It is a typical wet November morning in the Peak District and I am going for a walk wearing a down jacket. This is stupid of course. Down, as most outdoors people know full well, is near to useless in the wet. Get it soaked and the filling collapses into a soggy, porridge- like mess.
Even better, after that, with any sort of normal drying out, it will lose approximately 70% of its loft. I know all this all too well because I’ve fallen in an Andean river with my sleeping bag on my back and suffered the cold, shivering consequences.
I have, in other words, a well-developed instinctive, knee-jerk aversion to wearing down garments in the rain. And even though I know the Berghaus Furnace 2 micro-baffled down jacket I am wearing is filled with Berghaus’s water-repellent, hydrophobic down, which is claimed to both retain more of its loft when wet and recover far better than normal, untreated down, I am instinctively uneasy.
And that’s no bad thing. Hydrodown is more of an insurance policy than something intended for regular wet conditions use – I’d stll choose synthetics for that – but of course an insurance policy is no use if it doesn’t pay out, and that’s what this is all about.
A Wet Walk
Its wet in a typically grouchy, cool-ish, Peak District sort of way. Not torrential exactly, but on and off heavy showers and enough rain to soak into my shoes and render jeans uncomfortable. Initially the face fabric of the jacket beads a little, but gradually the DWR gives up the battle and starts to wet out.
I can also feel a gradual, mild dampness building as the water soaks into the stitch-lines of the sewn-through baffles. Not really unpleasant, but a little uncomfortable. The jacket starts to look wet and the left sleeve, where I’ve slightly unfairly massaged the rain into the fabric has very definitely lost a little loft.
But it hasn’t collapsed and nor has the rest of the jacket, though it’s very obviously no longer dry. Every so often, people look at me in a slightly pitying way and you can see them thinking: ‘Idiot, wearing a down jacket in the rain, tsssk…’
But here’s the thing. Although the jacket and some of the fill is wet, I am still reasonably warm and comfortable, albeit with a slight tinge of moistness.
When I get home, I weight the damp jacket. It was 329g when I set out completely dry, now it’s 358g and it’s still working reasonably well.
But just 30 grammes or so of added water? That doesn’t feel like enough. Maybe despite an hour of rain, the jacket simply isn’t wet enough. Bring on stage two: bath time. I stick the jacket in the bath and fill it with water. Then I push the jacket under like something from a crime thriller drowning scene – it struggles briefly, emits a stream of bubbles, then succumbs.
To make sure, I scrunch it up into a ball under water, squeeze it, knead it, make sure it’s completely and utterly saturated.
And then I lift it out. What happens next is unexpected. Despite having been completely drowned, the jacket is still able to loft, in fact it holds enough air to float on the surface of the water. It really is quite impressive. It’s obviously not the same as a completely dry jacket, but there is definite trapping of air.
I stick an experimental arm up a sleeve and prod cautiously at the insulation. It has that reassuring resilience you don’t normally get from damp down.
So then I grit my teeth and put the jacket on. Remember, it’s just come straight out of a bath of water and been casually wrung-out to remove excess water. The mad thing is that although like any damp clothing it’s not paricularly pleasant, the insulation still has bulk to it. Not as much as when dry, but it hasn’t simply died on me. There’s enough loft to actually insulate. The air’s moist so it’s not as effective as it would be with dry air, but it’s really not bad.
Which brings me to part three: drying. Here’s the thing, I stuck the jacket in a washing machine, left it for a 1200rpm spin cycle – before 520g total weight, after, 394g total weight – and put it on. I’ve been wearing the jacket all afternoon now, maybe for three hours, and it’s almost completely dry, in fact it now weighs exact;y 329g again.
Not only that, it’s also almost as ‘puffy’ and effective as it was before – no special tumble-drying with tennis balls, no hanging up and airing, just a spin and an afternoon sat on the body in the OM office. And that’s brilliant. Sure, the jacket’s lost a little loft – Berghaus claims 80-90% recovery with normal drying – but it’s still warm and it would still be totally useable on the hill after a experience which would have reduced a standard down jacket to a soggy, slow-drying mess of clumped-together down.
So What Does It Mean?
First and most obviously, the Hydrodown works. It kept me warm and comfortable for an hour walking through intermittent rain, which is the sort of thing it’s intended to cope with – a cloud-burst on the way back to your tent from the pub on a winter evening for example.
More impressively though, even when it was completely soaked in the bath, and I mean completely saturated – it was scrunched-up under water – as you’d expect to happen if you say, fell in a river or stream, it still lofted. Not as well as when dry, a visual estimate would be maybe 50 or 60%, but it worked.
And finally, I was astonished by how quickly the Furnace dried – admittedly after a spin – but wring it out after a dunking in the field and it would be functional again reasonably quickly.
I don’t see it as an alternative to a synthetically-filled jacket in consistent cold, damp conditions, but it’s reassuring to know that Hydrodown does work astonishingly well and means that if you do it get wet, the result isn’t a catastrophic collapse. In other words, if you view it as insurance, you know the policy will pay out.
And with a lighter, less warm down jacket like the Furnace, which you might well wear in conditions above freezing point where rain is a real possibility, that’s a real bonus.