Should You Buy a Down or Synthetic Sleeping Bag?Published on 09/20/2023 · 16 min readNot sure what kind of insulation you need in your next sleeping bag? This guide can help you make an informed decision on which bag is right for you!
Photo by Bear Fotos
As you’re gearing up for your next camping trip, it’s important to make sure you are well-equipped with the right outdoor gear to keep you warm and comfortable while sleeping under the stars. A sleeping bag is a key part of your sleep setup for camping. There are many sleeping bag options, whether you’re a first-time car camper or an old pro at backpacking. One of the first steps in narrowing down the exact right bag for you is to consider the insulation type of your bag.
My name is Hunter, and I have been an avid camper since I was a young kid. My dad would drag me on backpacking or camping trips as a kid, and now, as an adult, camping is one of my favorite things to do! Over the years, I have tried and tested a lot of different sleeping bags. I’ve had cold, sleepless nights in the wrong bag and warm, cozy nights in the perfect bag.
In this guide, I will break down everything I’ve learned about down and synthetic sleeping bags and key factors to consider when choosing your next bag so that you can set yourself up for successful and restful nights on your future camp trips.
What Is a Down Sleeping Bag?
Down is a natural insulation from birds' feathers, primarily ducks and geese. The down used in sleeping bags, jackets, and other insulated gear comes from the plumage in the layer found beneath a bird's exterior feathers. These feathers have great thermal retention properties and are fluffy and lightweight.
When looking around at down sleeping bags, a term you will frequently come across is “fill power.” It’s important to understand what this means so that you can better understand the warmth ratings of down sleeping bags. Fill power measures the loft or "fluffiness" of the down, which relates directly to its capability to trap heat in the air pockets between the feathers and keep you warm. A higher fill power number indicates better quality down, providing more warmth for its weight. For instance, a sleeping bag with a 700-fill power rating will be warmer, puffier, and lighter than one with a 500-fill power using the same quantity of down.
Pros of a Down Sleeping Bag
Now that we understand the basics of what a down sleeping bag is let’s take a look at a few of the key advantages of down bags.
- Warmth-to-Weight Ratio: One of the top advantages of down is its excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. Down bags are almost always lighter than synthetic bags when comparing two bags with the same warmth rating (meaning a 15° down bag will be lighter than a 15° synthetic bag). This makes down bags a preferred choice for backpackers and trekkers who need to conserve every ounce of weight in their packs.
- Compressibility: Another big advantage for backpackers searching for their perfect bag is that down bags can be compressed much smaller than synthetic bags. This makes down bags ideal for situations where pack space is important, such as multi-day hiking or backpacking trips. Once you take them out of their compression sack, they loft up quickly, regaining their insulating properties.
- Longer Life Span: With proper care, a down sleeping bag will have a much longer life than synthetic bags, often serving the user for decades. The natural resilience of down clusters means they can be repeatedly compressed and regain their loft more effectively than synthetic materials. Make sure to wash your down bag regularly to avoid the buildup of dirt or body oils, both of which can prevent down from being able to expand and keep you warm. When washing it, use a down-specific detergent such as Nikwax Down Wash and tumble dry it on low or no heat. When storing for long periods, store it loosely instead of in its stuff sack. This will ensure your down continues retaining heat well and staying puffy for future camp trips.
- Natural Material: Down is the obvious choice for campers who prefer natural over synthetic materials. It's biodegradable, so it has a smaller environmental footprint in the long run than petroleum-based synthetics when it reaches the end of its lifecycle. Many companies that sell down sleeping bags even have a down recycling program where you can send your old down sleeping bags or down jacket to the company you purchased the bag or jacket from. They will remove the down and use it in future products.
- Comfort: Lastly, down bags are typically more comfortable. Down adjusts better to temperature fluctuations, keeping you comfortable throughout the night. Whether it's a chilly night in the mountains or a slightly warmer evening in the valley, a down sleeping bag can provide a more consistent sleeping experience than a bag with synthetic fill.
