In the outdoor world, there are two kinds of insulating material that create loft, down feathers or synthetic fibers. Both are used in sleeping bags, jackets, vests, and other products. Knowing which-is-which, and what their capabilities are, can help any outdoor shopper pick the right piece of equipment.
Down with Down?
Down insulation comes from stuffing goose feathers into a product, such as a sleeping bag, to create loft and provide insulation. Not only does down help retain heat, it also makes a lightweight product. The disadvantage of down is that when it gets wet, the feathers lose their loft, and their insulating value. This means that if the bag gets soaked in the rain, it will not be able to retain body heat, and will be difficult to dry.
Synthetic-filled insulation is made using poly-fibers. These fibers do the same job as natural down feathers, retain heat. Although heavier, products made with synthetic fibers are more water resistant, and which is able to retain heat even when wet.
Which Kind of Insulation to Use?
Knowing when to use which kind of fiber depends on where one wishes to travel, time of year, and the kind of activity. For instance, a down sleeping bag may not be the best choice in the Pacific Northwest during winter, where the environment is wetter. That same bag, however, may be more useful in New Mexico, where the climate is much more arid, even during the wintertime.
A synthetic jacket could work well in the Northeast during the winter to keep one warm on a day of snowshoeing or skiing. For a backpacker doing winter camping, a synthetic product may be extra weight, especially if one is trying to be conscious of cutting all unnecessary ounces.
Caring for the Product
When not using these products, store them in places where the fill is allowed to expand. For instance, both kinds of sleeping bags come with a light canvas stuff sack. Compressing the insulation for extended periods of time weakens the loft of the product, and reduces its insulating qualities. Hang jackets, pants, or vests in a closet, or store in a large plastic box that is big enough to let the item expand. Wash garments and bags in a front-loading washer with a mild detergent.