There are several factors to consider when it comes to choosing a sleeping bag, one of which is the type of insulating material. At the very least, you’ll want a sleeping bag that will be able to keep you warm throughout the night at the campsite. At best, you’ll want a sleeping bag that will be as comfortable as your own bed at home. There are two major types of insulation used in making sleeping bags: down and synthetic. Deciding which of these two types of insulation is where many campers usually have a problem as both insulating materials have their own pros and cons. If you’re facing the same dilemma, don’t worry because in this article we’re going to take a look at the main differences between these two. By clearing up some of the confusion between a down vs. synthetic sleeping bag and providing some helpful insights, we believe we should be able to help you pick the right sleeping bag for your next adventure.
But before we dive right into their differences and the factors that need to be considered when choosing a sleeping bag, let’s first go over a brief discussion of what these types of insulation are.
What Is Down Insulation?
Down is considered by many to be the best insulating material for sleeping bags. However, not many people actually know what ‘down’ refers to. For instance, an average person will tell you that down insulation refer to goose or duck feathers, which is rather inaccurate.
Down is actually taken from goose or duck plumage, the lofty and fluffy undercoating beneath the feathers that provides warmth for geese, ducks and other waterfowl. These plumage create thousands of air pocket that traps air molecules, thereby creating an effective thermal barrier and thus providing insulation. There are three types of down insulation:
- High-loft goose down is the finest type of down and provides the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any natural or synthetic insulation. Obviously, it is also the most expensive type.
- Standard goose down has slightly less loft than a high-loft goose down and is more affordable.
- Duck down is less fine than standard goose down and considerably less expensive.
Down insulation is also available in different grades. For instance, a 90% goose down sleeping bag will consist of 90% down and 10% feathers (small parts of feathers that were not separated from the down during the manufacturing process). The higher the grade of the down, the better the warmth-to-weight ratio will be, and conversely, the more expensive it will be.
What Is Synthetic Insulation?
Synthetic insulation is essentially polyester threading that is designed to mimic lofty down clusters. They are molded into long single threads or short staples. The thinner and lighter threads fill voids and trap warm air more effectively. On the other hand, the thicker strands sustain the loft and durability. There are different synthetic fills, three of the most common are listed below:
- Polarguard is made of continuous synthetic fibers that retains its loft and insulating properties when wet. It is one of the better synthetic insulation available because it is non-allergenic, mildew-resistant, machine washable and drier-friendly.
- Primaloft is an ultra-fine microfiber blend made from 100% polyester microfiber that is incredibly soft, lightweight, and water-repellent. It also has a down-like softness that adds comfort. Primaloft One has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any synthetic insulation currently on the market, though when it comes to Primaloft vs. down, the latter would still win.
- Thermolite is known for its ability to provide excellent warmth-to-weight ratio even when wet. Like Polarguard, it’s also machine washable and dryable. There are different variants of Thermolite, and each of them has their own specific features and advantages (e.g. Thermolite Extra most closely resembles the warmth, softness and fullness of down while Thermolite Plus is designed for use in extreme conditions and is the most water resistant of the Thermolite variants).
Down vs. Synthetic: Warmth-to-weight
Weight has always been an important factor for many backpackers. This is why they tend to lean towards the smaller and lighter versions of camping gear, from backpacking tents to compact backpacking stove and others. Naturally, this extends to their choice of sleeping bags.
However, backpackers shouldn’t only concern themselves with how light their sleeping bag is. It should also be able to provide them with the insulation they need for their nights at the campsite. And when it comes to maximum warmth with minimal weight, nothing is more efficient than down.
Down is known as the premier insulating material available at present, providing excellent insulation for very little weight. A down sleeping bag will weigh much less than a synthetic sleeping bag of the same size and design. The weight difference may only be a couple of grams, but for a gram-counting backpacker, this can make a whole lot of difference when walking for miles with a pack on their back.
Down vs. Synthetics: Compressibility
Another thing that down insulation is well-known for is its compressibility. Campers can easily stuff a lightweight down sleeping bag into a small bag much more tightly than a comparable synthetic sleeping bag. It should be remembered though that the quality of the down insulation will play a role in this regard. Downs of low and medium quality will not compress as well as premium ones. In fact, high-quality synthetics may even have better compressibility than low quality downs.
Down vs. Synthetic: Water Resistance
If there’s one factor where synthetic insulation is superior over down insulation, then that would be the water resistance properties. In fact, synthetic is mostly known and patronized because of its ability to insulate even when it is wet. This is why synthetics is also preferred as an insulating material in the making of hard-shell jackets for outdoor activities. Unlike down insulation, synthetics do not soak up and retain water. That said, if you’re camping in light to moderately damp and wet conditions, then a synthetic sleeping bag would be the better option.
