Sleeping bags are crucial pieces of outdoor gear; nearly a third of the time during an overnight backcountry trip is spent in one. A perfect bag provides for a good night’s rest, a necessity after an arduous day climbing through blowdowns, balancing on beaver dams and weaving through a forested obstacle course. Ideally, a sleeping bag should be warm, comfortable and convenient, yet still lightweight enough to carry wherever curiosity demands without agitating one’s own back.
Decision-making and trade-offs are the bread and butter of selecting a good sleeping bag, just like most other backcountry gear. Although picking a trusted manufacturer, selecting a temperature rating and figuring out an adequate size remain the most crucial decisions, none is more contentious than selecting the insulating material. Luckily, this choice is limited to only two major contenders, goose down or synthetic, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Goose down has superior warmth to weight ratio compared to synthetic material, but with advances in technology this advantage has been steadily shrinking. Down is far superior in compression, with the synthetic insulation losing its loft after many repeated packing. For the cost conscious, down is unfortunately more expensive, but it lasts much longer than the synthetics, often making it a better value in the end.
For those sensitive to the plight of suffering animals, the decision between the two materials may be a difficult one. The production of goose down has received a fair amount of criticism from animal rights activists in the past, although some manufactures now use cruelty-free down. Unfortunately, a conscious comes with a price, as these cruelty-free products typically cost a premium.
Synthetics do not come fully cruelty free either. Synthetic insulation is a petroleum product, which requires exploration, extraction, transport and processing, each with its own risk, including spills that can cost wildlife dearly, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast and the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound being two examples.
Despite all the issues surrounding the down vs. synthetic controversy, the most important concern is the insulating ability when wet. Down has very little, where synthetic retains much more. This might appear strange given that a goose is an aquatic bird, but a downed-filled sleeping bag lacks an uropygial gland, which is a good thing, as it would make a filthy mess of your backpack.
I struggled often with the choice of sleeping bag insulation material, especially during the early days of my backcountry career. Back then, maintaining insulating ability when wet was my main concern in the Adirondacks, where frequent periods of rain that could last days, if not longer.
My fear of wetness did not arise from bed-wetting in my youth, but from my first experience camping many years earlier. While still a young boy, my family decided to try car camping (or in those days, just camping) at Nick’s Lake State Campground in Old Forge. After buying all the necessary gear (or so we thought), we headed up for a week of sleeping in a tent, encountering exotic wildlife and hiking miles of remote trails. Unfortunately, none of this happened, as it rained for six days straight.
This was no ordinary rain showers, but six days of torrential downpours the like not seen since the days of Noah. The tent leaked, my sister was perpetually bored and our dreams of enjoying an outdoors vacation in the Adirondacks turned to mush. Instead, we explored every museum, store and other indoor venue for miles around. That I ever wished to return is surprising enough, not to mention spending the majority of my leisure time in the area as an adult (and incipient old-fogy).
This early experience taught me one salient fact; the Adirondacks are a wet place. To enjoy those few dry days, you had better be prepared for the all those soggy ones in between.
This bias persisted well into the early years of my backcountry career. My first three sleeping bags included synthetic insulation, as I imagined down would inevitably get wet, resulting in me either freezing to death, or more likely, spending an excruciatingly uncomfortable night in the woods. Hordes of biting insects, wind-whipping trees and lack of flush toilets I can endure, but a wet and poorly insulating sleeping, that is too much to bear.
My first two sleeping bags were of fairly low quality; the first was for the summer, the other for winter. The summer one lasted for many years, despite its heavy weight. Tears in the shell fabric around the feet end from sleeping in lean-tos led to the bag’s eventual retirement. Its replacement was a Marmot Mystic, another synthetic bag, which became my workhorse for a few years until it too was replaced. Now the both bags spend most of their time occupying space in my closet, with the rest of my old backpacking gear.
The old winter one, with its large and awkward size, insisted on being continually forced into an unnaturally small shape with the help of a compression sack, otherwise it occupied an excessive amount of space in my backpack. Over time this eventually ruined its insulating ability, which the frigidly cold winters in the High Peaks taught me in a most uncomfortable way.
After one such painfully frigid trip, with my feet and privates still somewhat numb, I spotted a behemoth of a down winter bag at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley. This Marmot CWM bag carried a steep price, so being the frugal shopper that I am I turned to my companion and proclaimed I would only purchase it if they offered a 20% discount. As if on cue, an employee walked up and plastered just such a sign on it, which left me with no choice but to buy it. I still own it, though this toasty warm bag does not get out as much as it did in the past.
With this initiation into the world of down and my resistance sufficiently reduced, it took little arm-twisting for me to buy one for the summer months when another hiking companion showed me his new Western Mountaineering Highlite sleeping bag. It was love at first sight for me, and within weeks, I too was a proud owner of a similar bag, which has remained my go-to bag for trips from mid-spring to late fall.
Keeping a down sleeping bag dry is the secret to using one in the Adirondacks during the warmer months. Mine is wrapped in a silnylon stuff-sack, which is placed in a silnylon back liner, safely secured in a once-waterproof backpack. Not a drop of water has ever penetrated this triple barrier despite all my wet hiking and bushwhacking experiences.
My only close call with a down sleeping bag occurred last year while exploring the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area. After hastily setting up my campsite in the evening before rain showers started, I awoke during the early morning hours nearly lying in a puddle of water. Apparently, I slid from underneath the tarp due to a slight incline, allowing the runoff to flow right through my insect-netting shelter. Almost everything got wet, including the sleeping bag. Fortunately, it was not fully saturated and the weather was warm enough that I was never in any danger, but it did take a sunny day on Lot 8 to fully dry it out later on my trip.
Although it took years for me to overcome my fear of getting wet in a down sleeping bag, I now routinely journey into the Adirondack backcountry with one. Despite switching to this down bag, I still get numb feet and/or privates on occasion, but that is why hot water bottles were invented.
Photos: Down sleeping bag enjoying the view from Cat Mountain in the Five Ponds Wilderness Area by Dan Crane.