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Old 01-28-2016, 05:04 PM   #1
Hard Scrabble
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Down versus synthetics in a sleeping bag

Down is the best insulator, hands down, when dry.
But, after three or four nights, down is reduced to a soggy mass.
I switched to a good synthetic bag years ago.
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Old 01-28-2016, 05:45 PM   #2
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Never had my down reduce to a soggy mass even after many nights.
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Old 01-29-2016, 08:47 AM   #3
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A number of years ago, I had a philosophical conversation with another more experienced backpacker on the subject.

Let's assume you've reach the point where you accept that you need 3 sleeping bags for year round outings - summer (35-40F), 3 season (10-20F), and sub-zero.

I postulated that it is best to have down for the 3 season bag, but not for the other two. He looked at me like I had 3 eyes and asked why I thought so.

Well, I thought the summer bag could be synthetic because it was so light that the difference in weight did not justify. The sub-zero bag in down was just way too expensive. and the 3 season bag was worth the extra investment for the weight savings.

He then said he had the exact opposite opinion - down for sub-zero, synthetic for 3 season and down for summer. I asked why and he said: In sub-zero, most water is frozen and if you know what you're doing you're using a VBL so it's pretty easy to avoid getting a down bag wet. For summer, if your bag gets wet it is still pretty easy to stay alive. In three season, a wet bag could be life threatening and there tends to be a greater risk of getting wet with warmer (20-30F) temps so synthetic is the way to go.

I have, over the years, owned many bags. In fact I can say that I have owned both down and synthetic for all 3 temp ranges. Many fewer now though as I tend to limit my overnights to the summer or mild fall conditions. I now see his point of view.
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Old 01-29-2016, 11:31 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hard Scrabble View Post
Down is the best insulator, hands down, when dry.
But, after three or four nights, down is reduced to a soggy mass.
I switched to a good synthetic bag years ago.
Comments?
Jim
Why did that happen?
Sleep in sweaty clothes?
Got wet?

Both can be remedied. I put my down bags in a compression dry bag.
And sleep in sleep clothes.. and clean socks.

I'll be taking my down bag to Florida next week for its 10th year of backcountry camping. Never had it reduced to a soggy mass and I figure thats about as humid as you can get.
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Old 01-29-2016, 12:23 PM   #5
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In cool or cold temperatures, be sure to immediately compress and expand your sleeping bag a couple of times upon exiting in the morning. Do not delay. Do this to get the night's accumulated warm humid air out, or it will soon condense on the interior of the bag as it cools down.

Be sure your tent is ventilated well, to minimize interior condensation. If your bag touches a wet interior tent wall it will suck up the moisture. In a small tent you might want to put a plastic garbage bag over the just the very lower foot section of the sleeping bag if there is a chance it will touch the tent wall during the night.
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Old 01-29-2016, 01:48 PM   #6
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IMO, for winter overnights that are longer than 1-2 nights, a vapor barrier liner is essential. I did a 4 night trip in the High Peaks without a VBL a few years ago, and while my bag felt dry the entire time, I could tell that it was gaining weight and losing ability to insulate with each successive night. After the trip, I pulled the bag out at home to discover that it was soaking wet. Moisture from my body had built up over the successive nights and frozen into the insulation, which is why the bag never appeared wet. So I would suggest trying a VBL and seeing if that fixes the problems you've been having with wet down bags in winter.
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Old 01-30-2016, 05:31 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by yellowcanoe View Post
Why did that happen?
Sleep in sweaty clothes?
Got wet?

Both can be remedied. I put my down bags in a compression dry bag.
And sleep in sleep clothes.. and clean socks.

I'll be taking my down bag to Florida next week for its 10th year of backcountry camping. Never had it reduced to a soggy mass and I figure thats about as humid as you can get.
YC,
The temperature variation in Florida is no where near what is experienced in the ADK's in winter.
Our body exudes moisture, when the temperature outside the sleeping bag is lower than the inside, moisture accumulates.
Down absorbs that moisture.
Synthetics don't.
When you spend a week in a tent your down bag looses a big percentage of its insulating properties.
Jim
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Old 01-30-2016, 06:24 PM   #8
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I slept in a 40F down bag for 2 weeks straight in the Alps with night-time temps ranging from mid 30's to low 50's. It was perfectly fine for the entire 2 weeks even when I scrunched it up into its tiny little stuff sack first thing in the morning.

