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    Red face Down versus Synthetic - who wins?

    Down vs. Synthetic Insulation Guide



    Is it to-may-to or to-mah-to? The chicken or the egg? Barry Bonds or Hank Aaron?
    Life is full of conundrums that have the potential for sparking intense debate. Outdoor enthusiasts can get pretty "hot" over the subject of keeping warm (if you'll please pardon the very bad pun), with purists insisting on the superiority of down and technology-embracing adventurers touting the benefits of synthetics.
    While we may not have a definitive winner, each type of insulation does have its place in the great outdoors. We've created this guide to help you choose the insulation option that will work best for you. Looking for a jacket to wear around town or a warm sleeping bag for a winter camping expedition? We've broken down the advantages (and drawbacks) of both down and synthetics so you can make an educated purchase.


    Gettin' Down: Down Insulation
    Contrary to popular belief, down insulation is not made of feathers. Instead, down is actually the fluffy undercoating of a bird's plumage (geese, ducks, and other waterfowl) and looks like interlocking wisps of dandelion fluff. Down works for you just like it works for the bird; it keeps you warm by trapping an abundance of body heat within its tiny clusters. And because it is also breathable, down allows unwanted moisture to escape.
    Pros DOWN

    • Is warmer than synthetic insulation ounce for ounce. No manmade fiber matches down in its warmth-to-weight ratio.


    • Retains its shape and loft and, with proper care, can last a lifetime. No synthetic can beat down's longevity. Down holds up better over years of use.
    • Wicks body moisture and allows it to evaporate. Moisture wicking goes a long way in keeping you comfortable.
    • Is highly compressible and lightweight. Although synthetic insulation has come a long way, it doesn't hold a candle to down's ultralight weight and amazing compressibility. Down is the preferred choice for backpackers who want to travel light in dry conditions.

    Cons

    • Loses its insulating properties when wet and is slow to dry. And if down gear is damp-especially in a humid climate-it will take a great deal of time to dry. Don't count on leaving your wet sleeping bag to dry while you take a day hike. Chances are it may not be dry enough for you to sleep in that night.
    • Requires special cleaning. Cleaning down gear is labor intensive. Harsh detergents and chemicals will break down its natural loft and luster. If you don't dry clean your gear, only very mild detergents or down-specific cleaning products should be used.
    • May contain allergens. Down is not entirely hypoallergenic. While the down may not cause an allergic reaction itself, lower quality down can harbor dust particles, debris, or other non-down materials, causing a reaction. However, higher quality down is cleaned according to strict industry standards. If you're prone to allergies, it's wise to invest in better quality down products.
    • Costs a pretty penny. Down insulation is far more expensive than synthetic insulation, but it's a great value for the avid outdoor enthusiast if you factor in down's resistance to deterioration. Recreational campers and hikers can get the job done with synthetic gear, which is usually a more wallet-friendly option.

    Types of Down
    Down-filled sleeping bags and outerwear are generally warmer and lighter than their synthetic counterparts. Down is considered the best insulation for cold, dry weather conditions and expedition use and comes in the following varieties:

    • High loft goose down is made from very fine down and provides the best insulation of any other filling because it traps the most air. High loft down is mostly used in expedition sleeping bags and outerwear where minimal bulk and low weight are critical.
    • Goose down is very fine and more reasonably priced than high loft down.
    • Duck down is less fine than goose down and considerably less expensive.

    Facts about Fill Power

    • Down is rated according to fill power-meaning the number of cubic inches one ounce of down will occupy. For example, if one ounce of down takes up a volume of 650 cubic inches, it is given a 650 fill power rating.
    • Loft refers to the thickness of the insulating material in a sleeping bag or garment.
    • The quality of the down is directly related to its fill power rating. Thus, down warmth is a function of both fill power and the amount of fill in a sleeping bag or garment.
    • High quality down has a high fill power and is much loftier than down of a lower quality, requiring fewer ounces of down to create insulating warmth.
    • Most companies use only goose down which has a minimum fill power of 500 to 550.
    • The higher the fill power, the better the down will insulate because there is less of a chance of "cold spots"-areas in the bag or garment where there is no down.
    • Today's higher-end manufacturers offer 600 to 750 fill power as their standard fill.
    • If a label doesn't specify fill power, it is usually because the down falls in a range below 400 cubic inches or the item contains less than 75% down.

