Down vs Synthetic || Which Insulation is Best For You?

The cold mornings are rolling in and the threat of Winter is lingering. Now’s the time we all start looking at a new insulating jacket to keep us toasty on the really cold days. You may already have a preference or you may not even have a clue where to start; but worry not, in a few short paragraphs I’ll (hopefully) help you decide what insulation is best for you.


So let’s start from the very beginning, what are we actually looking at?

Down Insulation

Down clusters usually come from ducks or geese and is that tiny fluffy plumage under the bellies of the birds. Down is rated according to fill power (the loft quality). Fill power is represented by the number of cubic inches one ounce of down will occupy (e.g. if one ounce of down takes up a volume of 650 cubic inches it is given a 650 fill power rating). The quality of down is directly related to its fill power rating. Higher quality down has a higher fill power and is much loftier than down of a lower quality. This means you’d require fewer ounces of down to create the same level of warmth. The higher the fill power the better the down will insulate, because there is less chance of cold spots forming.

As a responsible human, it’s also important to pay attention to where your down comes from. R.D.S (Responsible Down Standard) certified down safeguards the welfare of geese and ducks that provide the down for these products. You can read more on them and their practices on their website.

Pro’s of Down

  • Ounce for ounce, down is warmer than nearly all synthetic insulations. Very few manmade fibres can match downs warmth-to-weight ratio.
  • With proper care, it can last for decades
  • Retains its shape and loft well
  • Highly compressible
  • Lightweight

Con’s of Down

  • Unlike Synthetic insulation, down will lose it’s insulating properties when it gets wet and takes a long time to dry out (unless it’s been hydrophobically treated).
  • It requires more care to wash (though not impossible!) – down specific detergents should always be used along with a tumble in a drier on a low heat with a couple of tennis balls (read more here).
  • Down products are typically more expensive than synthetic products (especially the garments with higher fill power)
  • Although it’s not a problem for many people, down is not hypoallergenic. Although the down may not cause an allergic reaction itself, lower quality down can harbour dust particles, debris or other non-down materials, causing a reaction in sensitive people. However, high-quality down is cleaned very well according to strict industry standards and is less likely to cause an issue. If you’re prone to allergies, invest in only high-quality down products, or go with synthetic.

Where is down most effective?

Cold, dry conditions (a bit like the scene pictured below), and when you are focusing on the weight of your garment (and it’s packability). It can also be used under a shell in damper conditions and larger down layers are better suited as a static piece (i.e. when you’re at a belay point and not moving very much).


Synthetic Insulation

There are hundreds of different types of synthetic insulations on the market today.  Synthetic insulation is essentially polyester threading that is moulded into long, single threads or short staples to mimic down clusters – many different technologies fall into this category, but the end results are all fairly similar; an insulating layer designed to replicate the qualities of down, but retain them even when wet.

Pro’s of Synthetic Insulation

  • Retains most of its warmth when it gets wet and when it does get wet, it dries much faster than untreated down.
  • If you’re on a budget, synthetic insulations are usually cheaper.
  • Easier to care for. Most synthetic fill sleeping bags or garments are machine washable and dryable, but remember to check the garments care label
  • Most synthetics are also completely hypoallergenic and will not cause allergies, as long as you keep them clean.

Con’s of Synthetic Insulation

  • Heavier and bulkier than down, which also means that it requires more weight and volume to keep you warm and comfortable.
  • Synthetic fibres will eventually start to break down no matter how well you care for them. You may find yourself replacing synthetic products more often compared to down products.

Where is synthetic insulation most effective?

Pretty much everywhere, but it especially excels on days when you’re not quite sure what the weather is going to throw at you and are better suited for active use as it can mange moisture far better than down products.


So, which one is better?

Well, unfortunately, that one’s up to you to decide. You should carefully consider a product that’s going to fit your activities and your lifestyle most effectively.

That’s all for this week, Ferals. Fire me any questions if I’ve missed anything.

Have a great weekend!


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