The Top Sleeping Bags on the Appalachian Trail: 2016 Thru-Hiker Survey

We surveyed one hundred eighty-eight section and thru-hikers who were on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2016. We asked about the sleeping bags and pads they used. For the second year now, this included questions about quilts and hammock underquilts! For the first time, we added specific information about temperature ratings for northbounders, southbounders, and flip-floppers. For the details, keep reading – otherwise skip to the TL;DR at the end.

Insulation

Sleeping bags typically come with one of three fill types: natural down, synthetic, or treated natural down (e.g. Dri-Down). All three were all fairly popular choices, even when hikers switched to a different model of bag, but natural down was the most common.

graph-bag-fill-primary

A few hikers actually used bags that were synthetic on one side but natural down on the other. The concept for these bags is that they have the water-resistant feature of synthetic fill on the bottom side (which would become damp more easily on the ground), but the warmth and lighter weight of natural down on the top.

Sleeping Bags vs. Backpacking Quilts1

When looking at the preferred model, most hikers opted for the traditional sleeping bag, but backpacking quilts were also fairly popular, being used by one quarter (25%) of hikers.

graph-bag-v-quilt-by-shelter-type

Last year, we had found that hikers using more minimalist systems were more likely to use quilts. However, this year, there was an increase in quilt use by traditional tent-users (from 17 to 25 percent), and subsequently, no difference in quilt vs. bag use, based on shelter system.2 In other words, about a quarter of hikers use quilts, regardless of shelter choice, and about three-quarters of hammockers stick with traditional sleeping bags. Keep in mind that hammockers might be using underquilts with traditional bags, but this question didn’t really address that.

Brands and Models of Traditional Sleeping Bags

We asked hikers what their favorite bag or quilt was that they used on the Appalachian Trail in 2016. For traditional sleeping bags, the most popular brand was REI, followed by Kelty, Mountain Hardware, Big Agnes, Marmot, and Sierra Designs.

graph-bag-brands

The most popular model was the REI Igneo, used by 12 hikers, followed by the Kelty Cosmic Down, used by six. Almost every Big Agnes or Marmot user picked a different model, so it’s unclear which models were preferred within these popular brands. The most commonly used Sierra Designs model was the Backcountry Bed, a favorite of four hikers.

rei-igneo

REI Igneo Sleeping Bag

Brands and Models of Backpacking Quilts

Most quilts used were created by brands that specialize in quilts or gear for use with hammocks, the most popular being Enlightened Equipment, chosen by half of all quilt users.

graph-quilt-brands

The most popular quilt model was the Enlightened Equipment Revelation, used by fourteen hikers in the survey. Many quilt users forgot or did not specify the name of the model they used, so no other model was mentioned by more than one hiker.

enlightened-equipment-revelation

Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt

Replacements

For some gear items, I’ve looked at factors associated with having to replace or switch out items midway through a thru-hike. For sleeping bags, 38 percent of hikers replaced their bag, but it was clear that most replacements were intentional, seasonal changes.

graph-reasons-switched

4 out of 5 hikers who changed sleeping bags did so in order to carry a lighter, cooler bag in the summer and a warmer bag in the winter. A few replaced their initial bag with another one of the same model, which could be due to wear and tear, losing the bag, or other causes. Some found their initial bag wasn’t warm enough (their bags ranged from 20-40 ⁰F), while others found theirs too heavy.

Temperature rating

There was a wide range of temperature ratings for the bags/quilts hikers used, from -10 ⁰F to 50 ⁰F. As can be seen in the following graphs, on average, hikers chose sleeping bags (and quilts) with ratings close to the temperatures they endured on the trail. Because of the differences in seasonal temperatures faced by northbound, southbound, and flip-flop hikers, I looked at sleeping bag temperature ratings separately for each.