Cons of a Down Sleeping Bag
Before searching for your perfect down sleeping bag, let’s look at some downsides to down bags.
- Performance When Wet: This is the most significant disadvantage of down. When down gets wet, the feathers stick together, which causes it to lose its loft and insulating properties. It also takes a very long time to dry out completely. If you regularly camp in areas with a lot of rainfall or moisture, this is an important thing to think about because one night of a wet sleeping bag will really damper the rest of your trip.
- Cost: Another main downfall of down bags is their higher price tag. A high-quality down sleeping bag is an investment, and the price can scare off many campers when synthetic bags are available at much lower prices. That being said, down bags last longer, as discussed above, so if you care for your bag properly, a down bag can make more sense price-wise in the long run.
- Allergens: Though it’s not super common, it’s still worth mentioning that if you are prone to allergies, you might want to do some research before investing in a down bag to make sure you are not allergic to down. If you are allergic to down, you will have some breathing issues and itchy skin after a night in the tent sleeping in your bag. My younger brother learned this the hard way. He had just gotten a fancy new down bag just to wake up the next morning with his poor eyes almost swollen shut and a rash all over his feet and shoulders. Again, it's relatively rare, but it's something to keep in the back of your mind!
- Ethical Considerations: The process of harvesting down can be controversial. While there are ethically sourced down products that ensure the humane treatment of birds, it's important to do your research and choose sleeping bags, jackets, or any other down products from reputable companies with some form of ethical standards. The most common certification you’ll see on sleeping bag packaging is the Responsible Down Standard or RDS, ensuring that the birds have been treated humanely.
What Is a Synthetic Sleeping Bag?
Synthetic sleeping bags get their insulation capabilities from man-made materials. Usually, this is some form of polyester fiber that can mimic the natural lofting and insulating properties of down. There are quite an array of types of synthetic insulation; the most common types you’ll see in synthetic sleeping bags or synthetic jackets are PrimaLoft, Thinsulate, and Polarguard, which each have their own properties and benefits.
It’s important to consider how synthetic bags are constructed. Usually, the insulation is layered in sheets inside the bag, which can help prevent cold spots and provide a consistent level of warmth across your whole body. Some synthetic insulations are constructed to resemble the natural structure of down clusters, attempting to combine the benefits of both worlds. Each synthetic bag is a bit different, so when you’re shopping around for a synthetic bag, research how it was constructed and the exact synthetic material it was made from.
Pros of Synthetic Sleeping Bags
Here are a few key benefits to choosing a synthetic bag over a down bag for your camping endeavors.
- Performance When Wet: The main benefit of synthetic bags is the ability of synthetic insulation to keep you warm, even if it’s wet. Unlike down, which clumps up when it’s wet, synthetic fibers will keep their structure and still provide insulation. Synthetic insulation also dries out faster after being exposed to rain or other wet conditions, which means if there is one rainy night on your backpacking trip, you won’t be suffering the consequences of a wet sleeping bag for the rest of the trip, as you would with a down bag.
- Cost: Synthetic sleeping bags tend to be easier on bank accounts. Synthetic bags are a great option if you’re just getting into camping, don’t camp too often, or are on a strict budget.
- Hypoallergenic: Synthetic is a great option if you’re one of the few unfortunate campers allergic to down. Since they are generally made with polyester fibers, they are a real day-saver for those who have allergies to down bags.
- Ethical Considerations: Synthetic bags don't rely on animal products, making them preferable for vegans and campers who want to factor in animal welfare. Getting ethically sourced down bags is possible, but knowing what ethically sourced means can be challenging. If you just want to skip going down the depressing rabbit hole of ethical sourcing and why it’s important, you can skip this issue by going with a synthetic bag.
Cons of Synthetic Sleeping Bags
Now that we have an idea of the advantages of synthetic bags let’s see what disadvantages there are to choosing a synthetic bag over a down bag.
- Weight: Comparing down and synthetic bags of the same warmth rating, the synthetic bags will generally be heavier than their down counterparts. If you’re backpacking and keeping your pack light is a priority, a down bag is likely a better choice.
- Bulkiness: Not only is it weight that can steer backpackers away from synthetic bags, but synthetic also tend to be bulkier than down. Synthetic bags don't pack down smaller than down bags, even when compressed in their stuff sack. If you’re trying to figure out how to fit all your gear in your backpack and space is a concern, you’ll have a better time packing with a down bag that can pack up smaller.
- Shorter Life Span: Synthetic fibers break down faster than down. The repeated compression and expansion will eventually cause the fibers to mat, reducing the bag's loft and insulating properties. Though synthetic bags are cheaper upfront, when thinking about the long term, you will need to replace a synthetic bag earlier than you would need to replace a down bag.
- Environmental Footprint: If you’re trying to choose the most sustainable option, you’ll likely want to get a down bag instead. Manufacturing synthetic materials requires petroleum-based resources, which have environmental implications. The production process releases greenhouse gasses and contributes to pollution. While there are more advancements every year in recycling synthetic insulation (such as bags that use recycled synthetic insulation), the overall environmental impact of synthetic materials is generally considered higher than that of natural down. This is especially true when synthetic bags need replacing more often than down bags.
Hybrid Options: The Best of Both Worlds? Maybe, Maybe Not
Some sleeping bag options are a hybrid of down and synthetic materials. Blending the two insulations allows sleeping bags to offer the benefits of both materials. Some of these hybrid options will either have full down insulation in some parts of the bag and full synthetic in other parts of the bag, while other hybrid options will fully consist of insulation that is a combo of down and hybrid materials.
Advantages of Hybrid Bags
The main advantage of hybrid bags is that they perform better in mixed weather conditions and when wet or damp. Some hybrid bags use synthetic insulation in areas that are more likely to get wet (like the footbox or the bottom side of the bag) and down insulation in areas that tend to need the most insulation (like the top side and chest area). This allows them to give you consistent warmth across your whole body, regardless of the weather.
Other hybrid bags will use a down with a synthetic waterproofing (durable water repellant or DWR) on it, which maintains most of the perks of down (low weight, compressible) while utilizing the main benefit of synthetic (keeping you warm when it’s wet and dry quicker).
Disadvantages of Hybrid Bags
The downside of these bags is that they are not as light, compressible, or warm as strictly down bags and are not as cheap or water-resistant as synthetic bags. They are also a bit harder to wash, as synthetic insulation and down insulation must be washed with synthetic or down-specific detergents. Washing your sleeping bag with the wrong detergent for its insulation type will give it a shorter lifespan.
Overall, I don’t think hybrid bags are the best option, though it entirely depends on the camper, your type of camping, and your priorities in a sleeping bag. I just wanted to mention this category since many hybrid options exist.
Factors to Consider When Making Your Decision
Now that you understand the differences, pros and cons of down, synthetic, or hybrid sleeping bags, you might still be wondering which sleeping bag material is the right choice for you in particular. The answer to that depends on various factors and preferences. Here are the main considerations to think about when making your choice:
What Kind of Camping Are You Doing?
Are you backpacking or car camping? Or a bit of both? If you’re backpacking, you’ll likely want to prioritize weight and compressibility, but if you’re car camping and weight isn’t a consideration, you might care more about comfort and price.
What Type of Weather and Environment Will You Mostly Be Camping In?
If you're regularly camping in wet and humid environments, synthetic or hybrid bags will be a better option since they will still keep you warm even in the unfortunate event of your sleeping bag getting wet. If you’re camping in dry, cold climates, the superior warmth-to-weight ratio of down might be a bigger priority.
What’s Your Budget?
If budget is a concern, a synthetic bag is likely a better choice since they are cheaper. If price is not a concern, down sleeping bags are a better long-term investment. Try to narrow down a budget before starting your search!
