Synthetic vs Down
Whether it's for a sleeping bag or a winter jacket, it's always the first question: Should I go with down or synthetic? We thought we'd take this opportunity to share some basic answers to a common question around the shop and to share some lesser known details about sustainably sourced goose and duck down.
So here is the rundown in simplest terms. It primarily comes down to cost, warmth and packability. Synthetic fills are cheaper but also heavier and not as packable. Down fills are lighter and more packable, but come at a higher cost. For that added cost, however, down can be a significantly warmer than synthetic, depending on the quality of fill or loft. We’re still surprised how often people touch a down jacket and ask us if it’ll keep them warm. Short answer, yes, they use them in the arctic.
Traditionally, synthetic fills still work when they get wet where as down loses it's loft and insulation ability. That said, there have been a lot of advances in the treatment of down making it more water resistant. Hydrophobic down is a down that has been treated to make it shed water better. Exterior fabrics on a down sleeping bag or jacket are also often treated to make them more water resistant.
There have been a number of advances in synthetic insulation making them closer to being able to mimic down for warmth. For someone who'd prefer not to use animal products, synthetic may be the preferred option, but we encourage you to read on to learn about sustainably sourced down. For those not keen on over porduction of synthetic materials, it's worth noting that some companies like Patagonia use recycled material in their fills.
So how do you decide? It's a question of budget, application and how warm you want to be. If you're car camping and space for a sleeping bag isn't an issue – or it's not that cold – then synthetic might be fine. On the other hand, if you're multi-day backpacking – where space and weight are at a premium – or you get cold easily, then down is absolutely the way to go.
Same with jackets. If you're cruising around town and want to be reasonably warm synthetic is great. If Pennsylvania winters chill you to the core then down is the answer. But a down jacket – while it packs down better – may be bulkier when you're wearing it compared to synthetic – again depending on fill.
Sustainably sourced down and the Responsible Down Standard
We get it, down is expensive. But why is it so pricey? It's true, you might be able to pick up some cheap down jacket online or at a discount store. But there's probably an ugly truth behind that rock bottom price. It likely came from a juvenile goose or duck that was overfed, caged and slaughtered before reaching maturity. It was probably also less processed, washed or treated, leaving a good chance it may have dust mites associated allergens and low-cost down.
Enter the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and treated down. Down from companies like Rab meet RDS qualifications – the RDS is an independent nonprofit that oversees responsible down sourcing. The RDS certifies down that only comes from mature farm-raised and properly fed geese and ducks. Much like comprehensive organic farming standards, RDS certified farms have to meet a standard that emphasizes animal welfare and sustainable practices. RDS certifications means animals were not force-fed and were farm-raised to maturity.
From there high quality down is treated to be hydrophobic or water resistant. The process involves a thorough cleaning that eliminates a number of allergens found in lower quality down. Treatment means the down will shed some water if exposed to the elements, maintaining loft and insulation qualities. During processing down fill is also grade based on loft and warmth. An 800 fill for example will have a higher loft and insulative quality than a 600 fill.
From eco-conscious brands to sustainable practices, it's those kinds of quality considerations that we take in to account with a lot of the products we chose to carry. Have more questions? Stop in any time to chat. If it's in the store, there's a good chance there's a good story behind it.
For further information on choosing the right down jacket read the Rab Guide to Down Insulation.