Down vs. Synthetic Insulation: What’s the difference?

Not all insulation is created equal, and deciding to kit yourself out for a specific adventure with down or synthetic insulation is a question we each ask ourselves over and over again. The answer largely depends on what environment you’re venturing into and what activities you’ll be undertaking. Whether you’re on a snowy belay ledge, thigh-mastering up a wet and windy peak, or layering up for an afternoon breaking trail with your favorite cross country skis, knowing when and where each type of insulation performs best will help you decide between these two types of insulation. 

Down Insulation
You might not believe us, but down is not made from feathers. Down insulation is made from goose or duck plumage – the lofty, fluffy stuff underneath the feathers. It is an undercoating, or a natural midlayer. Nature’s best insulation, down creates high-loft clusters that trap air and body heat. In addition to its ability to efficiently trap heat, down is also incredibly breathable, allowing it to wick unwanted moisture away from your body to evaporate.

Because of its supreme warmth-to-weight ratio and incredible compressibility—which makes it  very easy to pack—down is considered the crème de la crème of insulators. It remains lightweight and compressible while holding you in a cocoon of warmth, definitely something to consider when debating what to take on your trek and what to leave in the closet.

RELATED: Demystifying Down Fill Power

Down can be broken into a spectrum of effectiveness. We measure this effectiveness—“fill power”—by how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill. The typical range is around 450 to 900, with 900 being the warmest and lightest… but also the priciest.

The warmest, lightest down comes at a premium price because it’s sourced from mature geese. This is the best insulator because the high-loft goose down has a very fine construction. Duck down is less fine than goose down and thus is less expensive, but also maintains slightly less loft.

Natural down is also incredibly resilient and—if properly cared for—can be used for many years. However, down has a few *ahem* downfalls: First, down is incapable of efficiently repelling moisture. In fact, it loses many of its insulating properties when it gets wet and is often slow to dry.

RELATED: How To Care For A Down Jacket

With all that in mind, if you’re faced with cold, dry conditions or if you don’t expect to encounter wet weather, then down insulation is your ticket. Plus—now you can shop with confidence, because OR stands behind the Responsible Down Standard.

The helium down hoodie.

Or—if you REALLY want the warmth of down regardless of the weather, you could consider one of the Helium Down Jackets. The all-new Helium Down Collection takes durable lightweight warmth to an entirely new level. The Pertex® Quantum with Diamond Fuse Technology protects the 800+ fill down with an exceptionally durable and abrasion-resistant shell without adding weight. The Helium Down Jackets also use an exclusive waterproof version of Pertex® Shield with Diamond Fuse fabric on hood and shoulders for added weather invincibility.

Not waterproof, but water-resistant, the jackets in the Transcendent Down Series are lightweight down jackets filled with 650-fill down insulation sandwiched inside of lightweight 20D ripstop. Whether you're headed on a fall climbing trip or to the office, the Transcendent jackets are the classic option. Or, for a longer cut and even more warmth and weather resistance, check out the Super Transcendent Down Hooded Jacket or the Super Transcendent Down Parka.

The Super Alpine Down Parka.

If you want something beefier, the Super Alpine Down Parka is our warmest technical down jacket, remastered in partnership with our world class athlete team to bring enhanced warmth and a new hood design for the coldest climates. It uses the durable Pertex® Quantum Pro exterior with an 800 fill power down insulation for enhanced warmth designed to withstand the coldest climates.

For an extra-tough jacket that's both high on warmth and high on style, the Men's Blacktail Down Jacket combines 700-fill down insulation with a durable, abrasion-resistant shell. Likewise, the Women's Coze Down Parka might be our comfiest urban coat. An overstuffed adjustable hood traps warmth around your head and face, and the extreme length gives you the warmth of 700 fill down all the way down. Plus the shell and lining are 100% recycled, which feels good, too.

Synthetic Insulation
So now we know down is warm but doesn’t do well in wet or humid conditions. Enter synthetic insulation. Synthetic insulation is designed to replicate the qualities of down, but retain them even when wet. It’s made with polyester fibers that are arranged in different sized filaments and intertwined, mimicking down’s lofty clusters. These ultrafine fibers trap warmth in air pockets, providing great warmth… though not quite as good as down. In addition, synthetic insulation has a slightly higher weight-to-warmth ratio than down, meaning it needs to be heavier to achieve the same warmth as down. The upside to synthetic insulation is that it is much more resistant to moisture, and when it does get wet it dries faster; synthetic insulation can often dry within a day—maybe even hours—if put in the sun or on a windy day. And now, new fabric technologies like VerticalX™ and VerticalX Air™ offer increased breathability and moisture transfer, designed to be worn while you're on the move. Synthetic insulation also tends to be friendly on the wallet and is naturally hypoallergenic.

Tthe high-loft VerticalX™ insulation in our Refuge Jackets keeps you warm, dry, and comfortable even when wet. Water and wind resistant, with movement-mirroring stretch, these lightweight jackets are treated with Thermo-regulating ActiveTemp™, making them the perfect jackets to wear both wheen you're moving and when you stop.

The Women's Refuge Air Hoodie.

Even lighter, more breathable, and quicker to drop excess heat than the original Refuge Collection, the Refuge Air is the layer you'll choose when you have fewer rest stops and a faster pace planned for a ski tour, snowshoe or winter hike. Supreme moisture management and breathability makes it the perfect choice for high-exertion activities.

A synthetic insulated jacket

Our hybrid jackets—like the Vigor Hybrid Hooded Jacket, the Refuge Hybrid Hooded Jacket and the Women's Melody Hybrid Jacket—provide extra flexibility, combining hybrid-mapped synthetic insulation with lighter movement-enhancing construction for two-in-one performance and comfort.

For more casual style, the Women's Wilson Shirt Jacket combines soft and warm high pile fleece interior, with weather-resistant VerticalX™ technology in the arms and a stylish waxed canvas exterior. The Men's Winter Ferrosi Jacket combines fan-favorited Ferrosi soft shell material with VerticalX™ insulation to keep you warm even when wet. And the Men's Prologue Dorval Parka and Women's Prologue Rosemont Parka both feature long cuts withh waterproof and windproof canvas exterior and high-loft insulation powered by VerticalX™, perfect for windproof, waterproof warmth and style.


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Photos: Forest Woodward