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Sleeping bags: down vs. synthetic


Oct 10, 2009
I'm considering getting a new sleeping bag for both kayaking and backpacking. I've always had synthetic bags because of my concern about getting the bag wet, but in my 50 or so years of camping (I'm not actually ancient; my parents first took me camping when I was 6 weeks old) I can only remember one time when I actually got my bag wet - on a geology field trip when the professor had us set up in the dark in a city park and it poured all night and we found out about 2 AM we were in the middle of a runoff channel.

I am looking at down bags because they pack smaller and are lighter for the warmth than synthetics (I tend to sleep cold). Plus with the new fabrics they are using for the shells it seems that they would probably be fairly water-resistant unless flooded.

Has anyone tried out any of the newer bags with the DWR or otherwise water resistant coatings? What do you think? How do down bags hold up for a week of camping with the moisture expelled by a sleeping body in the Pacific Northwest where it's fairly damp all the time?

I'm also looking at the Exped DownMat 7 or 9 sleeping pads because I need to have a thick mattress (side sleeper) and my huge Thermarest just doesn't pack well (tired of carrying it on the deck). Anyone try these? They've had great reviews everywhere I've looked and seem to have a good warmth/thickness/comfort to weight/packability ratio.

For my first several years of kayaking on the west coast, I carried a synthetic bag, for the reason you suggest: fear of getting it wet.

But I knew from my hiking trips that down was better. Lighter. More compact. And above all warmer. Not just warmer per weight as measured in a lab. Warmer in an "in the bones" way. Colin Fletcher put it best: synthetics provide a "plastic" warmth - a mere absence of cold. Down provides real warmth - a positive presence.

Years back, I switched to an earlier version of this bag http://www.exped.com/exped/web/exped_homepage_na.nsf, which was called the WallCreeper at the time. I now also have its contemporary warmer cousin, the DreamWalker 650, for shoulder season kayaking. I love'm. They look dorky, and wear wonderfully. I used the lighter one on my three week circumnavigation of Princess Royal Island last summer - and I had rather a lot of rain. It worked fine.

To use a down bag successfully, you must have two other pieces of equipment:

1. A drybag that's full-on submersible, not merely dunkproof. I use this one for both my sleeping bag and shore clothes: http://www.mec.ca/Products/product_...4442632808&FOLDER<>folder_id=2534374302701329

2. A tent that's utterly, absolutely rainproof.

But when it gets down to it (rimshot), why wouldn't you want those two other things anyway?
I'm a Primaloft guy for kayaking. I have mostly down bags but seldom take them near the water. I have great drybags and have never had a problem with a wet bag but in any situation where it would matter, like a long trip to someplace remote, I will have a synthetic bag.

I sleep better nights listening to rain beat down on my totally water tight tent when I'm wrapped in Primaloft.

This topic is as polarized as "Stretch or Trim".
I use both... Down is way nicer to sleep in, and I use it on shorter trips. On multi week trips, I tend to slide over toward fiberfill, as insurance against the possibility of multi day heavy rains. On the BC coast - sometimes the amount of rain can be rather special - and that's where I often end up on those longer trips. And there is that nagging fear of the soaked bag, even though I have not had the experience to date.... Knock on wood.

Big fan of my exped 7 too. Would think hard about fiberfill or down versions, if I had to make the purchase all over again.

I've spent many, many nights in really wet places over the years and have always used a synthetic bag because it will maintain (most of) it's insulating properties if it gets wet.

I'm buying a new sleeping bag in the next week -- it will be down.

Years and years of camping in the wet and never, ever having a wet sleeping bag has convinced me that I am capable of keeping a down bag dry.

My two reasons for doing this -- comfort, and freeing up space in my hatch for other gear, or just to make the boat easier to pack.
I use Exped Downmat 9. Excellent piece of equipment!! Used Kelvin5 before. Downmat is way more comfortable and warmer. I finally sleep well. It is pricey, but worth every penny to me.

My 0 deg synthetic bag is ok for shoulder seasons on the west coast; in combination with MEC black Polartec top and bottom and Downmat9 it is warm enough. It also feels dry at all times.
Why I prefer synthetic bags. They are more forgiving of tide table errors.

