Weighing the down or synthetics issue against an egg
Hiking means carrying your gear. Some items are heavy, some are bulky, and smart packing is a must. Now, because you cannot reduce the weight of water, take a look at the other essentials. Clothing for instance as furs and feathers are not ours. Unlike the animals living in cold climates like in Scandinavia, we must buy our clothing to keep us warm. For outdoor activities in cooler weather, an insulated garment is one of those indispensable basic wardrobe items, and a lightweight one even more. The question what to choose, down or synthetics, can be a haunting one. In brief, we’ll list the most important features of both.
Down or synthetics? Advantages and disadvantages
Down = plumage, not feathers
Down, in fact not feathers but goose or duck plumage, is the warmest type of insulation. And the warmest (and lightest) down comes from mature geese. Fillpower ratings (from 450 to 900 cuin) is what measures the effectiveness, meaning: the higher the better. It goes without saying that all of this comes at a price, down is more expensive than synthetics. On the other hand, the inherent and therefore biggest weakness of down as an insulator is moisture. When it is wet, the insulating capacity is seriously hampered. Down dries slowly and proper care in most cases is impossible when you are out somewhere.
Moisture: the outdoor enemy
Therefore, a down filled jacket or vest will be of no use outdoors when getting thoroughly wet. The fluffy filling will turn into a lumpy ball, unable to dry and to be rearranged properly. For birds, feather maintenance is critical because the feathers are the most important devices that help the bird to survive. While birds have the ability to spread their wings, ruffling their feathers followed by preening in order to dry and care for their plumage, a jacket or vest has to survive without this capacity. In short: the latter won’t because proper maintenance is essential to last for years.
Synthetic fillings have not conquered the weight-to-warmth ratio of down but they are coming close to it. To achieve the same warmth as down, the synthetic garment has to be heavier. However, the truly biggest advantage of synthetics is that it performs better when wet. It dries more quickly and it retains more of its insulating capacities while moist or damp. Consider not only the moisture coming from the outside here. While engaged in outdoor activities, the perspiring human body needs garments that will transport moisture away from the skin towards outer layers.
Lightweight has an extra feel-good quality
More than once my grandparents amazed me. Always eager to travel, for obvious reasons preferably by car: they had made a peculiar habit of bringing their own bedding. Hilarious moments occurred as pillows and duvets in specially designed, lined travel suitcases were unloaded from the car at the red carpet entrance of a luxury hotel. The irrefutable argument was that those lightweight premium quality duvets could and therefore would never equal anything else.
And they were absolutely right, numerous long holiday nights felt like being cocooned in a warm, oversized marshmallow. This mental connection with something sweet and edible is hardly not surprising, considering the fact that my grandmother was an excellent cook. Knowing all recipes by heart and very precise in her working methods, she nevertheless insisted on weighing every ingredient, even an egg, simply because “chickens are not alike so won’t be the eggs”.
Down or synthetics: find your own favorites
Their generation was acquainted with a buying principle, best to be described as ‘your purchases will have to last’. Duvets, walking boots, tents, jackets: the meticulous care and maintenance were the necessary and just as much pleasant rituals embedded in daily life. All aimed at ensuring a for decades lasting usage. In those not that faraway times, one had to judge rightly and make a wise choice. Although nowadays a wide range of options is available in various pricings, especially in the clothing department, nothing has changed in regard to outdoor necessities.
Outdoor travelling requires some understanding of what you will need. Which items will be the most practical and beneficial without weighing you down? Shortly, it will pay when you find the garments that seem to have been developed, designed and tailored just for you.
In some respects, trying to find a conclusive answer to the question ‘which is best, a lightweight down filled or synthetic jacket?’ is fairly impossible. In the end it all comes down to personal preferences though. Yes, your clothing has to perform but no, even under the circumstances out there you don’t want to look as if you just have left your modest caveman dwelling….
Leightweight and packable: two characteristics that you really want to include choosing an insulated jacket, indeed one of the most versatile garments in an outdoor wardrobe. Look for the no frills items, simplicity is best. Manufacturers provide accurate information regarding weight and packability. But do we know the feel of a certain weight? How accurate are our guessings? Out of sheer curiosity I wanted to know and selected a few items: my mobile phone, an egg, two jackets and two vests. The mobile phone and the egg for both the same reasons: they are part of our everyday life. The egg however may benefit from an upgrade.
Looking for a thing or something in life that is universal and common at the same time, there are not much objects that qualify. An egg needs not to introduce itself. Of all things we use and are acquainted with in daily life, an egg is almost as always considered without preconception or prejudice. An egg is indisputably just an egg. Because the egg is also not taking part in following fashionable trends, it has a constant value. No models, versions or extra features. And: the probability of packing an egg in your backpack is less than zero.
Picasso and the importance of eggs
Sidestepping, let’s look at it from another angle. Pablo Picasso. The always experimenting artist, his complex mind in search of simplicity, observed:
When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait.
This kind of referring to basic things and proportions is appealing because too complex gear or over engineered items just do not work well. Instead, they cause problems. Thus, what served Picasso may work for jackets too. Weighing in with this approach, let’s have a look at the garments.
In this odd observation the included items are the following:
- Chicken egg: medium size, free range origin
- Mobile phone: HTC
- Down jacket: Haglöfs Essens Q Down Jacket (fillpower: 800 cuin, 100 % goose down)
- Down vest: Fjällräven Pak Down Vest W (fillpower: 700 cuin, 95 % goose down, 5 % feather)
- Synthetic jacket: Lundhags (style/model unknown because it is some six years old, 100 % polyester, exterior: H2OFF Fabric and filling: Primaloft)
- Synthetic vest: Haglöfs Barrier III Q Vest (outer fabric: 100 % polyester: Pertex Classic Eco, filling 100 % polyester: Quad Fusion)
Weighing down and synthetics against the egg
And now the weight ratings:
- Egg: 60 gr
- Mobile phone: 150 gr = 2,5 eggs
- Haglöfs jacket (down): 240 gr = 4 eggs
- Haglöfs vest (synth): 240 gr = 4 eggs
- Fjällräven vest (down): 240 gr = 4 eggs
- Lundhags jacket (synth): 510 gr = 8,5 eggs
To conclude: have one of both
A down filled item is a great choice for dry, cold conditions or when worn under a shell. Some of your egg money needs to be spend however. Opt for synthetics in those cases where you will be in wet weather. Even better: include a down and a synthetics item in your wardrobe. Take good care of them and they will march with you for years. Maybe nice to find such a gift under the Christmas tree this year! And as for my grandparents duvets: these continued to deliver those marshmallow filled dreams, now in my home.
Apart from the manufacturers information on down and synthetic garments, there are more or less objective test results and reviews to be found, also providing general information. Try for instance:
Yet, with the enjoyable use of family owned outdoor gear, discovered in an ancestor’s attic, or a piece found as the result of your endless search for that one-and-only item, you will add tradition. Less is more and an informed choice works best if you don’t want to fill your cupboards with gear that is hardly ever used.
Featured photographs by Erica Friebel at HuskyGård