Down products dominate backpacking, but the industry is incredibly cruel. Luckily there are still great options for adventurers with heart.
If you’re reading this, you probably care about geese. I do, too. Geese are very loyal to their families and mate for life. Sometimes, when their life partner dies, they refuse to ever mate again, spending the rest of their lives in mourning. Understanding the emotional lives of geese make it impossible for me to justify financially supporting the companies that make a business of breeding geese to live in constant mourning for the sake of down jackets and sleeping bags.
The bulk of down feathers taken from geese come from those already being raised for meat and foie gras, adding just one more cruel system of abuse to the birds’ lives. The geese we marvel at while they fly in precise “V” formations in the sky are crammed into tight quarters in what’s likely a warehouse or cage. To maximize the number of feathers taken by each bird, they are individually “live-plucked” from as young as ten weeks old. By the time their raw skin has recovered from the abuse and their feathers grow back, they’re tied by their feet and plucked again. This is their bi-monthly trauma for years until they’re slaughtered for their flesh.
As an animal activist and avid backpacker, I struggled to find the right gear that would allow me to cuddle up in my sleeping bag in the backcountry and watch those geese fly above my head. Truthfully, down stolen from geese is an incredible insulating layer that can’t be beaten for its warmth-to-weight ratio. While humans have yet to beat Mother Nature’s design, those of us who don’t want to literally beat geese to enjoy Mother Nature have created a natural market for ever-advancing vegan alternatives to down. This technology has become so advanced that, aside from the warmth-to-weight ratio, it’s superior in every other way compared to down.
Synthetic insulation is always going to be cheaper than down insulation. It’s easy to compare product specs all day long but, at the end of the day, the plan is to put these products to the test in an environment that can be unforgiving. If you take a spill during a stream crossing or have to set up camp in the rain, you run the risk of wetting out your sleeping bag. Down will do absolutely nothing for you when wet. Synthetic insulation, however, will still keep you warm when wet. As temperatures plummet at night in desert and mountain terrains alike, ineffective insulation can mean life or death.
In response to public awareness about down industry-standard practices, the outdoor industry has begun to market “responsibly sourced down.” Patagonia, for example, markets down as “a byproduct of the food industry,” even though the foie gras and meat industry could argue that its products are a byproduct of the down industry. That said, Patagonia has become one of the most renowned outdoor retailers for its ethics and ensures all of its down is collected from geese who have already been slaughtered for their meat. In other words, a Patagonia vest is filled with down taken from dead birds instead of horrifically plucked from live birds. Patagonia also uses recycled down from comforters and pillows that have been discarded. All of this is good news for birds, but what if you don’t want to end anyone’s life for a sleeping bag?
As I got into backpacking, I started to care about that warmth-to-weight ratio factor much more. Carrying a five-pound 30-degree synthetic bag from REI sounds great until you have to do it over ten miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I soon started deep-diving the Instagram profiles of vegans like @forestfilth and @cotezi who thru-hiked 2,600 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail while vegan and took all the gear notes. To spare you the hours of Instagram deep dives, here’s how I’ve learned to stay warm in the backcountry without hurting ducks and geese.
Typically, when we think about our sleep system while backpacking, we invariably imagine a sleeping bag. I invite you to consider replacing that bag with a quilt. Insulation of all varieties work only because of its loft — that is, the air trapped between the spaces of the feathers or synthetic fibers. That air gets warm from your own body heat, which radiates outward into the bag. So, when we shimmy our way into a sleeping bag, the weight of our body is compressing that loft underneath us, rendering it useless. You’re carrying all that weight for nothing!
With the proper sleeping pad, a quilt will keep you just as warm as a sleeping bag and weigh half as much. The only con to a quilt is having to adjust for drafts that slip in under the quilt since it isn’t secured all the way around your body. Every backpacking quilt will have a “toebox” which can either be zipped shut or is sewn shut to keep your feet invariably toasty. Most backpacking quilts feature sleeping pad straps that secure the quilt in place to resolve that issue. It takes a few extra minutes to adjust for drafts and then you’re warm and toasty all night long. What I love most about quilts is that you can stick a leg out on warm summer nights, or wear that quilt like a cape on cold shoulder season mornings.
