Down Jackets - Buying Guide

Follow this guide to help you decide on the down jacket for your activity. 


Step 1 - Why choose down?

When investing in a down filled jacket we strongly recommend that you purchase it from a reputable outdoor clothing company. Otherwise you run the risk of buying a poor quality jacket or cheap imitation. Here at e-OUTDOOR we carefully select the best range of down jackets we can find.

What is down insulation and why use it?

Down is the fine feathering on a bird that lies beneath the tougher often beautiful larger exterior feathers. The outer feathers provide protection from the elements and also enable the bird to fly, whereas the loose structure of the down traps air to keep the bird warm and in the case of waterfowl helps to provide water buoyancy. The down feathers themselves are not waterproof and so need the protection of the outer feathers in order to function properly.

Geese are larger birds than ducks and generally have bigger down clusters. Their filaments are therefore able to trap more air and provide more insulation. The general rule of thumb is the bigger the down cluster, the warmer the jacket.

Despite advancements in synthetic insulation production, down still provides the best weight to warmth ratio, it is more compactable and is naturally breathable. Also, synthetic insulation is manufactured from polyester fibres which are a product of the petroleum industry a major polluter of our world. Synthetic insulation is generally less expensive than down.

Fill Power is a numerical measurement of the loft of the down. Typically a gram of down is taken and the volume it occupies is measured. The greater the volume occupied by the gram of down the better the quality and the more air it can trap to provide greater insulation. When buying a down item the Fill Power number (usually ranging from 650 to 1000) is not in itself the measure of the warmth of the item. The quantity of down used (usually given in grams/square metre) and the size of the baffles used (which govern how much the down is allowed to loft in an item) also will seriously affect the warmth provided by the jacket.

Down to feather ratio is the amount of down inside a jacket, versus the amount of feathers. The higher the number in favour of down, the warmer the jacket. High-quality jackets will have at least an 80/20 down-feather ratio because down does a much better job at trapping air than feathers.

What do we mean by ‘Loft’?

The loft is the downs ability to expand and trap the air that provides insulation. Depending upon the bird that the down is taken from down varies in its ability to loft. The greater the loft the better insulation it will provide and the warmer it will feel.

Tip: As you can see below prices varies across down jackets. The fill power is one of the factors considered when pricing a jacket.


Step 2 - Is down waterproof?

The simple answer is no, it is not. This has proven to be a major challenge in the outdoor clothing industry. When down gets wet it clumps together losing it’s ‘loft’ and hence its ability to trap air, this means that it no longer has any insulating ability.

If warmth is required in a particular constant wet environment then there are a couple of options. You could combine down with a lightweight waterproof hardshell or try synthetic insulation which is better at maintaining its insulating ability even when soaking wet.

Hydrophobic down

This is down that has been treated with a solution that helps it to resist getting wet, and therefore retain its insulating ability longer. Unfortunately hydrophobic down is not fully waterproof, in constant wet conditions it will still lose its loft and hence insulation. It dries faster than untreated down and hence will regain its insulation quicker.

Nikwax hydrophobic down is treated with waterproofing that is water-based and free from fluorocarbon chemicals and therefore more friendly to the environment.

Rab uses Hydrophobic Down in a selection of their range.


Step 3 - Down Jacket Construction

So what are baffles?

Let us take a jacket construction as an example. To contain the down in the jacket it will be sandwiched between an inner and outer layer of fabric. If the down is simply stuffed between these two layers it will all naturally sink to the bottom of the jacket and be completely useless! To keep the down evenly spread across the whole jacket small tubes are created using the inner and outer layers of fabric to hold the down in place. There are two methods of creating these tubes which are called - ‘Baffles’.

Stitch through

This is most commonly used in lighter weight garments. Simply the outer and inner layers of the garment are stitched together to form the baffles. It is the simplest and easiest method and creates the pattern of tubes that we are familiar with on down jackets. This method requires less fabric and so helps to keep the weight of the garment low.

The drawback of this method is that the down gets pinched at the points where the fabric is sewn through which can create cold spots and potentially creates a garment that is less windproof.

Instead of stitching through to create the baffles some companies heat seal the two layers of fabric together.

