Year-on-year, and given the time of year, I am asked to explain the difference between down and synthetic insulation, and which is the best option.
And, year-on-year, things change, and new materials enter the market, all adding to the mix. Once upon a time, down was the go-to fill. Its warmth-to-weight ratio was superb, and as for packability, it scrunched down and down, if you will pardon the pun. Get it wet, though, and all that lovely loft disappeared. So we turned our minds to synthetic insulation, which proved better for water resistance. Synthetic jackets were also more robust. Now enter the scene water resistant down treatments, which tolerated wetness better and recovered faster. Oh yes, then through the back door entered those blends of down and synthetic fibres. Little wonder that you remain more confused than ever. But, fear not, because it really all boils down to your chosen environment and activity, whether it be screaming off-piste down powdery slopes, hanging off precarious ledges under crisp blue skies, or chilling (nay, warming yourself) round the campfire.
Goose or duck plumage is used for down insulation. It works on birds as a natural under layer, tucked as it is under their feathers, and creates breathable, high-loft clusters that trap air and body heat. It works on humans as a warming cocoon. When you read about fill power (we have some products below with fill powers of 700), this basically means how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill. As the fill power increases, so does the price point. As down is renowned for losing its insulating properties when wet, I suggest you opt for a down jacket when you are facing crisp, cold, dry conditions.
Synthetic insulation is made with polyester fibres that are arranged in different sized filaments and intertwined, thereby mimicking down’s lofty clusters. Warmth is trapped in air pockets in the ultra-fine fibres. Synthetic insulation is also much more resistant to moisture. Get it wet, and it dries far more rapidly than down. So you can see where we are headed with this. If you are looking to those grey, overcast skies and sense rain in the air, then a synthetic jacket will be your saviour. You will probably save a few pennies over down, as well. Ideally, and if your budget will stretch, opt for one of each, and then you have covered all bases!
MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR HENRY PADDED GILET
Not sure who Henry is, but no matter. He has given his name to a very nice lightweight, water-resistant gilet, and one which offers 700 down fill power. There is no denying the fact that down is nature’s most effective insulting material, and that traditionally, down jackets were really only designed for cold, dry conditions. I admit to the odd occasion when I have been caught out in a sudden downpour whilst on belay half-way up a cliff face, and being left wet and miserable in my once-cuddly down jacket. When synthetics first came on the scene, outdoorsy folk were brimming with excitement for the pure fact that a winter jacket made of this material far outshone down in terms of moisture management. Then along came a lightbulb moment with hydrophobic down, which was created to perform in damp conditions, whereby the down insulation is treated with a durable water repellent which enables the down to dry quicker and resist water for longer. And here you have it in the Henry Padded Gilet. Don’t get me wrong. Hydrophobic down jackets are by no means waterproof, but they go a long way towards combatting our damp British climate, and our Henry will certainly keep you protected. £99.99, www.mountainhardwear.com
SNUGPAK SV9 GILET
Snugpak is certainly not one to rest on its laurels. Riding on the back of the re-launch of the SV3 Gilet in 2017, the UK’s leading sleeping bag and insulated clothing manufacturer has added an even warmer version to the collection in the form of the SV9 Gilet. As the brand’s insulated clothing collection expands, so does its reputation, and the SV9 can only add to the popularity. The gilet is filled with the same exclusive Softie Premier insulation that is used to make Snugpak’s sleeping bags and insulated jackets. Whilst the mid-layer vests are water resistant and windproof, they still allow for plenty of freedom of movement in the arms. The SV9 Gilet comes in a choice of colours, including olive, black, multicam, blue and red, £89.99, www.snugpak.com
PARAMO TORRES ACTIVO JACKET
If you reckon on heading to the extremes this winter, then you can trust in your Torres Activo. This athletic fit, multi-activity jacket oozes quality and, as always, Paramo deliver with bundles of technical detailing. It might look a tad bulky, but trust me, it isn’t, and yet it has insulation at its core. The streamlined and minimalistic design excludes traditionally placed handwarmer pockets. Instead, you slide your hands across the chest via discreetly placed zipped pockets, which are harness-friendly. There is also an internal chest pocket which acts as a transportation bag when the jacket is fully compressed. A scooped tail is always a bonus, and I also like the innovative spiral-cut sleeves, which offer freedom of movement. Other features include an adjustable hem drawcord and Velcro cuff closure. The insulated hood fits neatly over a low profile helmet. Material-wise, the closely woven outer has a synthetic, water resistant fill and a breathable silky lining, cutting windchill and providing efficient block insulation by retention of body heat. £180, www.paramo-clothing.com
