Last Updated: July 10, 2019

Down Vs. Synthetic Insulation: Which Is Better & Why

down vs synthetic

If you're having a hard time choosing between a down or synthetically insulated jacket, you've come to the right place. 

First, I'll tell you everything you need to know about the two types of insulation - what the main differences are, which performs better in what conditions, and how the type of insulation impact the price of the jackets. 

I'll also show you some of the best down and synthetic jackets you could buy - both men's and women's!

What’s The Difference?

Good insulation is warm, lightweight and packable. While both synthetic and down can achieve this to a degree, each performs better in certain aspects. But in terms of just warmth, you can expect really similar performance – even though down is thought to be the warmer option, synthetic insulations have come so far that their performance is on par with natural down.

So, let’s talk a bit about what the actual differences are.

Performance In Wet Weather

If you’re worried about getting wet, then you should go for synthetic insulation.

Down insulation consists of clusters, which do not perform that well in wet weather. They clump up and take a while to dry out. And while the clusters are clumped, they aren’t really doing their job – down works in such a way that it traps your body heat, and the loftier it is the better. Clumped up clusters can’t really trap your body heat, and when they get wet it’s basically like your jacket is taking a break from doing its job.

However, down jackets can be (and most are) covered with a water repelling finish, which makes them water resistant at best. But natural down can never be fully waterproof, and will fail you in really wet weather.

Synthetic insulation doesn’t have the same issue – it doesn’t clump when it gets wet, so it can maintain the same performance level in different weather conditions. So, if you want a truly waterproof jacket, synthetic is the way to go.

Goose Down Vs. Duck Down

Two types of down are used in jackets – goose and duck.

Clusters of goose down are larger than clusters of duck down, and you need less of them to insulate the same area. That also means that goose down usually has higher fill power than duck down – in fact, it goes up to 950. And that it is warmer.

Additionally, jackets insulated with goose down are often lighter, since there is less insulation in them.

So, if you are looking for premium quality, pick up a goose down jacket. But beware of the prices – goose down is much more expensive than duck down, because it is harder to produce and source ethically.

Therefore, if you would like to get a more affordable jacket, duck down is the better option. It still performs really well, and jackets insulated with it are very warm. The only downside is that they are somewhat heavier than the ones insulated with goose down.

Lightweight Vs. Bulky

If you are mostly concerned about getting a lightweight and packable jacket, then down is ultimately the better option.

Jackets insulated with down are generally really lightweight and packable. The North Face Retro Nuptse jacket is a great example of this – it appears pretty bulky and large, due to the boxy silhouette. But the entire jacket weighs just 25 ounces, and it can be stowed in the hand pocket. That’s the definition of packable for me.

Synthetic insulation is generally bulkier and heavier than natural down. That’s because polyester fibers have a greater warmth-weight ratio. But that’s not always the case – Patagonia has their Micro Puff jacket, which is synthetically insulated and weighs only about 9 ounces. It's even smaller and lighter than their Nano Puff, which is also a great option.

Overall, down is usually the lighter option, but the difference isn’t really that drastic.

Pricing

This one is not as straightforward as the others. While down generally tends to be the pricier option, it really depends on the brand of jacket.

Down is more expensive to produce, which is why down jackets are usually more expensive. But their prices depend on a lot of things – the down-feather ratio, fill power of down and other materials used in the jacket. You can find a down jacket for $50 just as easily as you can find a synthetic one for $800.

But, with brands that do both, like Columbia or North Face, synthetic jackets are usually cheaper.

So, if you are on a budget, go for a synthetic jacket.

The Ethics

Most bigger brands use only certified down, which comes from approved suppliers. Basically, that means that they can guarantee that the animals were not maltreated or plucked alive. For example, Patagonia only uses down that comes as a by-product of the food industry, so from birds that are raised for their meat.

While that is much more ethical then getting down from a bird that was plucked alive, it’s still down from a slaughterhouse. And if you have an issue with that, then a synthetic jacket is the choice for you.

