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Down And Synthetic Insulated Jackets | Buyer’s Guide

Everything you need to know about how to buy a down and insulated jacket for this winter.

Pure down as used here by ME for its new Dewline Hooded gives the best warmth to weight ratio.

We’ve put together some essential tips to help you choose the best warm down or synthetic down jacket this winter, with advice on whether to choose down or synthetic fills – or something in between, things are getting complicated with mixed, fills, hybrid jackets using down and synthetic fills in different areas and synthetic fills that work like down.

That’s followed by some tips on which essential features to look out for when you’re buying and what sort of cut to look for for different uses.

And if you’re looking for reviews of specific jackets, we’ve just tested 24 of the best 2016 down and synthetic insulated jackets.

And here’s how really high quality down expands – this was a small fist-full a second ago.

Which Filling?

Things used to be simple here: down in cold dry conditions when weight and pack size are a priority, synthetic in cold and damp climates, where down tended to collapse and lose effectiveness if it got wet. Well not any more, there are plenty of halfway choices, but to help you narrow things down, here’s a look at different options, and how they work.

How warm a jacket you need is down to you. In general, the warmer the jacket, the bulkier and heavier it’ll be. If you run remotely warm, most insulated jackets will be too warm for most active use unless it’s very cold as well as not being very breathable. There are jackets designed to be used on the move, often with more breathable fabrics though they tend, like the Patagonia Nano Air, to sacrifice weather protection as a result.

ME’s classic Fitzroy – synthetic Primaloft fill plus a coated water-resistant outer makes it ideal for cold, damp conditions like the UK’s mountains.

Untreated Down

Great for cold and dry climates, where down has excellent warmth to weight ratio. The higher the ‘fill power’ designation, the warmer the down will be for its weight. Anything over 700 fill power is pretty decent and the really good stuff, like PHDs 1000 down, can stretch to a fill power of around 1000.

The downside – sorry – is that untreated down collapses if it gets really wet, though it’ll still survive for around 20 minutes before caving in, longer with a water-resistant shell on the outside. Plus once it dries out, it needs special attention to regain its previous loft levels. Bad news if you’re a long way from home.

Rab’s new Nebula looks like down but uses a synthetic fill called Cirrus equivalent to 600 fill power down but better when wet.

Water Resistant Down

First introduced a couple of years ago in the UK by Berghaus, water-resistant or hydrophobic down has a water repellent treatment that means it’ll resist damp for longer and keep you warmer when it is damp. It’ll also dry faster than untreated down and retain around 90% of its original loft once it dries out.

We’ve found the best stuff works very well, but we’d still look at it primarily as an insurance policy rather than a wet conditions option. It does give peace of mind though. Brands using water-resistant down include: Berghaus, Jöttnar, Mountain Equipment, Montane, MHW and Rab.

Haglöfs QuadFusion Mimic is even loftier and again looks very like down until you get close up and personal. Narrow baffles here limit outright warmth.

Conventional Synthetics

The best synthetics like Primaloft are highly water-resistant meaning they maintain more warmth when damp, don’t collapse and dry fast. They’re easier to care for than down as well with no special washing or drying techniques needed. Teamed with a water-resistant, coated outer, they make great options for cold and wet conditions like, for example, classic Scottish winter days. the downside is that synthetics aren’t as warm or small packing for their weight as down.

Primaloft is perhaps the best known option out there and very impressive, but the likes of ME, Arc’teryx, Haglöfs and others produce highly effective own-brand synthetic fills.

Meanwhile, this Sherpa Nangpala looks like down, but uses Primaloft Down Blend, a mix of down and synthetic fills. It performs impressively when the going gets damp.

Down-Like Synthetics

There’s also a whole new generation of synthetic fillings that work in a similar way to down and are even housed in down-style baffled channels. The upside is that they also have synthetic-style resistance to dampness and are fast drying too.

All of which sounds like the insulation Holy Grail. Options include The North Face’s Thermoball around 600 fill power, the Cirrus 3M insulation used by Rab, again around 600 fill power and brilliant when damp and Quad Fusion Mimic fill used by Haglöfs with a claimed 700 fill power equivalent. There’s also Primaloft Luxe – used by Montane – which we know very little about, but again is a synthetic that works like down.

Jöttnar’s lovely Fenrir has lower baffles filled with synthetic insulation to ward off wet out.

Primaloft Down Blend

Finally, Primaloft has mixed water-resistant down and synthetic fibres for another ‘best of both worlds’ concoction called Down Blend – not to be confused with instant coffee. In out tests it offered close to down warmth and weight ratios, but was superb when it got wet and recovered completely far more quickly than down. We’re impressed so far.

Zoned Fills

Finally, a few brands are mixing zones of different fills. Jöttnar and Arc’teryx both use synthetic fill areas in potential ‘wet-out zones’ of their down clothing, while Berghaus has taken things a stage further with body-mapped hybrid garments like the Ulvetanna Hybrid above, which use detailed research to place more breathable synthetic panels in some areas and warmer, down-filled ones in others. Interesting stuff especially if you run hot.

Trimmer cut jackets like this Berghaus Basteir work best as a mid or outer layer and can be worn under a harness.

