Down Vs. Synthetic: Which Is Better?

climber wearing patagonia down sweater jacket

If you’re looking for a new sleeping bag or a warm winter jacket, you’re probably wondering whether you should opt for down vs. synthetic insulation.

The type of insulation you choose will affect factors such as heat, weight, price, and ease of storage.

With the right kind of insulation keeping you warm, you can get out and enjoy nature year-round.  

An Overview of Down Insulation

Here is all you need to know about down insulation.

What is Down Insulation?

Many people are under the impression that down is made from bird feathers, but this isn’t the case.

Down comes from the soft exterior plumage on the underside of waterfowl.

Unlike feathers, which are designed for flying and repelling water, down is light and fluffy to provide insulation. 

Some down products use a mixture of both down and feathers as a filler. These tend to be slightly lower in quality and offer less insulation than 100% down products.

However, down blends can be significantly cheaper while still providing plenty of warmth. 

The insulating power of down is measured by fill power, which refers to the down’s ability to loft and trap heat.

Fill power is defined by the number of cubic inches a single ounce of down fills during testing.

Higher fill power means a product can offer more insulation without taking up more space.  

The Different Types of Down

Historically, down has come from geese, but rising costs have forced many manufacturers to switch to cheaper duck down.

While you can still find both available, there are certain advantages to choosing one over the other. 

Luxury down products tend to use pricier goose down instead of duck because it can offer a higher fill power rating.

Goose down is fluffier and has more air pockets, giving it more insulating power.

While goose down products reach about 900 fill power, duck down only reaches around 800 maximum. 

If you’re looking for something that’s compact without sacrificing insulating ability, goose down is most likely the better option.

However, if budget is your most important concern, you may want to opt for cheaper duck down instead. 

Why Use Down Insulation?

Down is prized for its soft, wispy texture, which doesn’t form lumps when compressed.

It’s easy to squash down and store and fluffs up immediately when unfolded, making it the perfect choice for both clothing and camping equipment.

You don’t have to sacrifice comfort for space.  

Down makes an excellent insulator because its airy structure can trap warm air.

At the same time, it’s breathable enough to prevent sweating and moisture buildup. Its lightweight nature makes it ideal for use in clothing such as jackets. 

With proper care, a down jacket or sleeping back can last for years. Most of the time, you can clean it in the washing machine without an issue.

It’s best to wash down items in a front-loading machine, as a top loader’s agitator can cause clumping over time. 

Disadvantages of Down

Perhaps the biggest complaint when it comes to down is that it’s not weatherproof. When down gets wet, it clumps up and loses its insulation properties.

A down jacket or sleeping bag may not serve you well in wet conditions, such as during a downpour or after getting submerged.

In fact, wearing wet down may just end up making you feel colder. 

If you have allergies, you may find that down materials make you itch or sneeze. Down isn’t hypoallergenic, and so it’s more likely to trigger a reaction in sensitive individuals.

If you notice your nose running more than usual in cold weather, it could be due to your jacket. 

People who are shopping on a budget may get put off by the high price tag of down products.

Jackets, sleeping bags, and other items that use down tend to be more expensive than their synthetic counterparts, especially those containing goose down. 

An Overview of Synthetic Insulation

Here is all you need to know about synthetic insulation. 

What is Synthetic Insulation?

Synthetic insulation is a man-made material often used in place of down, including in jackets and sleeping bags.

It’s usually made of durable polymer fiber such as polyester that’s woven to insulate and protect. 

Since the beginning of the 20th century, both materials and manufacturing processes have become cheaper and more widely available.

Manufacturers worldwide now offer synthetic alternatives to down that are cheaper and easier to care for properly. 

The Most Common Types of Synthetics

There are three main types of synthetic insulators. Each differs in feel, price tag, and insulating properties.

Cluster fiber insulation is the cheapest option and involves polyester fibers being spun into tiny balls to mimic the feel of down. 