    400 | 450 | 500 | 550 | 600 | 650 | 700 | 750
    Making the Grade
    Down also comes in a number of different grades (or qualities). For example, a 90% goose down garment will consist of 90% down and 10% feathers. The higher the percentage is, the purer the down will be. High percentage grade insulation will also be very low in weight and bulk, but higher in price.
    The Bottom Line
    Down is Mother Nature's best insulator. It provides incredible warmth for minimal weight and is highly compressible and resilient; but it comes at a price.



    Go with the Faux: Synthetic Insulation
    Many of us can probably remember a hiking trip we took with our family as a child. We all wanted to be wrapped in the heavenly warmth of down, but it was out of Dad's price range. Instead we layered. We layered until we could not bend our arms or legs. And then we whined.
    Luckily, synthetic technology has gotten a lot more sophisticated and now there are numerous manmade materials that mimic down without the hefty price tag.
    Synthetic insulation is essentially polyester threading that is molded into long single threads or short staples to mimic lofty down clusters. Thinner and lighter threads fill voids and trap warm air more effectively, while thicker strands sustain the loft and durability.
    Pros

    • Is water resistant and provides insulation when wet. Synthetic fills are, at the very least, resistant to moisture while many will actually shed water rather than absorb it. These water-resisting properties allow the synthetic fill to retain the majority of its insulating properties when wet.
    • Dries quickly. When a synthetic fill does get wet, the moisture is trapped in the air pockets between the fibers rather than in the fibers themselves. For this reason, synthetic fills will dry much faster than down fills-usually in a matter of minutes in direct sunlight.
    • Is generally less expensive than down. Unless geese start lowering prices on down, synthetic insulation will always be cheaper than its natural counterpart.
    • Is easy to care for. Most synthetic fill sleeping bags or garments are machine washable and dryable.
    • Is completely hypoallergenic. Because synthetics are manmade, they are, for the most part, hypoallergenic.
    • Offers a greater range of options for those on a budget. Synthetic fills vary greatly in durability, bulk, weight, and price so there are more options available for beginning hikers or children who quickly outgrow their clothes.

    Cons

    • Can be bulky and less compact than down. Synthetics tend to be much bulkier and less compact than down, taking up valuable space when you're trekking around.
    • Heavier than down. Synthetic fill requires more weight to get the same warmth that the lighter down provides.
    • Breaks down over time. Synthetic fibers gradually break down no matter how well you care them. You may find yourself replacing synthetic products quicker than you would down products.
    • May cause fit problems. Some less-expensive synthetic fills can be stiffer than down and may not drape as well. Higher-end synthetic fills, though, can be hard to distinguish from down and fit just as well.

    Common Synthetic Fill Fibers
    With rapidly advancing technology, new synthetic fill materials are being created all the time. Here is a list of some of the most popular synthetic insulations.
    Polarguard®

    Polarguard® is an insulating material made of continuous synthetic fibers. It retains its loft and insulating properties when wet. It is also non-allergenic, mildew-resistant, and machine washable/dryable.
    Polarguard® 3D maintains the same properties as its predecessor, but is made of a softer fiber that more closely resembles down.
    Polarguard® HV, like the original and 3D versions, is made of continuous synthetic fibers, but is 25% lighter and more compressible making it an ideal material for use in backpacking and expedition gear.
    Polarguard® Delta is the latest development in synthetic insulation. Constructed of hollow core continuous filaments, this insulation is lighter, more durable, and more thermally efficient than any other Polarguard® product. These advances are achieved by a larger diameter fiber with more hollow space inside to create a stronger, higher lofting insulation. Polarguard® Delta is a good fill for items like sleeping bags which are subject to repeat stuffing.
    Sierra Trading Post vendors that use Polarguard® technology:Lowe Alpine, Sierra Designs,Kelty
    Primaloft®

    Primaloft® is an ultra-fine microfiber blend that is incredibly soft, lightweight, and water repellent. It also has a down-like softness that adds comfort and appeal. In addition to sleeping bags and outerwear, Primaloft® is used in the construction of insulated footwear.
    Primaloft® One has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any synthetic insulation currently on the market. It is soft and durable, high loft, 100% polyester microfiber insulation. It is thermally efficient, lightweight and compressible, fast drying, and water resistant. However, it is also the most expensive synthetic to manufacture.
    Sierra Trading Post vendors that use Primaloft® technology:


    Thinsulate®

    Thinsulate® was introduced as the original "warmth without bulk" synthetic insulation. It retains its ability to insulate even when wet. The ultra-fine microfibers trap warm air more efficiently than larger fibers and in doing so reflect back more of the body's radiant heat. It's breathable and moisture-resistant.
    Thinsulate® insulation comes in 40, 70, 100, and 150 gram weights. The higher the gram weights, the warmer the insulation will be. Thinner insulation is used in the construction of casual sportswear and high activity winter sportswear, while the thicker insulation is used in the construction of extreme weather clothing. Headwear, gloves, and shoes are made of insulation of various thicknesses.
    Sierra Trading Post vendors that use Thinsulate® technology:


