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:
- The stories lack context and therefore lack impact.
- Without knowing the context, I assume the paddler lacked the skills needed to keep a sleeping bag dry.
- 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
Down — Pluses: 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.
Synthetic — Pluses: 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?