And, I have slept in a -40 bag for 3-4 nights on many occasions and the loss of loft at -40 was disheartening. Also, the outer nylon was iced over all around the feet, crotch and head areas. Then I started using a VBL inside the bag and presto! no more problems.
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Old 01-30-2016, 11:27 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hard Scrabble View Post
YC,
The temperature variation in Florida is no where near what is experienced in the ADK's in winter.
Our body exudes moisture, when the temperature outside the sleeping bag is lower than the inside, moisture accumulates.
Down absorbs that moisture.
Synthetics don't.
When you spend a week in a tent your down bag looses a big percentage of its insulating properties.
Jim
The temp variation can be considerable down there. At least once in our 10 day foray in the Everglades the temp drops near freezing.. All the time our body temperature is higher than the outside. The humidity is higher there. I can see where water vapour passes through the bag and freezes on the outside.. then there is nowhere for your exuded water vapor to escape.

I am not much of a winter camper, but never have I had any problems up in the Yukon, or NWT, or Alaska or Florida in the winter. Nor the ADKs for two weeks each summer.

Probably fluffing up the bag during the late afternoon when camp is set up an the temperature of the day highest dries out any accumulated moisture.

I'd use a vapour barrier if I camped below freezing but I have used the same down bag since 1965. And once accidentally dumped it ( in its dry bag) in Lake Superior.

Yes most of my canoe trips are two to three weeks long so I know that its a very good idea to keep my bag dry.
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Old 02-01-2016, 05:12 PM   #10
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A basic fact,
Down absorbs moisture.
Synthetics don't.
Jim
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Old 02-01-2016, 05:38 PM   #11
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For me, so far, it has been moot.

I tend to pack heavier in colder season. And will eventually build a pulk for carrying in gear and camp tools that I myself am not comfortable without for cool / cold weather camping. So today I do not see myself shaving ounces and living 100% out of a backpack < 30 degrees or so.

For that reason the synthetics offer the most value for me. I can get a -20 bag for less than $100 (Alps Crescent Lake) My current zero degree bag is synthetic and has served me well. I think I got it for $60. I am cautious how I use it and upgrade or acquire new gear as we go along.

But a subzero down bag would be out of my price range. Sure I could afford it, but when I look at all the other gear I could buy with that dough I start drooling (which would lower the effectiveness of a nice down bag).

Last backpack trip I was kicking myself for the heavy tent in the pack. Tent kept me from noticing the heaving sleeping bag.
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Old 02-01-2016, 08:14 PM   #12
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The answer in winter, as others have noted, is a VBL, I'd use one in a synthetic bag as well..

In my younger days, I did a lot of mountaineering, 3-4 WEEK trips, (Alaska, several trips to the Andes in So. America, the Caucasus when it was still the Soviet Union ETC. just to qualify myself), always used down and NEVER had a wet bag. I had, and still have a Marmot -40 degree bag with GTX outer shell and use a VBL. Down bags are 40% less weight and half the bulk. They have a wider comfort range and , if stored properly when not being used, will have a much longer life than a synthetic bag. They do cost more though, often twice or more as much. If you use it one or 2 weekends a year the cost is not justified, but if you do an expedition or two a year then it is worth the cost.

That being said, there is not one and only right answer, both materials have been around a long time and still sell well, so people still like both. I'm not going to change your mind and your not going to change mine, for me it's a high quality down. The new down , at least quality down has a new Downteck nano technology finish applied when the down is cleaned that makes the new down very water resistant. By the way , when synthetics get wet (it does take longer) they also loose insulation value and you may die anyway.

The VBL keeps the bag dry, and actually adds a bit of insulation as well.
I also use VBL socks between my sock liner and wool sock on multiday trips in winter. The wool socks Never get wet or dirty and keep their insulation value. By the way , your feet get damp, but not wet, once your feet get damp they don't sweat any more, you don't, have a large amount of water inside the VBL.



