Oh, the age-old question pondered by campers all over the globe. Deciding between down vs synthetic insulation is one of the most frequent choices backpackers face. Insulation in sleeping bags may make or break a trip. It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep when you’re cold and it’s hard to enjoy your journey when you don’t sleep well.
It’s difficult to choose between a synthetic sleeping bag and a down sleeping bag. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Your selection should be made after careful deliberation and investigation. Moreover, just because your friend swears by his synthetic bag doesn’t imply it’s the best option for you (and vice versa).
Choosing the best sleeping bag might be difficult. We want to help you choose the right one for your needs. This guidance should put your mind at rest regarding your ultimate choice. It covers the pros and cons of both down and synthetic fill, the best environments for each, what to know about fill power, and more.
Highlights of Down Insulation
- Better warmth-to-weight ratio
Down sleeping bags compress readily into a stuff sack. Definitely more so than synthetic sleeping bags. Between that and their light weight, it’s easy to see why down sleeping bags are favored amongst backpackers.
It also has an unrivaled warmth-to-weight ratio. It takes much less down than synthetic material to fill the same area because it lofts more. And it insulates better due to its structure of fine, branched filaments. This is also why down bags are lighter than synthetic bags. Although synthetic materials are improving, none can compete with the insulating characteristics of down.
Down is also considerably more likely to keep you warm for many years if properly cared for. Even decades! Hence, if you want to maintain the same bag for a long time, you can’t beat down. It’s a worthwhile investment.
Drawbacks of Down Insulation
- Does not insulate once wet
- Compressed parts can create chilly spots
The main disadvantage of down is its inability to insulate once wet. This can create issues if you frequent rainy or damp areas. This is especially true if you prefer tarp camping and get caught in heavy rain. Many hikers still choose down in dry, chilly weather.
If your bag is not properly cared for, body oils might leak into it over time. This, like outside moisture, causes feathers to clump together. Most of the insulation is provided by the air spaces between the down feathers. These diminish when wet, leading to a decline in insulation power.
Durable Water Repellent (DWR) is currently used by certain manufacturers to provide water resistance. This is also referred to as hydrophobic down. The down is basically coated with a water-resistant covering. This makes the down water repellent and keeps it from clumping. While it does help some, it still won’t match the insulating quality synthetic is capable of when wet.
Ordinary down sleeping bags are already fairly expensive. The DWR ones run even higher. There is a low-cost method for making your down bag more waterproof. To give an extra layer of protection, many travelers use Nikwax Down Proof. This requires just a simple wash-in application. A spray-on variant is also available for spot applications. For example, you might only want to spray the foot box of your sleeping bag since that is the most common spot to get wet.
Again, pricing is a factor that may encourage some individuals to avoid down bags. Unfortunately, since it is not easily made in a factory, like the polyester fibers used in synthetic bags, it raises the price. Yet, more and more cost-effective choices are becoming accessible.
Another disadvantage of down is that compressed regions might result in chilly patches. The easiest method to deal with this is to add another layer of insulation. The majority of individuals utilize a foam or inflatable sleeping pad.
What is Fill Power?
While investigating down sleeping bags, you will most likely come across this word. And if this is new territory, it can be confusing.
Fill power is the measurement taken in labs to determine how much loft down has. This also influences how efficiently it traps heat. The measurement shows how many cubic inches it takes one ounce of down to fill. As a result, one ounce of 800 fill power down occupies 800 cubic inches of space.
Fill power ratings are typically between 600 and 800. The higher the number, the better. These provide better insulation and loft. They also compress well.
Duck or Goose Down?
Sleeping bag producers have traditionally utilized goose down. But, you may have noticed that ducking is getting more fashionable. Although it is less costly, it has a cost. Duck down is not as insulating as goose down. Some premium goose down has a fill power of 900+. Duck has a maximum range of 800 feet. However, at the same fill power, both duck and goose provide very similar performance. Duck is a better bargain than goose since it is less expensive.
Final Thoughts on Down Insulation
Contrary to popular belief, cleaning a down bag is pretty similar to that of a synthetic one. Just use a mild detergent and/or one designed particularly for down. Never dry clean your sleeping bag, since the chemicals can cause permanent damage to the down fill. And, of course, always follow the care recommendations provided by the manufacturer.
While down tends to hold up better to being compressed, it’s also recommended to let it “hang loose” when possible. This will make your bag last longer.
When storing down sleeping bags, either hang them or use a mesh storage sack to keep the down as uncompressed as possible. This ensures that your down sleeping bag will endure for decades.
Since down is so lightweight and compresses well compared to synthetic sleeping bags, it’s easy to see why its the top choice amongst many backpackers. Unless you live in really damp circumstances, down is an excellent option for most climes.
