The down jacket has become a symbol of outdoor professionals and enthusiasts: from climbing to backpacking to skiing and more. Providing excellent insulation from the cold and the wind, it is considered an essential item for anyone venturing out into the elements.
However, the emergence of synthetic insulating jackets leaves many people wondering: What’s the difference and which one should I choose? There’s no general rule; each having their own uses and benefits depending on the activity and climate you’re faced with.
So, which is better – down or synthetic? Generally, down has a superior warmth-to-weight ratio, which can provide your body all of the insulation it needs in even the most harsh of climates in just a few ounces of material. It is typically preferred by mountaineers and those spending long amounts of time in cold but dry climates.
However, down absorbs water and takes much longer to dry than synthetic fabrics. This means that synthetic jackets are highly rated by those facing high probability of rain, or doing high-energy activities – like backpacking – which produce a lot of sweat.
Down vs synthetic material for jackets
What is down made of?
Contrary to popular belief, down is not actually made from feathers. Down insulation comes from goose or duck plumage: it is essentially a mid-layer between the birds skin and its outer layer of water-repellent feathers. Ever wondered how ducks stay warm while swimming? It’s thanks to their down! Down jackets exploit these naturally insulating qualities that keep these birds warm in cold climates.
Why is down so warm?
Down is a “high-loft” material: it is low-density, containing more air than down per inch. The light, fluffy nature of the down creates thousands, even millions, of tiny air pockets which trap air and warm body heat inside the jacket. This is also what gives it the ability to compress so efficiently, another bonus feature for the space-conscious adventurist.
What is “fill power”?
Fill power is the volume filled by one ounce of down. Most people automatically think that a higher number symbolizes a warmer material, but this is not always the case. A higher fill power jacket will simply use less weight of down to achieve the same amount of warmth or “loft”.
Most jackets are rated anywhere between 400-900, with 900 being the “loftiest”. Goose down is lighter and “loftier” than duck down, providing superior warmth-to-weight; but usually comes at a higher price to match.
Down is the better insulator, but…
There is no denying that down is a superior insulator. These jackets are inspired by nature, after all! However, down loses almost all of its insulating properties the moment it gets wet. The once-fluffy fibers which create those air-trapping pockets start to stick together, collapsing the air spaces, which leaves no room for warm air to accumulate.
In addition, down takes a long time to dry out so it may be days before you can use it as a protective layer again. This is where synthetic insulation comes in – it is water resistant, retains its insulating properties when its wet and dries much more quickly.
In short: Down will provide superior warmth in dry climates. If there is a chance of rain – consider synthetic options instead!
“Synthetic down” is a good alternative, and simply means synthetic fibers that are created and arranged to mimic down. It is generally made from polyester, and arranged into thousands of ultrafine fibers which intertwine to replicate the lofty clusters found in down.
Synthetic down – wet/humid conditions
Synthetic down does a very good job at mimicking the properties of natural down, but it is not quite as warm. It also has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio, meaning that synthetic jackets are typically a little heaver per ounce of filling. However, if you are in wet or humid conditions, synthetic insulation will provide you with more warmth than a down jacket, because the fibers are more water-resistant and dry much faster.
How to choose a down jacket:
The type of jacket you’ll need depends entirely on the activity you’ll be doing, where you’ll be doing it and your personal preferences. Different materials, methods of construction and types of down are also factors to consider.
1. Responsibly sourced down
A large factor for many people is the origin of the down itself. There are certain ethics surrounding the harvesting of down, but most well-known manufacturers are now using “traceable” or “certified” down – so that consumers can be sure that the geese or ducks were well-treated before they gave up their down.
Responsibly sourced down means that the animals weren’t live-plucked, and manufacturers are held accountable to their down practices – something to consider when making a purchase
2. Material durability
Lighter materials may save you pack weight, but they are also less durable. Down jackets can lose a considerable amount of down through even the smallest hole; not a problem if you aren’t adverse to a DIY patch-job. If you are going to be doing an activity where the risk of snagging is high – like backcountry skiing, for example – then consider going for something a little more durable.
Some down jackets are also treated with a DWR coating to provide extra water resistance. Although down is naturally hydrophobic (water-repelling), these coatings do help to keep your down a little drier in a sudden downpour, giving you time to whip out your hardshell or rain jacket.
3. Features vs. price
Over the years, we have seen some impressive functionality woven in to down jackets. Due to its light and fluffy arrangement, down compresses excellently and takes up next-to-no space in your pack. Loftier down will compress better but generally comes at a higher price point.
