Down or Synthetic? How to Choose the Best insulation for Your Backpacking Gear

Down or Synthetic? This is a topic of constant debate among the backpacking and camping community. There are pros and cons to to each, and I’ll discuss them in this post.

If your experience of selecting gear is anything like mine was, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. For each piece of gear there are so many options, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on which option is best.

Ultimately, the best choice for you might not be the best choice for the next backpacker. So as you select each piece of gear I encourage you to continue to do your research and make the informed decision that best fits you! 

This post will help you decide what type of insulation to choose for your sleeping bag, as well as your puffy coat, and maybe some other items too.

Prior to making these gear decisions for myself, I did a lot of research. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned so you can make an informed choice too!


Down insulation is made from the fluffy undercoats of geese and ducks, i.e. the part of the plumage that exists underneath the bird’s outer feathers. It has incredible insulation ability! Down is prized for being an extremely light weight solution to staying warm. It’s also easy to compress, and if treated with care, will last years if not decades.  

Down is especially desired for its warmth-to-weight ratio. Down insulates by lofting and trapping air within a space. The degree to which down can do this is referred to as “fill power.” Specifically, the amount of space one ounce of down can take up, is its fill power. For example, one ounce of 800 fill power down can fluff up to fill 800 cubic inches of space. The higher the fill power, the less down is needed to achieve the same level of insulation/warmth.

While down is a superior insulator for many reasons, there are a few draw backs. When down gets wet (or even just a bit damp) it tends to clump up and lose its ability to insulate. Down also dries very slowly. 

An additional draw back is price, down is significantly more expensive when compared to most synthetic alternatives. 

Finally, there is a question of ethics in regards to using down insulation. For many years most (if not all) down was sourced cruelly and inhumanely, with practices such as live plucking and force feeding involved. After these practices were exposed to the public, organizations such as the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and the Global Traceable Down Standard (Global TDS) were established in an effort to ensure ethical practices. Many companies have now become certified through these organizations voluntarily. However, regardless of improved standards, the geese and ducks involved in down production are still killed, which can be an important deciding factor for animal lovers out there. If you do decide that down insulation is the right choice for you, please make sure that the company you buy from is certified by an organization such as RDS or Global TDS.

So, to summarize, the pros and cons of down are listed below:


  • High warmth-to-weight ratio
  • Easy to compress
  • Long lifetime (often up to 30 years with proper care)


  • Loses ability to insulate when wet
  • Dries slowly
  • Expensive
  • Ethically Questionable


Synthetic insulation is usually made of polyester fibers. Over the years manufacturers have been improving techniques to engineer insulation that can mimic the capabilities of down. While synthetic materials cannot match the warmth-to-weight ratio or compressibility of down (yet) they often come very close! 

There are many types synthetic fibers used in sleeping bags and jackets, varying in length, shape and treatment, and while these variations lead to subtle differences in function, the overall qualities of synthetic insulation remain the same.

Like down insulation, synthetic insulation keeps you warm by lofting to trap air. However, as I mentioned, synthetic has a lower warmth-to-weight ratio, meaning more material is required to fill the space. 

Synthetic insulation can also be slightly bulkier, heavier and less compressible than down. In addition, compacting synthetic insulation into a stuff sack damages its ability to loft over time, making it less long-lasting than down. A synthetic sleeping bag usually has a lifetime of 10 years or less.

Unlike down insulation, synthetic insulation maintains its ability to keep you warm even when wet, which can be very useful!  Synthetic materials also dry much quicker than down.

Finally, backpacking gear that uses synthetic insulation tends to be far more affordable than most down products. This is obviously a big plus, especially for those of you just beginning your backpacking journey and needing to buy all new gear.

Overall, here are the pros and cons of synthetic insulation:


  • Maintains ability to keep you warm even when wet
  • Dries more quickly than down
  • Affordable price
  • Not sourced from animals


  • Lower warmth to weight ratio as compared to down
  • Bulkier and less compressible than down
  • Shorter overall lifetime (usually 10 years or less)

After taking all this into consideration I decided the best choice for me would be a synthetic puff coat and sleeping bag. I’ve been very satisfied with my decisions so far! However, the right choice for me might not be the right choice for you. Consider the pros and cons, as well as the conditions you’ll be encountering, and then go have fun with your new gear!

If you have any questions please send me an email! I’d love to hear from you: