Down Sleeping Bag
Lightweight, Compressible and Warm
So, you’re considering a down sleeping bag. Let’s review the basics of down versus synthetic, look at the pros and cons, and look at some of the options available.
What is Down?
Down is the small, soft feathers near the skin of waterfowl. It excludes the long outer feathers and the stiff pin feathers. Down’s loft, or fluff, is the result of its ability to maintain air between each feather. It is this pocket of air that insulates so well. The air pockets trap warm air released from your body and hold it in place to help maintain warmth. Obviously since down is a natural product, any possible allergies must be taken into consideration.
Advantages of down over synthetic include:
• More compressible
As an ultralight backpacker, your most prevalent concerns are weight and size. Down wins the battle over synthetic here being lighter and much more compressible. Pound for pound, it is also warmer than synthetic. The advantage in a small backpack is obvious. You get more warmth, lighter weight and it packs smaller and lasts longer than an equivalent synthetic bag.
Disadvantages of a down include:
• Potential allergies
• Cold if wet
• Dry very slowly
• Difficult to clean
• More expensive
While down sleeping bags have their disadvantages, most can be managed with careful attention. If you are allergic to duck or goose feathers, a down bag is not an option for you—go with synthetic.
Down bags dry slowly and are cold when wet, nearly to the point of being useless. This is of primary concern to you. You will want to take special precautions to keep your bag dry. If you tend to camp in very damp conditions and find that your bag usually gets wet, your best bet might be a synthetic bag.
However, if you hike in dryer areas or use a good coverage shelter and can maintain a dry bag, down will be a very good choice. The shells of down bags have improved over time providing some water resistance as far as condensation and dew are concerned. However, exposure to rain or dropping your bag in the river will result in a very cold night. Depending on climate conditions, this could lead to a life-threatening condition of hypothermia.
Down is difficult to clean. Your bag will come with instructions—follow them. Dry cleaning is typically not good for down bags. The dry cleaning fluids tend to strip the feathers of their natural oils. Regular washing detergent is not recommended for down either. Usually the manufacturer will recommend a mild soap, such as you would use for baby clothes. Always run through the wash cycle a second time without soap to be certain that all soap is removed. Never wring a down bag to remove water—carefully press the water out. Drying a bag in a large commercial dryer with a couple of tennis balls gently agitates the feathers loosening clumping and restoring loft. Down sleeping bags must be dried slowly and completely on a low heat or “fluff” setting.
Down bags tend to cost a little more than a comparable synthetic bag. That is not all that surprising since down is a natural material and synthetic polymers are basically glorified plastic—easily manufactured in large amounts. However, when taken care of properly, a down sleeping bag will last years longer than synthetic frequently making up the difference in the initial cost. Also, remember that the purchase of your bag is arguably the most important purchase in your backwoods gear. This is not a place to skimp on price. You don’t have to choose the Cadillac, but I’d steer clear of a Yugo too.
To wrap it all up, if you are able to keep your bag dry, are able to budget the slightly higher initial price and are not allergic to duck or goose feathers, and don’t mind extra care in cleaning, a down sleeping bag is a perfect accompaniment to an ultralight ensemble.
Return from Down Sleeping Bag to Backpacking Sleeping Bag
Return from Down Sleeping Bag to Ultimate Ultralight Backpacking