Thru-hikers in all places obsess approach an excessive amount of over essentially the most minute of drugs selections. This can be a reality. It’s also comprehensible, as hikers gamble their security and luxury on the few possessions they’ll match inside their backpacks.

Amongst a long-distance backpacker’s few necessities, you’ll possible discover gadgets meant to insulate: actually a sleeping bag or quilt, in all probability a puffy jacket, and possibly even a pair of insulated pants, booties, gloves, or mittens. For these items of drugs, hikers should select between down and artificial insulation.

In the event you run chilly, like me, your quilt can double as a second jacket for these frigid mornings.

On this article, we’ll do a deep dive into the down vs. artificial insulation debate, earlier than summarizing the advantages and downsides of every. Lastly, we’ll reply the query of which insulation reigns supreme or, a minimum of, which insulation is best for you.

Down Insulation in Backpacking Gear

What Precisely Is Down?

Down refers back to the cluster of plumage discovered beneath the outer feathers of geese and geese. It appears like a pulled-apart cotton ball skinny, fluffy strands which are light-weight, compressible, and breathable. These strands work to lure heat air towards your physique, protecting you heat in chilly environments.

When looking for down merchandise, you’re sometimes confronted with two items of data: down kind and fill energy.

Duck Down vs. Goose Down

Down kind refers to, shockingly, the kind of down used within the gear, with duck and goose down being the commonest. The insulation may be created from one or the opposite, or a mixture of the 2.

Typically talking, the clusters fashioned from goose down are usually bigger and area out barely higher in comparison with duck down. This permits goose right down to lure extra air, offering higher insulation and heat per ounce.

Whether or not this distinction in heat is definitely worth the distinction in value, nevertheless, is up for debate. The thru-hikes I’ve accomplished have been with duck down gear, and I’ve by no means had any complaints in regards to the insulating means.

down vs. synthetic insulation for backpacking

I’ve so many photos of me hanging round outdoors my tent in my quilt… I simply get too chilly, too simply.

Fill Energy

The fill energy quantity represents the quantity in cubic inches that one ounce of down occupies when allowed to succeed in its most loft. The quantity is discovered by inserting a standardized quantity of down right into a graduated cylinder and permitting it to develop freely for a particular time frame. The occupied quantity on the finish of the designated time interval determines the down’s fill energy score.

Did your eyes glaze over a bit studying that? Yeah, me too. Basically, fill energy straight pertains to the warmth-to-weight ratio of down gear, with a better fill energy providing higher heat per unit of weight.

Down Insulation for Backpacking: Execs

Down insulation provides loads of benefits, in case you’re prepared to courageous the upper price ticket.

Heat: The pure fibers inside down lure extra pockets of air than artificial insulation, making down gear higher at heat retention.

Weight: Together with offering higher insulation, down weighs lower than artificial supplies, making down-filled gear lighter than its artificial counterparts.

Compressibility: Once more as a result of bigger air pockets created, down gear can compress to a smaller quantity than artificial gear.

Longevity: Excessive-quality down gear, when cared for correctly, retains warmth and lasts longer than artificial gear.

down vs. synthetic insulation for backpacking

I’ve had my Hammock Gear quilt (with down insulation) since 2021. She’s nonetheless going as sturdy because the day I acquired her!

Down Insulation for Backpacking: Cons

Chilly When Moist: We’ve simply gone on and on about down’s superior insulating skills in comparison with artificial supplies. Nevertheless, all this falls aside within the presence of water. Down, not like artificial materials, loses its insulating properties when moist.

The plumes get laden and clump collectively when moist, destroying these treasured air pockets that usually give down its superior loft and heat.

Drying Time: Not solely does down not work as an insulator when moist, however it takes longer to dry than artificial gear. We’ll speak extra about why later, however simply know that sustaining your gear’s insulating skills in moist or humid environments might be a problem.

For my first winter ascent of a 14er, I wore my down coat and puzzled why it was doing such a horrible job at protecting me heat. I had sweated proper via the down, rendering the coat virtually ineffective till I acquired again dwelling to dry it.

Value: High quality down gear tends to return with a better price ticket in comparison with artificial alternate options. You can also make the argument than down tends to last more than artificial, which can prevent cash in the long term, however it’s arduous to disregard the upper upfront price that accompanies most down gear.

Upkeep: Down requires very particular care to take care of its efficiency. Not solely do you want a particular kind of cleaning soap and washer to wash down gear, however there’s a finicky approach you’ll want to dry it to ensure that the down to remain lofted. It’s time consuming and labor-intensive, and most of the people don’t have entry to the mandatory instruments whereas on the path.


Artificial Insulation in Backpacking Gear

Artificial insulation consists of synthetic fibers designed to imitate the insulating properties of pure down. Not like down, artificial insulation encompasses a far wider spectrum of precise supplies, with many manufacturers utilizing their very own particular cocktail of fibers. You could acknowledge in style artificial fills resembling Arc’teryx’s Coreloft or Patagonia’s PlumaFill.

