopping in a sporting goods store you will notice there are different shaped sleeping bags. Usually the choice is between rectangular or "mummy" style bags. In my experience rectangular bags are much more comfortable than mummy bags as there is room to move. However, you will miss out on the hood which can help conserve heat and there is greater space for you to heat. Mummy bags will be lighter weight as they have less material.
Weight and Size
In general weight and size doesn't factor into car camping too much. This is more of a concern for backpacking or other sports where you need to carry your bag and you have limited space. However, it is worth thinking about especially if you have a small car or a spot you want them to fit (for example: storage inside a roof top tent). Rectangular, synthetic bags of a low temperature rating will be the largest and heaviest bags. Mummy bags made of down will be the smallest and lightest bags.
There are a few alternatives to buying a sleeping bag. The obvious is using blankets and other types of home bedding. These options can work well, but it is hard to find ones warm enough. Usually a house is at least 60 degrees F at night where outside could be much lower.
Outdoor blankets are making waves right now, the main brand being Rumpl. The lowest rating I have found on these is 45 degrees F, which as I have stated above, just isn't warm enough to use alone in Montana. Some of these blankets rival the cost of a sleeping bag as well. Pair one of these with a fleece blanket and it could be a great option for overlanding and car camping.
Another option which is a bit newer to the sleeping bag world is a quilt. These were created for ultralight weight backpacking and are kind of like a sleeping bag, but generally do not have a zipper or hood in order to reduce weight. They are also designed to go over you and not under (you don't lay on any part of the quilt).
My husband and I started using these in our roof top tent for a few reasons:
I recommend the average car camper buy a synthetic, rectangular bag, but look carefully at construction and temperature rating. I find hunting bags are some of the best ones out there. They are made of heavy duty material and have colder ratings than some of the typical bags you will find. Their downside is they can be big and bulky. Regardless of the type you determine is right for you, buy from a sporting goods store as they will have well-made products from good brands. In my area REI and Sportsman's Warehouse have good products. Just like everything else you get what you pay for so stay away from sleeping bags offered at Wal-Mart and similar stores! They will be rated for very warm temperatures and they don't hold up well.
This article is for all the newbie campers out there (and those who know better but who are just lazy). We support you experiencing and loving the outdoors, but you need to learn proper bathroom habits when there is no bathroom available. There is nothing worse than showing up to a dispersed camp site and realizing the last four groups of campers did not do their due diligence when relieving themselves.
Steps for pooping in the woods:
Seeing a bear in its native habitat can be an exhilarating experience – it can also be terrifying. Bears are prevalent throughout the mountains and forests of Montana including our highly visited National Parks. The chances of being injured by a bear in Yellowstone National Park are extremely low: 1 in 2.7 million. The risk of bear injury is about as high as being killed by a falling tree, being hit by lightning, or dying in an avalanche. While this risk is not high there are some very simple and easy practices you can adopt to stay safe while recreating in bear country.
Bears in Montana
There are two species of bears in Montana: black bears (Ursus americanus) and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), also known as brown bears. Both species of bears are omnivores and eat many different plants and animals. They also can get a taste for human food, garbage and pet foods which lead to many negative bear-human interactions.
Fire season is here again. Rainy spring weather transitioned into beautiful summer days and then all of a sudden everything was crispy, smoky and the mountains disappeared behind a haze. Enjoying the outdoors during fire season can be tricky. Often the places you want to go are near a fire, or the air quality is bad enough medical professionals recommend people stay inside. However, Montana is a big place and there is usually somewhere you can go to escape the heat and smoke. Fire season is also the time when those enjoying the outdoors need to take extra precautions with fire safety.
Wildland Fires in Numbers
As of today for 2017, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 42,185 fires in the US covering 6,350,711 acres and we are just in August! Active wildfires are located in California (7 fires), Florida (1 fire), Idaho (3 fires), Montana (12 fires), Oregon (16 fires), Washington (5 fires), and Wyoming (1 fire). Of the 45 active fires only four are contained. 2016 had a total of 38,010 fires covering 3,954,866 acres. The costs of suppression in 2016 was almost $2 billion. I am assuming with the increase in fires during 2017 we will be way over the $2 billion mark by the end of the year. The cost is not just monetary; 2016 saw 15 wildland firefighter deaths. Keep these numbers in mind while camping this summer to keep yourself and others safe.
Planning your Trip
The first thing you should do when planning your camping trip during fire season is check to see if there are active fires in the area you want to travel including near roads or highways. InciWeb has lists of active fires by state, or you can see wildfires in map view on the US Wildfire Activity Web Map. If there is an active fire in the area you want to travel, change your plans. If you will be camping in public lands (National Parks, National Forests, BLM, State Parks, etc.) call the local agency office to find out if there are closures due to fires or fire restrictions and plan accordingly. Many times fire restrictions are simple including campfires restricted to designated fire rings and limited smoking, but sometimes camp stoves are restricted which could put a damper on any gourmet camp meals you had planned. If you do not follow these restrictions you could be fined or jailed so it is worth the effort to find out any relevant information.
Amy Bowser is the co-owner of Paradise Overland with her husband Jon. In their free time they explore anywhere they can get to with their Toyota and roof top tent.