Last Updated on 26/01/2023
Down Vs Synthetic Jackets, which is best? Find out which type of jacket insulation provides more warmth, better waterproofing, lighter weight, and compatibility for your needs.
How? We summarized all the pros and cons of natural down Vs. synthetic fill for jackets to help you answer this question once and for all.
Down jackets are considered the premium type of jacket for most outdoor enthusiasts, but is it the best? Not always. Jackets with synthetic insulation are heavier and bulkier when packed, so why do many hikers and campers still prefer them? Mainly because they are more reliable in wet conditions, but there are other reasons too.
Check out our article on Down Vs Synthetic Sleeping bags for some context to this piece.
Down Vs Synthetic Jackets
The main argument for each is this; Down jackets provide the best warmth-to-weight ratio, which makes them better for cold weather. Synthetic jackets will keep you warm if they get wet, dry much faster, and are less expensive than down jackets.
One of the two types may appeal to you, but consider the scenarios in which you will use your jacket. If you need extreme warmth for freezing temperatures, then down makes the most sense, but if you are looking for an insulated jacket you can hike in then, synthetic fill would be a much wiser choice.
Natural Down Jackets
What is natural down? Natural down is the underbelly feathers of geese or ducks, which are ultra lofty, and lightweight, and makes the best warmest insulation for jackets and bedding.
What is hydrophobic down? While duck and goose down is naturally water resistant, you can get hydrophobically treated down, which uses chemicals to increase and prolong the water resiliency over time.
Pros of Down Jackets
Here are some reasons to choose a down-filled jacket Vs. a synthetic fill jacket:
- Very Warm
- High Loft
Down jackets have the best warmth-to-weight ratio, which allows them to be stuffed full of down for extreme cold weather. Down insulation compresses down to a tiny size and lofts back up again, which synthetic down can’t do.
Cons of Down Jackets
Here are some reasons not to choose a down-filled jacket Vs a synthetic fill jacket.
- Hard to Wash
- Slow to Dry
- Requires Treatment to Work When Wet
Down jackets are notoriously difficult to wash without clumping and require special care when doing so. Down is vulnerable to moisture which can reduce performance by up to 90% unless treated with hydrophobic chemicals. If a down jacket does get wet, then it takes a long time to dry out and requires an electric dryer to redistribute the down. Finally, down jackets can cost several hundred dollars in the most extreme cases, which is a month’s rent for many people.
What are synthetic fill jackets? Synthetic jackets are made from man-made fibers like polyester, which are designed to trap warm air the same way down does. Superfine fibers are created to cluster and loft up the same way down feathers do. The fact that synthetic insulation tries to mimic the natural qualities of down is rather telling of which might be the best insulation type for jackets.
There are over a dozen different synthetic insulation brands that work very similarly to each other.
- 3M Thinsulate
- Lycra Thermolite
- The North Face ThermoBall
- Marmot Thermal R
- Mountain Hardwear Thermic MX
- Arc’teryx Coreloft
- Thermarest EraLoft
These are the most well know, but there are many others too. I would love to see Polartec create a sleeping bag insulation as I love their clothing.
Pros of Down Jackets
Here are some reasons to choose a synthetic fill sleeping bag Vs a down-filled sleeping bag.
- Work When Wet
- Easy To Wash
- Fast Drying
- Better Value
Synthetic sleeping bags will keep you warm even if they get soaked. This makes them reliable in cold and wet weather when you won’t get a chance to dry them out. Because synthetic sleeping bag fill doesn’t clump as down does, you can easily throw it in the washing machine and hang it out to dry on a sunny day. The synthetic fill material can be produced on a massive scale, and so you save a lot of money vs down sleeping bags.
Cons of Down Jackets
Here are some reasons not to choose a synthetic fill sleeping bag Vs a down-filled sleeping bag.
- Less Loft
- Shorter Lifespan
Synthetic sleeping bags are bulkier and heavier to pack and carry, which is not very appealing if you’re hiking all your gear to your campsite. The fill itself has less loft, which makes it less effective at trapping heat. Over time, synthetic fibers become flattened on the underside of your sleeping bag, which reduces the lifespan and warmth rating even further.
Natural Down Vs Synthetic Insulation Jacket Comparison
To get into the nitty-gritty details on why you should choose one type of jacket or the other, here is a breakdown of the most important features:
Are Down Jackets Warmer than Synthetic Puffer Jackets?
Down puffer jackets are much warmer than synthetic puffer jackets ever can be. There are limits on how much insulation you can stuff inside a jacket before it becomes dysfunctional. Because down has significantly better warmth-to-weight ratios than any man-made equivalent, you can fit much more down inside.
Up to a certain point (maybe 30ºF), synthetic jackets and down jackets will feel similarly warm, but once you get into the minuses, a down jacket will become invaluable. You can even get different standards of loft ranging from around 400FP all the way up to 800+FP. Even down jackets on the lower end of the Fill Power scale will still be warmer than synthetic jackets of the same weight.