SPRAYWAY ALDAN VEST
The lightweight Aldan is an excellent cold weather layering piece, and features a drawcord adjustable hem, elastane trimmed arm holes, two large external handwarmer pockets and an internal zipped security pocket. This stitch through baffle construction vest uses 90/10 water resistant pure duck down with a minimum fill power of 700. In addition, a water repellent Teflon treatment has been applied, allowing the down filaments to resist moisture. I expected the Aldan to offer me considerable warmth, and it didn’t disappoint, having worn it both as a body warmer and as a mid-layer with an outer shell. I guess I would term this as a traditionally simplistic design with full-length zip and easily accessible pockets. I very nice item to have in your wardrobe. £99.95, www.sprayway.com
MAMMUT RIME PRO HOODED JACKET
Swiss brand Mammut has an excellent reputation for producing Alpine-ready products, and the Rime Pro is no exception. Attention to detail is second-to-none, with excellent quality components and neat design touches that we have come to expect. I am a fairly bulky chap, and my first concern was the close-fitting nature of the Rime Pro, in that it might hinder any particularly athletic mountain pursuits, and also prove too awkward (tight) when layering up. However, that thought was immediately dismissed when I zipped it up over Mountain Hardwear’s Featherweight Down Jacket and took to the hill. You never can be too toastie! The Rime Pro uses two grades of PrimaLoft’s Silver insulation fill, zoned to keep movement relatively restriction free. The Pertex Microlight fabrics are windproof and perform a nice balance between light weight, softness and durability. Features include a hood, two large zipped handwarmer pockets and two large internal elasticised pockets, which are great for storing hat and gloves. In conclusion, this is pretty much the perfect all-rounder. And if you do intend to wear it with a chunky mid-layer, make sure you size up accordingly. £180, www.mammut.ch
COLUMBIA LAKE 22 DOWN VEST
The gilet comes with a swing tag warning: This innovative product will make you want to go outdoors and stay there. A bold statement, but you know what those Americans are like… To be fair, it does rise to the challenge quite admirably, with its water-resistant fabric and Heat Seal construction, which uses hi-tech thermal bonding to create stitch-free chambers of 650 fill power down, which in turn keep the down from migrating out and cold air getting in. Hey presto!, you stay warmer and drier. The lightweight, streamlined gilet has two large zipped handwarmer pockets and two open pockets on the inside to store hat and gloves. The gilet compressed nicely so I could easily pack it in my daypack. You can’t go wrong at the price, either. £75, www.columbia.com
VAUDE KABRU LIGHT JACKET III
Breathable, packable and featherweight with superb softness… add to that a neat touch in the stretchy fleece inserts under the arms, which offer more freedom of movement, and you have pretty much everything you would desire in a down jacket. The thermal Kabru oozes quality, with its super lightweight yet stable Pertex Quantum outer and the use of post-consumer recycled materials to create the highest performing eco-friendly insulation available. A humidity-repelling PrimaLoft Insulation Silver Eco is used to line the cuffs and side chambers. Features include two large handwarmer pockets. Wear this as a warming mid-layer or comfy outer layer, and you can’t go wrong. A word of warning, though. The jacket is styled as a slim fit, and slim fit it is. I normally take a size XL, and my sample was extremely tight across the chest, so bear that in mind, as may have to size up. Yes, it may appear a lot of money, but what price quality? £200, www.vaude.com
REGATTA HALTON HYBRID VEST
Regatta’s technical insulation range offers performance and warmth through a variety of garment fills. Interestingly, the Halton bodywarmer uses a blend of alpaca wool insulation and high stretch reflective panels in order to deliver warmth and mobility. The body uses lightweight polyamide fabric with a stitch-through fill construction. I was writing earlier in this piece about the insulating properties of down, and how it reacts unfavourably to rain. Well, unlike conventional down, Regatta’s alpaca blend fill insulates even when wet, thereby making the Halton suitable for damp conditions. I like the stretch panels with their reflective marl print, which have been strategically placed around the chest in order to maximise visibility under torchlight or vehicle headlights. With a durable water repellent finish, the garment also features stretch binding to the armholes, hem and collar. £70, www.regatta.com
REVIEWER: MICHAEL COWTON