Video: Down vs. Synthetic Insulation—Which is Better?

The Pros and Cons of Each Type of Insulation for Outdoor Clothing

Quality jackets for outdoor sports, mountaineering, skiing and other outdoor activities have traditionally been filled with down.

The reason was clear: high-quality down and body down has amazing compressibility and fill power. Small amounts of down can expand to impressive volumes, trapping a massive amount of heat, and it is easy to compress so it occupies very little space once stuffed into a sack. It forms a 3-D barrier, creating a large space with air pockets that trap heat.

Synthetic insulation was much less malleable in comparison, with lower compressibility and fill power, and created a flat barrier against the cold, making it historically the option for cheaper jackets.

But down has fallen in and out of favor over the years, due to the fact that down-filled clothes were traditionally lightweight but bulky, restricting movement and thus usually used as a third layer of warmth during other, less strenuous activities. These garments are still used today and provide unbeatable warmth in the right situation – just think of the one-piece ski suit.

However, new types of coats started to hit the market a few years ago that were designed as a second layer of protection to replace fleece lining, or as a third layer during cold-weather activities, and down made a comeback. Tight-fitting, sporty, and more streamlined; both carrying and wearing one of these down jackets its extremely comfortable, with a lightweight, compact design that manages to trap a lot of heat. They can easily be stuffed into a pack and used during rest – think of a climber taking a break on a route. It provides more heat than a synthetic garment of equal weight and is more compact.

With all the benefits of down it seems like the clear choice for any situation. But it’s not always the best option for every circumstance. One of the biggest cons of down is moisture: it tends to clump up and lose its loft when wet, similar to what happens when you wet a cotton ball. In comparison, synthetic filling holds up well in wet conditions, and much like wool does an outstanding job of maintaining its properties.

Everything has changed, however, as new designs and treatments have hit the market: on the one hand, down can now withstand moisture better, and the introduction of “synthetic down”, like The North Face’s Thermoball and Cirrus fiber, the same quality as 70/30 down, makes the best of both worlds possible.

Men's Down Jackets
Women's Down Jackets
Men's Synthetic Jackets
Women's Synthetic Jackets

Over the years, there have been issues surrounding the ethical nature of how down is sourced from animals and the conditions in which they are raised. On the one hand, down was sometimes plucked from live animals, a process believed to produce higher-quality down; on the other, down was sourced from birds raised for foie gras.

Major brands took action and joined groups including the OIA Sustainability Working Group and the European Outdoor Group, which ensure that the down produced by its members is sustainably sourced as a by-product, never from live animals, and from animals that were raised in ethical conditions. These companies are RDS (Responsible Down Standard) and Global Traceable Down Standard (Global TDS) certified.

The use of down sourced from Asia, which is difficult to trace, is prohibited, and the brands that Barrabes sells adhere to the agreements with these groups and use down sourced from Central Europe, where small, certified traditional farms raise free-range animals to ensure that the down meets international ethical standards.

Leave a comment

Be the first to comment on this article.