Down vs. Synthetic Sleeping Bags

Down and synthetic sleeping bags in a pile.

Over the years, I’ve heard stories about multiple nights spent in wet sleeping bags. It’s usually the precursor to an online discussion about synthetic vs. down sleeping bags. In the story, the storyteller ended up soaking a down bag, slept terribly for a couple of days, swore off down and speaks out about how down doesn’t work for paddlers. I’ve never personally experienced this. I’ve never soaked a sleeping bag. My thoughts about this story genre:

  1. The stories lack context and therefore lack impact.
  2. Without knowing the context, I assume the paddler lacked the skills needed to keep a sleeping bag dry.
  3. Beginners deserve all the info to make relevant decisions and the storyteller isn’t giving it.

I think that without the context and without knowing what the storyteller did wrong to cause a wet sleeping bag , the anecdote is not effective as it could be and becomes just another story from the Internet without anything backing it up. I don’t like those kinds of stories, because they add little to the dialog. If you had this experience, please, help us understand what lead to it, so we can avoid those circumstances, plan for them or comprehend your opinion. Because getting a sleeping bag wet shouldn’t happen as often as it does. A couple of good questions to answer when telling your wet-sleeping-bag story are:

  • How did it happen?
  • What were you doing to keep your bag dry?
  • Is the only lesson learned “bring a synthetic bag?”
  • What other changes did you make to prevent a soaked sleeping bag in the future?
  • Did you try down after you learned your lesson and corrected for it?

The first question gives the circumstance, so we can judge if it’s relevant. If you paddle an open canoe through class three whitewater, someone who paddles flat water may never experience the problem. The second question lets us judge your abilities. If you did everything that we do, then our system might need adjustment. Questions three and four are related. If your bag got wet because of your actions or lack of skills, and you didn’t adjust those skills on further trips, then your down or synthetic  bag will get wet again. When you answer the last question, you tell us that it wasn’t a single experience that changed your mind even if you changed your skills to address the issue.

I’m not saying that down is great for every situation, because it’s not. Nor am I a big down-evangelistic, because my two most-used sleeping bags are synthetic. I just think that paddlers pondering this question, usually beginners, deserve the relevant information to make an informed decision, and when wet-bag-for-three-days storytellers say down isn’t useful because water is around, I don’t think they have that info. With the right waterproofing — I use the same system for all my bags — down is fine for most canoeing and kayaking destinations.

My stories served up as examples: The few times my sleeping bag got damp are minor. When first learning how to sleep under a tarp, I ended up with my feet or head damp or slightly wet, because I either picked a poor site or pitched the tarp poorly and didn’t account for how rain would enter the tarp. I learned new tarp setups, erected my tarp on slightly raised ground, protected the windward side and the problem went away. When testing new tents for reviews, I’ve gotten moisture on my bag. The problems ranged from faulty seam tape, bad “waterproof” zippers, wicking webbing, condensation problems and more. To fix the problem, I either toyed with the tent, changed the pitch, or did something to remove the problem. If I couldn’t fix the problem, I stopped using the tent. When I’m using my tried and tested gear, my bag doesn’t get wet. Even on a six-month long trip when I experienced 42 days straight of rain, I didn’t get a wet sleeping bag. Although my bag got slightly damp, it never got soaked, and I never experienced an uncomfortable night because of the sleeping bag.

Could it happen? Sure, and I could break a leg on a portage or my neck in the surf. With the right skills and judgment you minimize the risks. You can decrease the risk of getting your sleeping bag wet, too. If something does happen you have a backup plan. With injuries, it’s a first aid kit and wilderness medicine training. With a sleeping bag, it’s a fire. Skills allow you to use your choice of synthetic or down without having to worry about getting either wet.