Such all kinds of insulation can nonetheless be separated into two principal classes: steady filament insulation and unfastened fill insulation.

Steady Filament Insulation

Often known as block insulation, steady fill insulation consists of unbroken strands of artificial fibers woven collectively to create insulation. Whereas much less compressible, its resistance to clumping or shifting gives fixed heat and sturdiness all through.

Free Fill Insulation

Free fill insulation, however, consists of artificial fibers loosely distributed inside chambers of the gear. The time period “unfastened fill” highlights the power of those supplies to pack down right into a small quantity when not in use after which fluff up once more to supply heat and insulation when wanted.

Artificial Insulation for Backpacking: Execs

Heat When Moist: Artificial fill, not like down, retains its insulating properties whereas moist. I can consider a thousand methods thru-hikers expose their gear to moisture, starting from rain and mist to tent condensation and sweat. Having the ability to belief your gear in damp environments, particularly in case you’re mountaineering someplace moist and humid, is extremely essential.

Once I know will probably be chilly sufficient for me to wish to hike in my coat, I now at all times put on one made with artificial insulation, even when the climate isn’t humid.

Fast Drying: Not solely do the fibers nonetheless insulate whereas moist, however the gear will even dry out quicker than down. That is large with regards to consolation, however it additionally offsets the load distinction between the 2 supplies. Whereas down could also be nominally lighter, waterlogged down will completely outweigh dry, artificial gear any day.

Inexpensive: Artificial gear is commonly extra budget-friendly than down choices, due largely to totally different manufacturing processes and the restricted provide chain for down. Whereas thru-hikers are sometimes searching for methods to trim down their pack weight, I’ve by no means heard of somebody being excited to pay extra for his or her gear.

That being mentioned, there are nice budget-friendly down choices on the market. I purchased this Decathalon Forclaz puffy used for underneath $30.

Hypoallergenic: Whereas unusual, some folks could also be allergic to or have a sensitivity round down. Artificial insulation could be preferable in that scenario.

Artificial Insulation for Backpacking: Cons

Bulk: Artificial insulation is bulkier and fewer compressible than down. Anybody who has struggled to shove a sleeping bag or quilt into the underside of their bag is aware of the worth of compressible gear and artificial supplies can depart one thing to be desired in that division.

A bear can + a 9 day meals carry = very restricted area in my pack.

Heat-to-Weight: All of it appears to maintain coming again to these bigger air pockets in down. By comparability, artificial supplies simply don’t present the identical degree of insulation per ounce. In additional temperate environments, this can be advantageous. In cooler circumstances, this may occasionally necessitate extra layers and a heavier pack.

Environmental Impression: Artificial supplies are sometimes derived from petroleum-based sources, resulting in a bigger environmental influence than gear created from ethically sourced down. Though essentially the most environmentally pleasant consumption isn’t any consumption in any respect, it’s essential to contemplate your private footprint when making your gear selections.

READ NEXT – Finest Artificial Jackets for Backpacking of 2024

Gear Wars: Evaluating Down vs. Artificial

As lengthy distance backpackers, our time within the backcountry can stretch into days, weeks, and even months. The belief we place in our gear can’t be overstated. Every ounce carried and each inch of pack area turns into useful, and it’s inside this context that the talk between down and artificial gear lives. We’re all simply making an attempt to strike the suitable steadiness between weight, heat, sturdiness, packability, and value.

Let’s break down the flood of earlier info to discover a winner in every of those classes.

Heat-to-Weight Ratio

Down is famend for its distinctive loft and insulating skills, and emerges because the victor with regards to warmth-to-weight ratio. Whereas artificial fibers work in a lot the identical approach to create air pockets and lure heat air, down possesses a three-dimensional loftiness that artificial insulation has not fairly but managed to duplicate. The distinctive construction of down permits for the creation of bigger, and extra, air pockets, giving down the power to retain extra heat per ounce.

Winner: Down

In the event you’ve ever gone for an extended hike … you already know that ounces can really feel like kilos on essentially the most grueling of uphills.


As soon as once more, the trophy goes to down. Artificial fibers compress, due to this fact shedding their insulating properties, extra simply than down. This difficulty compounds over time and repeated compression, leading to a lower within the long-term efficiency of artificial gear in comparison with down.

Winner: Down

Water Resistance

Right here is the place down takes a little bit of a success. Not like artificial insulation, down can’t retain warmth within the face of water. Artificial gear is often created from polyester fibers, that are hydrophobic. This implies these fibers naturally repel water and don’t take up moisture, which isn’t a energy shared by down.

Even when artificial insulation turns into moist, it continues to carry onto a few of its insulating properties, for the reason that fibers don’t grow to be waterlogged. Moreover, moisture evaporates quicker from artificial insulation, permitting your gear to dry quicker.

Artificial wins this class.