My favorite brand these days is Enlightened Equipment (EE). The company uses what they call “APEX” insulation as a vegan down alternative in virtually every product they offer. In fact, many of their products, like their insulated mitts, puffys, pants, and hats, are only offered with APEX insulation. If you’re not ready to take the risk on a quilt, EE also offers its “Convert” which can be used as a traditional sleeping bag or unzipped completely to become a quilt. The convert’s 20-degree bag weighs in at 2.25 pounds, while the 20-degree full-fledged quilt is a half-pound lighter.
I’ve learned the hard way (ask my frost nipped fingers) that keeping your core body temperature warm is crucial. If your hands or feet are cold, that means you need another layer on your torso. Our bodies naturally thermoregulate to prioritize our vital organs, which is why our extremities feel cold first. We want to make sure we have a good puffy jacket that will keep our core toasty. If your puffy jacket feels tight over your mid-layers, it’s not doing you any good. Size up and make sure that your puffy always keeps its loft when you’re wearing it.
Great synthetic options include the Patagonia Nano Puff and the Northface Thermoball. I personally own the EE Torrid APEX jacket, which has a better warmth-to-weight ratio over the Thermoball.
I absolutely understand why some vegans won’t feel comfortable sleeping in a down bag no matter what. I respect that. Frankly, I’ve yet to find a synthetic sleeping bag that rates lower than 20 degrees, which works for most backpackers who stick to summer hiking. Personally, I can’t stop backpacking after the summer season ends and have camped in as low as -5 degree weather. With the right gear and skill set, we vegans can absolutely enjoy snow camping as much as non-vegans. Personally, I chose to scour the “UL Hiking Gear Swap ‘’ and “Backpacking Gear Flea Market” Facebook groups for a second-hand -10° bag for winter camping because of some injuries that prevent me from carrying a heavy pack. Paying the consumer directly for the gear, usually at half the original cost, ensures that I’m not paying a company to torment sensitive birds for my benefit. Personally, I see no harm in reusing a product that would otherwise just sit in someone’s closet unused.
That said, I asked Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and John Muir Trail thru-hiker @forestfilth why they chose to hike animal product-free and their answer was both simple and inspirational: “I don’t want to use animals’ bodies for my benefit! Heck nah. It’s 2020! There are so many great companies that offer vegan-friendly gear and food for the trail and make it 100% possible to get outdoors without harming or consuming animals.” They used the Enlightened Equipment Revelation APEX 20° to thru-hike 230 miles of the John Muir Trail and all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. All this to say, it’s “1000% possible” to enjoy the summer and shoulder seasons of the backcountry without using any animals. If you don’t mind the extra weight, you can just layer up two 20° APEX quilts for winter camping!
There are plenty of tips and tricks you may have already picked up along the way to stay warm that have nothing to do with exterior insulation. You can fill a Nalgene bottle with boiling water, and use it as a foot warmer in your sleeping bag or even hug it close to your chest. You can choose to do some jumping jacks before bed to quickly heat your body. When you get in your sleeping bag, that extra heat will radiate outward and warm those insulating air pockets exponentially more quickly than if you went to sleep feeling cold. If you have to pee in the middle of the night and are cold, go pee! Your body is losing heat from the energy it’s taking to heat your full bladder. You’ll feel warmer after you pee.
Let the last thing you do be to eat a candy bar. Think of candy bars as little tiny Duraflame fire starters for your body. Eating a candy bar, or any candy you find in the bulk section of a co-op, will lull you into a carb-induced sleep and fuel your internal fire to stay warm all night long.
Getting a good night’s sleep in the backcountry is a rare treat, but when it happens, there’s nothing like it, especially when your morning alarm is to the sound of wild birds chirping, and the sweet satisfaction of knowing you haven’t harmed a single bird.