Of course there is no such thing as a specific Camino sleeping bag. The only right one is the one that’s right for you, your chosen route, the time of year and the way you want to do it. In other words you have some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you normally sleep warm or cold?
- What are the temps normally like at the time you are going?
- Do you intend to sleep in it every night (albergues) or just now and again (hostales)?
- What is your weight to warmth tolerance?
And now for the answers. Yes, there are good and precise answers to be found for all these! You just have to find them yourself …
- Do you keep the winter duvet on until summer, or do you throw the covers off as soon as the temps rise above freezing? Only you can know what is comfortable for you, but also remember you will be tired and possibly wet and cold before you get into your bag and that can make you feel the cold more. If you sleep in albergues chances are the room will get pretty warm through the night with all the other bodies giving off heat in the room (and no one leaving the window open, but that’s a whole other post.)
- This seems like a very difficult question, but it is one of the easiest. Go onto Wunderground and type in the bigger places you will be passing, then check their Weather History for the dates when you will be there. Not just for last year, but the one before. Or five years before. Just to get an idea of what to expect. Or check your guidebook for typical temperatures in the area covered by the guide.
- If you are planning on sleeping in albergues every night, spend some time finding the right bag for you. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but make sure it will keep you warm and comfortable so you get a good night’s sleep – every night. Not sleeping properly can ruin your day, your week, your Camino (and your friendships), and being cold is exhausting. If you plan on staying in mostly hotels, hostales etc where bedding is included, then just get one that will do the trick when you do use it. Many albergues will have blankets you can use, so bringing just a lightweight sleeping bag liner in silk, cotton or fleece is also an option.
- Try to find a bag that will keep you warm and cosy without weighing a tonne. It doesn’t have to be the latest, greatest down miracle bag costing an arm and a leg, but do some research and don’t just get that cheap one that weighs 2.5 kg – chances are you can get one weighing 850 grammes for the same price. Excess weight can lead to injury and very, very low mood, but so can lack of sleep. Your priority should be warmth, weight, price – in that order. If that leaves you with only bags you can’t afford, readjust your expectations, increase your research and go for trial walks with a sleeping bag substitute of the same weight. A difference of 2-300 grammes between what you can and what you can’t afford can be made up in other ways. Or if weight is all important to you and you can sleep in a silk bag wearing all your clothes on a cold night, that is also doable.
So say you are walking the Camino Frances in June, from Pamplona to Santiago. You can expect hot weather, dorms with lots of people, early mornings to beat the heat, buildings that struggle to stay cool. I’d say you would get away with a 1 season or summer bag, some would choose just a liner for hot nights. Remember that you can also wear more clothes inside a liner or open your sleeping bag up and use it as a quilt or duvet. Just have a think about how you can adjust your temperature while sleeping.
A liner is always a good idea, it is your own personal bedding inside or under the sleeping bag, or albergue blanket, or on its own. Some like them, some don’t – make up your own mind. Can you sleep in the same bag for weeks on end without washing it? Can you sleep with only a sheet in your own bedroom at the temperature you can expect inside an albergue?
If on the other hand you are walking the Coastal route from Portugal in October, with the Atlantic to your left and Galicia straight ahead, and with fewer pilgrims to help you heat the old stone building through the night, you would need a warmer bag.
I started from St Jean in August with just a silk liner, because there was a heat wave. I was still cold at night and had to wear all my wool to bed and use blankets when I found them. In Burgos I bought a summer bag (50gsm, 12C comfort temp) which was fine all the way to Galicia mid September, when it got a bit cool. I just added the wool and the silk liner and I was fine. I have since bagged a very light down bag off Ebay which I love and have used on two Autumn Caminos so far.
Now to the conundrum of fill weight, comfort ratings, shapes and not least the down/synthetic debate.
Fill weight is actually a pretty good indicator of the warmth of the bag. A 50 gsm (grammes of fill per square meter of sleeping bag layer) will feel very flimsy and light and is sometimes rated as a 1/2 season – half, not 1-2 – bag with a comfort rating of typically 12-15 degrees Celsius. In other words: the sort of bag you can use to sleep on your sofa or outside on a balmy summer’s night. Lots of pilgrims choose these very light bags which can weigh down to 500 grammes, and in summer most pilgrims will wear just a T-shirt and undies or shorts to bed. A 100 gsm bag will typically have a comfort temperature rating of 5-10 C. That will usually do for a chilly room at night, especially if you wear a base layer inside.
When looking at temperature ratings, rule of thumb is that the comfort temperature is the temp where a woman, inside the zipped bag and curled up, will have a comfortable night’s sleep. The lower or limit comfort temp is the equivalent for men – the idea is that women sleep colder than men and therefore need a warmer bag. Top tip for women is to wear a warm layer on the core – like a wool vest or T-shirt – and cover their neck with a buff or scarf if it feels cold. The limit temp is the edge of comfort, but doable. Wear more inside the bag or get a blanket. And to make it warmer faster: do a bit of on-the-spot jogging so you go to bed warm, trapping that heat when you zip your bag up. The critical or extreme temperature is the temp at which you will survive and not suffer frostbite or other medical problems, but be under no illusions – it will not be comfortable. (This illustrates the levels of comfort, ignore the actual temps, this is just an example.)
These days most sleeping bags seem to be mummy shaped. This means they hug the body better, keeping the body heat in and reducing the weight. All very good. You might want to check the position and length of the zip (assuming there is one) and have a think about how easy or cumbersome it will be to get in and out of it. Because not everybody loves the person in the top bunk wriggling like a worm to get out of the bag to go to the loo in the middle of the night – and then wriggling back into it again.
However if you want more room – always check the measurements! – or if you are planning on a hot walk you might want to go for a rectangular or envelope design. It can be opened up more, or completely, to regulate the temperature better.
A mummy bag can also be opened up and turned around to make a safe and warm haven for your feet and a duvet for your upper body. Or if you think a bag is too restrictive, go for a quilt. Or if you sleep warm and don’t mind using the albergue blankets, just a silk or thermal sleeping bag liner. Or a combination to suit you.
And last, but not least – down or synthetic?
Down gives you more warmth for the weight, meaning you can be nice and warm even in winter in a bag weighing a lot less than a kilo. It also costs (considerably) more and is completely useless if it gets wet, because the down collapses and loses its insulating properties. (Some manufacturers now use hydrophobic down which deals better with damp but they are even more expensive.) This means that you can’t throw it in the wash if it gets stinky/dirty/God forbid infected with bedbugs.
Synthetic bags are cheaper, give you more warmth for your pennies and are easier to find. They do weigh a bit more though, but for summer or indoor use you don’t need a super warm bag anyway so you should be able to keep the weight down below the kilo. Some synthetic bags will keep you warm even if they are damp, and they can be washed and dried on high temperatures if any of the above bad things should happen. Double check with the care instructions before you chuck it in a machine though.
So, all said and done, the perfect sleeping bag can be the just-warm-enough cheapie which leaves lots of money in your Camino budget, the expensive down one that qualifies as an investment in future adventures, the huge envelope that you can open up and wrap around yourself and a friend in the evening or the colourful silk bag that keeps you cool in a stuffy room (and can be used as a scarf, incidentally). Only you can find the right answer to that.
The reason I wrote all this down is because I have decided to go with a synthetic bag for my April Camino rather than my 600g down one. I want to be able to treat it with bug repellant before I go and throw it in the wash if the worst (=bedbugs) should happen, and I don’t want to take the chance with my down one. Cue research and a flurry of frenzied ordering, and I will follow up with a comparison post – the good here and the not so good here.