Keeping Your Sleeping Bag Dry

Here’s what I do to keeping my sleeping bag dry:

  • Pack it inside a dry bag. I use Sea to Summit’s Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks or Sea to Summit’s Lightweight Dry Sack. Although every dry bag eventually leaks if submerged for too long, these seem to hold up nicely in a portage pack or a storage compartment. The Ultra-Sil is lighter, but less durable. I’ve ripped a few over the two years I’ve had them (duct tape repair). The Dry Sack is more durable even though I use mine as bear bags.
  • Line the dry bag with a garbage bag.
  • Stuff the sleeping bag into the garbage bag, which is inside the dry bag. Push down on the bag to remove excess air, twist the top of the garbage bag, fold it over and then seal the dry bag.
  • In a canoe, pack the dry bag inside a portage pack that’s lined with either a pack liner or a contractor garbage bag with the top twisted, folded over and closed with a rubber band or inside a SealLine pack. In a kayak, it goes into the front compartment, which I make sure is completely dry.

Down vs. Synthetic Pluses and Minuses

DownPluses: Compacts smaller, lighter for warmth, maintains loft, lasts longer, wicks moisture out of the bag, more comfy. Minuses: More expensive, not warm when wet, dries slower than synthetic.

SyntheticPluses: Less expensive, dries quicker than down, partially insulates when wet, easier to clean. Minuses: Insulation loses loft with use, bulky, heavier for warmth.

Essentially, buy what feels best when you try it in the store. If you have the money, down offers more benefits. If you’re traveling to a rain forest, bring synthetic. As long as you learn the skills that keep your sleeping bag dry, don’t worry about getting it wet anymore than you would about breaking your leg. Always have a backup plan.

Do you use down or synthetic? Why? How do you keep your sleeping bag dry?

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  • My bag never gets wet. I put my rain jacket over the end of the bag. Then any condensation from the lower part of the tent goes on the jacket and not the bag.

    I have a Synthetic bag at the moment, but plan on getting a down.

  • I have soaked a down bag before, but it was on a glacier in Alaska and before the days of goretex and good drybags. It was a grim couple of nights acting as a human dryer by sleeping in it. We were double humping gear up the glacier and got caught out without a tent and I just underestimated how much and how quickly a -20 down bag could soak up water. I smarter now. I carry a synth. bag when space is not a premium and really wet conditions could prevail. But, I prefer and use my down bag more often. I stuff it in a drysack whether canoeing, backpacking or bike touring. Even in the old days, the most likely time to get your down bag wet was when you weren’t inside of it.

  • My policy is, my clothes are synthetic, my bag/quilt is down with a water resistant shell.

    But, my system assumes common sense and a certain amount of outdoor skills. Experience doesn’t always provide the knowledge required
    A lot of people are lacking in the requirements to keep the inside of your shelter dry and should maybe use a synthetic bag.

    Case in point, I was hiking the Appalachian Trail and setup camp in an area that had lots of good tent spots. After pitching my tarp, I went to go fetch water. I came back to find more people had shown up and were pitching tents in a depressed area that looked like it would become a pond if it should happen to rain. There were many better places to pitch their tents so I went over to recommend that they pitch in a couple other spots that were more elevated.

    They didn’t like my suggestion and I didn’t dwell on the issue when I found out that they were thru-hikers with over 1200 miles completed so far.

    You’d think they would have learned by now?

    Or what about the many paddle campers that I’ve met that suffered when they found out the hard way that trash bags don’t do a very good job of keeping gear dry.

  • All good suggestions and points so far.

    Steve, absolutely. Without the right skills and good judgment, a sleeping bag, down or synthetic, is going to get wet. Maybe people without the skills should use a synthetic bag, but I’d rather they learn the skills.

  • Nice article Bryan. You don’t seem to address the laundering point. Synthetics are easier to wash. Down bags need special washing care and later on take ages to dry. People that don’t look after their gear, get it dirty easily and are klutzes (spilling food over the bag) tend to prefer synthetic bags since they are easier to clean.
    Apart from the comfort of sleeping in a down bag the biggest difference for me is size and weight of a packed sleeping bag.
    The difference is amazing.
    I have done a short pictorial comparison at:

  • I like your pictorial comparison it’s fun. I remember reading that when you first posted it.

    I listed “easier to clean” under the pros for synthetic. It’s easy to miss, because it falls onto the next line.

