The Showdown: Down vs. Synthetic Insulation
Choosing whether you need down or synthetic insulation is the first big decision you must make when buying a new jacket. Your choice will depend on your needs, your climate, and your typical usage. Below, we outline the pros and cons of both synthetic and down to help you decide which type of insulation will best suit your needs.
Down insulation is typically comprised of thousands of little tiny goose feathers that are divided into baffles or sewn compartments. Typically, down jackets are warmer for their weight than synthetics and pack down much smaller. Despite this benefit, the downfall of down insulation is that it loses its loft when it gets wet, which means it will no longer keep you warm. Down really does well in drier climates with cold weather. Head over here for more advice on purchasing down.
Although synthetic insulated jackets may be a bit heavier than down and they don't squish down as small, they keep their loft when wet. This means they still retain their insulating properties and warmth. This also means it is better to use an insulated jacket as a mid-layer in really cold weather. Why? Because even when it's squished between your shell and base layer, it stays warm, and it doesn't matter if it gets a bit damp from sweat. So, if you're planning on a wet and/or sweaty mission, choose an insulated jacket.
Many products in this review, such as the Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket - Women's, Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket - Women's, and the Rab Xenon X Hoodie - Women's (Editors' Choice) pack down very small even though they are synthetic. It's also worth noting here that companies like Patagonia and Montbell have developed hydrophobic down technology, meaning that they have coated the down with a water repellent finish.
So, what does synthetic fill look like from the inside? Imagine thousands of long linear fibers, laid out into flat and long sheets. Now stack these together with several air pockets in between and spread it throughout the internal space. This is what this type of fill looks like.
What defines a light and heavy insulation with the same warmth properties is the thickness of the fiber. The thinner and more fine the fiber, the more you can fit into a given area. Generally, the warmest and most lightweight models have the finest fibers, while a heavy product with a similar level of warmth, with more bulk, will have thicker fibers. There are several different types of insulation that you will encounter while shopping for your new insulated jacket. Below you will see a summary of several of the most popular types, each of which is of different quality. Even though a product may have more of a certain type of insulation, it does not mean that it is warmer.
While some types of insulation, like Omni-Heat, are bulkier and heavier, it's more likely that these materials will stand the test of time. On the other hand, PrimaLoft is the lightest, most hydrophobic and most compressible; but it tends to break down more quickly. Several companies are now also making breathable insulation designed for highly aerobic activities. This insulation will keep you from getting sweaty, but it typically doesn't offer as much warmth. Overall, when researching insulation, it's important to consider your priorities. For you, compressibility may matter more than long-term durability or breathability might take precedence over warmth or weight.
This is perhaps the most common type of insulation that you will find in insulated jackets today. PrimaLoft categorizes its insulation based on Gold, Silver, and Bronze ratings, which differ in levels of warmth, weight, compression, all related to the type of filamentous fiber used.
PrimaLoft Gold: Previously known as PrimaLoft ONE, this is the "creme de la creme" of the PrimaLoft family. It has the finest, highest quality fibers, and is more water resistant than the other types of insulation (it's also the most expensive). Both the Patagonia Nano Puff and Rab Xenon X feature this kind of insulation.
PrimaLoft Eco: 90% of post-consumer recycled materials
PrimaLoft Silver: A step down from the Gold category, the Silver is a more versatile synthetic with thicker fibers. It is also water resistant, packable, and breathable, but not as warm as the Gold category.
Primaloft Eco: 70% of post-consumer recycled materials
PrimaLoft Bronze: Utilizing 60% post-consumer recycled materials, this category is not as water resistant, is not as lofty, or as warm as the previous categories.
Developed by The North Face and PrimaLoft, ThermoBall insulation offers a new spin on the typical long filaments that have dominated the synthetic insulation market. This technology uses small spheres of insulation instead of long fibers. These are designed to articulate together much better and can pack in more warmth than your conventional insulated jacket.
Other Proprietary Insulation Technologies
There is such a huge variety of insulation that we could write pages and pages about. The take home message here, however, is that there are lots of different types of insulation of differing quality and warmth. For example, Arc'teryx uses Coreloft, Columbia uses Omni-Heat, and Mountain Hardwear has Thermal.Q Elite, all of which are designed to keep you warm even when wet, but have different warmth-to-weight ratios.
Breathable Insulation Technologies
Other types of synthetic insulation have more specific purposes. For example, the Patagonia Nano Air Hoody - Women's, which uses Fullrange insulation, has insulation and fabrics that breathe better than its competitors. However, Fullrange is not quite as warm as PrimaLoft Gold and the Nano Air is a little bit heavier in weight. Similarly, the Rab Strata Hoody - Women's uses Polartec Alpha, which is also designed to increase breathability during high-exertion activities.
