If you’re looking into buying cold weather hiking, trekking or backpacking gear, you’ve most likely already run into products that are down-insulated. Down is a premium insulation material, and its no wonder that so many backpackers prefer it in their gear. But what if you’re allergic to down itself?
What is Down?
Down, the fine, under layer on water fowl, is the insulation material of choice for warmth that is also lightweight. Most down on the market come from geese, but some comes from ducks, like our Kelty SB 20 sleeping bags. Because down feathers are not only lightweight, but compressible, products filled with them make highly functional backpacking and trekking gear.
I’ve suffered from allergies all of my life. While allergic reactions are a nuisance, my allergens tend to be any and all furry animals, so even though it pains my soul, they can be avoided.
Feathers, though, are another story.
I’ve slept on down-filled pillows a few times in my life. I hate down pillows (all fluff, and no support), so it was only on a pillow that wasn’t mine. The few times I have slept on one, it’s been unpleasant and caused some form of allergic reaction. The exception to this being down pillows in hotels.
I just took this to mean that I was allergic to feathers, and crossed another cute animal I might be able to touch off my list.
Down and Synthetic Insulation
When preparing for the Pacific Crest Trail, Nikita and I ran into a problem when it came to finding gear to keep us warm. Most sleeping bags and performance cold weather jackets are down insulated. Why? Because down is both very warm, and very light, making it a premium material for backpacking and cold weather performance.
Problems arise when you try and find an alternative to down, as we did. Most synthetic insulation in sleeping bags and jackets is comprised of different weights of polyester threading, used to trap air and maintain loft and durability.
Synthetic insulation has come a long way, but it still can’t compare to down in weight and compressibility. Meaning, if we were to go with synthetic insulated gear, we could expect to almost double our pack weight in that area.
Here’s just one comparison:
In the 1º – 15ºF range (the lower temperature limit the sleeping bag will protect against), a synthetic sleeping bag weighs twice as much as down insulated bags in the same range. Take a look here:
Marmot Trestles 15º Sleeping Bag – Synthetic: 3 lbs 6 oz.
Big Agnes Encampment 15 Sleeping Bag – Synthetic: 3 lbs 10 oz.
Mountain Hardwear Ratio 15 Sleeping Bag – Down: 2 lbs 10 oz.
Sierra Designs Zissou 15 Sleeping Bag – Down: 2 lbs 10 oz.
Overall, the down sleeping bags weigh about 62% less than their synthetic alternatives.
When it comes to long distance hiking, an extra two pounds should never be seen as an after thought. Every pound, some hikers even say every ounce, matters. And if you’re planning a long backpacking trip, weight factors heavily (HAHA) into your gear purchases.
See our dilemma?
Can You Still Use Down if You’re Allergic?
If you suffer from allergies, imagine taking clumps of your allergen, stuffing them into a coat, and wearing it all day. Or try stuffing it into a pillow and sleeping on it all night. Let me know which one is worse.
Allergy sufferers know that even though you can pop a Claritin or Zyrtec, the best way to minimize your reaction is to get away from the allergen- or keep it away. If I really was allergic to down, there’s no way I’d be able to wrap up in it every night.
How Common are Down Allergies?
The fact is, I’d never been tested for a down allergy. I don’t think many people have. I’ve just tested positive for so many allergens, that I acquired the habit of erring on the side of caution where a potential allergen is concerned.
A few days after ruling out down insulation Nikita showed me this GearFinder help article, where a reader had the same problem I did finding a compressible, lightweight synthetic sleeping bag due to a down allergy. Kristin the gear expert responds:
This definitely struck a chord with me, because I am tremendously allergic to dust, I was willing to explore the possibility that I was probably just allergic to the dust on the pillows.
Digging a little deeper, I found that many “down” pillows on the market, especially if they are under $100, are actually feather pillows and only contain about 5% actual down. I have a feeling that the folks whose pillows I slept on weren’t the type to spend big bucks on a real down-filled pillow.
How to Choose a Down Fill Power for Allergy Sufferers
Even if you find you’re not allergic to down, your search isn’t over. When it comes to finding the right down-insulated gear, you need to look at the fill power of the products.
“Fill power” is a scale used to rate the loft quality of down, with ratings reflecting the number of cubic centimeters one ounce of down occupies. Lower fill powers are about 550-fill, while higher fill powers are 750-fill and above. The higher the fill power, the more insulating the down.
For allergy sufferers, there’s a minimum fill power required to get down that doesn’t contain dust and impurities that could cause a reaction: nothing below 800-fill.
If you really want to get your down insulation that won’t bother your allergies, be prepared to spend more. As with everything in life, the better quality, higher fill power down is more expensive, and can be hard to find. It’s up to you to decide if the weight and bulk of synthetic alternatives is problematic enough to spend the extra (extra) cash on high fill power down.
That being said, I’m really walking the line with my Kelty SB 20 TraiLogic sleeping bag, which is 800-fill. But before deciding that I was or wasn’t allergic to down, I slept in the new bag for a couple of nights.
The result? Nothing but a normal night’s sleep, and no reaction to speak of.
Are you allergic down, or not sure? We’d love to hear from others who have experience with down allergies, or down and allergens. Let us know in the comments!