The choice of whether to use a sleeping bag or wool blanket will depend on the environment and camping style. Sleeping bags tend to be more expensive than wool blankets and can be filled with down--the fluffy undercoating below the feathers of waterfowl--or a synthetic filling.
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All sleeping bags and blankets function by preventing heat from rising away from the body and creating a layer of warm, dead air around the sleeper. When a sleeping pad, such as a closed-cell foam mat, is used to insulate the sleeper from the ground, the only factor that determines the warmth of a sleeping bag or blanket is its thickness.
Wool blankets, made form sheep or alpaca hair, tend to be inexpensive and durable. Wool performs well in wet conditions but is generally too heavy for backpacking. Blankets made of 100 per cent wool are fire resistant. In warm conditions where durability is desired, or for emergency preparedness, a wool blanket is a good choice.
Down insulation provides a high amount of loft compared to the weight of the filling, making down both warm and breathable. The disadvantage of down is that it does not retain its loft when wet. Down sleeping bags tend to become moist even when the environment is dry. This is due to moisture leaving the body and condensing on the inside of the sleeping bag. Some down sleeping bags have a moisture barrier between the sleeper and the insulation. While the moisture barrier may prevent moisture from contacting the insulation, it will also take your bag much longer to dry in the event that it does get wet.
Synthetic insulation varieties, such as Holofil, Polarguard and Primaloft, are slightly heavier than down insulation, but much lighter than wool. Sleeping bags with synthetic filling perform better in wet conditions and are the ideal choice for backpackers, rafters and most campers.
A wool blanket is typically rectangular in shape. A modern sleeping bag is often referred to as a "mummy bag" due to it's tapered feet and drawstring hood. The mummy bag design keeps the sleeping bag in place and prevents cold air drafts from stealing away warmth.
The best choice for most campers and backpackers will be a synthetic sleeping bag. This is due to the combination of loft, weight and performance in moist conditions.
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