    Thermolite®

    All Thermolite® insulations are designed for exceptional warmth-even when wet-without the bulk of down. They are also machine washable and dryable.
    Thermolite® Extreme is a high-tech insulation engineered to provide the most warmth per weight and durability of any Thermolite® performance fill. It is also compactible and possesses a supple drape.
    Thermolite® Extra most closely resembles the warmth, softness, and fullness of down. It provides a high loft that retains its fullness and remains resilient through many uses.
    Thermolite® Micro is less bulky than Thermolite® Extra, but provides comparable softness and warmth. This lightweight insulation provides warmth when wet and dries quickly. It is also the most compatictible of all the Thermolite® insulations.
    Thermolite® Plus is designed for use in extreme conditions. It provides the most warmth of any Thermolite® insulation when wet. It also holds up exceptionally well after multiple washings.
    Thermolite® Active is to be used during high-energy pursuits. It provides warmth at a minimum thickness and wicks moisture away from the body much better than down and the other Thermolite® insulations.
    Sierra Trading Post vendors that use Thermolite® technology:


    Other Synthetic Materials

    You will see a variety of synthetic materials under various names on the market. These synthetic insulation materials have similar properties and characteristics. Here are a few names you may encounter:

    • Dryloft®: A two-ply laminated shell fabric designed specifically for insulating parkas and sleeping bags. Dryloft® is twice as breathable as Gore-Tex®, but not as waterproof.
    • Hollofil®: A polyester insulation used in bargain brand sleeping bags and apparel.
    • Liteloft®: A polyester/olefin used in sleeping bags and outerwear.
    • MicroLoft®: A polyester insulation made of fibers thinner than a human hair. The dense structure is said to trap heat more efficiently than other synthetics of equal thickness. It is also highly water resistant.
    • Quallofil®: High-loft polyester insulation with a soft, down-like feel. It is used primarily in sleeping bags, but also in insulating outerwear and accessories.
    • Thermoloft®: Medium-loft synthetic insulation that combines solid-core polyester fibers with hollow Quallofil® fibers. The blend is used most often in insulated outerwear, where high-loft fills are too bulky and low-loft fills aren't warm enough.

    Many outerwear and sleeping bag manufacturers have their own registered brands of synthetic insulation. Look for:


    Closing Arguments

    Can we declare a winner in the down vs. synthetic debate? The fact of the matter is that down is better except when synthetic is better. The distinguishing line gets more blurred every year. Just a few years ago, down was unmatched; but today's lighter, warmer, and more compressible synthetics are slowly closing the gap. In order to find your best match, keep these key things in mind:

    • Down works well for just about everyone-unless you frequently find yourself in wet weather.
    • Synthetic insulation is a good choice for children and for newbie campers or backpackers because of its lower cost and quick-drying properties.
    • Down still wins in terms of weight, compressibility, and durability, but synthetic is the hands-down winner in the cost department.
    • Continuous technological advancements in synthetic materials are giving down a run for its money. You may not be able to tell the difference.

  2. #2
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    Long one. Down wins, weight issue plain and simple, I have "seen the light", hope to be at or below 30 lbs with food & water in 2 weeks for Fall AT hike. Much nicer.

  3. #3
    Registered User Wise Old Owl's Avatar
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    Nevermind.....
    Last edited by Wise Old Owl; 10-19-2010 at 19:35.
    Dogs are excellent judges of character, this fact goes a long way toward explaining why some people don't like being around them.

    Woo

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    And one day they will find a cure for the chiggars!

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    Isnt Climasheild currently the best synthetic insul ??

    With the new DWR coatings, IMO nothing can beat down for warmth, compressibility, and weight.

    Back 20 or more years ago it was a little iffy at times especially on those soggy AT weeks. No DWR and just the constant humidty would cause delofting.

    The only real benefit of synthetic I can see now, is that if you bag gets totally soaked you might actually survive the night with a synthetic bag, although if that is the case you should probably be car camping rather than long distance hiking.

    Unless they come up with some helium filled super material, by the time synthetic insul gets to the point where its lighter per warmth than down, it will probably absorb just as much water.

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    Registered User Cannibal's Avatar
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    Noah's flood couldn't get me to go back to synthetics.