Highlights of Synthetic Insulation
- Still insulates when wet
- Dries quickly
- Less expensive
One of the most significant advantages of synthetic sleeping bags is their ability to insulate even when wet. Clearly, it doesn’t matter what material a bag is made of if it’s really moist or drenched. You’re going to have a nasty, frigid time either way. But, wet synthetic bags will still provide you more warmth than a wet down one. (Unless it’s made of hydrophobic down or has been coated with a water repellent, of course.)
Synthetic bags dry significantly faster than down bags. This can get you packed up or into a warmer sleeping arrangement sooner if your bag has gotten wet along the way. It’s also convenient to shorten the cleaning procedure at home.
For many individuals, the cost of synthetics is insurmountable. They are often less costly than down bags. Again, their “fluff” is readily manufactured in a factory.
Drawbacks of Synthetic Insulation
- Less compressible
- Much heavier than down
- Less durable
Regrettably, synthetic bags do not compress as effectively as down bags. This is due to the construction of its fibers. Likewise, more synthetic material is required to occupy the same area as down. Most synthetic bags get heavier and stiffer as a result of this. These may resemble a bear attempting to re-enter a stuff bag.
Synthetic fibers also degrade quicker over time. As a result, they are not as long-lasting as down bags. Leaving a synthetic bag compressed for long periods can also negatively affect its longevity. You should expect a synthetic bag to see deterioration within 5-7 years.
Continuous Filament or Short Staple?
While looking at synthetic bags, you should consider if they are composed of continuous filament or short staple. In a nutshell, continuous filament is made of long strands of varying widths weaved together. This gives a high loft as well as durability. They help inhibit the formation of cold patches. They are, however, heavier and more difficult to compress. Short staple is similar to down. They are constructed from tightly packed short filaments. These bags are more flexible and compress more effectively. The disadvantage is that they degrade faster.
Final Thoughts on Synthetic Insulation
If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, some companies offer sleeping bags made from varying percentages of both synthetic materials and down. They might be a cost-effective solution for people looking for a down bag without the exorbitant price tag. However keep in mind that no synthetic material compares to the characteristics of down.
Synthetic sleeping bags can be a good option for those starting out car camping or even backpacking. You probably don’t want to spend a lot of money at first if you’re not sure you’ll enjoy it. (Regardless of whether it’s the bag or the activity!) Automobile campers don’t have to worry about weight as much, which is another reason synthetic is a viable alternative. They also function well in warm weather when less thickness and insulation is required.
Synthetic insulation is perfect for car camping, since it’s much cheaper and weight/packed size are not as important. (Photo credit: Unsplash)
Other Factors to Consider
Consider the bag’s size and form. Regardless of fill type, one that is closer to your shape/length will keep you more insulated. The warmest sleeping bags are mummy-style. Traditional, rectangular-shaped sleeping bags give side sleepers and those who toss and turn a lot more wiggle room. But, because of the greater room in the foot box, they will not keep you as warm.
It is up to you to balance the benefits and drawbacks for your specific requirements. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already thinking about your specific preferences for sleeping bag size and form. There are so many bags on the market these days that you’re certain to discover the style and fill you’re searching for.
Additionally, be sure you choose the correct temperature rating. If there isn’t enough down or synthetic insulation for the temperatures you’re experiencing, neither will keep you warm. On the flip side, using a sleeping bag rated for very cold temperatures during the summer season is unnecessary and can be very hot and uncomfortable. In such scenario, a sleeping quilt would be a better option.
A 0-degree sleeping bag will definitely keep you warm during late fall, winter, and early spring backpacking trips. Yet, it may be too hot and heavy to use in the summer.
Should I get a synthetic or down sleeping bag?
According to our findings, Hydrophobic DownTM absorbs 70% less moisture than untreated down and dries three times quicker. When pitted against each other, however, a synthetic bag still outperforms a treated down bag in very wet conditions.
What is the best type of sleeping bag for camping?
Best CAMPING Sleeping Bags of 2023
- REI Siesta Hooded 20.
- Kelty Galactic 30.
- The North Face Eco Trail Bed 20.
- NEMO Disco 30.
- Exped MegaSleep 25/40.
- Teton Sports Celsius XXL.
- Big Agnes King Solomon 20.
- Kelty Cosmic Down 20.
Are synthetic sleeping bags as warm as down?
Although it works in the same way as down—body heat gets trapped by the fibers’ loft—synthetic insulation in general is less warm, heavier, and less compressible than down. Also, it becomes packed out and loses its capacity to loft with time, giving it a shorter lifetime than down.
What material is best for sleeping bag?
Nylon, polyester, taffeta – used across all ranges of sleeping bags, from high end to budget, these materials are soft on the skin and breathable. Taffeta is the finest fabric available.