If you’re looking for a guide to choosing the best sleeping bag for a bike tour, then you’ve come to the right place.
I’ve been researching the bags on offer from the all the major manufacturers and I’ve got a number of recommendations for you of the best ones out there to suit a range of different budgets. I’ve also got a guide to choosing the right sleeping bag for bike touring.
Choosing a sleeping bag is hard enough as there are so many factors to consider – shape, insulation type, left zipper, right zipper – the list goes on and on. Choosing a bag for bike touring adds a whole other level of complexity to this as you need to think about the weight and packed size of your bag. A bag that might be suitable for backyard camping would probably be a complete disaster for a bike tour.
But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. In a moment, I’ll go through everything you need to consider when you’re choosing your bag. I’ll also go through the anatomy of a bag so you know what the various parts are called. First though, let’s take a look at my recommended sleeping bags for bike touring.
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The anatomy of a sleeping bag (jargon explained!)
Think a sleeping bag is, well, a bag that you sleep in? It is, but there’s a lot more to it than that. As with everything in life there’s a ton of jargon related to sleeping bags. I’ll take you through the main terms now so that you’ll recognize them when you see them in future and know which are relevant to you.
Arguably the most important part of a sleeping bag is the insulation. This is the stuff that’s tucked away inside the bag walls that keeps you, the Sleeping Beauty inside the bag, cozy and warm at night. The job of the insulation is to trap your body heat and keep it close to your skin in order to keep out the night-time chill.
There are two main types of filling to look out for – down and synthetic. Down is essentially the tiniest and softest feathers from a duck or goose. It’s particularly good for bike touring as it has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio, meaning that you get the most insulation for the least bag weight.
Synthetic insulation is (usually) polyester fibres in bundles. It doesn’t have as good warmth-to-weight characteristics vs down BUT it does have one major advantage. That is that it retains most of its thermal power when it gets wet, in comparison with down which loses most of its insulating properties when damp and can also take longer to dry. It’s an important consideration if you feel that your bike touring is going to be on the soggy side.
The shell is the outermost layer of fabric on the bag. It holds the insulation in place (with the help of Baffles, which I’ll come on to in a moment). The shell fabric can also be water-resistant and/or breathable – useful particularly when you’re considering a down bag.
This is the layer of fabric that goes next to you on the inside of the bag. It is generally a soft and comfortable layer that helps transfer moisture away from you during the night.
Situated at either chest or hood (or sometimes both), these can be handy for storing small items close by so that you can easily find them in the dark. They’re also useful for valuables that you need to keep track of.
In the case of a mummy/hybrid bag there is normally an insulated hood. This can be excellent on a cold night as it allows you to pull the hood snugly round your head, keeping the chill out and the warmth in. On warmer nights you can loosen off the hood fully and allow it to lay flat.
The hood is one of my favorite features of sleeping bags and I’d be hard pushed to choose a bag without one.
The hood and neck of the sleeping bag will be tightened and loosened with a drawstring collar. This generally has a toggle to keep it at the tension you need. You’ll sometimes see it called a Drawstring collar or Head Gasket.
Many bags have a pocket in the hood which allows you to stuff clothing into in order to make a pillow. Anyone who’s tried to just tuck clothes under their head before will no doubt have woken up to find them strewn across the tent interior, so this is a very useful feature.
Most bags will have stitching in the shell layer in the form of boxes, rectangles, or other shapes. This is not just for decoration as these seams form compartments for the bag filling. These baffles are incredibly important as they stop the filling from moving around inside the bag, which could create cold spots if the insulation were to move away from a particular point.
After the top opening of the bag, the next most likely place for chilly air to get in is along the zipper. The job of the draft tube is to stop this happening and it does so with a thick, insulating tube that sits alongside the zipper.
Talking of the zippers, their job is twofold. Firstly, it’s to help you get into your bag – particularly important when the bag has a slim and figure-hugging design (as many mummy bags do). Secondly, they can be used to regulate temperature – zip them right up for maximum warmth, loosen them off for a bit of breeze.