But if you want a down jacket and are worried about the ethics behind it, you can always check the brand’s webpage. Because, brands that know the origin of their down and that can ensure you that it was ethically sourced will have no issues telling you that. Some great examples of this are Columbia, Canada Goose and North Face. And don’t worry – in this review, I will only show you jackets from brands that use ethically sourced down.

Bottom line – if you’re worried about animal cruelty, either go for a synthetic jacket, or stay away from shady brands that provide no information on the origin of their down.  


The Best Down Jackets

The North Face Men's Gotham Jacket III Urban Navy Large

The Gotham III is a down-insulated jacket with an exterior made from DryVent 2L. That is a material very similar to Gore-Tex, and actually a great alternative – it is windproof, waterproof and breathable, which is what you want your winter jacket to be.

The Polyurethane coating is what makes the shell waterproof, while the storm flap and the elastic cuffs and hem help keep the draft out. However, there is a chance you could get too hot in this jacket, since it doesn’t have any vents and it is completely seam sealed. But because of the breathability of the materials, at least you won’t be drenched in sweat.

This North Face jacket is insulated with 550 fill power goose down, which is of a higher quality than duck down. But the fill power is still on the lower side, so it’s a good thing there’s a lot of insulation in this jacket. Additionally, the entire jacket is insulated with goose down, including the sleeves and the hood.

It runs true to size, so you won’t have any issues getting the one that fits right. There’s also a lot of sizes to choose from – from XS to 3XL. And on top of all that, the Gotham III jacket also sports lots of pockets – including five on the outside, and a single media compatible one on the inside. If you’re looking for a really warm and waterproof down jacket for winter days, this is one of your top options.

Pros

  • DryVent exterior – windproof, waterproof and breathable
  • Lots of different pockets
  • Insulated throughout

Cons

  • On the pricier side
  • No vents
The North Face 1996 Retro Nuptse Jacket - Women's TNF Black X-Small

The Nuptse jacket is an awesome on-trend alternative. For one thing, this season is all about oversized jackets and boxy silhouettes, and this North Face jacket follows that theme perfectly.

But as I mentioned earlier, my favorite thing about this jacket is that it is truly packable. It stows into a hand pocket, making it your perfect travel companion this winter. The hood is also stowable, you can hide it in the collar when you don’t want to use it, and add a bit of warmth around your neck.

Different colors of the Nuptse are made from different materials – sometimes you’ll be getting a Polyester exterior and other times a Nylon one. But what they all share is DWR coating, meaning that all of these NF jackets are water resistant. Not fully waterproof though, so keep that in mind when debating whether or not to wear this in light rain.

Especially because the 700 fill power goose down gets wet quite easily, which decreases the power of insulation. But it performs incredibly well in cold and dry weather. And in terms of pockets, you get two on the outside and one on the inside. Sadly, that’s actually more than you see on average in women’s jackets.

Pros

  • Stowable and lightweight – great for travel
  • Exterior is coated with DWR
  • Goose down insulation is very warm

Cons

  • Not fully windproof and waterproof
  • Hem is not adjustable
Marmot Guides Down Hoody Men's Winter Puffer Jacket, Fill Power 700, Team Red/Dark Crimson, Small

This Marmot jacket is insulated with 700 fill power down, so you can expect it to be really warm. Marmot also uses only ethically sourced down, so no worries there. Plus, this jacket is coated with their Down Defender treatment, which significantly improves the insulation’s resistance to moisture and performance in wet weather.

It is a relaxed fit jacket, so relaxed shoulders and a straight hem. That hem is also adjustable, which both allows you to get a more customized fit, but also keeps the draft out at the bottom. And in case you get too hot, you can always loosen it a little to let the air in.  That’s also an option with the cuffs and the hood, since they are all adjustable as well.

