Down or synthetic sleeping bag?
June 24, 2008 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Down or synthetic? What insulation should I get for our new sleeping bags? They will be used camping, and probably backpacking overseas, but rarely - if ever - hiking, and likely never in below-freezing conditions, so synthetic sounds like it will be fine. But the old boy-scout romantic in me likes the idea of down ...

And a related second part of the question: the (very old) rectangular and 'hoodless' synthetic bags I have joined with the zips down the side. Apparently the new 'hooded' ones join in the centre. Is this set-up as impractical for couples with different temperature requirements as it first strikes?
posted by puffmoike to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Down is heavy

Look for Super Down bags, these are really light and very warm. They are expensive but well worth it.

Synthetic has all the disadvantages that you would expect, but they do dry out quickly.

You're in Melbourne, Rays have super down bags, and get a swag too. You'll be lovely and dry, warm too. I bought swag there a few years back for 11 bucks, brilliant investment.
posted by mattoxic at 6:53 AM on June 24, 2008

When down gets wet, it takes a very long time to dry. It's more sensitive to proper washing. It absorbs moisture from the atmosphere and takes on weight. It's certainly cushy and very warm in the cold, but I'm a camper, and I woudn't bother with a down bag unless I was winter camping in snowy conditions. Synthetic is lighter, dries faster, crushes smaller, and is plenty warm.
posted by Miko at 7:02 AM on June 24, 2008

Down loses nearly 100% of its insulating capacity when it gets wet, and it can take hours and hours and hours to dry. For arctic conditions, Down is the best choice because of its superior insulating capacity, but for above-freezing conditions synthetic should be more than warm enough.

By "hooded" do you mean a "mummy-style" bag, where the feet taper?
posted by anastasiav at 7:13 AM on June 24, 2008

Synthetic is lighter, dries faster, crushes smaller, and is plenty warm.

Which is why in my kit, down is only for bitter cold. I love the stuff, but the new synthetics are just too good. Although I haven't found a synthetic coat that comes anywhere close to this, but how often are you out in -45C temperatures. I use it once every few years.

Is this set-up as impractical for couples with different temperature requirements as it first strikes?

Yes. Unless it's bitter cold and you didn't buy the down.
posted by three blind mice at 7:29 AM on June 24, 2008

Down is heavy
posted by mattoxic at 9:53 AM on June 24 [+] [!]

WTF? Down is lighter than synthetics. Whatever...


Ultralight (UL) hikers debate this question endlessly:

High-quality down (700+ grade) is warmer by weight than any synthetic.
But down absorbs water, and retains it.
Thus, on long hikes, even if you keep it dry, down absorbs enough body and air moisture to become as heavy as synthetics. However, since wet down has low insulation, it doesn't work as well.
But if you can air-dry your bag daily... it's better.
But if it ever gets rained on, you're in a world of hurt.
But it's lighter! (which is EVERYTHING to an UL hiker)

My bag is 15 oz of 900 down, good for Spring through Fall nights. It packs to the size of an American football. I love it.

But the best synthetics are pretty good - rated like 600-650 down, IIRC.

If you aren't an UL hiker, go with synthetic. The extra pound won't kill you, and if your bag gets soaked, it may save you from hypothermia.

The insulation factor of various synthetics (by weight) varies dramatically, so do some research, or else you'll be playing a game of chance when you buy. Naturally, the marketing hype on the outside of every bag says THIS IS THE ONE!!!, so ignore that sheit.

Read reviews online, and pick a bag that is rated at least 5-10 deg colder than you plan to camp in. Bag manufacturers have no standard for this rating, and people vary in what they consider warm enough anyway ("warm sleepers" and "cold sleepers").
posted by IAmBroom at 8:17 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wet down is misery. Synthetic is probably the way to go if there is the least risk of wetness.

posted by jenkinsEar at 8:49 AM on June 24, 2008

If you think there's a chance of you getting wet, go synthetic.

If you'll always be staying in hostels, and you want a small size, go down (you can get a moderate temp down bag that's the size of a small bread loaf). I also think down lasts longer (my knowledge here is circa 2002).

But I agree with everyone else -- I have down for my -10 degree bag, since a synthetic bag that cold was too big, and then I have a synthetic summer bag (20 degrees).

Re:zipping, the hooded, tapered bags also join with their zips down the sides. If you want to zip your bags together, ask the camping store people about how to deal with the thermarests -- I often somehow end up between the two ground pads. There's also duct tape, but I bet they sell something for this.
posted by salvia at 9:14 AM on June 24, 2008

fwiw, down might alienate future tentmates who are allergic.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:39 AM on June 24, 2008

My last experience with a synthetic bag was ~5 years ago, so things may have changed, but it was horrible. A down bag rated for much colder temperatures is actually more pleasant to sleep in during warm weather, to me, as down breathes very well. I found I'd be stifled in my old synthetic (rated at 20 degree?) but have never had a problem whatsoever with my -15 degree down bag.. last time I hiked with it was in September in Maine for over a week in the rain, and while things got damp it was never an issue. I was in lean-tos and sometimes on the ground with a light tarp as a floor, and flyweight nylon as a rain cover.

