"During our first backpacking trip, the JMT, we swapped quilts throughout the trip and found that the Ray-Way quilt with 2 layers of alpine insulation was a great deal warmer than the 20 degree down quilt of equal loft." -Sam J, KY
Pg 17: Goose Down
Why We Recommend Synthetic Insulation over Goose Down
I was in high school when I bought my first down-filled sleeping bag. The year was 1960 and the company that made the bag was Holubar. In fact, Mrs. Holubar sewed this particular sleeping bag. And it sure was a big improvement over my cotton filled bag that I had been using for many years. The down was the highest quality prime northern goose down, but even so, after several years of rigorous service it lost its loft and had to be thrown out.
In 1971 I designed and sewed together a two-person down-filled sleeping bag. Working with goose down is an unbelievably messy experience. I used this bag for a few years on various trips until it was stolen.
In 1987 Jenny and I hiked the PCT using a top-quality goose down sleeping bag, unzipped and draped over the two of us. During this trip the sleeping bag failed us twice. Both times were when the bag became wet and lost its loft.
One of these failures occurred during an uncommonly heavy deluge in the mountains of central Oregon. The main problem was not the rain, but our tent which was trapping moisture and soaking everything inside - including the down sleeping bag. For the first 24 hours we endured; but as time slowly passed, and the temperature slowly dropped, our ever more wet sleeping bag inexorably lost its loft. This was when we began to worry. On the verge of hypothermia, we packed up - in the pouring, near-freezing rain - and resumed hiking.
Hiking in a storm with a soaking wet goose-down sleeping bag is extremely dangerous. This is because one has no margins of safety. Should the storm intensify and require making camp, one could not. The wet and flattened sleeping bag would sap body warmth rather than preserve it.
Many people have died in wet goose down sleeping bags, and I know of a few of them. And yet companies making goose down products continue to hype their wares, and to exaggerate their claims. Buyer, please beware!
Fortunately, Jenny and I were not too many miles from a road, and an hour later managed to catch a ride into town.
In the final few weeks of that 4+ month hike, the goose down had lost so much of its loft that it would not stay on top of us. It had so much room to move about inside the nylon layers that every time we shifted, so did the down - from off the top of us. We spent a lot of time shaking the down back toward the center. And even then, the sleeping bag was no longer warm.
Returning home we retired that sleeping bag, all $350 worth of it, and kept it in a box for old times sake until finally throwing out.
Back at it again in 1991, we hiked the PCT a second time - again starting with a brand new, $350 goose down sleeping bag that finished the trip in exactly the same inglorious fashion. But at least during this trip the goose down failed us only once.
We were hiking in a storm in northern California, miles from nowhere. Here again, the tent trapped moisture and soaked the sleeping bag, which in turn lost its loft. Nevertheless, we broke camp and hiked all through the next day. Towards evening we stopped to make camp, and in the rain pitched the tent. The weather was very cold, but we could not crawl inside the tent becuase we had no insulation to crawl into. Fortunately we were able to start a campfire. And also fortunately we had sewn a large awning to our tent. So under this we sat for a long while, trying to dry the wet sleeping bag.
Not only is goose down quite useless when wet, because it goes flat as a pancake, only in clumps; but down is extremely difficult and slow to dry. So there we sat, with the awning over us, which resembled a tarp. The awning was a great help because it sheltered the sleeping bag while we held the bag toward the fire and its radiating warmth.
We managed to dry the sleeping bag just enough to safely go to sleep. The night was anything but comfortable, but to our good fortune the weather began to clear the following day.
After returning home and throwing that sleeping bag away, the next year, 1992, we again bought a new $350 goose down bag for a hike of the CDT. We also replaced the tent, fitted it with an even larger awning over its doorway, and cut away its entire front end - for much-needed ventilation. This trip certainly had its moments, weather-wise, but the sleeping bag at least survived, and although we have not used it since, at least we still have it, even though it lost about half of its loft.
In 1993 we were preparing to hike the AT, but were in no moods to spend yet another $350 on another down sleeping bag. So we made our first "quilt" of synthetic insulation. This quilt proved remarkably easy to make, compared with my ordeal of making the down sleeping bag many years ago. And the quilt was very inexpensive. Yet it preformed a hundred times better than down. At the time we were still using the tent & awning, and many times experienced heavy and prolonged downpours. We knew very well from experience that the pervading moisture would have flattened a down sleeping bag. But even though our synthetic quilt became quite moisture-laden on several occasions, it stayed warm. Big difference!
In 1994 we hiked the PCT a third time, using another home-made quilt of synthetic insulation. Once again the quilt was a big success.
Since that fifth long-distance hike we have embarked upon many long paddling journeys in the Arctic, in addition to our IUA hike & bike, rowing across the Atlantic, cycling across the U.S., kite skiing on the Greenland Ice Cap, skiing to the South Pole, climbing Vinson Massif in Antarctica, trekking in the Himalaya, mountaineering in Argentina, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trial, cycling across the US, and so forth - all with home-made synthetic insulation quilts.
We have learned, through much trial and error, the true disadvantages of down insulation
- and we are not taking any more chances with it.
Moreover, we like to think that thanks to our quilts made of synthetic insulation there are a few geese out there with their precious down still attached to their bodies rather than plucked as a commodity for commercial gain.
Myths . . .
The following myths are regularly passed on by well-meaning people who think they are experienced hikers. (In truth, they are usually trying to demonstrate their knowledge (not based on actual experience but on advertising hype), or they are promoting something - usually some down filled product).
Myth #1: A good waterproof stuff sack will keep your goose down sleeping bag dry. Wrong!
My answer: Yes, if you sleep in your stuff sack also. Good luck breathing. But when you pull your sleeping bag out of the stuff sack, that stuff sack no longer protects your sleeping bag. And that is when the sleeping bag starts to become wet, even inside an expensive tent.
And the next morning, you will be putting a wet or at least damp sleeping bag back into that stuff sack, which then only works to contain the dampness. So at the end of the second day, the waterproof stuff sack does not keep your sleeping bag dry, because the sleeping bag was wet to begin with.
Therefore, during an overnight hike, a good waterproof stuff sack will not keep your goose down sleeping bag dry.
Myth #2: An expensive tent will keep your goose down sleeping bag dry. Wrong!
My answer: Yes, if you keep your sleeping bag inside the tent, but you, yourself, sleep outside the tent. If you spend any amount of time inside the tent, with your sleeping bag not contained in the waterproof stuff sack, that sleeping bag will begin to absorb moisture coming from your breath and of your skin.
To be continued ...
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