In every hobby or activity we do there is always an ‘unofficial uniform’ and with hiking it’s the down jacket. But did you know that sometimes the ‘down’ jackets we see, while looking very similar, are made with other materials, sometimes natural alternatives like wool and sometimes synthetic materials; which is why these jackets are often known generically as ‘puffy jackets’.
Hikers will swear by one type of insulation material over another when looking at a jacket option. But it’s not always clearcut as to which is best – there are advantages and disadvantages to different types of materials to keep you warm and toasty. In this article we look at the pros and cons of the different insulation options on offer when choosing a jacket for warmth and hopefully provide a bit more clarity in helping you choose a jacket.
The following article will take you through my thought processes, in order, when purchasing a jacket for warmth.
I own two different jackets, are these are some of the oldest pieces of hiking clothing I own. So even before I look at making a purchase my first priority is that its going to be with me for a long time. I want it to be comfortable and it doesn’t matter how warm it is if it doesn’t feel good it’s going to reduce my enjoyment of a hike.
Every manufacturer designs their jackets slightly differently and in fact when I purchased my last jacket, I had narrowed my choice down to two options. I surprised myself in my purchase because I ended up not buying the jacket I had originally intended to based purely on fit.
My current jacket of choice is the North Face Thermoball Hoodie and as the name suggests this one comes with an attached hood. This was the first hooded insulated jacket I had ever owned and I wasn’t sure how it would go but as mentioned above, it suited my build really well so I took the risk and boy am I glad I did. After using it for just on four years I wouldn’t buy another jacket for hiking without a hood. As someone with no hair, I just love the ability to pull the hood up and down as the weather dictates.
Other features to consider are things like a durable outer shell, colour, and zip pockets. By far the most common colour jacket I have seen in stores in Australia is black and this bears out given the majority of jackets I see both on the trail and on the street for that matter are black in colour.
The North Face Thermoball Hoodie
While comfort is crucial the ability to provide warmth is equally important. You can be forgiven for thinking that the thicker and warmer the jacket, the better it is and if you are just standing by the side of a football field, hardly moving in the middle of winter, then I probably would agree with you. I do own a heavy weight down jacket but its designed for snow conditions and that’s the only time that it ever gets used and even then, it has to be really cold.
But when looking at jacket options for hiking we need something that not only keeps you warm when we are relatively stationary in camp but also won’t overheat you when you’re actively moving. This is where you can’t just purchase a jacket as a standalone item but rather you need to think about it as part of a layering system. Put simply, a layering system involves a series of different layers (in my case four layers) that can be used in combination to provide varying degrees of warmth rather than ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’ and relying on one thick heavy layer that is limited in use.
By having a well thought out layering system, each of these layers, including the jacket, shouldn’t be overly thick. In fact unless you are dealing with snow conditions on a regular basis, your jacket can be relatively lightweight both in a physical sense as well as in the degree of warmth that it provides. If you purchase a heavy insulating jacket for hiking you will sweat heavily and instead of keeping you warm, it’ll end up cooling you down.
The ability to strip off layers means that no matter what the temperature, you’ll stay comfortable by ‘mixing and matching’ your layers as the weather dictates.
My layering system. In this image my jacket for insulation in black in colour
These days the average hiker is swamped with choice but put simply your fabric choice comes down to natural or synthetic garments. What you choose will vary depending on your needs and your preferences. There are advantages and disadvantages to wearing one type of material over another. The outer shell of a jacket is typically a synthetic material of some sort but the biggest difference comes in the insulation material used.
By far the most common natural fibre used for insulation is down. You will often see descriptors associated with down sjackets such as ‘loft’ or ‘fill power’ and this describes the quality of the down material. The higher the loft, the warmer and lighter the jacket is but also the more expensive. The best quality jackets have 800+ loft, which will be reflected in the price. Cheaper down jackets will have a loft figure that is much lower. The higher the loft number combined with the amount of down will provide a warmer but more expensive jacket. The same weight of a higher loft will fill a larger area than a lower loft quality. As an example 1 ounce of 850 loft down will fill 850 cubic inches of space. One ounce of 650 loft down will fill 650 cubic inches of space. In this example you will need a greater of amount of the 650 loft down to achieve the same warmth which means that the jacket will be heavier.
Many jackets contain down fill that is treated so it is water repellant. The key word here is ‘repellent’ rather than ‘waterproof’ and if your down jacket gets sopping wet then its not going to do you any favours. If you ever have the chance to look at British outdoor magazines almost without fail you won’t see down jackets advertised as the wetter climate isn’t really suited to them. Down jackets are excellent when you know you can maintain a dry jacket and want to minimise your gear weight as well as the bulk in your pack e.g. long distance through-hiking.
Jackets that contain natural insulation will usually contain down, or less commonly Merino wool. Down is derived mainly from ducks or geese with geese down usually providing the best quality (and highest price) although this is becoming harder to source.
Where possible, source ‘ethical down’ which means that the best practices are used when handling the animals from which the down comes.
Down comes in different qualities based on the ‘loft’. The higher the loft the less down you will need to provide warmth and with it, the less the jacket will weigh
The other option for fill in jackets is synthetic materials. While down jackets are more common, synthetic jackets have their place. I own both a lightweight down and a lightweight synthetic jacket so when I go bush, I will amore often than not choose my synthetic option because no matter how wet it gets it will still keep me warm. In 2018 I hiked the Bibbulmun Track over 35 days and had rain to some degree for 27 of those days. If lots of rain is going to be what you are dealing with, then synthetic is the way to go.
As mentioned, I own both down and synthetic lightweight jackets and love both. I used my down jacket on the Larapinta Trail and we were lucky to have only 2 mm rain. My down jacket also feels more comfortable and lighter in weight so this is my go-to option for shorter trips where I know rain won’t be an issue. When I’m hiking for extended periods and rain is likely to be an issue, I will always opt for my synthetic fill jacket. In fact I can remember a number of years ago getting my previous synthetic jacket drenched and it still managed to keep me warm where a down jacket just wouldn’t have coped.
So what to buy? This is really going to depend on how often you hike and whether you hike in wet weather. As someone who hikes regularly for extended periods, doesn’t let rainfall bother them, and if I was only going to but one jacket, I would opt for a synthetic model.