Down vs. Synthetic Insulation
The down in our jackets and sleeping bags primarily comes from geese or ducks, and is a byproduct of the poultry industry. It is a soft and fluffy feather that sits underneath tougher protective feathers. A fluffy baby duck is so silky soft because it is covered in warm down feathers. The best quality down, however, comes from mature adults--and goose down is typically of higher quality than duck down.
The insulating power of down comes from its ability to trap and hold air still in the jacket. When you see a bird fluffing its feathers, it is adding more air to its down feathers to trap more body heat. In high quality down, there are roughly two million interlocking and overlapping fluffy filaments that do this job. More mature down has more pockets that will trap air.
Down, however, has one major Achilles heel: when it gets wet, it has no insulating properties whatsoever. Birds have perfectly engineered feathers with interlocking barbs and a waxy coating that makes them wind and waterproof. Humans need Gore-Tex (or an equivalent waterproof material). We know from oil spills that when a bird's feathers get covered in oil, they cannot interlock to be waterproof anymore. The feathers become matted, and the down underneath gets wet, becomes compressed, and loses its insulating properties. The birds can die of hypo- or hyperthermia. In the gravest of mountain situations, the story can read similarly--but all you need is a hefty winter storm or an exploded hydration bladder in your backpack to saturate even the most water resistant jackets.
Synthetic insulation is one answer to the problem of wet down. Primaloft is one of the most common types found in garments including jackets and gloves. Synthetic insulation keeps its loft when it gets wet, so it will still keep you warm (somewhat don't expect to feel toasty when sitting in a soggy jacket ). The tradeoff, however, is it is not as light or compressible as down, and tends to wear out much faster. A high quality down product can last well over a decade if well cared for (and can be rejuvenated with a careful washing); however, synthetics will usually expire in the 5-10 year range.
Several companies have started addressing the Achilles heel of down by adding a water-repellant coating to the down itself. Most companies use a durable water repellent (DWR) technology on the exterior, which you might remember from waterproof breathable rainwear. Now this technology is being applied to the feathers themselves. Patagonia made its own down treatment with more environmentally friendly compounds that they also say increases the loft. The jury is still out on this technology. Our field tests did not find any significant practical advantage that could be easily attributed to the water-repellent properties of the down, isolated from the overall quality of the jacket. That is to say, two of our three award winners did have this hydrophobic down, but they also had much better overall construction and materials. The Montbell jackets we reviewed, however, did not use hydrophobic down and the jackets dried out in similar time after getting wet.
The International Down and Feather Bureau (IDFB) states:
IDFB is neutral toward the application of treatments for down and feathers. IDFB believes that natural down and feathers are an extraordinary material without treatments. However, government regulations, buyer requirements and market demands may require treatments for down and feathers. Therefore IDFB has developed a series of DWR test methods to evaluation DWR products."
In one of these testing methods, referred to as the "hydrophobic shake test," the IDFB takes down and puts it in a container with water, then shakes it. The "failure" point is when the feathers begin to take on water. For natural down, this is an impressive 22 minutes of immersion-shake-time. To be able to call a product "hydrophobic down" or "water resistant down" the down must endure an additional 20-30 minutes or a minimum of 40 minutes shake time. Sounds comical, we agree. But our general take-home point: down is pretty amazing, as-is.
Our ultimate conclusion is that these coatings can help, but they aren't necessarily a miracle. At most, they expand the range of use of a down jacket, and let it retain its warmth for slightly longer, but hydrophobic down is not a replacement for synthetic insulation or a protective shell in wet conditions.
A common misconception with down is that a higher fill number equates to more warmth. This is not the case. Down fill power is a way of gauging the quality of a down product, as measured by the warmth-to-weight ratio. Most jackets will range from 550 to 850 or 900 fill down with Patagonia boasting 1000 fill down with its new Encapsil technology. A rating of 800 fill means that one ounce of down equals 800 cubic inches of loft (when compressed by a standardized weight). This means that a 550 fill jacket can be just as warm as an 850 fill jacket--but it will be bulkier, less compressible, and heavier.
After harvesting, down is cleaned, dried, and then sorted according to quality. The down is blown across several tubes--the down that travels the farthest is the lightest, so it falls in the high quality tube. The heavy down falls sooner and lands in the lower quality tube.
Lower quality down products may also be diluted with feathers or feather pieces, so purchasing down from a reputable source or brand is important. Over a relatively short amount of time these cut feather pieces will lay flat and provide little to no loft. They can also be sharper, poking through and escaping out of the garment's outer fabric.
High quality down won't get you far if it isn't stitched together with strong fabrics and a thoughtful design.
This design is the easiest to manufacture. The name says it all: the baffles holding the down are sewn through the whole jacket. The profile of this type of baffle design looks like a series of pointed ovals, each joined at the point with a single stitch. Simple doesn't necessarily mean cheap, however. This design makes jackets lighter, more compressible, and gives them better range of motion. However, because there is a pinch point at the end of each baffle, the down gets compressed and makes that a potential point of heat loss. This single seam can also be less wind proof.
