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I'm planning on hiking about half of the AT Northbound at the start of May 2013. What sort of temperature ranges can I expect to encounter, and what should I look for in a sleeping bag to best suit these?

My main consideration has to be weight, so the lighter the better. However, I would like to be comfortable at least some of the time but appreciate that lower temperature comfort limits will add weight.

As well as this, I'm conscious that lightweight + warmth = high cost, and bearing in mind I will be on a fairly strict budget I'm reluctant to just drop £300+ on a bag, so are there any specific manufactures that offer the best value for money?

I am from England and know nothing about camping / hiking in North America so any other advice, however general, would be greatly appreciated.

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You said northbound, but also that you plan to do half the trail. It is therefore unclear where you will start, since it can be anywhere in the southern half. I would give different advice for doing the northern half starting in May than what Russell said for the starting at the southern end. – Olin Lathrop Nov 10 '12 at 0:15
Sorry for lack of clarity, I will be starting at Springer Mountain – Ed Theakston Nov 12 '12 at 20:23

4 Answers 4

I would suggest you look at a mid range synthetic bag say rated at around 40F this will allow you to use it as a blanket on warmer nights and with a liner or bivy sack you can extend that range down to mid 20's.

Although synthetic bags tend to be larger when stuffed (they take up more room in your backpack) they do well even when they get damp which will happen after night after night of sleeping in it. Where as Down will suffer, especially if you plan on using it over a longer period of time between being able to wash it and revive the Down.

One of the most important factors will be the humidity, a humid night in the 50F range can be more chilling than a dry night in the 30F. Another consideration will be the type of pad you plan on using as well as if you tend to be a warm sleeper or cooler sleeper. You could also save weight and cost by purchasing a 50F bag and then layering while you sleep with additional clothing etc... but unfortunately this will be solely dependent on your personal preferences.

Lastly be aware that not all bags are created equal, so go with a well known trusted brand so you will have the support of the company should you need them. Go to a store that sells the bag your are looking for and try it out, crawl inside it, see if you can move around in it to your liking, can you unzip the zipper with gloves on, does it have a draft tube to help contain warmth..there are many questions that you will be able to answer prior to purchasing if you spend a little time discovering the product before you purchase.

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Good Answer and advice. Welcome to The Great Outdoors S.E. – MaskedPlant Nov 13 '12 at 16:34

Lower half temperatures are quite warm. You'll regularly get 70°F+ at night. I would advise for a lightweight synthetic, as you may also end up damp from rain and sweat. I use a travel sack in the summer. Alternatively a heavy liner may do fine, such as the reactor.

I've been hiking down here for years and haven't seen summer temperatures warranting anything heavy, however you may want to consider consulting a farmer's almanac for the area. The city of Toccoa, Georgia would be a reasonable place to use to get an idea.

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My primary concern with getting a synthetic bag is that at comparable temperature ranges they seem to be 2-3 times heavier - unless I'm just looking in the wrong places. Can you recommend specific manufacturers / models? I've been tempted by a Mountain Hardwear Phantom, any thoughts on it's suitability? I can get it for £180 which seems a good price.… – Ed Theakston Nov 12 '12 at 20:34
I linked the specific model I used in my answer. If you have money to blow, the mountain hardware is superior, but overkill. You are extremely unlike to need the 32 degree bag here in summer. For about 1/5 the price, the bag I use is a comparable weight and compresses very small. For colder weather, I use down, but even then freakish weather and rain have made me question that choice. A wet down bag is completely useless. – Russell Steen Nov 12 '12 at 21:50
I met a guy who used a garbage bag as his sleeping bag on the AT. Russell is not joking about how warm it is... I wouldn't shy away from a down bag myself (for the weight savings), but make sure you know how to keep it dry-ish. Something like the Western Mountaineering EverLite – Ryley Nov 13 at 23:13

In addition to what Russell said, consider that the bag by itself does not need to cover the lowest temperature extremes you will encounter. You can get one good for most of the conditions, then add insulation on unusually cold nights. A space blanket over the bag makes a significant difference. So does wearing socks, long underwear, and a thin polypro under-liner on your torso.

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I'm not sure that anyone can give you a specific number that will suit your needs. Its worth bearing in mind that the temperature ratings on sleeping bags are created using a somewhat arbitrary test involving a dummy with sensors read more.

The good thing about this test is that it creates an objective position from which to judge a sleeping bags insulation value. The down side is that human experience of warmth is massively variable. Are you the type of person who puts a jumper on while your friends are still happy in shorts and t-shirts or visa-versa?

I would start by borrowing a couple of sleeping bags and trying to sleep in them at a range of temperatures you expect to face. Failing that simply using them and seeing if you find the ratings to be conservative or generous. This would then give you a suitable reference point when deciding what you need for a sleeping bag for your trip.

Many other factors apart from the sleeping bag will affect your temperature, fitness, body fat, calorie intake, fatigue, exposure to wind or rain, insulation from the ground, adding additional insulation while sleeping e.g. cloths.

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