Bolton's Sam Allardyce saw his side dominate the first half only to waste a number of good chances after Michael Ricketts had given them an 18th minute lead.
Then Sunderland's Howard Wilkinson saw Kevin Phillips hit a second-half equaliser only for the striker to miss an easier chance five minutes later.
Both sides took the opportunity to rest some of their Premiership stars. Bolton gave a first appearance of the season to teenage wing-back Nicky Hunt and a first senior start to striker Delroy Facey while Sunderland paired Kevin Kyle with Kevin Phillips up front and gave another outing to John Oster in midfield.
Bolton may have made nine changes to the side that lined up on New Year's Day at Aston Villa but it was one of those players who kept his place that earned them an 18th minute lead.
Ricketts, scorer of three goals in his last four games, kept up his fine strike rate when he headed Stig Tofting's 18th minute corner past Jurgen Macho.
Earlier Sunderland's Austrian keeper had denied the Bolton striker, turning a close-range header over the bar.
Bolton's twin strikeforce should have cashed in on an uncertain Sunderland defence, Ricketts heading a good chance past the post while Facey lost out in a one-to-one with Macho.
The Wearsiders were not helped by an injury blow to Mark Rossiter, a 16th minute substitute for full-back Stephen Wright, who was carried off ten minutes later with a serious leg injury after attempting to tackle Jeff Smith.
Sunderland, however, did well to re-group and almost snatched an equaliser when Oster forced Kevin Poole into a good save, but Bolton were unlucky not to increase their lead a minute before the break when Facey rattled the crossbar with Macho beaten.
Sunderland brought Tore Andre Flo on at half time in a bid to put more pressure on the Bolton defence and after a couple of near misses they finally equalised in the 63rd minute, Phillips rising above the Bolton defence to head in Oster's cross.
The referee was an unlikely casualty in the 71st minute, Graham Barber pulling a calf muscle with fourth official David Pugh taking over.
Bolton brought on three substitutes, Jay Jay Okocha, Mike Whitlow and Kevin Nolan for Tofting, Danny Livesey and Akin Bulent.
That revived their attacking fortunes with Smith going close but then a mistake by Anthony Barness let in Phillips at the other end, but as Poole came out the striker put his shot well wide.
Bolton had the final word, Okocha hitting a fierce stoppage-time shot that Macho did well to palm round a post.