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Choosing a Winter Sleeping Bag: Down vs Synthetic

November 14, 2011

Survival Kits, Wilderness Survival

The right sleeping bag can help you stay warm in the winter

A cold wind blows in from the northwest bringing with it a chance for rain. Unpacking your gear, you wonder if camping this weekend is really worth the effort. It’s going to get cold; it’s predicted to be the coldest night this season.

But you can’t always choose when you’ll need to effect survival so practicing in less than ideal circumstances is part of your regiment. You decide to tough it out and stay the night.

Later in the evening with a warm meal prepared by campfire in your belly, you slide into your sleeping bag and moments later you are warm, dry, and content as you drift off to dream. The howling wind and cold temperatures are just backdrops for this evening. You’ll be safe a snug in your sleeping bag.

Does this story mirror your experiences with cold weather camping? Or have you spent long nights chilled to the bone? If you’re like me, you’ve had both experiences.

As winter draws near, it’s time to begin thinking about your cold weather preparations. In particular, let’s think about sleeping bags. There are two primary varieties of sleeping bags on the market as classified by their composition: down and synthetics. Let’s consider each.

Down Sleeping Bags

Down sleeping bags are made from the fluffy undercoating of birds’ plumage. Down works to help keep you warm in much the same way that it helps to keep birds warm: by trapping natural body heat within its tiny air pockets and preventing it from escaping to the outside environment.

Pound for pound, down sleeping bags provide the greatest amount of insulating value compared to other, man-made materials. It’s light way, highly compressible, and very warm. Additionally it “breathes” and allows unwanted moisture to escape.

Unfortunately, down loses almost all insulating value when it gets wet. The little air pockets that normally trap body heat stick together and collapse when wet. Worse yet, down takes a considerable time to dry completely.

Down sleeping bags and garments are typically rated according to their “fill power.” A fill power of 550 means that one ounce of uncompressed down will occupy 550 cubic inches. The higher the fill factor rating, the more insulating value the down provides.

Synthetic Sleeping Bags

As it’s name conveys, synthetic sleeping bags are filled with man-made alternatives to down. Typically they come in either continuous filament or chopped fibers varieties. In either case, they attempt to mimic the same effects as their down counterparts: to trap body heat in tiny air pockets or clusters. There are a number of different synthetic fill fibers on the market including: Polarguard, Primaloft, Thermolite, and Thinsulate, among others.

Pound for pound, synthetic bags do not provide the same insulating value as down. In order to achieve similar insulating effects, synthetic bags are typically thicker and do not compress nearly as well as down. Additionally they do not seem to last as long as down bags.

On the plus side, synthetic bags are usually hold their insulating value better than down when wet. It would be a stretch to say that you’d remain warm in a wet synthetic bag, but the experience is much better with synthetic than it would be in a down bag.

A Word About Ratings

Sleeping bags are generally labelled with a rating to indicate their warmth factor. For example a 40 F bag is supposed to keep you warm down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. However it’s worth mentioning that there is not an official standard for the measuring or testing sleeping bags. While one manufacturer may rate a bag at 40 F, another may rate a comparable bag at 25 F. Be aware of this.

Additionally everyone’s tolerance for cooler temperatures differs. What may seem warm to me, may not seem warm to you. So while I may be perfectly fine in a 40 F bag when it’s 45 F outside, you may not think it’s sufficiently warm.

My Recommendations

I’ve used both down and synthetic sleeping bags during the course of my 25 years of camping. And while each certainly has their place, I’ve tended to gravitate toward the down variety. Despite being more expensive, they last long, compress better, and retain body heat more effectively. If you go with a down bag, make sure that you keep it dry. Invest in a waterproof sack or pack cover. Sleeping in a wet bag is not fun.

My current summer bag is a Kelty Light Year 40 F bag. I use a Kelty Light Year 0 F bag for winter camping. I like them. (These are newer models of what I have. Mine were purchased years ago.)

What’s your favorite sleeping bag or camping experience? 

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25 Comments on “Choosing a Winter Sleeping Bag: Down vs Synthetic”

  1. Sunflower Says:

    I keep a “Blizzard” from England in the car during winter. It is packaging is compact. I have not used it yet, but it is there if we need it. It is about as heavy as a big sandwich. It’s shape is simliar to a large fat sandwich.

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  2. David L Says:

    I have a Wiggy’s “Superlight”. 4lb of synthetic (works when wet) bag, a bit bulkier than some but warm. I keep a space blanket in it for emergency use. The coldest I’ve slept in it has been about 30* and almost too warm. I think it’s rated to 0*. Not sure how low I could go using the space blanket and a cheap outer bag. This and a waterproof bivvy bag, and I feel set.

    A bit pricier, but cry once and stay warm forever…. They make the sleeping that fits under the ejection seat of some of the USAF’s fighter (I’m a USAF vet), so fine with me. Keeping me warm when wet was key for me. No bells or whistles, cause it doesnt need any.

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