Over the years I have used a variety of sleeping bags in numerous conditions. Some of my experiences have left me damp and cold, while other times I have been utterly impressed by a sleeping bag’s ability to insulate me from the conditions, and comfortably sleep in otherwise uncomfortable conditions.
Knowing the difference that a good sleeping bag can make, I carefully evaluated my sleeping bag choice for my elk trip. If there is one scenario where I don’t want to risk my comfort and safety to a sub-par sleeping bag, it is for a week spent hunting and sleeping at over 10,000’ in the Rocky Mountains.
Let’s begin our analysis of sleeping bags by comparing the two classifications of insulation that dominate the market.
- + Preserves performance when wet
- + Comparatively care-free
- + Cheaper
- – Heavier
- – Less compressible
- – Shorter life
There are numerous types of synthetic insulation on the market today. Branded and patented types include Primaloft, Polarguard, Thinsulate, and a host of others. Even among a single line there are grades in quality. For example, Primaloft offers a spectrum of insulation that very in price and performance. This fact alone can make it difficult for the casual shopper to evaluate the quality of synthetic sleeping bags.
Synthetic is a great choice for users that want good performance at a good price, and don’t want to worry about any sort of special care or maintenance for their bag. Synthetic insulation will still perform when wet, will dry faster, and synthetic sleeping bags are often able to be washed and dried at home.
The downside to synthetic sleeping bags is that they aren’t as warm, light, or packable as natural down sleeping bags. Synthetic insulation is also prone to break down over time, so the life of a synthetic bag is typically shorter than the life of a down sleeping bag that has been properly cared for.
- + Great heat-to-weight ratio
- + Compresses and returns to loft
- + Longer life (with proper care)
- – Requires more intentional care and handling
- – Loses performance when wet
- – More expensive
Natural down sleeping bags are filled with natural Goose or Duck down fibers. These natural down fibers offer a heat-to-weight ratio that simply cannot be matched by any other material. Ounce-for-ounce, a down sleeping bag will be warmer than anything else on the market.
In addition to being incredibly light, these natural down fibers are also very compressible, which makes packing a down sleeping bag much easier. Additionally, a down sleeping bag will last for many years if it is cared for properly. Down sleeping bags have a higher price tag, but moving past the initial cost, they are often an incredibly wise investment for the outdoorsman.
The “down” side to down sleeping bags is that they require a little more intentional care and attention. Unlike their synthetic counterparts, down sleeping bags must be cleaned with special processes. Additionally, natural down fibers lose their insulating properties when wet, and also take a while to dry, which means that traditional down sleeping bags must be kept dry to perform as intended. However, new advances in molecular polymer technology have made some great breakthroughs that allow natural down fibers to be treated with a water resistant barrier. This treatment adds no additional weight to the down, yet it allows the down to stay dry longer and dry quicker than untreated down.
My Choice Is…
The incredible warmth, light weight, compressibility, and long life of natural down are extremely appealing to me. I have typically been willing to deal with a bit more intentional care and maintenance to keep the performance of down. Now that advances in down coatings have made their way to the market, the best choice for my needs has become undeniably clear – down, specifically treated down, is the way to go.
Moisture-resistant down is obviously great for variable weather conditions, but an added benefit that most overlook is the moisture that is generated inside the sleeping bag. I can be a clammy sleeper at times, especially when I’m tucked into a high-performance down sleeping bag, but I can already tell that treated down helps fight this clammy feeling by keeping the moisture out of the down fibers and allowing it to pass through the sleeping bag’s shell.
The sleeping bag that I chose is the Sierra Designs Zissou, which features their DriDown technology. When compared to untreated down, Sierra Designs reports that DriDown stays drier 10-times longer, retains 170% more loft when exposed to moisture and humidity, and dries 33% faster.
Whew, that’s quite a bit of information to process, and this is only Part 1! Up next we’ll talk about temperature ratings, shell materials, weight, pricing, and other factors to consider when choosing a sleeping bag.