Down vs Synthetic Insulation: Which is Better in a Winter Coat?

The ultimate winter coat needs to keep you warm throughout the season. At the very least, it must be warm enough for the climate where you live. At best, it should keep you comfortable when you're hiking in the mountains or at a ski resort.

One of the major factors you'll have to look at when deciding on a winter coat is whether it has down or synthetic insulation. Neither can be said to be better than the other, but they are each suited to different conditions.

Let’s take a look at down first, and then we will compare its synthetic counterpart.

What is down?

Pose this question to the average person and they'll tell you that down refers to goose or duck feathers. But that’s not really accurate. Down is actually made from plumage, the lofty fluff beneath the feathers. Some coats use a small ratio of feathers in their down, but the term refers specifically to plumage.

There are, essentially, three types of down:
● high loft goose down
● standard goose down
● duck down

Down works by trapping warmth in thousands of tiny air pockets. At the same time, it is extremely breathable, which allows any unwanted moisture out.

Down is superior to synthetic insulation in the following ways:

Down is warmer

As a general rule, down is significantly warmer than synthetic insulation. We measure its ability to trap heat by its fill power. Fill power measures how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill. Down generally has a fill power of between 450 and 900. This means that one ounce of the highest quality down can fill 900 cubic inches.

It’s lightweight

Down, therefore, has a much higher warmth to weight ratio than synthetic insulation. In other words, although it provides more warmth, it remains lightweight. This also makes it easier to compress and takes up far less space.

It’s resilient

Synthetic insulation does not come close to comparing to down’s resilience. With proper care, high quality down can last for decades. Not only will it last, but it will retain its loft and shape as well.

However, while down is warm, lightweight, and resilient, it has its disadvantages too.

Down is not water resistant

The biggest downside of down is that it is ineffective at repelling moisture. When it gets wet, it loses its insulating properties. You'll also be waiting for days before it is completely dry. This is a significant problem if you live in a wet or humid climate, or plan on taking it on trips to wet locations.

Many newer winter coats have water resistant outer layers to keep the insulation from
getting wet. There are some who treat the down with molecular-level polymer, which makes it slightly more water resistant. However, it is still not the best option if you are going to experience heavy rainfall or expect to get soaked.

It’s expensive

Price is a major factor when buying a coat with down insulation. It is considerably more expensive than synthetic insulation, especially if goose down is being used. Duck down is quite a lot cheaper but has a lower fill power.

It’s difficult to clean

Down reacts pretty badly to certain detergents and chemicals. Only very mild detergents or down-specific detergents will not damage the down. This, in addition to its tendency to absorb and keep water, makes it difficult to clean.

It’s not hypoallergenic

This won’t be a problem for most people, but down can harbor dust and debris, which can affect sensitive people. However, good quality down has been specially cleaned and prepared, and will almost certainly not be a problem.

What is synthetic insulation?

Synthetic insulation is basically polyester threading, molded into long, single threads or short staples. It is designed to mimic down clusters as closely as possible. Just like down, it traps warmth in air pockets. Over the past decades, the technology in making synthetic down has evolved tremendously. Whereas past winter coats with synthetic insulation did not bear comparison to down in terms of warmth, new synthetic insulation comes pretty close.

Synthetic insulation is superior to down in the following ways:

Synthetic insulation is water resistant

This is the main advantage synthetic insulation has over down. While down may be warmer, it will lose its effect in the rain. In climates that are particularly wet in winter, it can be rendered useless. Synthetic insulation, on the other hand, will keep you warm in wet or dry weather. Furthermore, it dries quickly – within hours as opposed to days.

It’s cheaper

Synthetic insulation can be a lot cheaper than down. If you're on a budget, coats with down insulation may be unaffordable. This factor alone might make the decision for you.

It’s easy to clean

Synthetic insulation will not react to detergents in the way that down does. Also, since it is water resistant, it is easier to clean.

It’s hypoallergenic

Again, this is only a factor for a tiny percentage of people. But, for those who are especially sensitive, its hypoallergenic nature may be a godsend.

The disadvantages of synthetic insulation are as follows:

Synthetic insulation is heavy

It has a lower warmth-to- weight ratio. The higher amount of fill required to achieve a high level of warmth means that the coat will inevitably be heavy and difficult to pack.

It won’t last as long

Ultimately, while down may be more expensive, it is a good investment. The extra cost
means decades of reliability. Some won’t see this as a disadvantage of synthetic insulation. After all, many of us are loathe to wear the same coat for more than a couple of years.

Your needs will dictate your decision

It is impossible to say whether one is better than the other. After all, what may be seen as a disadvantage in one climate, can be advantageous in another. Therefore, in many cases, your decision will be based on what you intend on doing with it.

Also, since technology has significantly improved over the past couple of decades, the
disadvantages of each are no longer as pronounced.

Ultimately, think carefully about where you want to go and what you intend to do over the next few winters. Choose the option that will facilitate the best winter you can imagine.


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