Down insulation versus synthetic insulation: what’s the difference?

A puffy jacket is a puffy jacket, right? It is not so simple. Puffer jackets certainly follow a familiar design archetype – a disconcerting, waisted, tear-resistant outer fabric – but it’s what’s inside that really differentiates one jacket from another. If you’ve ever been curious about what’s different from synthetic knockoffs and what’s best for you, look no further.

The best insulation equipment — whether it’s a jacket or a sleeping bag — should be warm, light and easily packable. Down and synthetic products both offer these qualities, but each has advantages and disadvantages.


What’s up with down?

Down comes from the layers under the protective outer feathers of geese and ducks – it works for them as they float and fly each winter, so of course it also keeps us warm. But when natural down gets wet, it clumps together and loses much of its ability to retain heat. In the wild, the outer feathers keep it dry. In your coat, it is an outer fabric envelope.

Down’s warmth is indicated by fill power: numerical ratings that typically range from around 450 to 900. This number comes from a standardized test in which one ounce of down is compressed into a graduated cylinder and then measured by volume in cubic inches. This volume is the filling dimension.

Down has the most warmth for the weight, but performs poorly when wet.

Bottom line: the higher the fill power, the more warmth a jacket provides per ounce of weight. In terms of weight-to-warmth ratio, down generally beats synthetic, and in extremely cold environments (which are often dry), down protects and insulates better than its synthetic counterpart.

Ultimately, down is an animal product. And although great efforts have been made by many brands and OEMs such as Patagonia and The north facenot all down is ethically sourced and cruelty to animals can be part of the natural down insulation production chain.

The real deal with synthetic

Synthetic insulation is our attempt to mimic the insulating power of natural down with polyester fibers arranged in different sizes that bundle and trap heat like the real thing.

Synthetic fillings are heavier than down, but only slightly.

Synthetic down insulates really well, without losing the compressibility or lightness of natural down, not to mention that it is hypoallergenic. The main trade-off is that synthetic down weighs slightly more than natural down, so synthetic-filled gear tends to be slightly heavier and bulkier.

On the other hand, synthetic down is less likely to clump when wet, so in mixed weather conditions it might be a safer bet.

What about “active isolation”?

Technically, active insulation is a type of synthetic insulation (a water-resistant alternative to down), but due to some fundamental differences that make it unique, active insulation should be considered as such. Active insulation garments are insulating pieces intended to be worn during activity. In contrast, down (and traditional synthetic down) jackets are generally more suitable after you start to cool off.

What makes active isolation better for action? It is incredibly breathable. How this is achieved depends on the specific insulation used in the jacket, and each company uses a different version. Some are proprietary, like Patagonia’s FullRange insulation, and others, like Polartec insulation. Alpha Insulationwhich was originally developed for US special forces, comes from various companies.

As with other types of synthetic insulation, active insulation is highly water resistant and compressible. Compared to regular synthetic insulation, active is the most breathable form of synthetic insulation available today thanks to a construction that prevents fiber migration inside the piece while allowing for additional stretch and better moisture management. Many active pieces are designed with an outer shell which is also more breathable, but is often softer and less water repellent than what is found in other synthetic garments.

All active insulations, regardless of brand, are designed to avoid many diaper swaps so they can be worn throughout an activity like hiking, climbing or skiing.

How do you know if your jacket is down?

In terms of labeling, if a jacket simply says “down”, it is definitely natural down insulation. You might see some fancy terms added, like Mountain Hardwear’s exclusive Q.Shield waterproofing treatment, but if it’s “fuzzy” it’s still the real deal. You should also know that while the industry continues to improve and innovate ways to make down more water resistant, no feather is truly waterproof.

Synthetic insulation goes by many names, depending on the brands associated with it, but synthetic down insulation will never be labeled as “down” unless it is a clearly labeled blend of actual materials. and synthetics.

Should you buy synthetic or down?

Much of the decision comes down to preference. If you’re vegan or generally averse to using animal products, it’s an easy call.

Otherwise, it’s a question of price and use case. Down is essential in cases where every ounce of weight counts. There’s simply no harm in battling it out when it comes to high-intensity hiking or mountaineering. If you’re going to be in extremely cold environments and want the best warmth-to-weight ratio a jacket can offer, down will be your best bet.

But if price is a major concern and a little extra weight isn’t an issue, synthetic will give you a lot more bang for your buck and keep you toasty warm while you walk the dog.

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