As mentioned, down insulation is known to soak up and retain water, and when it does it clumps together and loses its loft, thereby losing its insulating properties. So if you’re backpacking and your down sleeping bag gets wet while it’s strapped on your backpack while hiking, you might find yourself in for a potentially long, uncomfortable and possibly dangerous night in the outdoors.
It is worth noting though that many new and high-end down sleeping bags use some form of waterproofing treatment to help protect the down insulation from moisture. With this, down sleeping bags are capable of resisting water to a certain degree compared to non-treated down sleeping bags. However, this does not make a down sleeping bag completely impervious to moisture, and will still become wet when exposed to excessive moisture or when the treatment or coating starts to wear away. All in all, when it comes to synthetic or Primaloft vs down sleeping bag, the former would still fare better than the latter in terms of water-resistance.
Down vs. Synthetic: Cleaning and Maintenance
In general, sleeping bags with synthetic insulation is much easier to clean and maintain. This is because down insulation can react negatively to certain detergents and cleaning chemicals. When it comes to washing down sleeping bags, only mild detergents or down-specific cleaners should be used. In addition, down has a tendency to absorb and keep water which makes them more difficult to dry.
Synthetic insulation on the other hand does not react to detergents in the way that down does. Also, there are synthetic sleeping bags which are designed to be machine washable and even dryer-friendly. All these combined makes synthetic sleeping bags easier to clean and dry than down sleeping bags.
Another great thing about synthetics is that most (if not all) of them are hypoallergenic as long as they are kept clean. This may be important only to a small percentage of campers, but for those who are especially sensitive, this is a rather important consideration. This is why most of the sleeping bags for children are usually filled with synthetic insulation instead of down insulation.
Down insulation does not cause allergies by itself, but harbors dust particles, debris or other non-down materials that can cause allergic reactions among sensitive people. However, high-quality and premium down is cleaned very well in accordance to industry standards and is less likely to cause any health issues.
Down vs. Synthetic: Comfort
When it comes to sheer comfort and coziness, many campers would agree that down insulation wins hands down (no pun intended). It is super warm and light at the same time, which gives you that soft and plush feeling when you lie down on it especially after a long day of hiking and exploring.
Synthetics are also comfortable, though not as much as down insulation. Manufacturers are constantly coming up with newer synthetic fibers that they hope will one day surpass (or at the very least match) the superiority of down insulation in terms of comfort and coziness.
Down vs. Synthetic: Durability
Unfortunately, both down and synthetic insulation will wear out over time. The only determining factor then would be the kind of treatment that both will receive from the user. That said, durability is relative and will largely be influenced by outside factors rather than the insulating material’s inherent nature.
Synthetic fibers gradually break down regardless of how well you care for them, and the same can be said for down insulation. Both synthetic fibers and down feathers tend to slowly lose their form, particularly if you are compressing them frequently. In the case of synthetic fibers, there are different types of synthetics available and some of them are stronger and more durable than their other counterparts. It is generally accepted that it can be a very difficult business generalizing about how durable synthetics are as a whole.
All that said, the key to ensuring that you can enjoy your sleeping bag for many adventures down the road is proper treatment. Properly storing your sleeping bag is one of the key factors when it comes to sleeping bag maintenance. Experts generally advice that you keep your sleeping bag in a loose bag as opposed to storing it in the compression bag that it came in. Cleaning is also important in order to remove any dirt, debris or even body oil that may damage the insulation, fabric and the sleeping bag as a whole.
Down vs. Insulation: Price
For many new campers, an important deciding factor when it comes to purchasing a sleeping bag is the price. In general, you will notice that there is a significant difference between the cost of a sleeping bag with down feather and a sleeping bag filled with synthetic insulation.
Many campers still regard synthetic insulation to be expensive, particularly those newer and more high-end variants that are designed (and closely mimic) the properties of down insulation. Nonetheless, these newer models are still cheaper than actual down sleeping bags.
One of the things that makes down insulation so expensive is the rising demand for the product. For the most part, the price of down will be influenced by its availability. Duck down is relatively cheaper than goose down though, and some duck down sleeping bags can actually cost much less than a high-end synthetic sleeping bag.
So if money is your ultimate concern when buying a sleeping bag, you could do well with a synthetic or a duck down filled sleeping bag. They are comfortable enough and perform well in the outdoors. Depending on the brand or quality, you can expect to save at least thirty percent or even more by going with a comparable synthetic sleeping bag than a premium down sleeping bag.
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As can be seen above, there are certainly a variety of factors that need to be considered when choosing and buying a sleeping bag. These include the campsite conditions, the average temperature in the area, the price, and so much more. However, keep in mind that the performance of the sleeping bag will largely be determined by the insulating material, with other factors such as the fabrics and design element playing a secondary role. All in all though, both down vs. synthetic sleeping bag should be able to keep you warm and toasty during your camping. One is not strictly better than the other, though one may suit your needs more than the other at any given scenario.
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