Insulation: Synthetics vs Down

January 23, 2017 Vince Shuley

As the late, great Alfred Wainwright said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” He had a point, too. Wainwright trekked across England more than a few times in the early 20th Century, with clothing a lot more basic than what we have access to today. Through experience (and likely a lot of trial and error), this acclaimed British hill walker made do with what was available at the time; a belted coat worn over a woollen jumper, trousers with braces, woollen socks and functional boots, topped with a flat cap.

Synthetic Vs Down
Synthetics vs Down? Alfred Wainwright donning the technical outerwear of his day | Photo

Fast forward to 21st Century Canada. When the going gets cold, our fragile bodies scream for insulating warmth. We know the importance of base layers for next-to-skin temperature regulation, as well as shielding your body from snow, rain and moisture. But the only way to get through a cold snap is to layer up with effective insulating layers.

Synthetic Vs Down
The Monkey Man fleece jacket by Mountain Hardwear | Photo – Terapeak

Synthetic Savior

For generations, the most common insulating fiber was wool. It did a great job holding warmth even when wet, but the scaly fibers weren’t the most comfortable for folks that had sensitive skin or allergies. That paved the way for polar fleece in the late 1970s; a fully synthetic polyester fiber that had excellent utility and insulation both when wet and dry. Fleece is still commonly found in technical sweater layers (and many other applications) today.

Synthetic Vs Down
A plume of goose down. These fine fibers are a bird’s first defense against the cold | Photo Inside Outdoor

Down Dynasty

One of the most effective natural insulators are the fine feathers found on birds (most commonly duck and geese) called down. When packed into baffles inside a garment, down has one of the best warmth to weight ratios of any insulation material. The down jacket is pretty standard in extremely cold climates for that reason, however it does lose most of its insulation when it gets wet. For that reason, it should only be worn in the snow in dry winter conditions, or layered under a waterproof shell jacket.

Best of Both Worlds?

With a need for a reliable, all-weather insulation material, the US Army developed a synthetic down in the early 1980s called Primaloft. While not as common as polar fleece, PrimaLoft soon came to the commercial market as a “synthetic down” that could rival natural down in wet environments, hence its application for the military.

Synthetic Vs Down
The Corpus Bomber Primaloft jacket by Black Crows | Photo

But here’s the thing. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to insulation. Down is the lightest, warmest and most compressible material. It’s also expensive, a pain to wash and must be kept dry in the field. Synthetics (ie fleece, PrimaLoft and their equivalents solve the wet weather issue and are more affordable, but don’t have down’s durability for constant compression and retaining that insulation over the long term.

So, who wins synthetics vs down?

At the end of the day it comes down to what environment you expect to be skiing in. Continental winters – in the Rockies for example – are a lot colder and drier and down is usually the preferred choice. Coastal conditions like the Pacific Northwest are a lot warmer and wetter, giving synthetics the upper hand.