Doing research on all of the cool gear that you can purchase is one of the fun aspects involved in preparing for your outdoor adventures! The list is often extensive and can feel overwhelming. By breaking the task down into chunks, you can focus on each individual need without the pressure of so many choices weighing on you during the decision making process.

Today we will look at sleeping bags. A high quality sleeping bag can be the difference between a cozy, warm night of sleep, and a frostbitten toes, pack-up-and-go-home-in-the-morning kind of adventure. The first choice in choosing a sleeping bag is choosing between a down or synthetic sleeping bag. What is the difference between down and synthetic sleeping bags? The insulation that fills them.

Why is insulation important?

Insulation directly affects the weight of your load, the warmth you feel when sleeping in the sleeping bag, the bag’s water resistance, cost, and compressibility. Choosing the proper insulation is the most important aspect of choosing a sleeping bag.

Down Sleeping Bags

Down is actually not feathers, which is a common misconception. Down is actually the plumage of certain waterfowl like ducks or geese. It is the fluffy, lofty stuff underneath the feathers.

Choose down if you will be in cold, dry conditions. Down is incredibly compressible and lightweight. Its warmth to weight ratio is much higher than that of synthetic down. When purchasing down, you typically have choices between duck and goose. Goose is the more expensive of the two, typically, because it has higher fill power. Fill power is a term used to measure the down’s fluffiness.

The fluffier it can get, the more warm air it can trap. Duck down typically has fill power no higher than 750 to 800. Goose down fill power can reach 900 and beyond. The higher the rating means loftier down which equals less down is needed to fill a space or achieve a certain temperature.​

Down might seem like the wise choice, but it does have a major con: it isn’t water-resistant. When down gets wet, it loses its loft.

When it loses its loft, it can’t retain heat, resulting in the loss of its insulation properties (at least, until it is dry). Wet down takes a long time to dry, and if you are wanting to clean it, it takes some special care. The other potential downside of purchasing down is that it is much more expensive than synthetic.​

Recommended Down Sleeping Bag

Hyke & Byke Quandary Down Sleeping Bag

Synthetic Sleeping Bags

Synthetic down is created to replicate true down, but without the huge pitfall of ceasing to function when it gets wet. A synthetic sleeping bag will, typically, be filled with polyester, and have a more approachable price tag for those on a budget.

There are two varieties of synthetic fill to choose from: continuous-filament insulations versus short-staple insulations. Continuous-filament insulations are longer strands that are fluffier, durable, and thick. The sleeping bag will feel stiffer than other types of sleeping bags, and they are also less compressible, adding more bulk to your bag.

But they will be less likely to produce cold spots like the short-staple insulations sometimes create. Short-staple insulations are created more in the image of down. They are shorter strands that are lofty and very compressible, just like down. But they can lead to cold spots when the filaments gather in one spot.

Down’s biggest assets are its weight (or lack thereof), its warmth, and its compressibility. Synthetic’s biggest assets are its cost and its water-resistant capabilities. The choice is ultimately up to you, your planned trip (and its weather), your budget, and your needs. If you will be camping and hiking through the forests of the Pacific Northwest, you will most likely end up getting soaked to the bone.

The weather is often cooler here too, so it’ll be a tough call. The cozy down will warm you up quickly and keep you warm, unless it gets wet. And then it won’t do anything besides lay there being useless. You could always pack it in a waterproof dry sack, like this one from Sea to Summit​.

Recommended Synthetic Sleeping Bag

TETON Sports Tracker +5F Ultralight Sleeping Bag


A side note about down is that it can sometimes affect people with allergies. It’s not super common, but worth noting. Synthetic is, of course, hypoallergenic.​

One last thing to remember when choosing between down and synthetic, is that a well cared for down sleeping bag could last you decades, which ultimately makes them more worth their higher price tag.​

What do you prefer: down or synthetic? Let us know in the comments! If you enjoyed this article, please share it with friends and fellow campers.​

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