This men’s jacket features four pocket – three external and one internal. All of them are zippered, including the handwarming pockets. And since this is a short jacket, you will have great range of motion in it. But it still covers your hips, for that additional warmth.

One downside is that the size variety isn’t as big as with the North Face jacket – they range from S to 2XL. But since it does fit true to size, you should be able to order what you usually wear and have it fit just right. Overall, this is a great lightweight option, that not only has the quality and warmth of natural down, but also water resistance of synthetic insulation.

Pros

  • Warm and lightweight
  • Coated with Down Defender
  • Adjustable cuffs, hem and hood

Cons

  • Down is never 100% waterproof
  • Not as much size variety as with some previous jackets
Columbia Women's Flash Forward Long Down Jacket, Black, Small

Ladies, what about a longer option? Parkas are generally the warmer choice, because of their length – they cover much more of your body, so they trap more body heat. That’s how this Columbia parka manages to stay so warm, despite it being so thin and lightweight.

The jacket is insulated with 650 fill power goose down, so it is really warm. It is treated with a water resistant finish, but it is not completely waterproof. Definitely avoid wearing this in really wet weather, because it won’t perform as well as it does in dry weather.

Additionally, it is not a windproof jacket. There’s no storm flap, and the hood and the hem are not adjustable, so there’s no features that keep the draft out. But that can also be a good thing – it’s pretty much guaranteed you won’t be too warm in this jacket! Plus, the cuffs might not be adjustable but they are stretchy, so they will cling to your wrists comfortably.

There are two external pockets on this parka, and they are both zippered. I would have loved to see at least one more, but I’ll take what I can get – especially for the price. The Columbia Flash Forward parka maybe isn’t a jacket packed full of features, but it is a great affordable option that can keep you warm even in cold January nights.

Pros

  • Attractive price
  • Water resistant
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • Only two pockets
  • Not windproof
Triple F.A.T. Goose SAGA Collection | Eldridge Mens Parka Jacket (Medium, Charcoal)

The Eldridge parka is a great men’s option. It is on the pricier side, but its quality is outstanding. The jacket is insulated with 15.5 ounces of 675 fill power down, which is a lot of insulation in a jacket. You can expect it to be really warm – maybe even too warm on occasions.

But if that is the case, you can always use the underarm vents to let some air in and regulate the temperature. The shell of this parka is also covered with DWR with Hydrophobic Nanotechnology, so it should perform really well even in wet weather. The elastic cuffs, adjustable hem and storm flap keep the draft out, and make this jacket windproof.

Triple F.A.T. Goose only uses ethically sourced down and furs, but that’s the thing – there is coyote fur on this jacket. If you’re not a fan of natural fur, you might want to skip the Eldridge parka. But the fur trim is removable, so you can always get rid of it.

Another thing I really like about this parka is the size variety – it comes in sizes ranging from S to 5XL. And, considering this parka tends to run small, it’s good to have options. Definitely go a size up if you want to wear some thicker clothing underneath. Additionally, this parka features lots of different pockets, about 6 external and one internal.

Pros

  • Lots of different pockets
  • Waterproof and windproof shell
  • Very warm jacket

Cons

  • Not too affordable
  • Pretty heavy at 4.1 lbs

The Best Synthetic Jackets

Columbia Men's Frost Fighter Insulated Warm Puffer Jacket, black, L

The Frost Fighter jacket features 150 grams of faux down insulation. The Polyester clusters in the jacket are very similar to natural down clusters, but they perform a lot better in wet weather, since Polyester doesn’t clump when wet.

The Omni-Shield shell also helps with that – Columbia’s proprietary technology that makes the shell of their jackets shed water instantly, thus making them waterproof. It is also a really durable material, considering that it is made from Nylon ripstop.  

This is a very versatile jacket – it’s a great choice both for the everyday, but it is also warm enough that you can comfortably wear it in the mountains. Just wear something thicker underneath it. And the adjustable cuffs and hem allow you to adjust the temperature inside the jacket, should you get too hot.

