Choosing a Women’s Sleeping bag | Everything You Need to Know

Choosing a high quality women’s sleeping bag presents a daunting task, especially as a beginner backpacker and hiker. It’s also an investment, since a durable and lightweight sleeping bag will typically cost upwards of $300.

A women’s sleeping bag is not just the pink version of the men’s. In recent years, manufacturers have put a decent amount of effort into redefining the sleeping bag for women.

This post will focus on the aspects of a good and high quality sleeping bag that has all the necessary traits a professional might look for. But the most important thing I’d like you to learn from this post is:

How to choose a sleeping bag that will actually keep you warm

What makes a women’s sleeping bag different

Here’s a quick guide to the difference between a women’s sleeping bag and a unisex, or men’s, sleeping bag:

  • Women’s sleeping bags are shorter in length
  • The comfortable temperature range is scaled to match a women’s body heat
  • They may have narrower shoulder or wider hip
  • They may distribute the insulation to different areas of the bag

Things to consider when choosing a sleeping bag for backpacking

Now that you know what makes a women’s sleeping bag a potentially better choice, let’s look at the most important factors that go into picking a winner:

  • Temperature rating
    • Sleeping bags will come advertised with a temperature rating that you can expect to feel comfortable at
    • Remember that in order for a sleeping bag to do its job, a warm sleeping pad is important.
  •  Weight
    • Look for the lightest-weight sleeping bag that matches all other criteria
    • Don’t skimp on warmth for a better weight
  • Shape/Size
    • Sleeping bag style — mummy vs rectangle vs quilt
    • Length — regular or long
    • Comfort — too narrow or wide?
    • Pack size — how small it can get when you’re not using it
  • Materials
    • Down or synthetic
    • Outer materials — are they breathable, heavy, or waterproof?
  • Price 
    • We won’t focus on price in this post, but it is a consideration nonetheless
    • My favorite sleeping bag comes in at around $369
  • Extras
    • Pockets
    • Hood shape
    • Ease of use (zipper, pull-tabs)
    • Neck guard

What’s the Best Women’s Sleeping Bag?

According to OutdoorGearLabs, it’s the Rab Neutrino 400 Women’s sleeping bag.

Why Women Need a Warmer Sleeping Bag

It is important to realize that a unisex sleeping bag likely will not keep you warm at the temperatures advertised. I can attest to this. Even when accounting for it, I shivered the night away in a men’s 0 degree sleeping bag on a 10 degree night.

Why is this? A unisex sleeping bag’s temperature rating is based on the average comfort level for an adult male. Women tend to sleep colder, and there is a scientific reason behind it.

  1. Women have a higher core body temperature, meaning outside temps seem cooler, and it takes more energy to keep the same level of warmth
  2. Slower metabolism means burning energy more slowly
  3. More evenly distributed body fat – fat can feel colder faster as warm blood gets pulled closer to your core, making women feel colder sooner, especially in the extremities.

Here’s a great write up on the Thermarest blog that links to a few other recent studies on the subject:

Women’s Mattresses: Warmer, but for a different reason than you might think.

To make up for this difference in body heat between males and females, a women’s sleeping bag will have a considerable amount more insulation than a unisex one that advertises the same temperature rating.

Here, you can see the difference between the women’s REI Flash (left) rated to 32 degrees and the men’s REI Flash (right), rated to 29 degrees.

women's sleeping bag
The women’s REI Flash (left) has a considerable amount more insulation than the men’s version

Can I Still Get a Unisex Sleeping Bag?

Yes, if you’ve found a sleeping bag that meets all of your qualifications for quality, you can still get a unisex sleeping bag. My recommendation is to look for a unisex sleeping bag that advertises a warmth of about 14 degrees warmer than you’ll need. This accounts for the lack of extra insulation as well as any extra length.

For example, if you’d like to be comfortable in 30 degrees, consider a men’s 15 degree sleeping bag, like the Mountain Hardwear Ratio 15.

Now let’s take a look at the specifics of what makes a Women’s sleeping bag the better choice for the female body:

Temperature Rating

As we talked about above, it is incredibly important to consider the temperature rating when purchasing a women’s sleeping bag, and that women’s sleeping bags have different temperature ratings than unisex ones. But why, and what does that mean?

First, a bit about temperature ratings:

Today, almost all reputable brands have their sleeping bags tested on the EN (European Norm) temperature rating scale — a universal testing method. Prior to the EN scale, no proper standard had been set, and ratings were incredibly subjective.

EN temperature rating tests are conducted by 3rd party labs, and allow buyers to be able to compare different brands and purchase confidently.

women's sleeping bag
EN rating scale on the Northface women’s Cat’s Meow

The EN scale lists a comfort, lower, and extreme temperature limit. Women will want to go by the comfort limit, while men should pay attention to the lower temperature limit. These limits set a guide for the lowest temperature that you can expect to sleep comfortably at.