Is Animal Welfare a Concern?
Make sure it is ethically sourced if you decide on a down bag. Synthetic bags prevent the need to find an animal-friendly company, but they can also have a larger environmental footprint due to the emissions caused by making synthetic materials. This is a double-edged sword because both animal welfare and environmental footprint are important, but overall, down is usually the most sustainable option since it can be ethically sourced and is biodegradable.
Answering these questions can help you hone in on your search and is a great step to finding the perfect bag!
How to Choose the Right Sleeping Bag
Even with all this information, narrowing down the right sleeping bag for you can still be hard! Below, I have listed three examples of Curated customers I have helped to find their perfect sleeping bag. Each customer represents a different type of camper, along with some information about their camp style. I have listed a few things they would need in a sleeping bag, features they should look for, and some specific sleeping bag recommendations that would suit their camp style!
Helen: The All-Season Tent Camper
Helen is an avid camper who lives in Colorado. She enjoys camping throughout the year and prefers car camping to backpacking. Most of her camping trips are close to home, with a predominantly dry climate and not too rainy. Since she camps so often, she is looking for a high-quality, durable sleeping bag and is not worried as much about price.
- A versatile bag suitable for all seasons
- High durability to withstand frequent use
- Comfort and ample space
Features to Look for:
- Down filling for better insulation and because it is more comfortable
- A durable outer material, like heavy-duty nylon or polyester, to withstand the wear and tear of frequent use
- A temperature rating that will work in varying seasons (around 15-25° Fahrenheit so that she can use it most of the year and with a liner or cover in the coldest months)
Sleeping bag recommendations for Helen:
Roger: The Ultralight Backpacker
Roger is a frequent backpacker who likes to pack light. He explores many different trails and terrains, often backpacking for five or more days at a time. He needs a sleeping bag that’s lightweight and compact (to fit in his backpacking bag) and can keep him warm and cozy when he sets up camp for the night. Since he backpacks in a lot of different climates, he wants something with good moisture resistance so that his bag can dry out quickly if it accidentally gets wet.
- Ultralight for long treks
- Compact and easy to carry
Features to Look for:
- Synthetic or down-synthetic hybrid for lighter weight and better moisture resistance
- Temperature rating of 20-30° Fahrenheit, so he stays warm without adding too much bulk
Sleeping bag recommendations for Roger:
- Nemo Forte 20 Sleeping Bag
- Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 20 UL Sleeping Bag
- Mountain Hardwear Lamina 30 Sleeping Bag
Lydia: The Pacific Northwest Car Camper
Lydia loves camping close to her home in the Pacific Northwest. Because of her location, many camping trips have pretty rainy or humid conditions. She doesn’t camp a ton, so she doesn’t want anything too pricey, and she always car camps instead of backpacking. Lydia wants something that will keep her dry and comfortable and not break the bank.
- Water-resistant material to better manage the damp conditions she camps in
- Comfort and roominess for relaxed car camping
- Lower price point since she doesn’t camp too often
Features to Look for:
- Synthetic filling for better water resistance and insulation in damp conditions
- Temperature rating of 25-45° Fahrenheit since she typically camps in the warmer months and can always layer with extra blankets if need be
Sleeping bag recommendations for Lydia:
Find the Best Sleeping Bag for You
With advancements in technology and design, great sleeping bag options exist for both down and synthetic sleeping bags. Sleeping bags are not one size fits all in terms of one bag that is the best for every type of camper. Every bag has its upsides and downsides; it’s just a matter of narrowing down what you need exactly for your preferences and camping style.
If you’re still not sure exactly which bag to choose for your next camping adventures, don’t stress! Here on Curated, a team of Camping & Hiking Experts is ready to offer you free, personalized advice on sleeping bags or whatever other camp gear you may need. Chat with an Expert today, and we can help you find the perfect setup! Happy camping!