Staying warm in the great outdoors is no easy feat, but finding a jacket that can keep you toasty when the temperatures drop isn’t straightforward either. Choosing between a down jacket and a synthetic one can also be a challenge, especially when you’re trying to maximize your warmth on the trail.
So, is a down jacket the warmest option out there?
The short answer:
Yes, down is the warmest option when comparing identical fill volumes. Down provides more warmth per ounce than synthetic insulation. That means that you can be fairly confident that a down jacket will be warmer than a synthetic one with an equal amount of insulation.
If you have a synthetic jacket that boasts substantially more insulation than a down model, comparing the warmth of both coats can be a difficult process.
We know first-hand how frustrating it can be to shop for a warm jacket only to get inundated with lots of techy gear jargon. In this article, we’re going to walk you through some of the key things to keep in mind as you decide whether or not a down jacket is right for you so you can stay as warm as possible during your adventures.
Are Down Jackets Really Warmer?
Down is one of the best insulating materials on the market. It has an incredible warmth-to-weight ratio, so manufacturers can use a relatively small amount of it to create a very warm jacket.
As a result, down jackets do tend to be substantially warmer than synthetic jackets. But this comparison only works if we’re looking at two coats with an equal amount of insulation (as measured by weight).
For example, if we compare two jackets (one down, one synthetic) that both have 100 g of insulation, the down jacket will almost certainly be warmer than the synthetic one. That’s because, all else being equal, a single gram of down is able to trap more of your body heat and keep you warm than a single gram of synthetic insulation.
However, making these comparisons between two jackets that have vastly different fill weights (i.e., the weight of their insulation material) is very difficult. A synthetic jacket with a 400g fill weight will likely be warmer than a down jacket with a 50 g fill weight because there’s so much more synthetic insulation to keep you toasty warm.
But making these comparisons is also tricky because you can get both down and synthetic insulation at different quality levels. A high-quality synthetic fill might actually be better at insulating you than a low-quality down fill. So when we make these comparisons, we generally try to use jackets that are of similar price points and quality.
The moral of the story? All else being equal, down is warmer than synthetic, especially if you’re in a cold, dry environment where down performs at its best.
What is Warmer than Down Coats?
There really isn’t any material that is warmer than a down coat in a dry environment. Down is one of the most powerful insulators (as measured by its warmth-to-weight ratio) in the world. While you could get a very thick and heavy synthetic or fleece jacket that’s warmer than a thin down coat, you’ll have to sacrifice packability and comfort to do so.
That said, down does not perform well when wet. In fact, wet down offers little—if any—insulation against the cold. This is one of down’s major disadvantages when compared to synthetic insulation, fleece, or even wool. So if you’re in a cold, wet, environment, you might find that down isn’t your warmest option.
Is Down Warmer than Fleece?
Yes, down is warmer than fleece. However, this fact only holds true if we compare down and fleece jackets with equal amounts of insulation.
Fleece is actually an excellent insulator from a warmth perspective because it can keep you comfortable even when wet. It also tends to be cheaper than down, and fleece jackets are typically quite durable.
The issue with fleece is that it’s really bulky and heavy. Although down jackets can pack down small, most fleece jackets will take up most of your backpack if you try to pack them up on the trail.
Ultimately, while you can normally get a really warm fleece jacket for an affordable price, you’ll have to compromise on weight savings and portability in the process.
Is a Down Jacket Warm Enough for Winter?
A down jacket can absolutely be warm enough in the winter, but it all depends on the amount of insulation that goes into your coat and what kind of environment you live in.
Gear manufacturers make a wide range of down jackets these days. Some of these down coats are designed more for spring and fall instead of for winter. As a result, they tend to be quite thin and lightweight, which is perfect for shoulder-season activities but less so for the frigid temperatures of the winter months.
Additionally, warmth is a very subjective term and what’s considered a “warm jacket” for someone living in New Orleans, Louisiana, during the winter will be very different from the warm coat that you might wear if you lived in Fairbanks, Alaska.
That’s why it’s important to consider other aspects of a jacket beyond what kind of insulation it has. For example, information on fill weight, fill power, and jacket fabrics can all help you determine if a given coat will actually be able to keep you warm enough during the winters you face at home.
It’s also worth pointing out again that down doesn’t keep you warm when wet. Down is also very expensive. If you live in a place with cold, wet winters, you might actually be better off with a synthetic jacket. Or, if you’re on a tight budget, your money might be better spent on a synthetic coat, even if it’s not going to be as lightweight and flashy as a down model.
Down Jacket Recommendations
Gear manufacturers make a wide range of down jackets these days. Some of these down coats, like the Rab Microlight Alpine Down Jacket, are designed more for spring and fall instead of for winter.
Meanwhile, a thicker down jacket, like the Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody can work well in the winter months as part of a layering system. Also consider looking at the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody as a great lightweight and windproof option.
Down Jackets: Are They Worth It?
Down jackets are among the most versatile pieces of equipment that we have at our disposal for outdoor adventures. As an insulating material, down is second-to-none as it offers one of the best warmth-to-weight ratios of any insulator on the market.
But down isn’t a good option for use in wet environments and it is very expensive. If keeping your pack weight low while maximizing your warmth is a priority, down is well worth considering. Otherwise, there are plenty of other great insulating materials out there that can keep you warm in cold conditions.
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David Parnell is the founder and lead editor at Trail and Summit, who enjoys writing on a wide range of topics from travel trailers to trail running. He’s an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.