Winner: Artificial

Once I’m backpacking on the humid, humid East Coast, I are inclined to want I had extra artificial gear.


The totally different buildings between down and artificial insulation, as soon as once more, trigger right down to win with regards to compressibility. Down insulation’s strucure construction of many interlocking fibers that each simply compress and regain loft. Artificial insulation, however, often has much less versatile fibers and a extra inflexible construction.

Once I’m shoving all my gear in my bag, and making an attempt to suit a number of days of meals in there as properly, I’m very grateful for a way little area my down gear is able to occupying.

Winner: Down


The existence of this debate, inherently, means there isn’t a simple selection between the 2 insulation sorts. Whereas down can boast a superior warmth-to-weight ratio, sturdiness, and compressibility, this comes with a reasonably steep price ticket.

Artificial insulation manufacturing prices much less in comparison with the identical processes with down. The artificial fibers may be produced in giant portions, and make the most of pretty cheap supplies and methods to take action. Down, however, is extremely labor-intensive and expensive to supply, clear, and course of.

Winner: Artificial

READ NEXT – Finest Down Jackets for Backpacking of 2024

Issues for a Through-Hike

These items of drugs don’t exist in a vacuum. You’re taking your insulating items out into the wilderness, expose them to every kind of circumstances, and have restricted sources with which to look after them. Let’s check out down and artificial gear decisions inside this context, and see if the suitable reply for you modifications.

Gear Sort

We will sit right here and discuss various kinds of insulation till our faces flip blue — and it kind of looks like now we have! For all the knowledge I can current in regards to the insulation itself, we are able to’t neglect that this insulation is only a small a part of the ultimate piece of drugs.

So many various issues make the most of down or artificial insulation: sleeping luggage, quilts, pants, booties, puffies, mittens, and extra. The suitable insulation selection for one among this stuff will not be the perfect resolution for an additional. Every bit of drugs serves a particular function and, in consequence, turns into uncovered to totally different circumstances and experiences on the path. Understanding that is key to optimizing efficiency and luxury throughout all items of drugs.

For instance, in case you wish to hike in your puffy jacket, the water resistance of artificial supplies might attraction to you — particularly in case you’re sweaty, like me. This similar consideration in all probability received’t apply to your sleeping bag, until you’re somebody who experiences horrific evening sweats. (Through which case, my condolences. Contemplate an artificial bag.)

Local weather and Climate

This brings us to our subsequent consideration: climate. Is it wet, muggy, moist, and chilly? In that case, artificial insulation could also be your finest guess. Down doesn’t insulate when moist, so in case your gear goes to be soggy more often than not, possibly go for artificial.

However, in case you’re touring someplace chilly and dry, down insulation often is the better option. I do think about right down to be superior on this surroundings, in case you’re OK with the associated fee.

down vs. synthetic insulation for backpacking

For my upcoming CDT thru-hike, I’ll be bringing largely down gear. I’m anticipating comparatively dry circumstances, with the information that I’ll should take additional precautions to maintain my gear dry throughout storms.

On-Path Upkeep

Whereas down could also be naturally extra sturdy than artificial insulation, it does require a degree of care which may be unrealistic for a lot of on a thru-hike. After down will get moist, it might probably lose its loft and insulation skills if it’s not dried correctly. Sometimes, this implies tossing it in a dryer with a number of tennis balls to assist break aside any down that has clumped collectively. Dryers (and tennis balls, for that matter) may be barely arduous to return by within the backcountry.

This additionally implies that washing your down gear, until you may have the particular sources, is just about a no-go till after your hike. Down could also be unimaginable at insulation, however it does little in the way in which of odor-resistance. If you already know that climbing right into a pungent sleeping bag for nights on finish, or wrapping your self in a putrid puffy, goes to essentially hassle you, think about artificial.

down vs. synthetic insulation for backpacking

Once I inform you my quilt has seen me at my worst… I imply it. Have a look at that hair! When’s the final time you suppose that woman showered?

Down vs. Artificial: Which Is Proper for You?

Did you click on this text hoping I’d truly offer you a definitive reply for what sort of gear you can purchase? Too unhealthy gear is extremely private, with the “proper” reply relying in your price range, deliberate utilization, and local weather circumstances.

Ultimately, it’s about discovering the steadiness between heat, weight, sturdiness, ethics, and upkeep. Experiment with totally different choices, hearken to different hikers’ experiences, and don’t be afraid to decide on totally different insulating materials for various items of drugs. Basically, belief your instincts.

down vs. synthetic insulation for backpacking

Personally, I are inclined to want down. However I don’t often hike in my puffy, and I are inclined to do most of my backpacking within the arid climates of Colorado. So, for the sticklers who hate a clickbait title, I’ll go forward and say down is healthier than artificial.

Bear in mind, the perfect gear is the gear that works for you particularly, not what works for anyone else.

Featured picture: Katie Jackson picture. Graphic design by Chris Helm.



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