Down vs. Synthetic Sleeping Bag: Which One Is Best?

Down vs. Synthetic Sleeping Bag
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Your feet are tired, and you are starting to yawn. The camp is set up, dinner cooked, s’mores consumed, and ghost stories were told late into the evening. As the embers from your campfire drift into the starry sky, you stifle a yawn and wave goodnight to your fellow campers.

It’s time to get some rest before another long day of hiking tomorrow. After reading our article, you will be able to let the crickets sing you to a peaceful sleep knowing that you’ve made the right choice for your bedding.

Down vs. Synthetic Sleeping Bag 2

Direct Comparison

Down Sleeping Bag

  • Material: animal down; makes use of fill-power
  • Compression: highly compressible
  • Weather: loses the ability to perform when wet; bad for extreme climates
  • Warmth to weight ratio: fantastic ratio; extremely warm for a very light filling
  • Durability: extremely durable, 10 to 15 years

Synthetic Sleeping Bag

  • Material: unlikely to aggravate allergies; more difficult to evaluate
  • Compression: less compression
  • Weather: dries quickly and does not lose as much insulation; alpine okay
  • Warmth to Weight Ratio: poor, always heavier than down for the same warmth level
  • Durability: less durable, three to five years

Breaking it down

There are a lot of different factors to consider when you look for the right sleeping bag. What kind of insulation will you need from the weather?

Are you taking a winter trip through the alpines, camping in the midst of some major April showers, or is it all coming up roses in the May summer flowers? Do you want more cushion for a softer sleep, or are you packing pads for that extra layer of comfort? Let’s take a deeper look at some of the specific aspects of down vs. synthetic sleeping bags.

Material

While each different type of sleeping bag has multiple things to consider, at the heart of it rests the material. On a more focused spectrum than the overall question, look at what the material means to you specifically.

Down Sleeping Bag

Down sleeping bags are made from the soft plumage of waterfowl that rests underneath the feathers. Contrary to popular belief, it is not made from their actual feathers; it uses a much softer material. If you are an animal rights activist or have severe allergies, this may not be the best material for you regardless of the other features.

Down bags can be easily compared with one another by checking something called their fill power. The higher the fill power, the more heat it will loft per ounce. High quality down is extremely light and extremely warm.

Synthetic Sleeping Bag

Synthetic sleeping bags use a variety of different materials because each company uses its own proprietary blend; the idea of a standardized fill power is not something that can be used here. Hence, it can be very difficult to know which brands will keep you warmest and whether additional weight gives the same ratio of additional insulation.

Synthetic bags that use short fibers are more able to mimic the quality and feel of down but tend to compress into pockets, creating clumps of warmth and exposed holes that do not insulate. The alternative is to use continuous filament options, which prevent clumps but also decrease compressibility.

Winner

The winner here is down material. It is great to have a standard way to compare any brand of a bag across the industry against one another. This makes it easy to determine how much insulation that extra weight will give you.

Compression

Compression is a key element of any sleeping bag. When you go camping, you have to take everything with you; there is no such thing as leaving it in the car and coming back for it later. As such, any bag that can squeeze itself into a tiny bundle is preferable to one that takes up half the space in a pack or needs to be tied to the outside of the pack to make room for other necessities.

Down Sleeping Bag

These bags are highly compressible. They can fit into extremely small little balls without clumping up or losing their shape. This makes them extremely durable, compact options.

Synthetic Sleeping Bag

Synthetic sleeping bags are much less compressible. With its continuous fibers, they are more rigid and cannot fit as easily into small spaces. If you don’t use the continuous fiber option, you can compress this more easily, but then your bag clumps up and gets destroyed much faster.

Winner

The winner is down, again. It is vital that a sleeping bag take up as little space as possible when carrying essentials like food, shelter, and water in the same pack.

Down vs. Synthetic Sleeping Bag 3

Weather

What weather will you experience during your camping trip? If you ever go camping in wet weather or decide to take a combination camp and rafting trip, or even just want to camp in the snowy alpines, then this is critical in determining your best bag.

Down Sleeping Bag

Down bags are not built for inclement weather. If down gets wet at all, it will lose all of its ability to insulate. Consider that 800 lofts like a campfire and remember the effect water has on fires. Goodbye warmth and insulation, hello sopping wet feet and shivering arms full of goosebumps.

Synthetic Sleeping Bag

Synthetic bags are wonderful for any weather. Many of them are made with weather resistant fabric. Even when these bags get wet, they do not lose their ability to insulate you. While your tent may end up a little wet, you’ll still be toasty warm.

Winner

The clear winner in this down vs. synthetic sleeping bag category is the synthetic sleeping bag. You never know when bad weather may strike, and it is always better to be prepared!

Warmth-to-Weight Ratio

Backpacking can be pretty tiring. It requires a lot of strength to spend the entire day hiking, so adding the weight of all your supplies to your back while doing it can be worse than carrying a small child all day. This is why maximizing weight to space is essential.

Down Sleeping Bag

These sleeping bags have an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. The fill power lets every camper know exactly how much warmth per ounce to expect. Thus, campers can easily find the right point based on their expected climate conditions and pack only enough weight for their desired warmth.

Synthetic Sleeping Bag

Synthetic bags have very little to offer this ratio. No matter how much insulation is desired, synthetic fibers are always heavier than down. Synthetic bags with the same temperature ratings as down bags will be heavier every single time.

Winner

Once again, down takes the victory. When minimizing weight is critical to the success of a hiking trip, you just can’t beat down for warmth to weight ratio of sleeping bags.

Durability

Sleeping bags can be a costly purchase, especially the luxury options built for better insulation and comfort. When looking at major purchases, consider them an investment into a hobby you plan to pursue.

Down Sleeping Bag

Down sleeping bags are extremely durable. They retain their shape no matter how many times you compress them. Keep these bags dry and clean, and you will not have to buy more than one or two bags throughout your lifetime.

Synthetic Sleeping Bag

While a down sleeping bag may last a decade or longer, synthetic bags will typically begin to offer less insulation after five years. The materials begin to clump and spread and the frequent compression when packing takes a much larger toll on synthetic materials. They might be a cheaper option for a one-time purchase, but regular campers will have to purchase several of these over the lifetime of a single down bag.

Winner

Down wins again. It holds up to compression and packing for more extended periods without clumping and letting cold air into your sleeping space.

Final Recount

Down Sleeping Bag: 4/5

Synthetic Sleeping Bag: 1/5

Winner: Down Sleeping Bag

Pros and Cons of Each

PROS

CONS

Down Sleeping Bag

  • Lightweight
  • Durable
  • Standard fill ratio across multiple brands
  • Not good for campers with allergies
  • Useless when wet

Synthetic Sleeping Bag

  • Holds up in wet climates
  • Does not use animals
  • No standard fill ratio across brands within the industry
  • Less longevity

Final Verdict

It is pretty clear that the best choice of insulation for anyone who isn’t camping in the rain and doesn’t have allergies is the down sleeping bag. It compresses better, lasts longer, and keeps you warmer for much less weight.

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