The Bottom Line

Broadly speaking, we’d still pick down for cold and dry environments, but there’s no reason not to use water-resistant down, particularly as over the course of a long trip, it can help to reduce the gradual deterioration in performance thanks to gradual condensation build-up inside the filling.

Similarly, for cold and damp or wet conditions, synthetic fills still make good sense, particularly combined with a highly water-resistant fabric with minimal seams and stitching to let water in, one of the advantages that traditional synthetics still have over the new ‘down-like’ varieties. The downside is that you will carry more weight and bulk for the warmth levels.

Which leaves us with the blends and the down-like synthetics. We reckon they’re a good compromise between the two and will particularly appeal if you like the puffy, baffled look of down, but want more reassurance in damp conditions. Primaloft Down Blend is similarly impressive and the Gold version comes close to down weight and bulk.

Hoods like this one on the Rab Continuum need to fit snugly even if they also adjust to accommodate a helmet.

Suits You Sir…

Broadly speaking, insulated jackets take two forms: the belay or ‘overlayering’ jacket that’s cut big to fit over other layers including shell jackets and maybe a harness for planned and unplanned stops and chilly belays. And the slimmer cut jackets which are designed to be worn either as an outer layer or possibly, in severe conditions, layered under a shell jacket.

There is some cross-over, but it’s a good idea to consider how you’re planning to use the jacket before buying. Some sleeker cut jackets won’t fit over other layers so you may need to size up for overlayering use, or simply look elsewhere.

Chunky YKK Vislon zips are smoother running and easy to use.

Fabrics

Really light jackets tend to use really light, fine fabrics. They’re not necessarily delicate, but you won’t want to drag them repeatedly over rocky crags for example. If you’re planning to use a jacket for climbing then look for one with a tougher fabric or simple layer it under a suitable shell if you do wear it on the move.

And while most insulated jackets are windproof to an extent, for cold and wet conditions, a coated, more water-resistant fabric makes a lot of sense, though very few insulated jackets are taped, mostly because in really damp conditions, it’ll probably be too mild to wear a really warm jacket.

Chunky, grippy zip-pulls make adjustments easier when wearing bulky winter gloves.

Features

Here are a few points to bear in mind when buying.

Hoods

If you want a helmet hood, make sure it really will fit over your helmet with your neck length and allow you to move your head freely. Ideally it should also fit snugly over a bare or beanied head for non-helmet use.

Hand-warmer Pockets

Look for insulation on the outside of the pockets so they will actually keep your hands warm. If you’re going to use a harness with the jacket, make sure the pockets sit so you can still use them. Big chest pockets works well here.

Zips And Pulls

Chances are you’re going to be using the jacket with gloves on, so look for smooth-running zips – we like YKK Vislon for this reason – with positive zip-pulls you can grab even with winter gloves.

Hand warmer pockets should be insulated with fill on the outside of the pocket bag and clear of harness or pack belts if you intend to use them that way.

Adjustments

Many lighter jackets have simple elasticated, Lycra-bound cuffs and even hems, but you need to make sure they will still seal in warmth or you’ll have a nasty draught to deal with when you least need it. Glove friendliness is important here too.

Mobility

If you’re planning on climbing or just doing stuff in your jacket, make sure the sleeves in particular aren’t restrictive. Some jackets use lighter fills or construction in the sleeve area for just this reason.

Stuffing

We’r big fans of jackets that stuff neatly into their own pockets for the simple reason that there’s no stuff-sac to lose. If a stuff-sac is suppled, try looping it onto something in the jacket to stop it wandering off and disappearing for ever. Don’t ask how we know…

Adjustable hem cords aren’t a necessity, but look for a good seal to keep snug and warm.

Green Considerations

There’s general concern over animal cruelty issues around down production, but most specialist outdoor brands source their down as ethically as possible, with Mountain Equipment and its Down Codex project at the forefront of traceability. If in doubt, research and ask the brand.

On the synthetic side, many brands now use recycled materials in their insulation and shell fabrics along with PFC free DWRs and water-resistant down treatments like Jöttnar’s DownTek down and Primaloft’s Down Blend. Scandinavian brands like Haglöfs and Fjällräven are particularly committed to sustainable practices, but again, research before buying.

Trimmer cut jackets like this Berghaus Basteir work best as a mid or outer layer and can be worn under a harness.

Finally… Construction

With down there are two methods of holding the down inside the garment: stitch-through, which means as it sounds that the stitches go right through the garment. The disadvantage of this is that the more stitch lines there are, the more areas there are to lose heat and for wind to get through.

The narrower the baffles too, the less warm the jacket is likely to be, which is why a jacket with ‘midi’ baffles can be warmer than one weighing around the same using skinnier channels.

Most insulated jackets aren’t very breathable, but Berghaus has zoned the Ulvetanna Hybrid to optimise the balance between warmth and active comfort.

Box-wall construction sits the down in square channels with walls between them which eliminates cold spots, but is heaver and more complicated to produce. Some brands, Jöttnar and Montane for example, use box-wall in the body for ultimate warmth, but with stitch-through sleeve construction to save weight.

Berghaus takes things further again with differentiated zoned areas using different sizes of down compartment to optimise warmth in various body areas. Clever stuff and works well.

More Information

For individual jacket reviews see: Best Down And Synthetic Insulated Jackets 2016.

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