  • Bryan, apologies. I missed it.
    I think it is a strong point since I hear often that some synthetic users are rather proud that they can toss the bag in a washing machine any time they want without the hassle of the attention a down one requires.

  • It was easy to miss. I think you’re right that it is a strong advantage. Especially for people out on longer trips with towns used as resupply destinations, like on the Appalachian Trail that Steve mentioned. In that situation, during a stop in town, the hiker can wash the bag quickly and get it dried in a short period of time.

  • Regarding:
    “he hiker can wash the bag quickly and get it dried in a short period of time.”

    Yes, but I think most thru-hikers would rather have a smelly bag than have to carry the extra weight of a synthetic. The difference is not just a few ounces and even a few ounces in backpack can effect your happiness on the trail and distance that you cover.
    It even makes a difference on a paddling trip, weight may seem like it doesn’t matter when your not carrying it your back, but it does, in more ways than one.

    Most thru-hikers either wear light underwear or use a silk bag liner to keep the bag from getting smelly. Now spilling food on your bag is another issue:-)

  • I agree with you that most thru-hikers would rather have a lighter bag, but thru-hikers do wash their bags unless something changed from when I thru-hiked the trail. I think I washed mine about once a month. It’s an advantage that works for a thru-hiker but should be weighed along with the other traits. Some folks might like that advantage vs. the weight savings. I’d use a down bag if I was going to hike a long distance trail again.

    About paddling, you’re preaching to the choir.

    My personal experience with a silk liner is that it sort of works to keep the bag from smelling but not really. On a long trip a sleeping bag is going to smell unless you can clean up at the end of the day.

  • have you guys looked at the dual down/synthetic bags? they have synthetic on the outside in a water resistant shell and down on the inside, that way any dampness only seeps through to the synthetic side and not the down (this doesnt work if a bag gets fully submerged in water though obviously) they can be machine washed too.

  • Here is a example of those synthetic/down bags

  • I haven’t seen these in person. It looks like they’re just in winter temperature ranges. Looks like something that I’d like to try.

  • For me, the decision is, to a certain degree, made for me. I’m slightly allergic to most down products. The allergy is minor but results in a stuffy head, and not very good sleep.

    The points about how to protect one’s gear, and to learn from experiences are well made and well taken though!

  • That sucks, JB.

  • What about Rab Genesis 3. It’s specs are excellent and price is 94P. How long it can last?

  • Bryan hansel: “Steve, absolutely. Without the right skills and good judgment, a sleeping bag, down or synthetic, is going to get wet. Maybe people without the skills should use a synthetic bag, but I’d rather they learn the skills. ”

    what skills? what skills are going to keep humidity out of your bag for extended trips, or persperation from slowly killing your loft? a bivy? well shit, a bivy + a down bag almost equals a synthetic .. except now, you have the weight of a synthetic (bivy+down) WITHOUT ANY OF THE BENEFIT.

    I am highly skilled. I LIVE in my gear. and guess what, down over long term, starts to fail, even in dry climates. for one, body oil will kill the loft … oh, get a liner .. NOW, we are adding even more weight… hell, it might be MORE then a synthetic now! hahah. gotta love those silk liners – better not roll around though! haha.

    its very condensending to assume that somebody lacks skills because they have issues with a down bag. NOT TRUE. How many people really get their down bag wet because of rain or river? NOT MANY. THe weakness of down has nothing to do with skills, but environmental week end warriors talk big, but go out and LIVE in your DOWN gear for a year. LIVE IN IT. are you willing to wash your down ($40 a pop and 7 hours of drying time) 3-4 times a year. I have used my 0 degree down bag for 220+ days in a row before and no washing. by late spring, it was a 30 degree bag. But do i want to spend $160 a year to wash it? (1 wash per 50 uses) nope. a synthetic costs $5 dollars to wash.

    once a year, maybe twice.

    what happens when you do accidently get your footbox wet or hood wet rubbing against the tent, or you wake up morning when it got cold as hell and you found yourself with your bag over your head breathing into it accidently … what are you going to do then when your down clots in the chest area and loft is lost or in the footbox and your feet get cold now? gonna have to wash it, not to get it clean, but to get the clots out. unless of course, you can run to a dryer in the middle of nowhere real quick and wait 4 hours to get some clots out, which probably wont happen because your body heat will have either dried it in a clot bunch in the bag or it will be dried by the time you get to a laundry mat 2 days later on the trail.

