Choosing the right for you sleeping bag is a very important step in getting ready for an overnight backpacking adventure. The variety of available choices can be quite overwhelming for a beginner. Looking at the price tags it’s pretty easy to notice quite a difference between synthetic and down bags. Is it worth paying the high price? Read on, to find out all about the good, the bad and the ugly on down filling.
What is so special about down sleeping bags?
Down definitely wins on the warmth to weight ratio when compared to a synthetic filling. I’m sure you are sensing a “but” coming, right? There are many “buts” here. It all depends on your needs, on where you are going to use it, on quality of the down and a few other factors.
Down has been used for centuries as filler for comforters, often mixed with feathers. It’s delicate, light and fluffy… as long as it does not get wet. People use both geese and duck down but the first one is superior (and more expensive). I still can remember the huge down-feather comforters being placed in open windows for airing! 😀 Of course, their quality is not comparable with the modern sleeping bag filling.
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The pros of down sleeping bags
Down sleeping bags are lighter. The higher quality of the down (read: higher cuin number of geese down) the fluffier it is, which means it insulates better. Remember, that it’s the air which captures your own body heat that warms you up. Fluffy, light down works best to provide comfy sleep. Low quality down mixed with feathers or damp does not work better than a synthetic one.
Down sleeping bags last much longer than synthetic ones when you take a proper care of them. They can last three-four times longer! When you look at the price tag with this knowledge in my mind, it might be easier to swallow the hit to your budget…
Down sleeping bags are much easier to compress and squeeze so they take less space in your bag.
The cons of down sleeping bags
Down sleeping bags don’t do well with moisture. Do you plan on hiking in very wet, rainy conditions? Going on a kayaking trip? You might be disappointed with your down bag performance. It will get heavier and won’t insulate you as well as a synthetic sleeping bag would in such conditions. And it’s not just about rain – we all sweat and there is always some moisture in the air (unless you hike in really dry areas). If there is condensation in your tent you can be sure you down sleeping bag is damp inside and needs a good airing out.
Down sleeping bags are freaking expensive. No way to escape that fact! But it might be it is worth investing in one anyway.
Down has problematic sourcing. You need to be sure the producer of your sleeping bag uses down which is ethically harvested. There are still those who use down collected off live geese or ducks which cause them horrible suffering. Be suspicious of surprisingly cheap down sleeping bags or unknown companies. Good producers are proud they are using the more expensive but ethically sound down – they announce it and provide certificates. If you can’t find any – ask them.
Do you even need a down sleeping bag?
There is no sense in buying down sleeping bag made for winter mountaineering treks if you only do weekend summer trips. If you hike in a very hot climate, down sleeping bag might be an overkill and waste of money. If you regularly go camping by car you also don’t have to care about weight or size all that much and you might want to choose a much cheaper synthetic bag.
So when is down sleeping bag worth investing in?
- You are going for long hiking and camping trips where every ounce counts.
- You will go in cold and dry areas – spring and fall hiking, summer in the north or chilly destinations. Camping during winter can only be done with down sleeping bags.
- You sleep really cold and need extra warmth
- There is little risk of serious, long rain falls.
- The colder the temperatures, the more you need down. For warm summers, when the temperatures rarely drop much at night, you might be better off with a cheaper synthetic bag, which will weigh similar to a down one.
What are the differences between various down fillings?
Not all down sleeping bags are created equal.
Look close at the information provided to tell you more about the quality of the filling. First of all: geese or duck? Duck is much cheaper but generally of inferior quality. It is possible to find very high-quality duck down which would be better than some mediocre geese down but it is much harder to bump into it.
The geese down also vary in quality in terms of fill – power. To help us figure it out there is a scale in cuin. The general rule: the higher the better. You will find a lot of bags (or other down products like jackets) in the 600 – 650 cuin area (If the producer doesn’t even bother with providing it, it means it’s even lower than that). It is denser and provides less loft and insulation. To be as warm as a better quality down there has to be more of it… so it’s heavier.
The best quality down comes in 850 cuin marks. If it’s regular (not treated) down, you can be sure it’s a high-quality material.
Then we have the treated down – the newest hype. You can buy the water-resistant down which is supposed to take down the biggest minus of down sleeping bags. But is it worth it? Each manufacturer makes their own product, coating down fibers with special polymers. This process makes them hydrophobic and less prone to getting damp. To be honest, I prefer to just be really careful about the way I use and store my sleeping bag as I just don’t trust the hype. Also, because of the special treatment, the fill-power indicator (cuin) is skewed.
Which high-quality down sleeping bag should you choose?
Well, that depends. Let’s say you want to get the down sleeping bag. You know the differences in fill-power and sourcing… what other factors should you consider?