For Northbounders

The majority of hikers who participated in the survey (131 people) had hiked in the northbound direction, from Georgia to Maine.

graph-temps-nobo

 

Northbounders set out from Springer Mountain with bags rated at 20 ⁰F (+/- 9), and on average, endured temperatures as low as 19 ⁰F (+/- 9).3 Forty-nine northbounders (37.4% of northbounders in the survey) switched out their sleeping bag at least once. The average temperature of replacement bags was 36 ⁰F (+/- 10) and the lowest temperature endured in these replacement bags, on average, was 37 ⁰F (+/- 11). When combining hikers who replaced their bags and who kept the same bag the whole way, the average rating of the ultimate bag used was 26 ⁰F (+/- 12) and the average coldest temperature endured was the same (26 ⁰F +/- 12).

These results suggest that the average northbounder will do just fine with a bag rated at 19 ⁰F, give or take 10 degrees. So, I would suggest northbounders who plan to use only one bag should use sleeping bags rated at 9 to 29 degrees, probably with lower temperature ratings for earlier start dates and higher ratings for later start dates. For northbounders who plan to switch out their bags seasonally, a 35 degree bag is likely sufficient for the replacement bag.

For Southbounders

Only five southbounders participated in our survey, which was conducted in October, and several were still hiking at the time, so keep in mind that they might have endured colder temperatures after completing the survey. Further, bear in mind that this is a very small sample, so their experience may not accurately reflect the overall southbound experience.

graph-temps-sobo

 

All of the southbounders in the survey kept the same bag the whole way. On average, their bags were rated 21 ⁰F (+/- 2), but the lowest temperature they had endured by that time was 28 ⁰F (+/- 7).

For this reason, I would tentatively suggest that a 20 ⁰F bag is likely sufficient for a southbound thru-hike. Please bear in mind that if you intend to finish a southbound thru-hike later than October, you will likely need a bag with a lower rating than that.

For Flip-Floppers

Only three flip-floppers took part in the survey – two hiked south-to-middle, north-to-middle, while one hiked middle-to-north, then middle-to-south. So, as with southbounders, keep in mind that their experience might not have been the norm.

graph-temps-flip-02On average, flip-floppers’ bags were rated 18 ⁰F (+/- 3) and they endured temperatures no colder, on average, than 24 ⁰F (+/- 7). Unfortunately, there isn’t as much information out there for flip-flop thru-hikes as for northbound and southbound ones. While an 18 ⁰F would be appropriate for the average temperatures endured by north- and southbounders, these findings tentatively suggest that flip-floppers might be fine with a bag rated in the low twenties.

TL;DR

  • Synthetic, natural down, and treated down bags are all common choices among long-distance hikers on the AT, with down bags being the most common. Most hikers were pretty satisfied with their choices.
  • The majority of long-distance hikers continue to use the traditional sleeping bag, even among those with non-traditional shelters.
  • However, quilt systems have increased in popularity since last year primarily among tent users.
  • For northbounders, a temperature rating of ~19 ⁰F is probably sufficient for the typical thru-hiker. Those starting early (or earlier than “The Bubble”) should consider ratings as low as about 9 ⁰F.
  • Northbounders who replace their bags seasonally should be fine, on average, with summer bags rated at 35 ⁰F.
  • For southbounders, a bag rated 20 ⁰F is likely sufficient for finishing before the end of October. Hikers finishing later should consider lower ratings, but I can’t give a specific recommendation because the survey was conducted in late October.
  • Flip-floppers in our survey used bags with an average rating of 18 ⁰F, but didn’t typically face conditions that cold on their thru-hikes. So, it’s possible that a bag rated in the low twenties F is sufficient for a flip-flop.

¡Muchas Gracias!

Congratulations to all hikers who completed the entire AT or a section in 2016, and many thanks to those who participated in the survey. Thanks also to Zach Davis for his assistance and his patience.

More from the 2016 Survey

Check out my posts on General Hiker InformationBackpacksFootwearShelter Systems. Coming soon are posts on food/stoves and sleeping pads.

 Notes for the nerds

  1. Data missing from 45 participants because this information was not asked directly, but pulled from the model of bag they reported using, and some answers for this were unclear.
  1. Like last year, a linear regression was conducted predicting bag vs. quilt use by age and gender (step 1), distance hiked (step 2), and protection level of shelter system (step 3). No overall model was significant (all p > .05), nor was any variable a significant predictor (all p > .05).
  2. +/- indicates standard deviation.
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