Birds, Sheep, or Laboratories?: How to Pick Your Insulation

GooseWhat do people like? If you hand out a survey with that question on it, you will get a lot of different answers. People like banjos, jelly beans, kaleidoscopes, and the smell of bacon. Some of the answers you won’t get are things like wet toilet paper, popcorn kernels getting stuck in your teeth, and whooping cough. Being cold is another one of those things that nobody likes.

Luckily, there are ways to keep from getting cold. A good jacket is the best line of defense for keeping your teeth chattering to a minimum. However, jackets are made with lots of different kinds of insulation. How do you know which type of jacket you should get?

Down, wool, and synthetic insulation have been the most popular options for jackets and sleeping bags for the past few decades.

Their are different pros and cons to each type of insulation

Down has long stood as the best insulator in terms of warmth to weight. Down is super lightweight, incredibly warm, and it compress down to nothing making it the ideal type of insulation in cold conditions where weight and space are an issue (think backpacking in Alaska).

So what is down? When you look at a picture of a bird, you see creepy eyes, a curved beak, and long course feathers. What you don’t see is the very fine and fluffy layer of feathers that is underneath the long course feathers. That soft layer of feathers is called down. Down forms clusters that are great at catching body heat without trapping perspiration. Jackets and sleeping bags made from down are going to be light, warm, and packable.

As great as down is, it does have a few drawbacks.

While down is a great insulator when it’s dry, it comes up short when it’s wet. That’s because water compresses the fluffy down clusters, which destroys their ability to trap air and heat. A wet down jacket or sleeping bag is practically useless.

Down is also the most expensive type of insulation. If you’re trying to get a good down sleeping bag or jacket, be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars. If you hike a lot and need the warmth, packability, and lightness of down, then it’s worth the money. However, if you don’t need it, there are more affordable options.

Recently, there have been questions as to whether products made from down are inhumane. The process to collect down feathers requires birds, typically geese or ducks, to be plucked of their outer and under layers of feathers. Sometimes the birds suffer wounds during the plucking. Although the animals aren’t killed during the process, there is a possible chance of death due to bleeding or shock.

Synthetic is another popular choice for insulation. Synthetic insulation means that it isn’t made from natural fibers. Typically jackets and sleeping bags made with synthetic insulation will be cheaper than down or wool. For a long time, synthetic insulation has been viewed as substantially inferior to down, although the gap is lessening.

The end goal for synthetic insulation, is for it to be indiscernible from down. The main advantage synthetic insulation has over down, is that it will still insulate when wet.

Wool is another type of insulation that is just recently becoming more popular. There have been jackets made of wool for a long time, jackets made of nylon using wool as a stuffed insulation is a newer approach.

Like synthetic insulation, wool will provide warmth even when wet. It’s also more humane to collect wool than it is to collect down feathers, which makes it a more eco-friendly option than either synthetic or down.

Even though wool isn’t as warm per ounce as down, it is still a great insulating option. Currently companies like Smartwool are making jackets that use wool insulation, but there aren’t any sleeping bags on the market.

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