How Much a Women’s Sleeping Bag Weighs

Just like other outdoor gear, there used to be no such thing as a women’s bag. When they started to become a thing, they were for camping. Pink, heavy, cumbersome, who would think that a WOMAN might want to pick up and hike a few thousand miles just like the boys? Well, they do, and now you can find a high quality lightweight women’s sleeping bag on par with the professionally made ones.

What is a good weight?

Since this post is specific to backpacking sleeping bags, remember that we’re looking to carry this thing, and carry it far. Because of the extra insulation needed to keep warm, ladies sleeping bags might always be a tad heavier, but you can find a really good 20 degree sleeping bad in the 2 pound range.

Is that good? YES.

In other words, depending on how warm you want to be, a 3-season sleeping bag should weigh between 1 and 3 pounds.

This women’s version of the Mountain Hardwear Heratio is rated to 15 degrees and weighs in at only 2lbs 7oz:

The Shape Makes a Difference

The majority of traditional sleeping bags you’ll find in the women’s backpacking category will be mummy-shaped. This means that the sleeping bag tapers in around your feet.

The reasoning for this is because it makes less room for your feet to have to heat, and to make the bag weigh less.

Some people really don’t like the constriction and might want a rectangular sleeping bag. Typically, rectangular bags will be found in the ‘car camping’ category and are heavy and bulky.

Another option is a backpacking quilt. I don’t have a lot of experience with quilts — and I wasn’t able to find any brands producing women’s specific quilts.

Interested to read more about backpacking quilts? Here is a link to Adventure Alan who knows a ton about quilts.

The Art of Sleeping Warm – A Guide to Sleeping Bags and Quilts

Size Can Make a Huge Difference in Your Comfort

Remember earlier when I said that women’s sleeping bags are shorter in length? It’s true!

A women’s regular length sleeping bag will typically be designed for a female who is 5’6” or shorter as opposed to a unisex regular, which is designed up to 6′ even.

Here is a length comparison between a women’s long (left) and men’s long (right):

women's sleeping bag
Length of a women’s sleeping bag vs a men’s

If you’re taller than 5’6”, opt for the women’s long sized sleeping bag. As I learned the hard way, a shorter bag will cause numbness in your feet, and also cause a good deal of heat loss from compressing the insulation at the top and bottoms of the bag.

It’s also important to not ‘size up’ if you don’t have to. You might think that more room sounds like a good idea; however, your body will be responsible for distributing heat to all of the extra space.

Packing Size

Also consider how small you can make your sleeping bag inside your backpack. Both of the sleeping bags pictured below are compressed using a Sea to Summit waterproof compression sack.

On the left is the North Face Cat’s Meow, rated to 20 degrees, and on the right is the REI Flash rated to 32 degrees.

women's sleeping bag
A synthetic 20 degree sleeping bag (left) and a down synthetic blend 32 degree sleeping bag (right) compressed for backpacking

Materials and Insulation

There are two types of insulation you’ll find in a sleeping bag, down or synthetic.

Down, goose or otherwise has a lot of advantages:

  • Lighter weight
  • Warmer for the weight
  • Compresses smaller

Reasons you might want synthetic instead:

  • You’re against using animal products
  • You have a down allergy
  • If the insulation could get wet

The biggest downfall of a down bag is that it if it gets wet, you were traditionally, well, screwed.

However, the last few years have brought several breakthroughs in waterproof down technology. At first, manufacturers thought that the waterproof coating would degrade the down and lessen the lifespan of their product.

That has turned out to not be true, and now almost every down sleeping bag is being made with these waterproof coatings.

Outer materials

You also want to look at the material on the outside of the bag. How durable is it? Some sleeping bags, like the REI Joule, have two different types of material – a lighter weight and more breathable material running down the front and back, and a heavier but more durable/waterproof material running along the edges, where it is most likely to come in contact with your tent.

Extras

Yes, there is even more to consider!

Here are a few things:

  • Does it have a neck guard?
    • This is an extra piece of insulated fabric just inside the sleeping bag, and it rests against your neck. As you move during the night, it helps to stop cold air from seeping in.
  • The hood
    • The hood of the sleeping bag should fit comfortable around your head.
    • The pull tabs to tighten the hood should be easy to use.
  • Is the zipper easy to use?
    • Get inside the sleeping bag, zip up all the way, and see how long it takes to get out again.
  • Some have pockets for easy storage of important items
women's sleeping bag
The neck guard on the REI Magma 17

Feeling overwhelmed at all the things to consider? Don’t worry, I have a few recommendations. Check out my top 5 favorite women’s backpacking sleeping bags.

Did I miss anything? Leave a comment with your sleeping bag questions!

 

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