- What are your hiking habits? Do you need a summer bag or 3 season one? Buy a bag for your most common type of adventures. If only once in a rare while you go camping in around freezing temperatures, don’t buy a winter sleeping bag and sweat during all your hiking trips. You can just wear more layers during the rare early spring trek.
- Know yourself – do you sleep cold? Women in general sleep colder and that’s why the temperature ratings give sometimes men/women values. In addition to that, when we are tired, hungry or don’t feel well, we might sleep colder than normal. If there is a lot of moisture in the air we might also feel it is colder than normal.
- If you plan on a longer trek (more than 2 – 3 nights) your sleeping bag will probably get heavier and insulate you slightly less. We all sweat when we sleep and the down captures the moisture. Even if it’s far from any soaking situation it does influence the sleeping bag performance. That is why it is so important to air out the sleeping bag each morning, if only possible.
- Do you have a high-quality sleeping mat? Good insulation from the ground works perfectly with your sleeping bag. You might even consider a quilt-style sleeping bag if you want to go ultralight. I switched to Therm-a-rest NeoAir this season and I really loved it. I camped by glaciers in Iceland and never felt cold (or uncomfortable).
- Make sure you choose a construction and shape that works for you. My own bag has a great draft tube (along the zipper) and a draft collar (closing around my neck) to keep cold air out. You need to decide on what kind of zipper you want (left-right, full-length, half-length…) or cover fabric. There are bags covered with DWR fabric providing better water-protection (but generally heavier) or ultra-light (but more delicate). You can buy a ready bag (definitely the easier option) or find a custom-make producer (what I did).
- Pick a size that fits you. Make sure you can move freely in it (so you don’t compress the loft) but don’t take one that is way too big. You will have cold zones in it that are hard to heat. If you are petite or particularly wide in shoulder or hips – look for bags that fit your body. You might need to get a custom one if your body size is not common. I am happy that I chose to go custom – I gave the maker my exact measurement and I have a perfectly fitting me bag 🙂
What are the temperature ratings?
The manufacturers can theoretically write whatever they want on their products. But if they use the EN Sleeping Bag Standard, they have to accept the rigorous European Norm system of rating. This is really useful for us, the buyers, but you need to know a few things. First of all – the ratings are made for a particular kind of human, or, rather a manikin pretending to be a “standard man” or a “standard woman”. As we are all different those values can be only a suggestion, not a sure prediction.
You will see temperature ratings for “comfort”, “limit” and “extreme”. The “comfort” temperature should show conditions in which a “standard woman” would feel comfortable. Between this number and the “limit” one, a “standard man” might feel slightly cold and need to curl up to feel warm.
The “extreme” temperature signifies a serious risk to one’s health and life. At this temperature, this sleeping bag might not save you from hypothermia.
When choosing your sleeping bag use the temperature ratings as suggestions to consider with many other factors. Many other things and conditions might influence your comfort – the quality of your sleeping mat, if it is windy or what you wear, if you have a hot bottle with you or if your sleeping bag is too big (harder to heat the cold zones) for you. It is also important to have good, dry sleeping clothes – best would be long leggings (merino wool or synthetic), socks and long sleeved tee. If it’s colder outside – wear a hat and gloves.
How to take care of your down sleeping bag
I assume you decided to get yourself a beautiful new down sleeping bag. You have read that it can last even 20 years! But there is a catch: the longevity is real but only if you take a proper care of it. Here are a few tips to ensure you get the most of your purchase:
- Always dry your bag – if you can’t do it every morning, do it at the earliest possible moment. Never store your bag dump. When you return back home from your hike, let your bag dry slowly for a few days.
- Don’t sleep naked or only in your underwear. It might feel good but you are transferring sweat and grease off your skin onto the bag’s fabric. Considering how difficult (and expensive) it is to wash your down sleeping bag, cover your skin with appropriate for the season long underwear. If you can’t even think about it, especially in summer months – think about getting a sleeping bag liner made of silk or CoolMax, like this one by Sea To Summit.
- Don’t store your down sleeping bag in a compression bag. After you dried it properly store it in a big bag which provides air circulation (big pillow case or laundry bag could be used). If you have space – hang it up in a closet with good air flow. Don’t store it in a damp place (like a cellar) or mildew might develop.
- If it needs washing – don’t do it yourself. Take it to a professional down cleaning facility.
- During a hike, store it in a compression bag that is waterproof or stuff it into an extra garbage bag/dry sack. Make sure you don’t touch the tent’s wall with your sleeping bag. If it is raining or condensation your bag would collect the moisture.
Do you have a down sleeping bag? How do you like it?
Would you add anything to my down sleeping bag buying guide?
To make it easier for you to find a high-quality down sleeping bag,
I hand-picked eight examples from highly-respected and recommended producers.