Down or synthetic? It’s the age-old question when it comes to choosing an insulated jacket or vest. While it’s probably best to have both a dependable down jacket and a good synthetic jacket in your collection, there are definitely ideal times and places for using each. Here’s a quick guide to choosing the best form of insulation for you.
The Downlow On Down
Down is the OG form of insulation. Made from the soft plumage under the larger feathers of duck or geese, this all-natural insulation is super lofty, which traps heat and keeps you toasty. Generally, down insulation is considered warmer than synthetic insulation.
“Fill power” is the standard way to measure the quality of down, both in terms of how lofty it is and how efficient it is at insulating you from the cold, while fill weight indicates the quantity of down in the product. A higher fill power indicates a superior warmth-to-weight ratio.
A few pros of down insulation:
- Excellent warmth-to-weight ratio (compared to synthetic insulation)
- Lasts a long time with proper care
- Compresses really well for packability
And the cons of down insulation:
- Does not insulate well when wet
- Uses an animal product, though you can mitigate the impacts by choosing responsibly sourced down (which we use exclusively).
So, What About Synthetic Insulation?
Synthetic insulation is typically made from polyester, engineered to mimic the properties of down. Usually, synthetic insulation is considered more performance-oriented than down, but not quite as warm.
“Gsm” (grams per square meter) is the warmth measurement for synthetic insulation. Like with fill power, the higher the gsm, the warmer the product.
Here are some pros of synthetic insulation:
- Insulates even when wet
- Tends to be more breathable than down
- Vegan—no animal products used
And the cons of synthetic insulation:
- Lower warmth-to-weight ratio than down
- Doesn’t compress as well as down
- Generally has a shorter lifespan than down
- Polyester is made from plastic, which is a petroleum-based product. You can reduce the environmental impacts of synthetic insulation by choosing a product made with recycled polyester (like any of our synthetic jackets).
When To Choose A Down Insulated Jacket
Still not sure which jacket is best for the adventures you’ve got in mind? Generally speaking, if you’re looking for a warm, packable outer layer that you won’t be wearing in wet conditions, a down jacket is a great choice.
Here are a few scenarios in which down insulation will shine:
Everyday warmth for commutes, errands, and dog walks in cold conditions.
Traveling in winter or through chilly countries. New Year’s in Belgium, anyone? A road trip around Iceland? Down’s got your back (and core and arms).
Cold nights spent around the campfire. If the temps at camp are cold enough, a down jacket doubles as a pajama top, too.
Post-ski or post-winter adventure tailgating to beat the chills.
When you’re belaying your buddy on a chilly morning.
If you're looking for a packable, travel-friendly down jacket you can wear on the reg, check out our bestselling Fuego Jacket, made with responsibly sourced down. Our Fuego Collection is available in men's and women's, with or without the hood, and as a vest.
For a super toasty puffer, check out our Solazo Jacket, also made with responsibly sourced down.
When To Choose A Synthetic Insulated Jacket
If you need insulation for more active pursuits or for wet conditions, synthetic outerwear is the best choice. With its breathability and performance in the elements, synthetic insulation will keep you warm and comfortable.
Here are a few situations when synthetic insulation will be your best adventure companion:
Everyday warmth in cold, but not freezing conditions—or as that daily driver for someone who runs relatively hot and doesn’t want quite as much warmth.
Adventures when there’s a chance of rain or snow in the forecast, and you don’t plan on letting weather get in the way of your plans.
Late fall and winter hikes, or cross-country skiing and trail running on frigid days. A hybrid synthetic jacket or synthetic insulated vest may be your best bet for these activities.
As a mid-layer for resort or backcountry skiing when it’s really chilly out.
Bouldering or roped climbing in the dead of January.
Our adventure-friendly Capa Jacket is a great choice if you're seeking out synthetic. Available in men's, women's, and kids', this jacket features recycled PrimaLoft® P.U.R.E. (produced using reduced emissions) insulation and a recycled shell. We also make this jacket in a hybrid style (only core insulation) for more active days.
Searching for a more casual synthetic insulated jacket? Check out our Teca Cálido Jacket, available in men's and women's and also made with recycled insulation.
Down vs. Synthetic: A Few More Considerations
For some folks, pros and cons aside, choosing the best type of insulation boils down to personal preference. Maybe down insulation makes you sneeze—or you only purchase vegan products. Maybe you have a strict no-plastics purchasing policy. Or maybe you just love the loft and puffiness of a big down puffer.
If you’re concerned about the ethics or sustainability of either material, look for insulation with certain certifications. In all of the down outerwear at Cotopaxi, we use responsibly sourced down from ALLIED Feather + Down, which has for decades worked to reduce the ethical and environmental impact of this insulation material. ALLIED’s entire supply chain is certified to the Responsible Down Standard to protect ducks and geese.
If it’s the fossil fuels implicated in synthetic insulation that you’re worried about, choose products made with recycled insulation. You can also look for insulation that reduces its environmental footprint, like PrimaLoftⓇ P.U.R.E., which stands for “produced using reduced emissions.” We’re talking a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions over status quo! We use PrimaLoft P.U.R.E. Gold insulation in our Capa Collection.
You’ll also find some products out there that use a mix of down and synthetic insulation. While this offers some of the best of both worlds, it also means the product won’t live as true to the pros each unique type of insulation is known for.
More Resources On Insulation
Check out our guide to choosing an insulated jacket, for a deeper dive into other factors that may come into play in your purchasing decision beyond insulation. From features and design elements, to outerwear style (fully insulated jacket vs. hybrid jacket vs. vest), we break down all the insulation options out there.
Got a down or synthetic insulated jacket that’s smelling a little iffy? Check out our guide to washing and caring for these two types of insulation.
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