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 Wash Your 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.

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.

Synthetic Insulation

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.


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