Just my 2 cents

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Old 02-01-2016, 09:46 PM   #13
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I'm a fan of a silk liner - keeps your bag cleaner, feels better, adds warmth w/o weight. I go down for weekend trips because I pick the weather. Long distance or long trips I'd go synthetic just in case.
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Old 02-02-2016, 08:41 AM   #14
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I've watched with interest the evolution/progression of synth insulation. We're getting closer as time goes by

i have one syn bag, a MH Ultralamina 45 I bought at an LL Bean Outlet in Syracuse for <$50. i bought it due to the price and frankly I was intrigued by their technology and it weighed nothing in my hands.

It has the insulation "welded" in sheets vs stuffed like down. ...Seems to compress pretty well and I am sure it is good to it's rating like most MH stuff.....

However I always seem to reach for my Marmot Arroyo or Sierra Designs Wicked Light when the weather is warm.

All my other bags.... Marmot Helium and an EMS Mountain Light 20....are down.


So I guess I am in the down camp....period...but hopeful.....I guess
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Old 02-02-2016, 11:50 AM   #15
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I don't (or haven't) done long(er) treks the winter winter. I have a cheaper marmot 0* down bag and a 20* down quilt. I'm adding a DIY APEX summer quilt to the stable soon. I did just get a hot tent setup last year for backpack hunting. Ooohhh, when it's 15* out and you snake an arm out of the bag to light your pre-placed tinder and kindling in the wood stove and about five minutes later you can unzip the bag and stretch out in 60* heat? That's a fantastic feeling.

I have no experience with the newer DWR/hydrophobic down bags, but I understand that they are much less prone to getting soggy.
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Old 02-02-2016, 01:39 PM   #16
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I too am intrigued by the new treated down. Looking forward to some real world stories.

I have 2 older down NF Blue Kazoo's ( That zip together), rated for 32, sometimes, if colder, i bring both. I get in bag number one as everybody does, and zip up bag #2 about half way, put feet enclosed in main bag 1 into bag 2..., and use the rest like a comforter.. works pretty good, those 2 bags compress into a smaller space and weigh l less then one synthetic bag of same rating. On top of a closed cell pad where down is too compressed to do much insulation any ways, i get a lot of loft on top with second bag. I would not do this in real cold unless i had to, but makes for a very comfortable sub 32 set-up, or even at 32 as I have finally figured out that the "ratings" are for survival and not comfort.. LOL

ie; Bag rated for 32 in 32*weather means you wake up a-shaking... but you do indeed wake up.. in 10 perhaps you don't wake up! LOL. .
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Old 02-02-2016, 02:07 PM   #17
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I purchased a couple of treated down bags this fall. So far, I love them- they are noticeably lighter and loftier than my older equivalent synthetic bags. I haven't had a chance to use them in particularly wet conditions, however.
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Old 02-03-2016, 04:57 PM   #18
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I bought my first and only down bag back in the 70's, filled with 3 pounds of prime goose down, can't remember the manufacturer. I gave it to my son who's still using it.
It was a great bag, I used it while hunting from leantos that had good ventilation.
But, when used in a canvas tent, after five nights, the bag absorbed the moisture from my body and lost a lot of its insulating properties.
It's almost impossible to dry or aerate a down bag the ADK's in the winter.
Jim
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Old 02-03-2016, 06:27 PM   #19
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I use down for all seasons (although I do sometimes us a synthetic summer bag that compacts to an acceptable size). The new DWR-treated down should ease the minds of many people with the fear of their down bag getting wet.

I'm a big guy and when packing, I'm as (more?) concerned about volume as weight. I'll gladly carry a few extra ounces for a waterproof compression sack for my down gear vs. dealing with the greater volume of synthetic insulation.

I love down. It's hard to beat Mother Nature's inventions!

Take it easy,
Bob
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Old 02-03-2016, 08:19 PM   #20
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Some folks including myself swear by down bags which are great investments and last for years. Lighter weight, superior insulation properties, etc.. Great advice from Dsettahr, get a vapor barrier if you anticipate prolonged wet weather.
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