Box Baffle Design
The box baffle design is the warmest structure for a jacket, but it is more complicated and involves more fabric, so it will typically be more expensive, bulky, and a little heavier. This is the design most common in expedition weight parkas. Imagine each baffle as its own six-sided, long rectangular box. Each baffle is joined to the next by one side of that box (the shortest side). This eliminates the pinch point between baffles, so the down can retain more of its loft and wind won't sneak through the single seam.
This category can get highly complicated with words like denier, ripstop and taffeta, funny proprietary names, and lots of numbers and measurements. All of those descriptions and numbers essentially translate to four things we care about in down jackets: durability, down-proofness, weather resistance, and softness. The good news is that it is usually pretty intuitive when you feel a fabric whether or not it will be durable, and this can give a reasonable indication of how wind and water resistant the jacket will be.
The Rab Microlight Alpine jacket - Women's, for example, has the stiffest hand of all the jackets, and it is by far the most durable and weatherproof. We could rock climb in it without it getting scuffed or snagged. It is also the most wind resistant. And in all of our testing, not a single down feather escaped from this jacket.
Fabrics with a softer hand, however, proved more difficult to evaluate. In regards to down-proofness, this is likely in part due to the quality of down used, and possibly the stitching (Montbell had several small, sharp feathers escape--but their jackets are a bargain compared to many others).
With all other variables held constant, a lower denier (thread thickness) number for a fabric means it is lighter but not as abrasion resistant. However, fabric strength and tear resistance typically relies more on the manufacturing than the denier (which has more to do with weight). Enter the ripstop pattern, visible upon close inspection of your jacket. This grid pattern weaved into fabrics stops a knick from becoming a rip.
Unlike sleeping bags, jackets do not come with a warmth rating. A common misconception is that a higher fill power means the jacket will be warmer. Buying an 850 fill jacket will be very warm for the weight, but it may not be suitable for your uses. Jacket descriptions will help you find the right jacket, as many manufacturers will identify a lightweight jacket as such--or they might even suggest the jacket be used as a mid layer insulation piece, such as the Arc'teryx Cerium SL - Women's. Generally, the thicker and loftier, the warmer the jacket will be.
There is a whole lot of surface area on your head from which to lose heat. As such, hoods can be awesome. But it depends on the use of the jacket. If it's a lighter weight midlayer, maybe you don't want a hood so the jacket will slide nicely in between your shell and a lightweight fleece with out a hood bunching up behind your neck. Some hoods are designed to fit over a helmet, and others underneath. Again, the application should fit the use--a beefy jacket should have a hood that fits over a helmet while a midlayer or lightweight jacket should have a sleek and snug fitting hood that you barely know is there.
It is counter-intuitive, but in out experience, plastic zippers are actually more durable than metal zippers which can bend and warp. The plastic doesn't always look as slick, but we preferred it--we want our jackets to last.
This is likely the first feature any climber or backpacker will look for. A lightweight down jacket that is good for rock, alpine, and ice climbing will stuff down very small into its own pocket and have a sewn in loop that you can clip to the back of your harness. No need for a backpack to carry your warm layer on a fast-and-light mission--and it is ready for the draw at those icy hanging belays.
Even the most beautiful athletic models still don't seem to make most down jackets look very sexy. They're boxy, bulky, and not terribly flattering. Some lighter weight models are starting to show some feminine lines, with stylish baffling to accentuate curves or play with the eye, like the OR Aria jacket. But overall, our reviewers often feel they more closely resemble the Michelin man in their bulky jackets. For some more flattering jackets, check out The Best Winter Jacket For Women Review which includes some casual, long parkas.
A down jacket is an investment, and one well worth making. If you spend the extra cash on a good one and take good care of it, it can last for years and withstand regular use and abuse. A down jacket is arguably the single most important item in the avid outdoors person's clothing quiver. Skimping now will not save you money in the long run.
As with many animal resource industries, there are good practices and questionable practices when it comes to sourcing down. Live plucking is a practice that can be found described in industry documents. While the claim is that the down is harvested during a natural moult cycle, conscientious down authorities in the US and Canada identify it as an unethical and economically senseless practice.
Patagonia brought the ethics of down production into the mainstream with its introduction of "Traceable Down," which is third-party certified to be non-live-plucked and non-force-fed. See Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody - Women's for more about their jackets with Traceable Down.
Another one of the jackets in this review, the Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody - Women's advertises its use of Hutterite down. The Hutterites are an ethno-religious group originating in the Austrian Tyrol, but who are now mostly found in Western Canada and the upper Great Plains of the U.S. They believe in community living and pacifism, and are similar to but religiously distinct from the Amish and Mennonites. Hutterite down is also purported to be sustainably and ethically produced. Downmark is a non-profit organization that provides information on the production of down in Canada to the Down Association of Canada. They report that,
If this is important to you, look for companies, such as Patagonia, that announce where they source their down.