Down vs Synthetic: Which is Best for Hiking and Camping?

Many people are not aware of the true differences between down and synthetic fabric. You may have heard that down provides more warmth and is more expensive. But there are advantages to synthetic fabric apart from its cost-effectiveness. Read our Down vs Synthetic article and learn about the differences between down and synthetic fabric.

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Advantages of Down Insulation

Contrary to popular belief, down is not made of feathers. It is actually made of the plumage of geese, duck, and other waterfowl. The downside of this is that some companies extract the plumage in a cruel way.

Down’s longevity can last for decades, which is far greater than that of most synthetics. However, this is only true if you take good care of your garment. Down usually needs to be washed using special instructions and detergent.

Dream Solutions USA Bulk Goose Down Filling (3/4 lb.) 700 Fill Power – 100% Natural White, No Feathers – Fill Comforters, Pillows, Jackets and More – Ultra-Plush Hungarian Softness Brand

Down takes up a lot less space than synthetics. You can compress it down and stuff it into a bag much more easily. You get plenty of warmth while it takes up a lot less space.

Speaking of warmth, one of the greatest benefits of down insulation is the fact that it is warmer than synthetic fabrics. Inside down fabric, there are thousands of little air pockets that retain heat. This also makes down more breathable, allowing extra moisture to escape.

Down can be compressed into a much smaller container than regular synthetics. The higher the quality of the down fill, the more compressible it is. This means that if you purchase a high-quality down product, it is excellent for the light backpacker.

Disadvantages of Down

One major disadvantage to down is the fact that getting it wet makes it lose its insulating effect. It also takes a while to dry, thus making it ineffective when taking it out in the rain without a rain guard.

Down can only be cleaned with mild detergents and products that are made specifically for it. At times, down can cause allergic reactions when it is not cleaned properly before being put into the garment by the manufacturer. In order to avoid allergic reactions, high-quality down must be used.

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Types of Down Insulation

  • High Loft Goose Down: Has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio, as it is of the highest quality.
  • Standard Goose Down: Standard goose down is cheaper than the high loft variety. But as you might have guessed, it is not as lofty as the highest quality down.
  • Duck Down: Duck down is not as costly to make, but is cheaper than the above two types. It is also a step below the standard goose down in terms of quality.

How the Warmth of Down is Measured

The warmth of the down is measured by its Fill Power and Fill Amount. Fill power is determined by the number of cubic inches that down will occupy for every ounce. For example, goose down has, at minimum, a fill power of 500.

This means that it takes up a volume of 500 inches per ounce. On the other hand, goose-down fill power can go as high as 800. Lower quality down, such as duck down, can fall below 400 in fill power. It is in these cases that companies that sell down products will ‘neglect’ to indicate the fill rating.

What is Meant by Down Grades

In case you did not know, down is not actually made of feathers. Down comes from the plumage of waterfowl, which is different from the actual feathers. They lie beneath the feathers, close to the bird’s skin.

This is much higher quality than just feathers. But often enough, the feathers have not been separated completely from the plumage, which ends up in the actual down product. In these cases, companies will often indicate what percentage of down the product actually contains in comparison with the percentage of feathers. The higher the percentage of feathers, the higher the warmth to weight ratio, and the higher the perceived quality (and thus, has a higher cost).

The Benefits of Synthetic Insulation

A couple of decades ago, products made of down insulation were clearly the way to go. This was due to the lack of quality and advances in technology for synthetic insulation fabrics.

Amazon Essentials Men's Lightweight Water-Resistant Packable Puffer Jacket, Black, LargeIn the more recent years, various types of high-quality synthetic insulation products have become comparable to the warmth-to-weight ratio of down. Synthetic insulation is made of polyester that is threaded in such a way that it resembles down’s material structure. When the synthetic threads that are used are thick, they are more durable and sustain their loft. When the threads are thin, they have a better warmth-to-weight ratio.

Synthetic insulation has the main advantage of being relatively resistant to water. In contrast with down insulation, the synthetic material will still provide its insulating qualities when wet. It also dries faster than down and is easier for your wallet to care for.

The Disadvantages of Synthetic Insulation

The main disadvantage of synthetic insulation over down is the fact that it is heavier and takes up more space inside the garment. It has a lower warmth-to-weight ratio than down. It is much easier to pack a down jacket or sleeping bag for backpacking than it is to pack synthetic garments. Also, synthetic insulation breaks down faster than down insulation.

Types of Synthetic Insulation

Although the list below is not exhaustive for common synthetic insulation brands, they are the ones that we have mostly heard of. Here they are, in no particular order.


Primaloft is often used for insulating sleeping bags and wearable garments. But you may not know that it is also used for winter boots. The reason why Primaloft is so popular with these types of products is that it is the type of synthetic insulation that has one of the highest warmth-to-weight ratios.

Tommy Bahama Primaloft Super King Comforter - Extra Wide Measuring 112 x 100 Inches - Hypoallergenic

Apart from its durability and softness, it has a high loft and is very lightweight. To top it all off, it happens to be water-resistant and dries quickly. Primaloft is one of the best synthetic insulation fills on the market.


Many of you have already heard of Thinsulate. You may recall having seen this brand written on thick winter gloves. It has many of the same qualities as Primaloft but is not quite as pricey.

3M Thinsulate Acoustic/Thermal Insulation AU4002-5 (20' x 60")


You can think of Dryloft as an alternative to Gore-Tex. It is often used for insulating parkas and sleeping bags. Its main appeal is that it has twice the breathability of Gore-Tex. However, although it is more waterproof than many of the other synthetic insulation fabrics, it is not quite as waterproof as Gore-Tex.

The Verdict

As you can see from the breakdown above, there is no clear winner between down and synthetic fabrics overall. It is really just a matter of utility and what feels best to you.

If you prefer a garment that is easily compressible and lightweight but provides plenty of warmth, then DOWN may be for you. But also remember that it costs significantly more than synthetic products. And, if you’re going to be going out in a wet climate, just remember that you will need to wear a rain guard over your jacket or sleeping bag. As mentioned above, when down gets wet, it remains wet for a long time and does not hold as much insulation until it is dry.

But if you prefer a garment that does not require special washing instructions, and you’re on a budget, a SYNTHETIC product may be for you. Are you willing to do away with having a high warmth-to-weight ratio and good compression for the sake of ease of washing and going easy on your wallet? This is totally up to you.

Which of these two types of fabrics do you prefer? Please begin a discussion by leaving a comment below.

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