The Top Sleeping Bags on the Appalachian Trail
When I bought a sleeping bag for my thru-hike, I was incredibly overwhelmed.
Synthetic fill is more water resistant, but natural down is more lightweight and compresses to a smaller size. Treated down (such as Dri-Down) is the best of both worlds, but often it costs more. On top of that, I had heard that women sleep colder and need warmer bags, but I’m always warm when other people are cold, so how would I know? Further complicating the possibilities, I wanted to use a hammock, which introduced additional options like quilts and underquilts.
Until I endured the coldest nights of my hike, I was nervous that my 12-degree bag wouldn’t be enough. I wish I’d had more systematic information to guide my choices. In hopes of helping prospective long-distance hikers with dilemmas like mine, we conducted a survey on sleeping bags used by long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail in 2015. (For just the basics, skip to the TL;DR at the bottom).
To get an idea of typical sleeping bag choices and trends, we surveyed 145 long distance hikers who walked the AT in 2015. 62 percent were thru-hikers, while 37 percent were section hikers.
Two thirds (61%) were men and one third (39%) were women. They ranged in age from under 14 to up to 70 years. Two thirds (61%) were in their twenties, 15 percent in their thirties, and 11 percent in their fifties.
As mentioned above, 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 synthetic fill was somewhat less popular than the natural down options.
Sleeping Bag vs. Backpacking Quilt
When looking at the preferred model, most hikers opted for the traditional sleeping bag, but backpacking quilts were also fairly popular.1 A few hikers ditched their bags in the summer months, but only a very few hiked exclusively with just a small blanket and nothing else.
Traditional Bag Brands and Models2
Quilt Brands and Models3
Most quilts used were created by brands that specialize in quilts or gear for use with hammocks, the most popular being Enlightened Equipment.
What factors guide these choices?
I looked at several factors that might be related to choosing fill type or choosing quilts over bags: age, sex, distance hiked, and type of shelter system used.4
None of these factors were associated with fill type, so it is unclear what contributes to this choice. Synthetic bags are typically heavier than down, but also cheaper and more water resistant than untreated natural down. Treated natural down is water resistant and lightweight, but more expensive, so this choice may have been based on each hikers’ budget.
Unsurprisingly, it was clear that hikers who used hammocks or minimalist systems were more likely to use quilts instead of traditional sleeping bags, while tent users almost exclusively used traditional sleeping bags.5
There was a wide range of temperature ratings for the bags hikers used, from -45 ⁰F (-42.8 ⁰C) to 50 ⁰F (10.0 ⁰C). On average, hikers started with a 20 ⁰F (-6.6 ⁰C) bag.6
37 percent of hikers replaced their sleeping bags at some point during their 2015 hike. Two percent replaced with the same model as they started with, while 35 percent changed models. Once again, I missed some crucial information because I forgot to ask about direction hiked (north, south, or flip flop) or what season section hikers were on the AT, so I couldn’t examine what temperature rating hikers found necessary for Springer in March or Maine in June.
However, I did find that hikers who replaced their bags tended to switch to a warmer temperature rating: they jumped from an average 21 ⁰F rating and to an average 32 ⁰F rating.7 Similarly, ten hikers said they sent their bags home during the summer and just used their bag liners or a fleece blanket.
TL;DR and Implications for Future Long-Distance AT Hikers
- 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 vast majority of long distance hikers continue to use the traditional sleeping bag.
- However, hikers who buck the trend and go with alternative, more lightweight shelter systems are more likely to choose quilts. So, if you’re planning to use a hammock or tarp, you might want to consider using a quilt instead, particularly if it helps you shave off pack weight.
- A temperature rating of 20 ⁰F (-6.7 ⁰C) bag is probably sufficient for the typical thru-hiker. Those starting early or finishing late should consider lower ratings. If plan to buy a separate summer bag, 32 ⁰F (0 ⁰C) is a good ballpark temperature rating.
Congratulations to all hikers who completed the entire AT or a section in 2015, and many thanks to those who participated in the survey. Thanks also to Zach Davis for his assistance.
More By the Numbers
Notes for the nerds
- Data missing from 43 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.
- Data missing. N = 84
- Data missing. N = 18
- A Mancova (Multivariate analysis of covariance) was conducted with the independent variables of age, sex, distance hiked, and shelter system type and the dependent variables of fill type and quilt vs bag.
- The previously mentioned Mancova revealed only one significant association: the main effect of shelter system type on quilt use, F(1, 61) = 10.44,p = .002.
- Starting bag temperature SD = 11.0 ⁰F, ending bag temperature SD = 12.9 ⁰F.
- A paired samples t-test was conducted for cases where hikers switched to a different model bag, t (63) = -6.02, p < .001.
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Here in europe my Western Mountaineering AlpinLite is quite exotic. Funny to see it is a popular choice on the AT.