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Sleeping Bags – Down or Fiber
Sleeping Bags – Down or Fiber?
When it comes right down to staying comfortable on a camping trip, how you sleep can be the determining factor. It's hard to have a great camping experience when you can’t sleep well. All too often, the culprit in a lousy night's sleep is your sleeping bag. And the difference may well be in the type of fill you choose. So, which is better? Fiber or down-filled sleeping bags?
Which type of fill should I choose for my sleeping bag? Down or Fiber? The answer is not, which is better, but which suits your needs. Each type of sleeping bag fill has positive and negative qualities. Choosing the fill in your bag can depend on
- The camping conditions
- Your camping style
- How you intend to get to your camp
Choosing the wrong fill or even the wrong style of bag can lead to less than restful sleep, which can ruin an entire camping experience. With a little understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of different fill materials can mean a better selection and a more comfortable camping trip.
Fill Materials – What are the Choices?
Sleeping bags work by trapping a layer of air around your body. Air is an excellent insulator and the more air you can wrap around yourself in the sleeping bag, the warmer you will sleep. Sleeping bags manage to trap this air by putting materials between the outer shell and inner shell of the sleeping bag that trap air and add loft.
Loft is the way the insulating material creates the gaps that trap the air creating the insulating space. The more loft you can get, the more insulation value in the fill material. Sleeping bag fill material breaks down into two basic categories.
- Human-made or Synthetic
Natural Fill Materials – Down
For warmth and loft, nothing beats real down. If you aren’t familiar with down, let me explain. Down are the very light and airy plumage that lay next to the goose or duck under the actual feathers. Nature has done a remarkable job designing an insulating material. The construction of the fibers and elements of down create thousands of pockets that trap heat warmth.
Not only is down incredibly warm, but it is also exceptionally light. The combination of these two characteristics makes down the ultimate in sleeping bag fill. The downside is the price. High quality down is costly and is getting hard to find.
To get a better grasp of the insulation capability of down, you need to understand how down measure. High quality down will rate at a loft of 700. That means that a single ounce of down will fill 700 cubic inches. Down with a loft rating of 800 will fill 800 cubic inches of space with one ounce of down.
The Downside of Down
In addition to the cost, there is another downside to down fill in a sleeping bag. Add a little water to down and it becomes a nasty mess that loses virtually all its insulating capability. If you anticipate camping where the chances of getting your sleeping bag wet are a serious possibility, you must take extra precautions to keep your down-filled bag dry.
The use of waterproof stuff sacks and bivy bags is a must if you want to trek with a down-filled sleeping bag. Using a dry-sack is especially true if your overland experience may include water crossings or heavy rains.
On the Other Hand – Down Shouldn’t be Counted Out
Down usually gets the nod from serious overland trekkers. The lightweight and compressibility of down can be a huge issue when you must carry everything you will live on for several days. Ounces count. Size makes a difference, as well. The nature of down means that a serous zero degree sleeping bag filled with down can usually roll small enough to fit into the bottom compartment of a hiking backpack.
Down is also durable. A down-filled sleeping bag should last many years, even when often used and repeatedly compressed and expanded. High quality down should last at least ten years. This long-life makes the added expense of down look quite not so steep.
If your camping is more along the lines of pulling up next to your campsite and unloading your vehicle, down-filled sleeping bags may still have a place in your kit. You may not anticipate having to carry your entire kit up and over a mountain to get to your campsite. However, the superior insulating qualities of down can still make your whole camping experience much more enjoyable.
Synthetic Fills – Technology to the Rescue!
There are almost as many types of synthetic fill on the market as there are manufacturers of sleeping bags. Some use synthetic materials to mimic the structure of down while others weave long strands of different diameter material to create the loft.
These synthetic materials don’t have the loft characteristics nor the compressibility of real down. A comparable synthetic-filled sleeping bag won’t compress as tightly as a down-filled bag. It takes more synthetic material to offer comparable insulation. This need for more material means more weight and less compression from synthetic insulation materials in sleeping bags.
The price advantage of a synthetic-filled sleeping bag over a down-filled sleeping bag is often the deciding factor. Synthetic materials that offer almost the same sorts of insulation values are considerably cheaper than down-fill sleeping bags. For the less intrepid camper who doesn’t anticipate extreme conditions, synthetic bags are often the more economical choice.
Back to the Issue of Wet – Synthetic fill Gets a Thumbs Up
We don’t suggest that you allow any sleeping bag to get wet when you depend on it for a comfortable night's sleep. Accidents and weather happen and sometimes you can’t avoid the inevitable.
When the inevitable happens, a synthetic-filled bag will maintain some of its insulating value. This is an advantage over down-filled bags and why many serious trekkers and campers choose synthetic fill over down fill.
Where Synthetic Can let you Down
Synthetic fill has some issues that can make them a less than ideal choice for some campers
- Less compressibility means more weight and larger sizes
- Shorter life span. Each time a synthetic material is compressed, it loses some of its insulating value.
- Special storage needs. Synthetic filled sleeping bags need to be stored uncompressed and hanging. The need to hang an unrolled sleeping bag can make storage for some people a problem.
For the average camper, synthetic filled bags are the economical answer to comfortable nights and proper rest. Unless you are anticipating near artic conditions, a suitable sleeping bag filled with a quality synthetic material will keep you warm and comfortable.
Making the Choice – Consider your Camping Style
The choice you make in a sleeping bag and the type of fill in the bag is, in many ways, dependent on your style of camping.
- Weekends are the Resort – If your camping tends to be at one of the camping type resorts, a medium loft synthetic bag is probably your best bet.
- Tailgate Camping – Most average campers are the tailgate variety. The locations may vary from a dry campsite in a national forest or a weekend on the beach. The common theme is that the conditions are never extreme, and the campsite has a parking spot. You aren’t expecting to put everything you need for a weekend on your back and walk for an hour to get to your campsite. A medium to high loft fill is your choice for a sleeping bag.
- Destination Backpacking – If you enjoy parking the car, loading your gear on your back and heading for your favorite mountain lake site or scenic view, then a good high loft synthetic fill bag makes sense. Weight and size for most destination backpackers is not such an issue, and you can still expect to be comfortable even if the weather conditions turn against you.
- Trekking or Mountaineering – Trekkers and mountaineers are not so much about the destination as they are about the journey. Miles covered and peaks summitted are the goals. For those who enjoy the challenge of the trail, the need for a lightweight sleeping bag that can handle extremes in conditions puts a down-filled bag in the center of the target.
The choice of the fill material for your sleeping bag should never be solely a financial decision. You should consider all the variables and make an informed choice about how you will use the bag, the conditions that you will be facing, and your concerns and needs.
Sleeping Well no Matter Where You Are
The overreaching goal is to be comfortable and sleep well no matter where you are or what the conditions. If you expect to endure arctic blizzard conditions, that should dictate the quality and materials of your sleeping bag. No matter what else happens, the ability to sleep well is the key to enjoying your outdoor adventures.
We hope that this article gives you a bit more insight into the importance of choosing the right type of fill material for your sleeping bag. If you have any comments, suggestions, or camping experience to share, please leave a comment below. We love to hear from you.