Summer is the perfect time to head outside and go camping. Verdant forests and refreshing lakes invite us to explore while clear warm nights tempt us into blissful stargazing. But considering how warm those nights can be, you might wonder if you can save space or weight and leave your sleeping bag at home.
Summer nights are still too cold to sleep outdoors without a sleeping bag in many locations. Sleeping bags are recommended for temperatures below 64°F (~18°C). Hypothermia can occur at 50° F or even higher temperatures. There are, however, other options than sleeping bags for cold temperatures.
Do I Really Need a Sleeping Bag for the Summer?
It is so tempting to save space and weight and leave your bulky sleeping bag home, but you may quickly find you regret that decision. Sleeping bags exist for more than your comfort. They are a safety item that can mean the difference between a dangerous situation and having a wonderful time.
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So yes, you need to bring something to sleep in, even for summer camping, but it might not have to be your sleeping bag.
Do You Need A Sleeping Bag For Camping At All?
If you are camping in weather 64 degrees Fahrenheit and above, you do not need a sleeping bag and will be fine with a couple of blankets.
If the weather is below 64 degrees you should invest in a sleeping bag.
The truth is, there is no one specific temperature that is the cut-off for whether or not you should bring your sleeping bag. You can always pile on more blankets.
However, at some point, it becomes more cost and weight-efficient to use a sleeping bag rather than bringing a bunch of blankets to your campsite.
Hypothermia, a situation where the body loses heat faster then it can be produced, is a serious condition which can lead to delirium, unconsciousness, and death if left untreated. A healthy adult can experience hypothermia in temperatures as mild as 50-degrees Fahrenheit. So you might think that if the temperature is forecast to be above 50-degrees, you should be all set. But it isn’t that simple.
For one, weather is always changeable, and what is predicted to be a mild night might end up becoming a blustery evening, which will make you feel colder. The wind causes increased heat loss, so without something to bundle up in, you’ll be susceptible to hyperthermia at a warmer temperature.
Water, including air humidity and even perspiration in your clothing (especially cotton), is another factor that can sap your warmth. Water as warm as 70-degrees F can cause hypothermia if you remain in it too long. So if you go swimming late in the day or at night and can’t adequately dry off or get warm, you may also start shivering, which is the beginning stages of hypothermia. Humidity, or moisture in the air, can have a similar result, making you feel colder than the thermometer reads.
One last factor is altitude. If you are hiking and camping at a higher elevation, the air temperature will, in most cases, also be colder, especially if it is a clear night perfect for star gazing. So, while the forecast down in the valley looks warm and inviting, you might find you need gloves and a hat to stay warm up in the mountains.
Worst case, if you bring your sleeping bag and it’s not that cold, your sleeping bag makes a great pad to sleep on top of and gain some extra comfort. So there really is no loss to have one along.
What Should You Look For In A Sleeping Bag?
You might need to bring a sleeping bag, but it doesn’t have to be that massive sleeping roll that you’d carry on a fall or winter camping trip.
Most summer sleeping bags are slimmer and pack down into small bundles. Look for a sleeping bag that has a rating of 40º F and up. Also, look at the material the bag is made from; a synthetic fill material will keep you warm even if it gets wet. A down-filled sleeping bag packs smaller and is lighter weight, but won’t help you out if you or the feather filling gets wet, though many new and quality models offer some water-resistant coating.
Be sure to stay away from a sleeping bag made from cotton. Not only will it absorb moisture, including your own sweat and the humidity in the air or ground, once it is damp it will start drawing heat from your body, exasperating, instead of preventing, any heat loss.
It’s also important to know that although a bag has a degree rating, it does not mean you will be comfortable to that listed specification. If you are a cold sleeper, even a 40-degree bag may not be enough, so a 20 or 30-degree bag may be more appropriate. I’m definitely one of these types, needing something warm and toasty on any night below 60 degrees!
What Are Some Sleeping Bag Alternatives?
So, if you need to have something to keep warm, what are some good choices? You might think that having a fire will be sufficient, but unless you plan on staying up all night to keep it going, you will find those early morning hours awfully chilly.
Instead of pulling an all-nighter and spending the next day in a sleep-deprived fog, which makes your camping a lot less fun, there are a few alternative things you can toss in with your gear instead.
Sleeping Bag Alternatives
- Sleeping Quilt
- Sleeping Bag Liner
- Wool Blanket
- Bivvy Sack
- Sufficient Outdoor Clothing (such as insulated puffy jacket, hat, gloves, and extra socks)
A sleeping quilt looks and functions very much like a sleeping bag. The difference is sleeping quilts usually don’t have a zipper, are generally cheaper and lighter, and actually, have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio. So if you are looking for something very lightweight but with the warmth that you’ll need while not taking up much room, this is a great alternative.
A sleeping bag liner is a good idea, even with a sleeping bag. A simple silk or thermolite liner can bunch up into a bag smaller than your coffee cup and is much easier to wash than your entire sleeping bag. But on their own, a heavier weight liner, normally used to add extra warmth to a winter sleeping bag, might be the perfect alternative to your sleeping bag.
Sometimes, there isn’t anything better than a good, old-fashioned wool blanket, except possibly for a new and often softer one. Wool will keep you warm even if it and you are both soaked. Make certain the blanket is 100% wool (not a cotton blend) and big enough to cover you from head to toe as well as top and bottom.
A bivvy sack is actually a very small, single person tent and not a bag at all. However, since they fit so snuggly, they warm up very quickly and might be sufficient to keep you from being uncomfortable overnight. Plus, they offer protection from insects, which also tend to like the warmer summer weather!
If you are just heading out for a single overnight trip and you are reasonably certain the weather will be mild, a good thermal jacket, especially one with some waterproofing and a hood, along with gloves, a hat, and thick socks might be enough to see you through. Of course, you might look a little odd carrying your late fall jacket and gear to your next summer outing, but you’ll be happy when you manage to stay warm and cozy without your sleeping bag.
While it might not be a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad is also a good piece of equipment to bring along. Not only do these help you stay comfortable, having the barrier between you and the ground will help keep you warmer as a considerable amount of heat is lost through the ground. With a sleeping pad, you might be able to get away with an even lighter weight bag than without one.
What Should You Wear in a Sleeping Bag?
If you are warm and trying to use your summer sleeping bag, you might be tempted to forgo clothing at all, but for your sleeping bag that isn’t the best option. Sleeping bags can be a bit of a pain to wash, and any that has a coating may require special handling such as no detergent or it will lose its waterproofness.
It is best to sleep in a sleeping bag liner to keep your sleeping bag clean. This keeps things like your dirty feet separated from your bag. However, if you don’t have a liner, the next best alternative is thin socks and comfortable pajamas. It is still best to avoid cotton since it can actually cause heat loss. Instead, look for moisture-wicking fabrics used for athletic gear such as yoga or running shirts and pants.
With these tips, you should spend your next summer night camping out in comfort so you can wake up ready for more adventure the next day. Have fun!