Down vs Synthetic Sleeping Bag: Which is Best in What Situation?

There’s a lot of debate on whether you do or don’t need a backpacking sleeping bag when walking the Camino de Santiago. While there are plenty of affordable accommodation options along the way, some pilgrims still like bringing their camping gear.

Even if you do decide to sleep in hotels and shared dormitories, there’s always a possibility that the available blankets won’t keep you sufficiently warm. In such cases, a sleeping bag can come in very handy, especially if your pilgrimage takes place during early spring or late fall.

However, this is where yet another dilemma arises – should you go for a synthetic or down sleeping bag? Which type is right for you? To help you make the decision, we’ve compared both types – here are their pros and cons:

The Overview

When we’re talking about synthetic and down sleeping bags, we’re talking about insulation.

The purpose of insulation is to trap the heat emitting from your body into a layer of air around you. Both types of insulation we’ll be comparing can achieve this, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Keep in mind that the type of insulation directly affects the price, compressibility, water resistance, weight, and warmth of a sleeping bag.

Down Sleeping Bags

camping during the day by a river

Down insulation is made from extremely soft bird plumage. With these feathers acting as natural insulators for the birds themselves, it’s no wonder they’re often used in the manufacture of apparel.

Down clusters are three-dimensional, fluffy, and light. This allows them to trap the heat emitting from a body into a series of pockets. The most common types of down used for sleeping bags are goose and duck down.

Here’s how all of this translates to benefits and downsides of down sleeping bags:

The Pros of Down Sleeping Bags

The primary selling point of down sleeping bags is their exceptional weight-to-warmth ratio. This means they are very lightweight – after all, it comes from birds that need to fly. They will, however, keep you warm too – no need to worry about that.

Down sleeping bags are also very compressible. Therefore, putting them back into their sack is extremely easy, much more so than with synthetic sleeping bags.

Another advantage of these sleeping bags is their longevity. High-quality down is capable of retaining its insulation properties for a long time, even with frequent packing and unpacking.

The Cons of Down Sleeping Bags

Unfortunately, sleeping bags featuring down insulation also have some drawbacks.

The primary disadvantage is that this type of insulation loses loft and bunches together whenever it gets wet. To counteract this, most manufacturers add water-resistant coatings. However, this won’t really help you if your down sleeping bag gets completely soaked.

Furthermore, this type of insulation requires special cleaning. In other words, you won’t be able to use your washing machine to clean a down sleeping bag.

Finally, down sleeping bags are often a lot more expensive than their synthetic counterparts.

Synthetic Sleeping Bags

When it comes to trapping heat, synthetic insulation works very similarly to down insulation. However, there’s one big difference – it keeps insulating even when it gets wet.

When you’re shopping for a sleeping bag of this type, you’re bound to see a lot of different names for synthetic insulation. This is because most brands produce their own. As expected, this can make shopping for a new bag very confusing.

Despite all these fancy names, most synthetic fillings use polyester or similar plastic strands. Here are the pros and cons of opting for a synthetic sleeping bag:

The Pros of Synthetic Sleeping Bags

As we said, these sleeping bags retain their insulating properties even when they’re wet. This is their most significant advantage. No matter how careful you are, this feature can be a true lifesaver during long trips such as walking the Camino de Santiago.

Another advantage of these bags is that most of them can be machine-washed. They’re also substantially less expensive than bags using down insulation. This can be a deciding factor for pilgrims looking to save money.

There’s also the question of animal welfare. As it uses artificial materials, synthetic insulation avoids this issue altogether. Finally, synthetic sleeping bags handle long-term exposure to body oils a lot better than all other types.

The Cons of Synthetic Sleeping Bags

When it comes to downsides of synthetic sleeping bags, the biggest one is the lower warmth-to-weight ratio. The ones that provide fill power similar to that of down sleeping bags usually weigh a lot more.

Moreover, they’re not as compressible. Putting a synthetic sleeping bag back into its compression sack can be challenging.

Finally, sleeping bags of this type don’t last as long as their down counterparts. The more a synthetic bag is packed and unpacked, the less powerful its insulation becomes, which takes a significant toll on its longevity.

Down/Synthetic Blends

camping at night

Some companies manufacture sleeping bags that combine synthetic and down insulation. This kind of hybrid construction provides the advantages of both types while limiting their imperfections.

In some cases, these materials will be blended together throughout the product. In other cases, they will be present at different locations. A good example would be a sleeping bag that has lofty down on its top and durable synthetic on its bottom.

The Pros of Down/Synthetic Blends

As expected, these types of sleeping bags are more compressible and have a lower weight than the models featuring synthetic insulation alone. They are also less expensive and more water-resistant than most down sleeping bags.

The Cons of Down/Synthetic Blends

Sleeping bags that blend both materials are usually bulkier than the regular down models. Moreover, they are more expensive and less water resistant than the standard synthetic sleeping bags.

The Verdict

So, now that you know how each type of insulation works, as well as its benefits and downsides, it’s time to make a decision. Which type of sleeping bag is the right choice for you, down vs synthetic?

For many, the price will be the deciding factor. With fashionable down jackets getting more and more popular worldwide, the insulating undercoating that provides warmth to ducks and geese is becoming a hot commodity. And, as expected, the higher demand for down increases its price.

That’s precisely why most people often opt for a synthetic sleeping bag. And, as we mentioned, these bags maintain their insulating qualities even in wet conditions. They also dry faster and are much easier to keep clean.

However, the coup de grâce for those in the down camp is often the topic of warmth-to-weight ratio. While more expensive, down sleeping bags are super light and at the same time incredibly warm. They are also very compressible and long-lasting.

In the end, it all comes down to your budget and personal preferences.

If you’re looking to save as much money as possible, a synthetic sleeping bag is your best choice. These bags also outperform down models in very wet conditions.

However, if you’re looking for the ultimate outdoor comfort, go for a down model. Sleeping bags of this type are also the best choice for pilgrims who value light and compact loads.

There is also a third option – down/synthetic blends. While these sleeping bags do bring the best of both worlds, keep in mind that they also feature the downsides of both materials.

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