I've hiked and kayaked for over 25 years with down bags. Mostly on Vancouver Island. I wouldn't consider anything else but down.

The surface of the bag can get damp if the weather is high humidity but it sort of reaches an equilibrium point with body heat versus condensation.

There are 10 important rules for hiking. Rule number one is that thy sleeping bag shalt not get wet. I forget the rest of the rules...

Currently have a -20 barrel bag and a -10 barrel bag made by Taiga. The -20 I've had for 20 years now and still works well and I have had many summer trips go cold enough that I was glad to have it. The -10 bag is for kayak trips; the -20 is too warm on the beach. The -10 was bought recently for a specific trip. https://www.taigaworks.ca/

I have military surplus bags I bought used 30 years ago. They are still useable; I was using the surplus bag for kayak trips until I bought the -10.
I grew up in SW BC and spent many nights in the mountains down there. I started with a synthetic bag (one of the first generation Polarguard) but switched to down many years ago as getting wet in the bag was not enough of a problem to deal with the extra bulk and weight of the synthetic bags.

It is much more important to have a good tent (or now a hammock). Once we were camped on a high ridge and the only decent tent spot was in a slight depression. That night it stormed and of course the slight depression became a pond during the night. When we woke up we were initially confused about what the tent floor was doing- it was like a waterbed. We were camped in 2-3 inches of water. The tent (a Moss tent) held out the water fine, so though we were damp, that was mostly condensation.
Have used down for yrs. Worked on the coast for yrs as a tree planter from feb-may,,,,RAIN RAIN RAIN. My bag would get damp but not lose its warmth. Now kayaking i keep stuff in dry bags and my gear compartments don't leak. Oh yeah (-: and i sleep in a hammock,,no sleeping on wet ground or someone Else's garbage, crap etc.
I love my down -10 MEC Cygnet barrel bag. It's light, compresses well, and comes out like new from the washer and dryer. I snuggle into that on my Exped 9 and life is wonderful. I'm a four season kayak camper and I do not like being cold. My bag has never got wet but down is supposed to still do the job even wet.
I still have my down bag I made 32 years ago! It was a Frostline kit my Dad and I made a set. I only got it wet once while fishing in the spring West Jellystone. I have a synthetic bag for car camping and only used the down bag for backpacking. If it dies I will get another down bag!
I have both, but the nice thing about my synthetic girly bag is the room to move inside the bag-roll onto one side, roll onto the other, without torquing the whole bag into a snarled knot! My down bag is not designed for hips (but it is warmer-except of course where the hips press the insulation to nothing...) I wear merino body covers inside the synthetic fabric so all is good there. I have never gone to sleep and woken up with the ocean in my bag but I have gone to sleep and woken up with a river running through it...
Seems like I'm with the majority here. I use down for its compressability, warmth, and longevity. Plus, it just feels nice.

One trick I picked up from Cliff Jacobson is to cut a cheap blue tarp just a bit larger than the floor of my tent. I put the tarp in the tent with the sides folded up the walls a couple of inches. That way, I can pretty much guarantee a waterproof floor, even in the event of pooling under the tent.
First trick I learned in the Army about sleeping on the ground is to cut a small trench around your tent or bivouac area. Second trick I learned was to never sleep on the ground! Always had a hammock or made one out of vines and banana(or something that size) leaves. I worked in the tropics so staying warm wasn't the issue it was keeping dry and 3" crawling critters from crawling up your nose when you sleep.
Reporting back on my decision: I got a Feathered Friends sleeping bag for Mother's Day and also got an Exped Downmat 7 and camp pillow on sale at REI. Took them all on an overnight kayak trip last weekend on a lake in the Cascades, and boy, did I sleep well! Was not cold at all (and also did not overheat), very comfortable mat, and the pillow worked great (of course it packs as big as the mat, but my neck thanked me). We'll see if I have any issues with getting it wet, but so far I am really pleased with everything. Plus they pack so small that I managed to get everything for the weekend trip into my Shearwater 14 with nothing on the deck and room to spare in the hatches.