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Backpacking Gear – Choosing a Backpack and Sleeping Bag

Posted: Feb 03, 2011 by Sam Szarka


For a Colorado wilderness backpacking trip or expedition, the right equipment is crucial. The wrong backpack can make you miserable on the trail as the straps chafe and the heavy weight of the pack strains your back muscles. A sleeping bag is equally important for your night’s rest.  Read on for my recommendations for backpacks and sleeping bags.

Disclaimer: In this review I provide links and recommendations for some products. I have no affiliation with the vendors of these products.

Backpacks

When backpacking, choosing the right size, quality, and type of backpack can make the difference between a trip spent in misery, or one spent enjoying the sights and sounds of the outdoors.

The best backpacks will have a system of straps that will help you balance the weight on your back while you hike. Osprey and Black Diamond have the best system right now. But REI, Arc’teryx, North Face, Gregory, Mountain Hardware, Granite Gear, etc… all make very nice backpacks. If you buy a backpack, make sure you like the way the straps fit your body. The worst thing you can do is buy a backpack and find out that it HURTS you when you are hiking.

Size: The second thing to look for is… does the backpack have enough space/room for all of your camping stuff. Usually, you will want a large pocket to put your sleeping bag in. And some straps to strap your tent onto the outside of the pack. The rest of the backpack should have room for your food, water, water filter, clothing, stove, cooking pots/pans, map, knife, light, spare batteries etc.

For a 2 or 3 day trip, a smaller 50 to 60L pack is adequate. For longer trips, a 70L to 85L backpack will be required to carry your gear.

Weight: One of the MOST important things is how much the backpack weighs. Don’t buy something too big (the bigger the more weight), and don’t buy something made out of heavy materials. But don’t buy too small of a backpack either.

Materials: Most backpacks are made out of a tough nylon material. Make sure there are no tears, or rips. Does the cloth look like it is strong and will it be able to survive lots of trips?

Recommendation: The best value on the market is the award winning REI Flash 65 backpack. For under $200 dollars, this backpack performs well and has won awards for its simple but effective design.

Sleeping Bags

To buy a sleeping bag you have to ask yourself some questions. What kind of camping are you going to use it for? Winter camping? Summer camping? Both?

Sleeping bags are rated by the lowest temperature you can survive in them. The lower the bag is rated, the more insulation it has, the more it weighs, and the bulkier it is. That’s why you don’t want to pick a sleeping bag that is warmer than what you really need.

There are 2 kinds of sleeping bags: down and synthetic fill. The fill material is either geese down, or synthetic fibers (plastic). Down filled sleeping bags are usually more expensive, but they are very warm and light, and more compressible (can compress into a smaller space) making them less bulky in your pack. The only problem is they are expensive, and their insulation is no good if you get it wet.

Synthetic sleeping bags tend to weigh more, and are bulkier. But they are cheaper, and they still keep you warm when wet. Most sleeping bags are synthetic, UNLESS it specifically says it is a down bag.

Also, you want to buy a sleeping bag that fits your body well. You don’t want one that is too big. This is because the bigger the sleeping bag, the more air inside the bag your body has to heat to keep warm. Make sure when you test your sleeping bag, that there is enough room at the bottom of the bag around your feet. You will want a few inches of extra space around the bottom so your feet don’t touch the bottom of the bag, otherwise your feet will be cold.

Make sure the sleeping bag has a draw-string or draw-cord. The draw cord works the same way it does on a hoody sweater. It keeps the warmth in around your head and face by allowing you to pull the cord tight and lock in the warm air.

Materials: The sleeping bag should be made out of quality materials. Some sleeping bags have a water-repellant breatheable exterior. This is useful if you sleep outside without a tent, or if there is some condensation inside your tent.

Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings

Be aware that many of the cheaper sleeping bags temperature rating cannot be relied upon. It may advertise as a 20 degree bag but the true temperature rating might be more like 40 degrees. For backpacking, stick to the trusted brand names for the best quality and reliable temperature ratings.

Make sure the temperature rating of the bag is 10 to 15F LOWER than the lowest temperature you will be in. For a Colorado summer bag, I recommend a 15F bag. For a winter trip, you will need a 0F sleeping bag, but even that is not the best. A -20F rated bag is best for high altitude trips. Marmot makes one, but it is very expensive. It’s cheaper to buy two 15F bags than to buy one -20F bag.

Sleeping Bag Recommendations for Colorado Camping

I recommend a down sleeping bag for Colorado backpacking trips. My sleeping bag is a Marmot Sawtooth Down sleeping bag. Marmot, REI, Mont-bell, as well as the North Face Snowshoe and Cat’s Meow bags have all received great reviews from Colorado backpackers.