Most jackets come with a separate stuff bag. Alpinists and mountaineers may prefer a down jacket that stuffs into its own pocket or hood and have a dedicated carabiner loop, so that the jacket can be easily clipped to a harness on a multi-pitch route.
Pockets are another feature to be considered when choosing a down jacket. Insulated hand pockets, chest pockets and inner pockets are all useful for quick access when out on the trail or in a harness.
Recommended down jackets:
There are a myriad of jackets out there and at the end of the day it comes down to personal preference. It is always worth trying jackets on, as each manufacturers sizes will be a little different. Here are some popular models that have been tried and tested:
The North Face Summit L3 Hoody (a great all-rounder)
This is a popular model among alpinists and winter sports enthusiasts, but is light and warm enough to be enjoyed by long-distance backpackers, too. It weighs in at just 11.9oz and is filled with 800 responsibly-sourced goose down.
It has an extra DWR coating for more water resistance, and the fabric feels light but fares well against rough granite and branches. A great all-rounder for those with a few more dollars to invest in a down jacket – around $370.
More info: thenorthface.com
REI Co-op 650 Down Hoodie 2.0 (best bang for your buck)
At a fill power of only 650, this isn’t the warmest jacket on the market. It is rated more for milder climates, which is good enough for most backpackers. It is surprisingly light and compressible, making it an excellent addition to a backpack or ascent bag without taking up too much space.
At only $119 it is considerably cheaper than other down jackets: a worthy investment for anyone wanting a bit of added warmth when out and about.
More info: rei.com
Recommended synthetic down jackets:
If you are looking for something animal-free, or will likely encounter wet or humid conditions, then you should opt for a good synthetic jacket instead.
Rab Xenon Hoodie (lightweight and compressible)
This is an ideal jacket for those looking for a warm yet light mid-layer, or outer layer in more moderate climates. Rab consistently make excellent outdoor gear, and their synthetic down is a top favorite year after year.
At only $195 it is also considerably cheaper than “real” down jackets of a similar quality. It is extremely wind resistant, making it perfect for any sort of challenge, whether hiking, biking, climbing or simply around town on a blustery day.
More info: rab.equipment
Arc’teryx Atom AR Hoody (incredibly warm)
Arc’teryx are known for making A-grade outdoor gear; but you’ll pay a premium for the name. If you have a bit of wiggle room on your budget and are looking for something that will keep you warm no matter what, then this jacket is for you.
It comes as a hoodie or a jacket without the hood, the latter being a little less expensive. This jacket is heavier as you’d expect, but is incredibly warm, wind and weather resistant. Perfect if you expect to be battered by the elements!
More info: arcteryx.com
Author’s recommendation for hiking and backpacking:
As a keen hiker and backpacker, I have been using the Outdoor Research Ascendant hoodie for over a year and cannot recommend it enough. It is a synthetic jacket and looks rather thin and unimpressive, but utilizes Polartec technology to provide impressive warmth. It is also incredibly breathable, a big plus for someone who likes to work up a sweat on the trail.
I am also very impressed with its water resistance. I have only re-treated the outer lining with DWR once and it takes quite a downpour before the fabric finally begins to wet. Would wholeheartedly recommend!
Is 3m Thinsulate warm?
3m Thinsulate is designed to trap heat inside the fabric, whilst wicking – releasing moisture – through the outer layer, keeping you warm and dry inside the jacket. A well-made thinsulate jacket can keep you as warm as up to 700 fill down.
This level of insulation is good enough for moderately cold climates, but for anything more serious you will want to add an outer layer, such as a windbreaker or rain jacket, to give you an added layer of protection.
Is Q Shield down synthetic?
Q Shield down is still real down, but the individual down fibers are coated with DWR repellent; as opposed to the outer shell being coated, as with most DWR down jackets. It was developed by Mountain Hardwear and their jackets are impressively weather resistant.
Which is warmer? (Primaloft vs down)
Primaloft is synthetic insulation which is rated as a top waterproof product. The primaloft fibers are treated with a waterproofing agent, which helps keep the fibers dry even in wet conditions. Whilst down may be ultra warm, it can lose its heat retention properties rapidly if it becomes wet. Primaloft will retain its insulating properties even if it gets wet – something to consider when considering down vs. synthetic.
Up next In Hiking Gear:
Suzie Hall has a passion for all things wild and is a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She spends most of her time exploring this great wide earth and her travels have taken her to some remarkable locations including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and the wild British Columbia coast. Fueled by a drive to protect our wild spaces and their inhabitants, Suzie works in conservation projects around the globe and lives to write about the amazing people, places and wildlife she encounters.