Both expensive and inexpensive sleeping bags can be warm to protect you in any weather conditions, but their warmth is not the only parameters that determines the price and performance.
So how about the question in the title, is it better to buy an expensive sleeping bag than a cheap one? There is no simple answer. It can be both, no and yes, and here is why.
Why would you spend too much if you can buy a warm camping bag that can be even warmer than an advanced and expensive sleeping bag? If this is about a car camping or sleeping at places where you would not carry your stuff long distances, no need to spend much money. Consequently, in this case the answer is no, an expensive sleeping bag is not necessarily better.
But what if this is about trail use, so you carry your stuff in the backpack? In this case you would want to have the lightest possible and the most compact equipment, and this costs a lot. So here, the answer would be yes, it is worth investing in expensive stuff.
Can cheap sleeping bags be warm?
The answer is yes, absolutely so. If you want to see some examples, just check some sleeping bags of Browning Camping. These are built for the coldest environment but they are usually very heavy and also very bulky. So this is not something you would want to carry long distances.
Such inexpensive sleeping bags can be cotton and flannel, so they are very comfortable and cozy. But you would not want to make them wet under any circumstances.
Which is the best company for ultralight sleeping bags?
I think I would point out the following brands, in no particular order:
So if you are in search of a sleeping bag for the trail, these are the brands to check. They build the most compact and the lightest possible trail sleeping bags. However, these are not for people on a budget.
Would two cheap sleeping bags be as warm as an expensive one?
The answer is short yes. They could be far warmer as well. But this is not about warmth only.
Expensive sleeping bags may be with an ultralight and ultra-compact insulation like a 800 or 900 down fill that make them warm but expensive.
On the other hand, an inexpensive sleeping bag designed for car camping can have several kilograms of synthetic insulation, and it can be as warm as expensive and advanced ultralight bags.
To see some numbers, take the NEMO Sonic -20 Degree Sleeping Bag that weighs only 3 lb 8 oz (1.59 kg). Its rating is -20 F (-29 C). Yet another example is Big Agnes Crosho UL -20 Down Mummy Sleeping Bag that weighs 3 lb (1.36 kg).
Now compare this with Browning Rambler Series Canvas Sleeping Bag with the same rating but with a weight of 10 lb 13 oz (4.9 kg).
So I would say, these things are not for comparison. You would not carry two sleeping bags on the trail just because they are warmer when combined than an ultra-expensive bag which you cannot afford.
Is it really ‘you get exactly what you pay for’?
The answer here is definitely no. For a car camping, I would always rather use a cheap large and pleasant cotton-flannel sleeping bag, than an advanced ultralight and expensive synthetic-shell sleeping bag.
For a car camping I want comfort. For the trail I need something manageable, and this means compact and light. But such trail sleeping bags are also ultra small, narrow, and uncomfortable for me. In fact, I feel claustrophobic in them.
However, those trail sleeping bags are thermally efficient and they are necessary. So this is about two different worlds that should not be mixed. Nothing to do with the price.
Think also about sleeping pads
If you sleep on the ground, even the warmest sleeping bag will not protect you from the cold. The reasons are as follows.
1. The insulation of the sleeping bag which is under your body is compressed, and it loses its insulating property.
This is why some sleeping bags are built without bottom insulation. They come with a sleeve where you put your sleeping pad.
2. You lose far more body warmth to the ground than to the surrounding air. Think about a factor 30-40. By the way, this is one of the reasons why it is good to sleep off the ground, on a camping cot.
So having a sleeping pad with a high R-value is essential. It should be above 5 as a minimum if this is for a cold weather and winter outdoor sleeping. More about this you can read in my separate text about using a pad under a sleeping bag.
The bottom line is, if you need an extremely warm car camping sleeping bag, do not spend much, there are great options on the market like Browning Camping and Teton Sports.
But if this is about carrying your sleeping bag in the backpack, forget these brands and be ready to spend several times more. This video may help in choosing one:
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