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You just got your sweet new sleeping bag and can’t wait for your spring backpacking trip to break it properly.
You spend hours finding the perfect route and all fo the logistics for before, during, and after the trip. Every potential campsite has been identified, you know every possible water source along the route, and you even know exactly what your first meal back in civilization will be.
Everything is planned perfectly, all you have to do is pack your backpack and head to the trailhead. Your backpack is packed properly, right?
If you’re sleeping bag is tied to the outside of your backpack, your logistics may not be fully complete yet… Unless you have a plan for what to do when your sleeping bag gets damp or ripped.
Where should the sleeping bag be packed, inside or outside?
When all your gear is vying for space inside your backpack, it isn’t always easy to know what should go inside your backpack and what could be okay being attached to the outside.
The simplest way to think about how gear should be organized inside your backpack is in reverse order of when you will need it. You (should) only need your sleeping bag (or quilt) at the end of the day. Therefore, it goes at the bottom of your pack. You wouldn’t want to always be pulling it out to get to other things by packing it on the top.
Additionally, you want your heaviest gear closer to the top (and the center of your upper back) for optimal weight distribution. You can use more lightweight items (like sleeping bags) to act as a buffer layer at the bottom.
Some backpacks have specific zippers that allow you to access the bottom of your pack without opening the top and digging through everything. This feature will usually be called a sleeping bag compartment. Most of these packs will also have an internal divider that allows you to pack most of your other gear above it, and then open the zipper and place your sleeping bag at the bottom of it all.
Generally, larger backpacks (65L+) are the ones that have a designated sleeping bag compartment, but there are some smaller ones if you do not need a pack that large.
The short answer is that your sleeping bag should not be attached to the outside of your backpack. If there is one item you cannot afford to get wet, it is a sleeping bag. There is no reason to risk it getting wet or dirty while being strapped to the outside. This is one instance where it is a non-negotiable for me and anyone I give recommendations to about backpacking.
In the event that you throw this advice into the proverbial garbage, make sure you have a waterproof bag to keep your sleeping bag in; a regular trash bag would even be better than nothing.
There is one exception to this rule, and it’s only technically an exception. I will store my sleeping bag in the large mesh pocket on my backpack if I camped in a spot that is prone to condensation and some got onto my bag. Even then it is in an exterior pocket, not attached via straps.
Storing it in that mesh pocket will allow it to dry out while I hike, assuming that the sun is shining. In some cases, I will take an extra hour or so in the morning to lay my bag out on a rock or on the ground in the sun to let it dry out.
Should you use a compression sack?
This is mostly about your personal preference. I do not use compression sacks for my sleeping bag or really any gear for that matter. I prefer to just stuff my sleeping bag into the bottom of my bag. Maily because I can utilize the space inside my pack better and more efficiently.
Placing a sleeping bag inside a stuff sack creates a distinct cylindrical shape, which doesn’t always fit perfectly into the bottom of the pack. However, having everything packed into modular stuff sacks can make staying organized easier for some folks. So if you are one of those, there is nothing inherently “wrong” or “worse” by doing so.
One exception to this is if the weather forecast is calling for significant rain. This is an instance where I will utilize waterproof stuff sacks, even for my sleeping bag. There is nothing worse than crawling into a damp sleeping bag at the end of the day.
Why it matters where you pack your sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag is arguably the most important piece of gear when backpacking. Without one you’d have no way to insulate yourself during the night. (obviously) So it shouldn’t be too groundbreaking that keeping your sleeping bag dry and taking care of it is important.
You can attach your sleeping bag to the outside of your pack using sleeping bag straps or bungee cords, but it will be exposed to any tree branches, rocks, etc. Any of which can rip through your stuff sack. (and if you’re unlucky your sleeping bag too)
Additionally, this can throw off your center of balance and make you more prone to tripping and falling when on uneven terrain.
If you are going to utilize gear loops on the outside of your pack, I would use them to attach lightweight items that you may want to access during the day. Using them for trekking poles (if your pack does not have designated trekking pole loops or attachments) makes more sense than tying your sleeping bag to them.
Remember, utilize easy to access points of your pack for items you will want throughout the day. Put the items you will not need til the end of the day toward the bottom of the inside of your backpack.
Placing your sleeping bag inside your pack without a stuff sack is best done by stuffing it in at the bottom of the backpack.
I prefer to stuff my sleeping bag versus rolling it because I find it packs down smaller. Neither is “wrong”, but I do see manufactures recommend stuffing their sleeping bags and none recommend rolling them.
Just because you can does not mean that you should. Attaching gear to the outside of a pack can through off your balance when hiking and becomes subjected to getting wet or ripped. Neither of which you want to happen to your sleeping bag.
I recommend storing your sleeping pad in the stuff sack that comes with it and keeping it toward the bottom of your bag, usually on top of your sleeping bag.
It can be tempting to just tie your sleeping bag to the outside of your pack before you head of on your next day of hiking. I mean who wants to think about gear organization first thing in the morning.
But when you have to take it out to get to your rain jacket or bag of snacks during the day, you will be wishing those items were quicker to get to.
Plus, if you make a habit of stuffing your sleeping bag into your bag before you even breakdown your tent, you won’t have to worry about remembering to do it. You also won’t have to be unloading your whole back when an afternoon rain storm pops up.
Prioritize your future convenience by taking the extra second in the morning to make your next outdoor adventure your best yet!