    i dont have to worry about that with a synthetic.

    i dont have to worry about a bivy with a synthetic, nor a liner.

    i dont have to worry about rubbin up against the tent.

    i dont have to worry about compressing down.

    i dont have to worry about $$$ and time to wash my sleeping bag.

    how about when you wake up with your bag slightly frozen with condensation and its 5 degrees – AND CLOUDY. Gonna put it in your bag, and then when it warms up to 20 + the heat from you back .. your bag is going to thaw out eventually. where is that water going to go then? YUP. you got it.

    what skill is going to stop that? Are you going to blow on it all morning to dry it? There is just NO WAY around some of the complications, and the truth of the matter is that these complications effect down WAY MORE then they effect synthetics, and once you buy products (bivies for example) to aid in diverting some of these effects to protect your down … the weigh difference really doesnt become all that different.

    the ONLY thing down has over synthetics is bulk. thats it. Even that has slowly been gettting better.

    • I take issue with you calling my statement condescending (in fact you get condescending in your statements — ” environmental week end warriors talk big” — which tells me to steer clear of any advice that’d you give). I don’t think that it’s condescending to suggest that someone that doesn’t have the skills to handle a down bag get the skills to handle a down bag instead of using a synthetic by default. Even if they decide to take a synthetic bag, it’s a plus to have those skills.

      You have taken my statement out of context and just to be sure, I reread the article and it doesn’t do anything other than suggest that you give everyone the entire story when relating your wet bag experiences, which you haven’t. In addition it lists that both have advantages and disadvantages, and that you shouldn’t make the choice between the two based on some half-baked story from the Internet. I’m not trying to be rude, but you should read the statement again, and the article again.

      On a practical front, even on long trips, I’ve never experienced any significant problems with down bags. Now, if you “LIVE” in your gear (do you have a website?), and you have the skills to make the determination on what’s best for you, then more power to you. That’s your choice and that’s why the market offers down, synthetic and combo bags.

      Here’s a personal story for you about a long-term experience with a synthetic bag. I used a 20 degree Polarguard 3D synthetic on an approximately 180-day backpacking trip. By the end of the trip, I’d guess it was a 35 to 40 degree bag. Near the end of the trip, I meet someone with a brand new version of the same bag and side-by-side, you could see how much loft was gone from my bag. I washed it, which restores loft in down bags, but the washing didn’t restore it in the synthetic. I sent it in, the company admitted the loss of loft and gave me a new bag. The reason for the loss of loft: stuffing a synthetic bag continually destroys the loft and compressing synthetics by laying on them does the same — additionally, the loss of loft in synthetic insulation starts almost immediately after it’s produced in the factory. When the insulation is packaged to go to the bag manufacturer, it’s compressed and that causes a loss of loft. After having stuffed it daily (5 to 10% loss of loft after the first stuff) for 180 days, the loft was gone and there was no way to get it back, thus the manufacturer replacement. Once loft is gone in a synthetic, it’s gone. In a down, you wash the bag and the loft comes back.

      p.s. as far as washing, throw a couple of wool drier balls into the drying machine with your down bag and it’ll dry much faster than seven hours — I’ve never waited seven hours for a down bag to dry in a dryer. And, I guess, I don’t understand why you pay so much to wash your down bag. If you do it by hand, it’s free except for detergent. If you do it in a commercial washing machine, it costs exactly the same as washing a synthetic. Nikwax Down Wash runs about $10 for two or three bags. The cost of everything else is approximately the same.

  • Thomas, maybe the new “dry down” (waterproof treatment) will cure a lot of the problems that you describe with down.
    Not that I have encountered many of the problems that you mention but then again I don’t live in my sleeping bag for almost a year. The longest it has been 3 weeks and I always sleep protected from the moisture in a tent or at least under a tarp. I don’t think I would be comfortable to sleep in the rain, synthetic or not.

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