Skiing versus snowboarding. Mountain biking versus road biking. Tupac versus Biggie. Who hasn’t engaged in these bottomless debates? Perhaps the mother of all campfire arguments, however, is the age-old synthetic versus down sleeping bag scenario.
In this installment of Choosing the Right Sleeping Bag, we’re going to revisit the topic, and hopefully help you get to the bottom of figuring out which bag best fits you.
A deciding factor for campers on a budget is the significant price difference between a down bag and a synthetic bag. With the increasing popularity of fashionable down jackets worldwide, that magical insulating undercoating that provides warmth to geese, ducks and now humans is a hot commodity. And because of the demand, down is more expensive. Traditionally, a down sleeping bag started at around $300. However, the price can vary depending on what’s happening to the supply of down globally. In 2013, for example, a bird flu outbreak wiped out a large chunk of China’s down supply, therefore bumping up the price of down sleeping bags worldwide.
It’s worth noting that in the last few years, duck down has become an available fill in many bags, and is cheaper than goose down. Low fill-power duck down bags are now available for under $200.
If money is tight and how much you spend is your main concern, a synthetic bag or a low fill-power duck down bag is your ticket to outdoor comfort.
Warmth to Weight Ratio
The superiority of down’s warmth to weight ratio is unmatched. That fill-power we mentioned above … yeah that’s where down shines. So what is fill-power? Basically it’s a measurement of the cubic inches an ounce of down can fill inside a lab container. Simply put, fill-power gauges the loft or fluffiness of the down. The higher the fill-power, the warmer the bag. Synthetic insulation, which is made from polyester fibers, has a heavier warmth-to-weight ratio, which also affects a synthetic bag’s compressibility. This means that a synthetic bag with the same temperature rating as a down bag will be heavier and won’t pack down as small as a comparable down bag.
If you’re a gram shaving alpinist, a fast and light backpacker, or just a camper who values a light and compact load, a down bag is your primo choice.
The coup de grâce for those residing in the synthetic camp is often the topic of water resistance. And they’re right: when it comes to playing in the rain, camping in the snow or boating for days on a river, few can argue that a synthetic sleeping bag is the safer bet. Synthetic insulation is designed to maintain its insulating qualities even when wet. Plus it dries faster. For down, moisture is its kryptonite.
However, a recent evolution of technology has added fuel to this argument. Enter hydrophobic down. Water resistant down, such as Nikwax’s Hydrophobic Down™ is created by treating its molecules with a hydrophobic chemical (water resistant coating)—virtually adding zero weight to the insulation. Nikwax Hydrophobic Down™ will be used in all of our down sleeping bags, quilts and blankets beginning in 2016. In our research, Hydrophobic Down™ is proven to absorb 70% less moisture than untreated down, plus it dries faster.
When pitted against each other, however, a synthetic bag still out performs a treated down bag in very wet conditions.
If you plan on testing the limits of your sleeping bag in wet conditions, a synthetic bag is more reliable.
Still undecided? Well, maybe you’re the kind of person always searching for the perfect in-between. Lucky for you, innovations within the last two years have revealed a hybrid of down and synthetic insulation. However, blending the two fibers together can prove problematic. Some synthetic fibers actually hinder the loft of the down it’s partnered with, therefore decreasing warmth, while other blends reportedly work great. At the moment, the technology still seems to be developing.
For such a new technology like hybrid blends, it seems the verdict is still out. But, if you’re a risk-taker who wants the best of both worlds, a hybrid may be your dream bag.
So, the next time you’re hanging out by the campfire engaging in heated discussions like Taylor Swift versus Katy Perry, or fly fishing versus spin casting, at least you’ll retire to the perfect sleeping bag of your choice.
Originally posted on December 10, 2015.