Box-wall

In colder climates where greater warmth is needed down needs to achieve its maximum loft consistently over the whole garment. This is done by creating boxes out of the outer fabric - hence ‘Box wall’. By using this construction the down is not pinched at all giving a much greater consistency of insulation and enabling greater loft. More fabric is required in the outer layer to create the boxes so the jacket will weigh more.

With stitch through construction, there is the possibility of some heat escaping where the layers meet. Box Wall baffles have sidewalls to protect from heat loss and are made for seriously cold conditions. The larger the baffles the more down that can be used and a fuller loft achieved, hence the warmer the item.

 

Responsible Down Standard

RDS logoDown is natural a bi-product of the food industry. Most reputable clothing companies who use down these days sign up to schemes like the ‘Responsible Down Standard’ scheme which ensures that the birds are not bred or treated cruelly and that they are not specifically bred purely for their down

The Responsible Down Standard is a standard that manufacturers can choose to sign up to, it is voluntary, independent and global. There is no legislation requiring garment manufacturers to comply to any standard, they sign up to this initiative purely out of a desire to ensure that the down they use comes from birds that are farmed with good animal welfare practice. To read more click here.

Down Codex

Some companies such as Mountain Equipment have their own down traceability scheme which promotes the same standards of animal welfare. Read more about it here. 

Consider other features you may need

How Packable is the jacket? The beauty of down is how well it compacts. Does the jacket pack into its pocket or a stuff sack?

Do you need a hood? If the jacket will be used as a mid-layer, a hood may not be needed. Consider the layers you are going to be wearing.

What pockets do you need? If the jacket is going to be an outer layer then you are likely to need storage pockets that are easy to access.

Zips have an impact on warmth. Are they open pockets or have zip closures. Are the zips protected, is there a storm flap in front of them?

 

Step 4 - How should a down jacket fit?

Because down has a great warmth to weight ratio and is highly compactable it is very popular with backpackers and mountaineers. Hydrophobic down is especially popular with Alpinists who are often in wet, snowy conditions. Usually, the outer fabric of a jacket is treated with a water-repellant (DWR) which adds to the water-resistance of the garment and is another aid to maintaining the jackets thermal insulation ability.

However the popularity of down is not restricted to the more ‘extreme’ adventurers, micro baffle down jackets are commonly seen in everyday use in the colder months of the year, or on winter holidays like a cruise in the Antarctic. Really we can say that down is pretty much suitable for all outdoor activities where you want to keep warm in the cold climates.

Consider Your Activity

Movement: Sleeves should not ride up your arms when moving. The back length needs to long enough keep the warmth in the full length your back to your bum.

Fit: Too Large - There should not be too much space when you have all your layers on. Too Small - Make sure the jacket and baffles are not squashed against you.

 

Step 5 - Caring for a down Jacket

Feather leakage

Despite the quality of the fabric of a jacket, it is almost inevitable that at some time feathers will begin to poke out of the fabric. This is because most down insulation will have a small percentage of feathers in it and feathers have a sharp quill.

If a feather does start showing through the fabric do not pull it out, this will make the hole larger and encourage more feather leakage. Push the feather or down back into the jacket, then gently rub the area where the feather appeared between your forefinger and thumb to help reseal the hole.

If your jacket has excessive leakages then return it to the Feather leakage.

Storage

Down insulated items should be stored in a cool dry place uncompressed so that the down is enabled to maintain its full loft. For most items, this means hanging them up. Down items benefit from regular washing, here are five tips to ensure that washing does not damage the down. 

Can down be washed?

Yes, follow these instructions or watch the video below.

1. Wipe the outside of the garment clean with a damp cloth 

2. Ensure that the detergent compartment of the washing machine is thoroughly clean. 

3. Set the machine to a cold wash or delicate wool cycle. 

4. Pour a downwash liquid (such as Nikwax Down Wash Direct) into the machine. 

5. When the wash cycle is finished dry the item in a tumble dryer on a low setting with two or three tennis balls to re-loft the down and break up any clumps of wet down. Make sure the down is fully dry. 

If your down jacket or sleeping bag should get wet in use then dry it as soon as possible using stage 5. 

Down Cleaning products

After investing money in a down jacket, it's important to invest time maintaining its performance. We recommend the following products for cleaning, proofing and caring for the DWR finish.

Top