By AU Guide John Benincasa
A good night’s sleep is crucial when backpacking. A great sleeping bag will help make that happen.
Down or synthetic? The knock on down fill has always been that if it gets wet it will lose its insulating capability and will take forever to dry. True enough, but a soaked synthetic bag is quite miserable as well. Keeping any bag dry is imperative. A waterproof stuff sack is the simple, obvious solution. A sleeping bag in a waterproof sack should emerge from a complete dunking completely dry.
The upsides to down far outweigh the negatives.
Weight to warmth
A down bag will almost always weigh less than its synthetic counterpart with the same temperature rating.
Down will almost always pack down into a smaller package, leaving more room in a pack or allowing for a smaller pack. When considering colder weather bags, the size difference can be substantial.
Down is generally more expensive, but when taken care of properly can last quite a long time. Synthetic fibers break down over time and lose insulating capabilities. Down can be ‘refreshed’ and lofted from time to time, bringing it back to its original performance. A properly cared for down bag can easily last a decade or more.
Loft is what keeps you warm by creating a thick but lightweight insulating layer. The bigger the loft the warmer the bag. Fill numbers associated with down bags refer to the loft of that particular fill. An ounce of 600 fill will not create as much loft as an ounce of 800 fill. Higher-end bags can have numbers above 800.
Bags are increasingly being measured against a universal standard for temperature rating. Even with this standardization, rates can be pretty subjective as everyone sleeps differently. Hot sleepers, cold sleepers. Trying to find one bag for all seasons can be quite tricky, if not impossible, but a good choice for three seasons (a winter bag is the exception) would be a bag with a temperature rating of 20-30 degrees. One can always layer up on cold nights and shed a bit when it’s warm. It would definitely be warm for August, but a bag with that rating would get you through the fall and out before the first day of spring. Ideally, an additional thin summer bag would cover most campers’ needs.
Mummy-shaped bags can feel a bit confining but less volume-to-heat makes them easier to warm up in cold weather. Square bags are roomy but can be bulky to pack. Shapes vary with manufacturer, with women-specific bags as well as bags with unusual shapes meant to increase roominess and accommodate different types of sleepers. Don’t be afraid to crawl in different bags at the shop and see how they feel.
Draft collars are tubes of fill that lay on the neck to keep drafts from entering the bag on cold nights. Half-zips are meant to save weight but better to be able to unzip fully on hot nights and much easier to get in and out of the bag with a full-length zipper. Some have internal security pockets. Extra fill in the toe box to keep feet warm. Waterproof coatings further protect down from moisture as well as down fills treated to repel moisture.
All the big brands make quality down and synthetic bags. As ideal as down is for sleeping bags, the new synthetics have come a long way and are worth a look, especially if price is a concern.
High end manufacturers include Western Mountaineering. Beautifully made in CO, top materials and great quality down. Feathered Friends. Basically hand made in Seattle. Legendary down products built to last in extreme conditions. Jackets and bags customized with fill, colors, etc.
Marmot, Big Agnes, Sea to Summit, Nemo, North Face, etc. Excellent bags of all shapes and sizes can be found at reasonable prices.
REI, Eastern Mountain Sports make surprisingly good quality bags that are great values.