    I work hard to keep my gear dry; if it gets wet, it's my fault and I deserve to be punished. If it's so bad that I can't stay warm, I just pack-up and start walking with my feathery light down. Synthetic is great (ie; cheap) for around the home or car camping, but hiking...not for me anymore. Not even close.
    Tomorrow might just be too late and today is just beginning.

  7. #7

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    I do think a MYOG climashield XP summer quilt makes sense.

    A 2.5 oz version with .9 oz momentum would weigh about 12 oz and would be easy to build compared to a down quilt. It would cost about $120 or so in materials. If you did it with 1.3oz walmart nylon, it would cost about
    $30-40 and weigh about 1.5 oz more

    A down quilt, same loft would weigh maybe 9-10 oz so not a whole lot of difference in weight.

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    Climashield and Primaloft one and Primaloft sport are the current high quality synthetics.
    In cold weather there will be significant condensation inside the sleeping bag unless a vapor barrier is used. Some people find vapor barriers uncomfortable. This makes a two bag system reasonable -- a down bag inside a synthetic bag -- then condensation occurs inside the synthetic bag. For this winter, I'll make a synthetic overbag to go over my down bag to bring the temperature rating to lower than -20F.

    Despite that a high quality -40F (=-40C) down sleeping bag is what I would get if I could afford it.

    I agree with tammons that a MYOG climashield XP quilt makes a lot of sense for summer.

  9. #9

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    I have a snowlion -40 bag I want to sell if you are interested PM me.

    Its got some miles on it, faded a bit around the head, but no rips, holes or tears. 10" loft, double zipper with a snap in neck baffle. Without the neck bafffle it weighs 4#. Fits 6'-1".
    Needs to be cleaned. I am very attached to it, had it a long time, but I just dont need a -40 bag anymore.

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    I've been very impressed with the bags and garments that I have that use PrimaLoft. Very light, compressible, drapes nicely. Closest to Down (still the gold standard).

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    The higher the temperature rating, the less fill. Much of the weight of a summer bag is in the shell and zippers. So, all other things considered equal, a synthetic bag makes more sense in summer. conversely, you might be swayed toward a down bag for your winter sleeping bag. Spring and fall: That can be a toss up.

  12. #12

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    down.

    geek

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    Registered User Egads's Avatar
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    down wins every time in my backpack

    I like wool too, but you didn't ask
    The trail was here before we arrived, and it will still be here when we are gone...enjoy it now, and preserve it for others that come after us

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    Down. And only down.

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    I'm down with down. There are a few things that need to stay dry in any pack. It's easy to do with the right system. I've used down only in the Southeast US for fifteen years in all seasons. The truth is it takes a lot of moisture/water to soak a down bag to uselessness. I've had rain blow in under the tarp, heavy tent condensation, spilled water and thick fog. The shell gets damp (after the pertex shell lost some effectiveness) but there is no decline in warmth that I could tell. When the cold weather really comes in to the equation, the down really kicks into high gear. If the loft and baffles stay fresh through proper storage, shake-outs and periodic cleaning, the bag will be essentially the same for a loooong time.
    That's my dog, Echo. He's a fine young dog.

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    Getting out as much as I can..which is never enough. :) Mags's Avatar
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    Down all the way. More expensive, but longer life.
    Paul "Mags" Magnanti
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    Registered User Peaks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mags View Post
    Down all the way. More expensive, but longer life.
    I've got 3 sleeping bags. For what it's worth, my 3 season bag is synthetic. It's got one thru-hike on it, and gets used a couple of weeks every year. It's at least 15 years old. Just like a down filled bag. Take care of it, and it lasts a long time.

  18. #18
    Getting out as much as I can..which is never enough. :) Mags's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Peaks View Post
    I've got 3 sleeping bags. For what it's worth, my 3 season bag is synthetic. It's got one thru-hike on it, and gets used a couple of weeks every year. It's at least 15 years old. Just like a down filled bag. Take care of it, and it lasts a long time.
    I doubt a synthetic bag would last 3 long thru-hikes (AT,PCT,CDT), the LTx2, the CT and whatever else I've done with the one bag (all over New England and the American West) until I had to retire it.

    It also flies in the face of people who have similar experience.


    One thru-hike and the equivalent of two weeks backpacking is not a good benchmark..esp without knowing the specific material/brand of bag.
    Last edited by Mags; 09-09-2009 at 12:39.
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    More interesting information. I never get tired of this debate

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    I'm currently using down bags. A Lafuma warm and light 800,which is good to about 45 degrees. And a Marmot pinnacle 15 degree bag for colder weather. But from what heard about the mountain hardware Ultra lamina 30 bag I just might go to synthetic.

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