Which is warmer when stationary? Again, there is no competition – down will always be warmer and especially when sitting still like if you’re fishing.
Which Handles Moisture Better?
A synthetic jacket might lose around 10-30% of its warmth if it gets wet, but if a down jacket gets wet, it will lose up to 90% of its warmth. This is a big problem for down insulation in general and the reason why synthetic jackets are still the preferred choice for wet or humid conditions. Hydrophobic down jackets handle moisture significantly better than untreated down but still not as well as synthetic puffer jackets.
Which Resists Moisture Better?
Synthetic insulation is able to resist moisture for much longer than down ever could; however, jackets with down fill have found a way to level the field with the introduction of hydrophobic treatments. Hydrophobic down can be used to improve water resistance of down jackets so that they are not so vulnerable to rain.
With either type of jacket, but especially down jackets, it is always best to use a waterproof jacket over the top as a rain shell than to get a jacket that does everything.
Which Dries Faster?
Down jackets take forever to dry and often get so clumped that they don’t work properly anymore. Synthetic jackets still take a while to dry but nowhere near as long as down. Synthetic jackets are also easier to dry and can simply be hung on the back of a chair or draped over a radiator without too much trouble.
You also don’t suffer from insulation clumping or migration through the baffles, which makes washing much easier and less stressful.
Which Is More Packable?
Down jackets are phenomenally compactable and much more so than synthetic jackets. You can often squeeze a down jacket down to the size of an orange, whereas with synthetic jackets, you need to neatly fold and tightly roll it into a larger stuff sack the size of a lunchbox.
The beauty of down jackets is that they also loft right back up with a little shake and pat down. You should never store them compacted as, in the long run, this will only degrade their performance and ability to fully reloft.
Even though they are not designed for it, I often pack my down jackets inside their own pocket turned inside out. This keeps it super condensed so I don’t need to carry such a large backpack on hikes.
Which Has Better Temperature Regulation?
Synthetic jackets are more breathable than down jackets, which help regulate temperature when moving. But if you are stationary, a down jacket will do a superb job of maintaining your body temperature. You can always undo the front zip to cool down if you have to, but some jackets also have underarm vents, which is a big plus for active outdoors people. Opening pockets can also have a positive impact on regulating body temperature.
Which is Better for Activities?
For any kind of intensive activity, I would recommend you wear a number of thin layers that you can strip off and put back on as you heat up and cool down. You can get some lightweight synthetic jackets like the Patagonia Micro Puff, which are great for cold weather as an outer layer. I find that a down jacket often gets too warm even for a short and steady walk and so I always prefer a few thinner layers over one thick jacket.
Which is More Durable?
Will a down jacket last longer than a synthetic jacket? It is impossible to say.
Down jackets will typically stay warmer for longer by retaining loft over many years if stored properly (uncompressed). Synthetic jackets can become very flat over time which isn’t much good for trapping heat.
Synthetic jackets can withstand rain as well as survive minor tears without losing all their filling. If a down jacket gets ripped, you can lose the down from the entire baffle section. Synthetic fill is more of a blanket lining that doesn’t always need a baffle system to keep it in the right place and so if it does get a tear, it will all hold together pretty well.
Which is Comfier?
I might be biased, but I find jackets so much comfier than synthetic jackets because I like the loftiness and lightness. In reality, it is not the filling that determines how comfy a jacket is; it is things like the lining material, breathability, and soft fabric inside the zip to protect your face. On the flip side, I have a synthetic Fjallraven jacket that is incredibly comfortable to wear over a t-shirt or as an outer layer.
Which is Better Value?
There is no doubt that, in general, down jackets cost a lot more than synthetic jackets. There are obviously exceptions to this but prove me wrong.
Just because synthetic jackets are cheaper doesn’t automatically make them better value. Many times though, a synthetic jacket will do the job of a down jacket just fine, and so they are better value on the whole.
As a bargain hunter, I am always on the search for a good deal which does help with the value metrics. If you can get a super lightweight and warm-down jacket for half price, then that is still going to be better value than a synthetic jacket at full price, even if it is cheaper.
Which is More Sustainable?
Down is actually a byproduct taken from the meat trade, so it could be argued that it is more sustainable than creating millions of cheap plastic-based jackets. You can support the fair treatment of animals by only shopping for RDS-certified down, which is guaranteed to be cruelty-free.
Because recycled materials have gotten so good in the past decade, it is not such a rare thing to see synthetic jackets using 100% recycled plastic insulation. Still, every year hundreds of thousands of synthetic jackets will end up in a landfill unless repurposed in some way. Recycled down is less abundant, but companies like Patagonia are still trying their best to use it where possible.
Which Do You Prefer?
I like down jackets for everyday wear in the colder months of the year. If I don’t have to walk far or do any physical exercise, then I will always slip my down jacket on as a single outer layer. However, I really like some synthetic jackets and am not against using one instead of down.
We hope you enjoyed reading this comparison of natural down Vs synthetic Jacket insulation materials. Let us know which you prefer in the comments.