If you’re just getting into camping and you don’t know where to start when it comes to selecting a Down vs Synthetic sleeping bag, hopefully this will help you make a more informed decision for what will work for you and your wallet.
Before we get into the breakdown let’s address an argument between Down vs Synthetic that I really think should not be influencing your decision between the two when we’re talking about motorcycle camping. That argument is that “Synthetic Insulation will still insulate you even when it’s wet.”
While this fact is technically true, it doesn’t take into account some pretty important things. Your body is going to have to work much harder to warm a wet sleeping bag, no matter how much it retains its insulating properties. Remember that you are warming the sleeping bag, the sleeping bag is not warming you. It is just trapping the heat you are already making against your body. Basic science tells us that when moisture evaporates it cools the surface it is evaporating from (kind of like when you sweat and a nice breeze runs through your shirt.) Now think about that happening to the thing that is supposed to be trapping your heat. You’ll start to understand why trying to warm a wet sleeping bag is going to be bad. Bad for your sleep, bad for your body, and not something you want to do unless it’s an absolute emergency and there’s zero other options. Just to reiterate a little: If you get your sleeping bag wet, you should not be sleeping in it.
Really that argument is purely about a one in a million survival situation, not the experience of most of us that go motorcycle camping who are never truly a whole day’s travel away from civilization -even on foot. If you are truly worried about this kind of survival situation you would do better to bring an emergency blanket or bivvy. They pack down tiny, and will do a better job of blocking out wind chill than a wet sleeping bag no matter the insulation type.
OK! With that out of the way!
What to think about when you’re sleeping bag shopping:
- Temperature Rating
- How Small will it Pack
How a Sleeping Bag Works
I touched a little bit on this above, but the whole job of the sleeping bag is to trap a layer of air around you. The insulation of the bag is there to trap that air -that has been warmed by your body heat- inside the bag. Your body is doing the bulk of the work, the sleeping bag and your chosen insulation is just there to try and keep that warmed air from escaping. The loftier the insulation of your bag the better it is at giving pockets for that air to settle.
Loft- An insulation's ability to fluff up.
What is a Temperature Rating?
Temperature Rating is the temperature at which the sleeping bag will keep you alive. Don’t be fooled that that’s the temperature it will keep you warm. Some newer bags will have a Comfort Rating which will be a little more accurate to the temperature at which it would be comfortable to sleep.
The rule of thumb is to add at minimum 10 degrees to a Temperature Rating to discern the comfort rating. However, if you’re a cold sleeper you may want to add 15-20 degrees to a Temperature Rating to find your comfort zone.
Keep in mind that sleeping bag temperature ratings are based on insulated sleeping pad with an R value of at least 4.0, and the test dummy (or person) is fitted with base layers and cap.
DOWN SLEEPING BAGS
Down is the under layers of feathers that sit right next to the goose or duck’s skin. It’s one of the best natural insulators. All of the ultra fine layers of their structure create pockets of air that trap heat.
Down is rated by “Fill Power.” The higher the quality of down, the more space it takes up when it lofts -or fluffs up. For example 700 Fill will loft up to 700 cubic inches per ounce.
The important part: the higher the fill power, the higher the quality and the better the down will trap heat.
High quality down is very lightweight compared to the amount of heat it will trap. This little tid bit in combination with its ability to compress quite small without damaging the fibers’ ability to loft is very ideal when you’re thinking about motorcycle camping. The durability of the down also means that a high quality down bag will last a very long time when taken care of.
Small pack size, lightweight, very durable, and very warm for the weight and size. It all sounds ideal right?
The downside is that that quality and small size comes at a cost. You’re investing in that quality. Also known as: A good quality down sleeping bag is expensive. I won’t preach at you about taking a minute to think about the future use and longevity you’ll have out of a product before you get sticker shock. However, if you do find a brand new high fill down sleeping bag or even a high fill down jacket that isn’t expensive, you need to ask a few questions about where it’s coming from, the manufacturing process, and if you can really trust if it is actually high quality down.
If you are at all worried about down being an animal byproduct I suggest doing some research about the Responsible Down Standard, and checking if the brand that is making the sleeping bag in question follows this standard. An easy way to check is to see if the company in question is Bluesign approved. Bluesign is a system that provides safer and more sustainable environments for people to work in and everyone to live in. Bluesign traces each textile's path along the manufacturing process, making improvements at every stage from factory floor to finished product.
Both Sea to Summit and Big Agnes are Bluesign approved companies.
Big Agnes is proud to say that 100% of their down insulation is RDS Certified Downtek™ with Downtracker traceability as well as Bluesign® Certified water-repellant chemistry.
Sea to Summit bags also have water-resistant down that's bluesign® and RDS certified.
SYNTHETIC SLEEPING BAGS
Synthetic fill is developed by a variety of companies to create a cheaper alternative to down. Different companies create different proprietary fills with different “fiber technology”. But there are a couple things that are common amongst most synthetic fill sleeping bags; they’re either short staple fibers or long continuous filaments, and at its core it is essentially all plastic.
If you have an allergy to down, synthetic offers one of the few solutions that are widely available. I will also add that synthetic sleeping bags are an optimal option for children as they are easier to wash and dry.
Short staple fibers try and mimic down’s plumes and compress well, but also break down sooner after continuous use. Making this style of sleeping bag a very short lived bag and arguably a waste of your hard earned money.
The long continuous filaments most of us remember in our cheap sleeping bags as a kid, weave filaments of variable diameters to create a durable high loft insulation. However, they don’t compress very well. Meaning the lower the temperature rating of your bag, the bigger and heavier your bag will be.
Both main styles of synthetic insulation try and mimic down’s natural lofting ability, however no manufacturer has been able to successfully replicate down’s durability and compressibility.
Synthetic bags weigh much more in comparison to their temperature rating than a similarly rated down bag.
Despite its comparison to down in many other fields, the price tag associated with most synthetic sleeping bags often leads new campers to choosing it as their first option over down. It is totally ok to choose a cheaper option and save up to purchase a higher quality sleeping bag once you know this is something you like to do.
If you choose to upgrade your bag, or once your synthetic sleeping bag reaches the end of its life we encourage you to find ways either to recycle your old bag as maybe a pet blanket, or to pass on the bag to someone else who can use it to prevent it from ending up in a landfill or potentially breaking down into microplastics. You could potentially donate your old bag to a non-profit thrift store, shelters, or even see if there’s an animal shelter or animal rescue near you that could use it.
Whatever choice you make I highly encourage you to consider the longevity and amount of use you’ll get out of an item before you write something off as too expensive. Maybe even break down how many times you’ll sleep in the bag over a span of time. Even if you only go camping a few times a year and say sleep in it 6-7 nights, the long life of even a $400 down bag will break down to $57 per use in one year. Alternatively, $19 per use in the span of three years. A well taken care of down sleeping bag should last well over three years. Most manufacturers list the life expectancy of a down sleeping bag to be between 10-15 years. While synthetic sleeping bags range only from 2 to 4 years. Yes it may take a little more time to save for a more expensive item, but the use and longevity of that item will cost you less money over time when you don’t have to keep buying new gear.
AUTHOR: Amanda Zito