Down vs Synthetic: which insulation would you choose?

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You’re heading out for the day, it’s extremely cold, and currently not raining, which insulated jacket do you reach for…a Down or a Synthetic?

In the outdoor world this decision is becoming increasingly harder to make and when brought up for debate often creates a divide.

Which really is the best?

Whether you’re looking for a warm jacket for extremely cold conditions or the warmest sleeping bag to see you through the night, you are going to be presented with an important choice…which insulation do I choose, Down or Synthetic?

You may hear people resolve this issue fairly quickly with “well obviously Down is the best, it’s Down, it comes from birds” but is this super hero of the insulation world actually indestructible.

In the red corner!

Down insulation – Pound for pound the warmest and lightest insulator around. Down insulation offers incredible lofting ability, giving it great warmth to weight ratio which cannot be matched by Synthetic.

Due to the small amount of Down actually needed for good insulation, it has a great ability to be extremely compressible, allowing you to compact your Down products away into a very small size.

However, Down is not cheap, and if it gets wet the feathers will lose loft, become wet, heavy and very quickly a bad insulator. Down will also take a long time to dry out and therefore be rendered useless until drying is complete.

In the blue corner!

Synthetic insulation – Man-made fibres engineered to mimic the properties of down. Synthetic insulation has water-resistant properties, so it performs better than Down when wet. The synthetic fibres don’t absorb any moisture and therefore won’t lose their loft, this means it can still provide a good level of insulation to keep you warm.

The drying time is also improved, the fibres do not absorb any moisture so will dry out a lot quicker and be ready for you to use again.

It’s cheaper and easier! Synthetic insulated products are generally cheaper than Down ones and therefore will appeal to anyone looking for a more affordable product. Being a man-made product it also requires limited care to keep it at its best.

But wait! As good as synthetic appears to be, it doesn’t match the warmth to weight ratio of Down, so will require more insulation to generate the same level of warmth. This could mean you either compromise on weight by using a lot of insulation or compromise on warmth, by using less to save weight.

So the winner is…

Well it’s not that easy! I would say if you have the money, and you can be pretty certain that the conditions will be dry, then Down will win every time. There’s just no competition on warmth and its performance.

But, if you have any doubt in your mind about how dry you can stay, then maybe Synthetic is the way to go. You may sacrifice a little warmth, but you’ll feel safe in the knowledge that if it does get wet, it will still work.

So what do you think? Which would you choose?

This entry was posted in Camping, Climbing, Outdoor Clothing, Travel, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Down vs Synthetic: which insulation would you choose?

  1. T J Hooker says:

    Those mittens look toasty

  2. M Hesketh says:

    Down, less bulky and I always take a cagoule with me to slip over the top if it rains.

  3. Mark Lee says:

    Down everytime, Mine has a dwp finish on the pertex which did cope with a light shower. So i have a small packable waterproof shell (pack-a-mac) which i put in the pocket/bag if weather looks a bit iffy, Sorted.

  4. Fiona MacD says:

    Down every time… Waited for years until I could justify the price of a Rab Down sleeping bag and it is the best purchase I ever made.I’ve never been cold, it packs down to nothing and feels like a dream to sleep in. Superb.

  5. R Powell says:

    I am on my second Mountain Equipment Lightline jacket – I wore out my previous one from wearing it so much!! They are so warm, windproof and highly water-resistant and suitable for Scottish and Alpine winters therefore more than adequate for most UK winter temperatures and yes, it is a down jacket! They are lightweight and come with a detachable hood and walking with hood up you feel as snug as a bug in a rug!! Well worth the cost. Apparently RAB go one better and make a down jacket with a waterproof outer but, it’s not cheap. Most of us already have a decent waterproof jacket so if it does pour rather than drizzle pull on the waterproof over the down jacket!

  6. w watson says:

    I’m from the other camp … basically a walker rather than an Alpine type. Always carry a synthetic gilet (Rab Generator) just to keep warm when I stop. When I do use it, it goes on top of the waterproof (if that’s on). I guess putting down jacket on under a waterproof would also require the waterproof to be big enough in the first place …

  7. BernieT36 says:

    One other important consideration that is not mentioned here is the animal welfare aspect of using down. This article in the Mail explains how down can be cruelly sourced from live geese and/or geese using in the production of foie gras:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2240096/Feathers-ripped-birds-backs-gaping-wounds-sewn-pain-relief-The-barbaric-cost-winter-coat.html

    Some manufacturers such as Mountain Equipment (http://www.thedownproject.me.uk/down-codex.php) are implementing a policy to ensure down is cruelty free, but if you are concerned about animal welfare synthetic is currently the best option

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