Short-staple insulation has short, fine filament strands that are compressed and packed together to improve insulation.

While this type of material is warm and flexible, it can be prone to rips and tears.

Continuous-filament insulation is the priciest synthetic, but it’s also the most durable. This type of insulation is made using long, thick filaments compressed together for a warm core.

While continuous-filament synthetic is less flexible than others, it’s also the best for heavy-duty outdoor applications. 

One of the most popular synthetics today is PrimaLoft.

Developed for the U.S. Army in the 1980s, this synthetic microfiber material is now found in plenty of outdoor and camping equipment.

When it comes to PrimaLoft vs. down, the two perform similarly, but the synthetic has the added advantage of water resistance.

Why Use Synthetic Insulation?

Unlike down products, synthetic insulation is hypoallergenic. Sensitive individuals don’t need to worry about experiencing an allergic reaction when they’re out and about.

It’s also slightly easier to clean when dirty. 

If you’re concerned about budget, synthetic insulation tends to be relatively cheap compared to the alternatives.

Synthetic down jackets and sleeping bags are usually significantly less expensive than the real deal without sacrificing too much warmth. 

Perhaps the most significant advantage of using synthetic insulation is its durability.

Not only are synthetics stronger than down and other natural fibers, but they’re resistant to wind, weather, and more.

Most synthetics repel water, so unlike down materials, they continue to insulate when wet. 

Disadvantages of Synthetic Insulation

While most synthetics offer plenty of warmth, they’re slightly less efficient at insulating than down. You may end up needing a thicker layer for the same level of heat retention.

This also makes synthetics heavier, bulkier, and less compressible than down alternatives.

If you’re short on space when packing, synthetic insulation may not be the best choice for you. 

While synthetics are more adept at withstanding wear and tear, they don’t retain their insulating power as well as down does.

Each time you compress a synthetic, it loses some of its spring. With fewer air pockets available, it becomes less able to trap the heat that you need. 

Blending Down and Synthetic Insulation

Down and synthetic do not always have to be separate though, many times these two types of insulation are blended. 

What is Blended Insulation?

If you want the best of both worlds, you can find manufacturers who use a combination of down and synthetics in their insulation padding.

In some cases, the two types are distributed evenly throughout the blanket.

For instance, a company may combine down stuffing with cluster fiber insulation inside a sleeping bag or jacket for a continuous feel.

In other cases, different types of insulation are present in separate areas of a product.

For example, a sleeping bag may include rigid, durable synthetic material to protect the bottom, while the top is insulated by fluffier and more comfortable down. 

Why Use Blended Insulation?

Blended insulation combines the advantages of both down and synthetic fibers to bring you an effective and durable insulator.

It provides just as much warmth as a high-quality down insulator but won’t clump up when wet, thanks to the presence of water-resistant synthetics.

It’s also more compressible than a completely synthetic option. 

Blended insulation is often cheaper than buying a 100% down item, and it may be just as effective.

Many outdoor companies use blended insulation in their mid-range products to offer a budget option. 

The Disadvantages of Blended Insulation

While it’s cheaper than down, blended insulation is still more expensive than buying a 100% synthetic product.

You may have to pay more for the presence of high-quality duck or goose down without significantly better insulating abilities. 

Blended insulation also carries with it the same problems that both its down and synthetic components have.

A blended material will be bulkier and less compressible than its down counterpart, and it will be less water-resistant than synthetic fiber alone. 

In Conclusion

An insulated jacket or sleeping bag can keep you warm when you’re out and about in less-than-ideal conditions.

Most options contain a choice of down vs. synthetic or a combination of both. 

While down insulation is lightweight, compressible, and highly insulated, it’s a finicky material that comes with a hefty price tag.

On the other hand, synthetic fibers are more durable and affordable, but they don’t always offer as much warmth.

Knowing which type of insulation best suits your needs can help you to make the most out of your next adventure, no matter what the weather might be. 

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