I would obviously suggest down, if you can stomach the extra cost.
posted by mbatch at 9:59 AM on June 24, 2008

as down breathes very well. I found I'd be stifled in my old synthetic (rated at 20 degree?) but have never had a problem whatsoever with my -15 degree down bag.. l
posted by mbatch at 12:59 PM on June 24 [+] [!]

I agree with this... my down bag is never too hot. I just scootch further in/out as needed (and I have a zipper on the footbox which I leave open on warm nights).
posted by IAmBroom at 10:12 AM on June 24, 2008

Wife and I each have the equivalent of this from mountain hardware. We've taken our bags down to 20 (the manufacturers rating) with a sleeping sack inside.

If we ever consistently go below 20 we'll probably go with a secondary down bag, but it's so rare. More important than the bag material at low temps is the insulation from the ground. A high quality sleeping pad makes more difference at freezing temps than the bag material does in a high quality bag from my experience.

If you're worried about being too warm and aren't Ul camping and will be brining a sleeping pad anyway, consider a silk sleeping sack and use that as your primary bag and the unforlded mummy bag as a blanket, it's what we use for mild temperatures when the sun coming up is likely to raise things 20-30 degrees when it hits the tent.

In general the best time we've found to get a new bag has been when REI is having a gear sale recycling the previous years models, I don't know what the situation is in .au for equipment outfitters.
posted by iamabot at 10:14 AM on June 24, 2008

While everyone gave you the correct technical answer, I suggest you get to a store where you can feel both of them. I find synthetic bags stiff and unconfortable while down bags are soft and give this incredible feeling of being cuddled by a large duvet.

I chose chose down sleeping bags, not because of technical advantages, but because of its confort.
posted by racingjs at 10:48 AM on June 24, 2008

A negative to synthetic is that they're very hard to bring back to life once they've been in a compression bag for a while - my synthetic lost most of it's insulating power, I just gave it away and switched to down.

So if you get synthetic, store it properly in a huge bag!
posted by piper4 at 10:56 AM on June 24, 2008

If you are looking for a great doubles sleeping bag, Big Agnes has a series of Doublewide sleeping bags here that I have read great things about. They do get a bit spendy, but the reviews say they are worth it.
posted by dpollitt at 1:03 PM on June 24, 2008

Synthetic is easier to clean. If you get any sleeping bag in a tight stuffsack, get a bigger stuffsack, as compression is not good.
posted by theora55 at 1:19 PM on June 24, 2008

So many good answers here, and I don't really know enough at the moment to mark any as the best ...

The ones that pricked my ears — after reading quite a few answers suggesting synthetic made sense given my expected use — were mbatch's, IAmBroom's and racingjs's. When I've used my Mum's 25yo down bag it just 'feels' so much nicer than my beaten-up 20yo old synthetic bag (I love doonas/duvets, and can't stand traditionally made beds), and doesn't feel nearly as stuffy when the sun hits the side of the tent at 8am and I'm in no hurry to get up.

I should have mentioned that I'm looking at the cheaper end. At the moment Kathmandu are having a sale (their business model is based on regular, heavily-discounted sales, so I'm looking at the "60% OFF sale" price as the "real" price). The Columbus v4 (500g of 600 loft down) is currently ~AUD$175. The similarly temperature rated synthetic Globe V3 is about AUD$80. The down one just looks so much more inviting to snuggle up in.

Quite a few MeFites took the effort to check that I'm from Melbourne, Australia —which I probably should have mentioned in the initial question, as it gives some indication of the climate the bags will be used in. First use will be two weeks in a campervan in the Northern Territory (avg minimum temp in July: 4°C)... but from then on will be used in tents for a few weekends throughout the year (min temps of the order of 7-20°C), and possibly in hostels in South America in the next year or two.

Thanks once again for the great response!
posted by puffmoike at 12:29 AM on June 25, 2008


By 'hooded' I meant bags with an area for your head to rest on. My old bag is apparently now collectors'-worthy: it's just a regular rectangular shape that leaves your head completely exposed to the elements.

I don't intend to get a mummy-shaped bag because I want to be able to:
a) unzip the bottom of the bag and leave my feet out when things get a bit hot; and
b) zip the bag to my partner's if we're camping together.
posted by puffmoike at 12:38 AM on June 25, 2008

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