Insulation Thickness & Warmth
Deciding how thick of a layer to get is entirely dependent on what kind of weather you expect to wear it in and if you need it as a mid-layer or an outer layer. If you are looking for a warm layer to wear belaying, around the campfire, or around town, then thicker is better. If you want something to wear under a shell when climbing or skiing, then a thinner piece would be best. Usually the thinner the jacket, the less it weighs. So if you are bringing a jacket with you on long backpacking adventures or multi-day climbing escapades, lighter is better.
The thickest and warmest product in this review is the Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody - Women's, which uses 120 g/m2 of insulation, while the thinnest and lightest is the Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic, which uses 60g/m2 of insulation. Even though most of the models in this review used the same amount of insulation, the type of insulation used can make a significant difference in thickness and overall warmth. Additionally, the thickness of insulation can contribute to the overall coziness of a certain product. We found that the loftier insulation of the Rab Xenon X, for example, made it feel a bit like a sleeping bag and it doesn't get much cozier than that.
Shell Fabrics & Water Resistance
A common question asked in retail climbing shops around the country is, "Is this jacket waterproof?" The first question you should ask yourself is do you need waterproofing in this layer? Sure, it seems like it would be a nice feature, but there are also several disadvantages, with the biggest one being that waterproof materials don't breathe as well. Oftentimes, waterproof shells also increase weight and cost, while decreasing compressibility.
Many products in this review come with a durable water resistant (DWR) coating, which will repel water in a light rain or drizzle. However, over time, the DWR coating needs to be maintained and it will never keep you dry in a downpour. DWR is a nice feature, but not a replacement for a waterproof shell.
We find synthetic insulated jackets to be much more abrasion resistant and easy to care for than their down cousins. You can use and abuse them and then throw them in the washing machine and hang them up to air dry. On the other hand, down requires lots of extra care when washing and drying, especially if you want your piece to retain its original loft. That said, a well-cared-for down jacket will last longer than a synthetic model. If you regularly get dirty and sweaty in your jacket, then synthetic insulation may be the way to go. On the other hand, if you care for your jacket meticulously, a down model could last up to 10-20 years.
Partially because care is easier, our testers tend to think of synthetic insulated jackets more as "workhorse" pieces. If the fabric tears, the insulation generally remains intact, whereas a rip on a down jacket can sometimes mean an empty baffle (and thus significantly less warmth). From an aesthetic perspective, we noticed that the models with quilted baffles, like the lightweight Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic, were far more likely to snag on their stitches, leaving the outer fabric looking sad and ragged after intensive use. On the other end of the spectrum, the most durable product we tested, the Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody, was the second heaviest tested.
Compressibility & Clip-ability
For some people, the feature of having a jacket stuff into itself is very handy, while it's irrelevant for others. For long multi-pitch rock or ice climbs, it is ideal to be able to stuff it and clip it to your harness, so that you can stay warm at belays. If you are using your jacket for hiking or camping, the clip feature might not be important and the compressibility is more of a consideration. Several products that stuff into themselves and have a loop for clipping are the Patagonia Nano Puff and Rab Xenon X. Even if you're planning to use your synthetic insulated jacket solely on the ground, an integrated stow system can be extremely useful for making it as small as possible for backpacking or travel.
How to Stuff Your Insulated Jacket into Its Pocket
A lot of people that buy an insulated jacket don't realize that their new "puffy" comes with a built in stow away system. The stow away pocket may be either the breast or hand pockets. Most stow away systems have an additional accessory tag and a double-sided or upside down zipper, so the first step would be to look for those features. If you find them in one of the pockets, then all you need to do is flip that pocket inside out, and begin stuffing the body inside. You might be able to stuff other jackets into their own pockets, but if the zipper pull isn't accessible from the outside, that's a tell a tale sign that technically isn't designed to be stuffed.
Hood or No Hood?
Usually, people feel strongly about whether or not they like hoods. If you like to wear your jacket as a mid-layer, the hood can be bulky and uncomfortable under a shell, which is likely to have its own hood. Another downfall to hoods is that if you wear the hood down while it is snowing, snow can collect in it and then spill down your back when you put it up. That said, our testers generally prefer jackets with hoods because they provide a lot of extra warmth without a big weight tax.
Some of the products tested come in both hooded and non-hooded versions (check out our individual reviews to get the details for each model!) Only one of the hooded models that we tested has an adjustable hood - the Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody. With one pull, this jacket's hood cinched tightly around the face to help keep the elements out. The Rab Strata has a hood that can roll up and stow away, a unique feature among the jackets we tested and a clever solution to the hood/no hood dilemma.