Saturday, May 2, 2015

Backcountry Gear: Down or Synthetic Sleeping Bags

Highlite sleeping bag on Cat MtnSleeping 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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

8 Responses

  1. Hawthorn says:

    The debate rages on, but I will say that the new synthetics get better and better. The thing with down too is that I have yet to find a synthetic that will outperform down after many years of being stuffed and unstuffed–synthetics always seem to lose performance. Same thing goes for clothing. On the other hand I have had to sleep for days in pools of water (don’t ask) and down would have been hopeless in that situation.

  2. Curt Austin says:

    I think it is a complicated decision. Chance of rain, chance of a plunge into a brook. Temperature. What you take or leave when under a not-to-exceed weight limit. Comfort on the trail versus comfort in the sack. The imperative to avoid serious hypothermia is paramount, of course, and non-negotiable.

    Gotta keep a down bag dry – while walking along in rain, through dew-soaked brush, and while crossing streams on slippery rocks. At night, it means your tent must not leak, or you must be an excellent tarp engineer.

    So: A few garbage bags. A tent person must be willing to divorce his/her favorite but worn-out tent. A tarp person – I guess being religious can mean making sacrifices.

  3. Hawthorn says:

    Another thing with synthetics is they are generally easier to wash and dry, though many of us rarely clean our bags! In recent years I have found some real cheapies at places like the Coleman outlet or even WalMart that are quite good for three season use. They’re a lot better than the expensive specialty bags we bought in the past. I just can’t justify spending $200 or so on a bag.

  4. Tim says:

    I have a down bag with a water resistant outer shell, a good compromise. Fortunately, I have never had to experience how it would hold up with a real drenching but it performed well in a leaky tent once.

  5. Bob S says:

    Thanks Dan – great article and very comprehensive. I have chosen the new down tech(Water repellant treated down) bag with a breathable water repellant shell. Very pricey, but worth the comfort knowing it does the job. I have owned several synthetic bags as well, so when I was able to move up to a down, made the leap. Happy Trails.

    Bob S

  6. Bruce says:

    Dan, your points are well taken. Down is the fill of choice for the long run in most places, except perhaps in the Southeast where I live. It’s likely to be wet, or at least damp here winter or summer, and a fast drying synthetic bag can be a real asset. The ambient humidity will seep into a bag even if it does not actually get wet. As you pointed out, sleeping wet is not the way to accomplish what I consider the most important part of camping…a good night’s sleep.

    I do believe the current crop of moderately-priced, properly constructed tents with full, to the ground waterproof fly covers, make bag choices more flexible. Most campers do use tents. Knowing the fact synthetic does eventually pack down if kept compressed, I loosely fold my bags for storage, rather than keep them in their compression sacks. I have a Kelty synthetic bag which is about 30 years old and still going.winter or summer. To be fair, in the summer since I sleep warm, I cover my Therma-Rest pad (30 years old and repaired once) with a sheet, and use my sleeping bag as a quilt.

    Your note about sleeping on an incline is something I learned as a teenager, camping with friends. It simply does not work on many levels.

  7. dave says:

    The difference between down and synthetic is close enough these days that it would be hard for me to justify supporting the cruelty that is inherent in the down industry. Especially for the weekend warrior type adventures that I (and I suspect the vast majority of people) engage in.

    Patagonia (surprise!) has a decent program that attempts to reduce the cruelty associated with their down products. It is called 100% traceable down. It is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.

    Thanks for raising this important issue in your article.

  8. Marco says:

    Yup. I grew up with synthetic bags. My kids had synthetic bags. They were always better wet, and, remain that way.

    Later, I bought good down bags, one for my wife and one for me. I will never go back. We got 1#11 ounce bags that will work at 30F. Yeah you can do better with gobs more money. I use a tarp when solo. Only worry there is the ground, staying away from mud puddles, drainage areas and preferring a slight mound to set up on. Once this is mastered (a minor feat of camping requiring only one wet night to get right,) you quickly appreciate the weights…about 18oz including guylines and stakes. In sil, no less. Cuben can be a lot more dear to the pocket book. A full tent, can cost about $500+ and is two ounces heavier. My pack and pad weigh about 1#9oz all together(Gossamer Gear Murmur/NightLight with extra sitlite pad.) Without food, cooking, my whole camp weigh about 4#6.

    Down vs synthetic bags, just on weight, means light and easy to carry over the many trails in the ADKs. Damp down is not really that bad. Feathers are such a poor conductor of heat, that you’ll be warm even if the bag is damp. Body heat will often dry a bag, as you sleep. I also use my bag as a quilt when it is warm.