I do not like sleeping bags because I feel claustrophobic in them. But what is an alternative to a sleeping bag? Well, there may be a few, but probably not for every situation and weather conditions.
Sleeping bags are widely used for outdoor sleeping. We are used to use them, and it is not so easy to find practical alternatives. For cold weather, narrow and compact mummy sleeping bags are by far the most thermally efficient options.
But you can manage without a sleeping bag in many situations. Quilts and blankets are standard alternatives to sleeping bags, and this is practically all.
Do I need a sleeping bag inside a tent?
Sleeping bags are a relatively new concept of sleeping outdoors. They are very popular and widely used in all weather conditions. This is because they are compact, easy to use, and practical.
But the answer to the question is no, you do not necessarily need a sleeping bag inside a tent, at least not for every situation. But a sleeping bag is usually the most practical option, and this holds in particular for the trail and for a cold environment.
The idea of a sleeping bag is to preserve your body warmth with a minimum material. As I wrote in my separate text, most of our body power is given off as a heat. You produce energy equivalent to a 100 watt light bulb. So if you are in a sleeping bag, this heat is preserved at least for a while.
From this you realize that there are good reasons why mummy-type sleeping bags are available on the market. This is about the lightest, the smallest possible (packed) size and performance combination.
Of course, you can use a much larger rectangular bag for more comfort, but this means that your body warmth is distributed in a larger volume, and you may feel less warm.
So what else you can use in a tent
Blankets: If this is about car camping where weight and packed size are not so important, you can always manage with blankets. Use two if one is not enough, this is what I do.
To be more precise, for car camping I use sleeping bags that can be fully unzipped. So I use the standard bedclothes for this, and it becomes like an ordinary home blanket.
For car camping you can use any blanket from home, and you can have it as thick as possible. But there are also great options designed specifically for outdoor use like this Therm-a-Rest Ramble Down 2-Person Hydrophobic Camping Blanket.
The bad side of a blanket is that it has no hood, and our brain produces around 0.6 joules per brain-gram per minute. So unless you use a warm cap, this energy is lost to heat the Universe.
Quilts: Modern quilts are designed as a sort of a zipper-less and only partly closed sleeping bag. This means that you may have a footbox but the rest is similar to a blanket that you wrap around your body.
Though there are models where the footbox is not fixed so you can open it completely and it may look like a standard blanket.
There is no doubt that a quilt is inferior to a sleeping bag regarding thermal efficiency, but they can replace bags in many situations. One great example is this Therm-a-Rest Corus 20F/-6C Backpacking Quilt. More about it you can see in this video.
Any other options? Well, I have seen quite a number suggested on the Internet, but some of them are simply ridiculous and detached from reality. Sometimes I have a feeling that people add such stuff only to make texts longer and to increase ranking in Google.
So if you search, you will see bivy bags suggested, and also cots (imagine, somebody suggests you to use a bed instead of a blanket, this is how senseless this is). You can also see travel liners suggested instead of sleeping bags, so why not simply a thin blanket?
Oh yes, I have seen even a tent suggested as an alternative to a sleeping bag. How about warm clothing instead of a sleeping bag? Yes, this is also what some suggest.
Do I need a sleeping bag for summer camping?
The answer is definitely no. In fact, I would never use a sleeping bag for summer camping, I would always go for a blanket. This is what I do whenever possible.
Who invented sleeping bags?
I mentioned that sleeping bags are a “relatively” new concept. But it seems there is no consensus about the origin of sleeping bags. According to a source, this could be Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, for the purpose of skiing across Greenland in 1888.
Before the trip he spent some time among the Inuit people to see how they deal with the cold. Did you know that Inuit people who constantly live in cold weather do not use sleeping bags? They tend to sleep together sharing body warmth, and they use caribou and sealskin hides as blankets.
Apparently, Fridtjof Nansen sewed some of these blankets together making three-person sleeping bags. Manufacturing of sleeping bags started just a year after that in Norway.
But according to Wikipedia, it was Pryce Pryce-Jones in 1876 as the first forerunner of the modern sleeping bag. He sold 60000 of them to the Russian army.
What science says about sleeping bags performance
There is a detailed scientific article about performance of sleeping bags in Arctic conditions.
It turns out that ice builds up in the insulation. So a bag becomes heavy and colder to sleep in. From the study it follows that at –30 ºC, only 30% of the water that evaporates manages to diffuse through the bag. Namely, polymer coatings of outer layer is not as permeable in the cold as at room temperature.
In view of this, it is not surprising that the Inuit, true experts in living in extreme cold, do not find sleeping bags as an alternative to their traditional way. They do not need science studies.
In summary, you may love or hate sleeping bags, but they are still the most practical items for sleeping outdoors. This holds in particular for extreme weather conditions and for situations when the equipment is carried in the pack.
In some situations you can certainly use blankets and quilts, these will perform well in mild weather conditions and they are great for summer trail adventures. For car camping it is easier to replace a sleeping bag, any heavy and warm blanket from home will do the job.
Thank you for reading. You might want to check also my text on how to make your camping cot more comfortable.
I wish to stress that this site is all about outdoors questions and answers, and I add texts here on a regular basis, so bookmark it and keep as a reference.
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