Types of Sleeping Bags
For consistently wet or damp weather conditions, consider a sleeping bag with either synthetic fill--which insulates well when wet--or a goose down fill encased in a microfiber or gore-dryloft shell--and be careful to keep it dry--down doesn't insulate when wet.
Synthetics like lite-loft, primaloft, polarguard, hollofil, microloft, etc. are superior for wet conditions. They retain a great deal of their insulating ability when wet, so in damp environments like the US Pacific Northwest, a synthetic bag may be the best choice. They're relatively easy to clean, resistant to mildew and rot, and they dry faster than down. In most cases they are cheaper. That's about the extent of their advantages over down !
Many of the newer synthetic sleeping bags are made of the new Polarguard 3D. It is softer and lighter and just as durable as its older Polarguard siblings, and reviews say that it is more compressable than other synthetics.
Goose Down is lighter, more compressable, warmer by weight, and much more durable and long-lived (like 300%). With the invent of dryloft and microfiber shells as coverings for down sleeping bags, down is a consideration even in damp environs. You can also further encase a down bag in a gore-tex bivy sack for greater waterproofing.
In the winter, some folks prefer synthetic bags for long-duration outings. The reason is that in extreme cold, your body releases moisture as you sleep, so the down bag gets wet from the inside even though well protected from the outside. One way to prevent that is to use a vapor-barrier lining which keeps the moisture away from the down.
In my opinion, even though down is more expensive (much more so in high-end bags), it is a better long-term investment since it could last 3 times longer, if properly cared for. At the same time, the comfort level, lighter weight, and ease of packing can't be beat. How's that for an objective view ?
However, having got that bias off my chest, I, as one who lives in the damp Pacific Northwest USA, desire to have a nice, lightweight synthetic bag (in addition to my down bags :-). The newer Polarguard 3D looks pretty good.
Gore-Tex is out as a shell material because it just didn't breathe well enough to allow body moisture to escape. It also didn't fare well when washing time came around - gtx-down bags had a penchant to delaminate - I got a brand-spankin-new Feathered Friends Swallow when my old gtx Swallow delaminated. Gore stood behind it but now knows better. No more gtx shells.
There's nylon (a tight weave), polyester, microfiber (a tightly woven material), and various flavors of Gore Dryloft and Dryloft look-alikes.
The nylon shells used by most bag makers have a coating of DWR (Durable Water Repellent) which will provide some measure of water resistance and the tight weave of the nylon provides a good measure of wind resistance, as well. Ripstop nylon adds reinforcing threads to provide a more durable material whereas nylon taffeta is silky smooth to the touch but not nearly as durable as ripstop. There is also polyester ripstop and polyester taffeta which are heavier than their nylon counterparts.
The microfiber shells offer a better water resistance and are windproof. The microfiber shells have good breathability and are lighter than Dryloft but less water resistant. The most water resistant shell material is Dryloft. In addition to being the most weather resistant, Dryloft also provides good breathability. Dryloft is the most costly, followed by microfiber and plain nylon and polyester.
Your choice should be based upon your intended application. In three season use inside a tent in generally mild conditions, you should be able to do well with the less expensive nylon shell. In wetter or wilder conditions consider the microfiber or Dryloft.
TYPES OF BAGS:
Mummy bags are the de-facto standard for backpackers. The narrow, tapered design is efficient and lightweight. It also heats up fast and packs small. On the downside, mummies don't provide a lot of room for maneuvering.
A semi-rectangular (or modified mummy) bag provides a solution if you are one who must have the additional space to toss and turn, get dressed in bed, store your gear with you at night, and so on. These bags provide more room thru the middle but generally still have the mummy hood and tapered toe box. These bags are a good choice for larger packers and for milder weather where thermal efficiency is less critical.
Rectangular bags are the ones many of us grew up with. They provide the least thermal efficiency, are the heaviest and bulkiest, but provide the most room for maneuvering. They typically do not have a hood which makes them great for zipping together with another like bag to make a two-person bed. These bags are best suited for car camping.
Attributes to Look For
- For colder weather, get a draft collar which cinches around the neck--keeps warm air in and cold out.
- Generous draft tube along entire length of zipper.
- For warm weather, look for ease of ventilation.
- Full side zip so you can air out your feet during warmer weather.
- 700-800 fill-power down lasts much longer than cheaper 550 fill power. In the long-run
its probably cheaper.
- Double side zipper so you can still use the bag if one zipper blows out.
- There should be a velcro or snap-shut closure over the zipper, at the top of the bag to prevent the
zipper from sliding in the middle of the night.
Cleaning Sleeping Bags
These tips are pretty much common knowledge and practice, but I'll send them your way, anyhow, just in case!
First off, I try to keep my bag clean and wash infrequently. There are ways to keep your bag clean:
If all this is too much to handle, you can do as I have done, in the past, and send it downtown Seattle to Feathered Friends and for $20 they will do the dirty deed for you.
Closed-Cell Foam Pads, on the plus side, are ultra-light, inexpensive, waterproof, and durable. On the downside, they are bulky, inconvenient to pack, and unconforming to your body and the terrain.
Open-Cell Foam Pads, on the plus side, are ultralight, inexpensive, compresses better
than Closed-Cell Foam and cushions well. However, the thing is really just a sponge. When it touches
moisture it becomes a soggy sponge. Most often, the open-cell variety is encased in a nylon inflatable shell
to protect it from the elements. These are the Self-Inflating Mattresses.
Self-Inflating Mattresses, are very comfortable, have adjustable air pressure, good body heat retention, compress better than closed-cell and, and are easy to pack. They are relatively expensive, are heavier than Closed-Cell pads, and are prone to puncture (optional repair kit adds even more weight to the pack).
In summary, Closed-Cell is lighter, cheaper, and bombproof. Self-Inflating Mattresses are more comfortable,
compact, and warmer. To determine which pad is best for you, consider what your needs are. In what weather conditions are you using it (or a combination of them)? Consider importance of warmth, weight, price, bulk, durability, and general comfort. What's your priority ? You might consider a 3/4 length closed-cell for a quick minimalist over-nighter; or a full-length 1 1/2 inch self-inflating for a long-distance trail trek; or a combination of self-inflating and closed-cell during the winter--on the snow--for maximum warmth.