Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sleeping Bags: down vs. synthetic

A good sleeping bag can last you many years, and at $200 or more is a considerable investment. Before purchasing a new sleeping bag, do as much research as you possibly can: read reviews, talk to an experienced outfitter, and get recommendations from people who hike in the same conditions and areas as yourself.

In this entry I'm only going to address one issue: my preference of fill (down or synthetic). I've tried both kinds of bags in all kinds of conditions, and have definately joined the pro-down team, for the following reasons:

  • Weight: A quality down bag is lighter than a comparable synthetic fill.
  • Compactability: Down bags compress well, freeing up valuable pack space. (Don't use a compression sack if you can avoid it, check with the manufacturer for packing guidelines)
  • Loft: With careful storage and maintenance, a down bag will retain its loft for many years. Be certain the bag has adequate baffles to avoid any shifting of the fill.

  • Down offers no insulating value when wet, so it's very important to keep your bag dry. Use a quality stuff sack, then wrap in a garbage back. If you're going into very wet conditions, consider an overbag.
  • Down is more expensive than synthetic fills, but as a sleeping bag will last you many years, the extra value here is worth it.

For the past few years I've been using a GoLite 700 fill down bag, in all sorts of conditions. I'm careful about keeping it dry, but the exterior has a moisture-resistant coating so a small amount of condensation doesn't do any damage.

  • Treat your sleeping bag with more care than any other piece of gear. Check the manufacturer's web site for cleaning and care instructions, and only use the highest quality cleaning products. I use Nikwax Down Wash once a year, handwashing in the bathtub with lukewarm water, then tumble drying on low until 100% dry. Your requirements may vary.
  • At home, always store your sleeping bag in a large cotton bag (the good bags will come with one), hung in a ventilated closet.
  • On the trail, unpack your sleeping bag as soon as you arrive at camp, and allow it to regain its loft in the sun if possible, or in your tent. Keep it away from the fire, one small hole will allow moisture to penetrate the outer layer.
  • Compact with care: don't use a compression bag.
  • Don't assume that because it isn't raining, your bag can't get wet (see photo below!)

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