Choosing A Down Jacket

There are many options to consider when it comes to down jackets, from choosing down over a synthetic material, to what loft and fill mean, to where you plan on wearing your jacket all are important factors to keep in mind when making a purchase. Before delving into these question let’s start with what down is. Down is the layer of fine, light feathering between the skin of a goose or duck and its heavier, larger outer feathers. Down is used as a filling primarily in jackets, sleeping bags and blankets. If properly cared for down is very durable, with garments often lasting up to 20 years as long as you maintain and care for them according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Down Or Synthetic?

Before purchasing a down jacket, or any warm insulating jacket the first thing you must be sure of is that down is the ideal insulation for you. There are advantages to each with your specific needs being the determining factor. Down is the better insulator and retains more heat relative to synthetic insulation. Synthetic insulation, on the other hand, is still more adept at resisting moisture and dries more quickly than down. Once down becomes wet it loses its loft, its ability to trap heat and warmth. With new technologies down is becoming more and more resistant to water and able to dry more quickly but is still not quite up to par with synthetic materials. Down tends to last longer than synthetic insulation if properly maintained, although there are often specific instructions that are more complicated for maintaining down jackets as opposed to synthetic ones.

Features Of Down Jackets

There are two terms that are used when discussing down’s performance: loft and fill power. In reality they are essentially the same thing just used in different ways. Fill power is the measurement of loft, the ability to trap air and retain heat, or how “fluffy” the down is. Fill power measures the space one ounce of down takes up in cubic inches, for instance one ounce of 700 fill power takes up 700 cubic inches, an ounce of 800 fill power takes up 800 cubic inches. The higher the fill power the warmer the jacket will be on a per ounce basis.

As noted above new technologies are improving the performance of down, especially when it comes to weather proofing and water resistance. New nano-technologies are now being usedAnchor to coat down in a micro thin polymer that repels water, allowing the down to absorb 30% less water and dry 60% faster than untreated down without adding any additional weight. This new coating allows down to maintain its loft, the spaces in which it traps air to keep you warm, even after being exposed to moisture. That being said we don’t recommend allowing a down jacket to get soaked or left exposed to heavy rain for significant periods of time.

The final technical feature to think about when choosing a down jacket is the physical construction of the jacket itself. This comes in two parts, the way the jacket is made and the material used to make the outer shell and inner lining. Many down jackets are constructed one of two ways: sewn through or box baffle. In sewn through jackets the lining and shell are sewn directly together to create separate baffles in which the down resides. This method is cheaper and easier but causes some areas of the jacket to pinch the down and results in areas that are not insulated.

Box baffle is a more expensive and complicated process but results in an even distribution of the down while eliminating the pinched areas that cause the jacket to lose some insulation. In box baffle construction the baffles are created individually with sidewalls that keep the down in place, essentially building cubes for the down. The down is able to maintain its loft and therefore its warmth. This build keeps the jacket looking more uniform and generally gives it a slightly puffier appearance while adding some weight, all in the name of keeping you warmer and more comfortable.

The materials used in making the shell and lining have four areas of performance on which to focus:

WarmthWeightDurabilityBreathability/Water Resistance

Warmth, weight and durability are all closely related, many heavier materials provide greater warmth and are more resistant to abrasive surfaces and tearing. Jackets made with lighter materials tend to have shorter life spans than those made with heavier and more durable materials. Regardless of the type of jacket you buy, one that is lightweight and easily packable or one that is heavier and you plan on having for a long time, make sure that the shell is DWR (durable water repellent) treated. This will help protect your jacket and the down inside from the elements, keeping you warmer longer. You also want to make sure that the jacket is breathable to allow any sweat or moisture to escape from the jacket without impacting the down insulation.

Choose The Right Jacket For You

Before purchasing a down jacket understand what you want to use it for and what features are important to you. What kind of activities will you be doing? Are you going to be involved in highly active winter sports or is the jacket for getting around town in the cold weather? Do you want a lot of pocket space with lining for warmth? Will having a hood that can fit over a hat or helmet be necessary? Are you more concerned with weight and packability or warmth? These are questions that only you can answer but will help to guide you in what type of down jacket best suits your lifestyle.

Final Thoughts

Make sure the size of the jacket is right. Often you’ll be wearing your jacket as part of a layering system so you don’t want your jacket to be too tight. We recommend trying it on with a couple of layers underneath before making a final decision. You also don’t want it to be so big that it allows cold air to come in through any openings, such as the sleeves or hem line. Ideally the sleeves and hem lines are cuffed or adjustable to allow for various looks and layers.

Lastly it’s important to like the way the jacket looks. Ideally you will be wearing this jacket for years to come so make sure it’s something that you like the style of and how it looks on you.