You’ll find a number of different options for zippers. Some bags have a zipper on the left, or on the right. Some have zippers that are two-way so that you can keep the top closed but allow some air in to cool sweaty feet. Some bags even have extra zippers that allow expansion of the bag, a great feature if you roll over in the night swapping from back sleeping to side.
As the name suggests, the footbox is that of the bag where your feet go. Some bags have a flared design to the footbox which is useful if you want to store clothing, water bottles, or batteries to keep them warm.
Sleeping pad loops
On the underside of some bags you will find loops that can be used to attach your bag to a sleeping pad, a very handy feature if you move around a lot and have a tendency to slide off your pad during the night.
Additional loops at the bottom of your bag to hang it up to dry and air out.
Sleeping bag shapes
There are three bag shapes that you’ll usually see. These are Mummy, Rectangular, and Hybrid. Mummy bags are vaguely person-shaped. These are great for providing better insulation as there’s fewer places where a draft can get in. They also tend to be lighter than a rectangular bag as the shape means there’s less fabric/filling used to make them.
Rectangular bags are, strangely enough, rectangular-shaped. Their main (and, I think, only) advantage over mummy bags is that they can often be zipped together with a bag of the same design.
Hybrid bags are a cross between the two. They have more space inside than a mummy bag, however generally won’t have a hood. On the flipside, they can be lighter than a rectangular bag.
How to choose a great sleeping bag for bike touring
Ok, we’ve looked at the main features of a sleeping bag so you can get a handle on the common jargon that you’ll see. Now, how do you choose the perfect bag for your cycle touring? Down or synthetic? Mummy or hybrid? It can get real confusing real fast. Before that happens, let’s see what the most important considerations are.
I did once read that bag weight wasn’t as critical for bike touring as it was for backpacking. The rationale being that backpackers had to carry the full weight of the bag on their back, whereas bike tourers could just let the bike itself do the heavy lifting.
That person had clearly never been on a bike tour! Sure, there’s some benefit to having the weight strapped on to your bike – it’s fine for the flat and great for downhills, after all. Sadly, most bike tours involve the odd bit of ascent too and that’s where the extra weight starts to make itself noticed.
My view? Weight is THE most critical element when it comes to touring bag choice.
Right behind weight is packed size when it comes to bag choice.
There are two things that can have a big impact on you when it comes to touring gear – how much it weighs and how big it is. The bulkier your stuff is (and bags and bike touring tents are often the bulkiest) the more wind-resistance you’ll have, and the harder it will be to pedal. So, choosing a bag that packs up as small as possible in really important in helping mitigate this.
Allied to both weight and packed size is the insulation type. We’ve seen that down has the better warmth-to-weight ratio vs synthetic. That makes it my bag filling of choice when it comes to bike touring. The only reason I think for not choosing it is if there’s a strong chance of your bag getting wet regularly – either through rain or condensation. If that’s an issue, and good drying conditions are likely hard to come by, then go with a synthetic filled bag.
You’ll see temperature ratings and number of seasons on the sales blurb for most bags. It’s a useful consideration, but I’d always take the numbers with a dose of common sense.
No-one knows your body like you do. You know if you’re always roasting hot at night (pick a lighter bag) or forever freezing cold (pick the highest-rated bag you can). Bear in mind that you can always supplement your bag with extra layers of clothing, hat and gloves. This can mean that you’re able to reduce bag weight by warming yourself up with clothing that you’ll be taking anyway.
Mummy bags are my go-to when it comes to bike touring. Why? Well, they tend to be lighter and more compact when packed due to their smaller footprint vs a rectangle bag. They also have the drawstring hood which can really help to keep you warm on cold nights. If you’re a restless sleeper who swaps front to side to back throughout the night, then the extra space of a rectangle bag might be more comfortable. However, recent innovations in mummy bag design mean that they can be perfect for you restless types too – check out the Expandable Mummy bag range from Big Agnes for the details