There are some downsides to this Columbia jacket though – for one thing, it doesn’t have a hood. It does have a pretty high collar, so your neck should stay warm. Also, it only has two pockets, and both are external and zippered. The lack of internal pockets is the biggest issue with this jacket for me, since it limits the number of things you can carry around with you on a daily basis.

Pros

  • Warm and waterproof
  • Adjustable cuffs and hem 

Cons

  • No hood
  • Only two external pockets
Patagonia Women's Nano Puff Jacket - Classic Navy, Small

The Nano Puff is one of Patagonia’s most popular jackets ever. It is remarkably thin and lightweight, and you definitely don’t expect it to be as warm as it is when you try it on. But, thanks to 60 grams of PrimaLoft Gold Insulation, one of the best synthetic insulations on the market, it is also really warm.

However, I wouldn’t say it’s the best choice for the dead of winter – after all, it is a short and thin jacket. It’s great for late fall, or even for winter hikes – basically any activities where you’ll be walking around a lot, and so you will be warm enough on your own. But I definitely don’t recommend it for wearing around the town in temperatures below zero.

Patagonia’s Nano Puff is also a great choice for travel the jacket is stowable, and it packs into its internal pocket. It takes up very little space when stowed; you could easily carry this around in a pocket of a larger parka.

Its exterior is coated with DWR, so it has good water resistance. Also, it features three pockets – two external and one internal. Maybe it could use another pocket or two, but considering how thin and small the jacket is, I think that three is completely fine. I would also have preferred to jacket to be wind-resistant and to have a hood.

Pros

  • Incredibly thin and lightweight
  • Stows into internal pocket
  • Surprisingly warm

Cons

  • Not wind-resistant
  • Does not have a hood
  • Not the best choice for really cold weather
ARC'TERYX Atom LT Hoody Men's (Rigel, Small)

This is not really a proper winter jacket. But it is without a doubt one of the best pieces of outerwear made with synthetic insulation. It is actually a great mid-layer – you can wear this over some thicker fleece hoodies or sweaters, or under some thinner jackets. In any case, it will keep you really warm.

Since it’s not a really thick jacket, it’s great for any outdoor sports. And because it has a water-resistant shell, you can easily wear this as an outer layer in any light rain. But when it gets colder, it also performs really well as an inner, insulating layer, due to warm Coreloft insulation.

The Atom LT Hoody also has great breathability, because of the fleece side panels. Those also help regulate your body temperature, and ensure you don’t get too hot or sweaty if you’re moving around a lot. Which can be really helpful if you’re skiing or hiking in the jacket.

There are three pockets total on this jacket – two external and one internal. And there is also a really high hood, that follows the contours of your head. I actually really like its design, since it does a great job at protecting your head from the cold. Plus it is helmet compatible.

Pros

  • Great for winter sports
  • Windproof and water resistant
  • Lightweight and packable

Cons

  • Not a great standalone jacket
The North Face Thermoball Triclimate Jacket Urban Navy/Urban Navy LG

If you want a versatile winter jacket, then I highly recommend this one. The Thermoball Triclimate jacket is actually made up from two different layers – an inner, insulated jacket, and a waterproof shell. You can wear each of the layers on their own, or you can zip them up together to get a really warm winter jacket.

It’s actually designed for skiing, so you can imagine just how warm it is. That’s because of the PrimaLoft ThermoBall insulation, which is able to retain warmth even when it gets wet. And in case you get too warm in the jacket, there are underarm vents that allow you to regulate the temperature.

Since this was designed for skiing, it has all the features necessary for a good ski-jacket – powder skirt, helmet compatible hood, an internal google pocket and even a goggle wipe attached to the inner pocket. There are also two zip pockets on the outer shell, and two on the inner shell, so you can carry a lot in this jacket.

I love the versatility of the ThermoBall Triclimate, since you are basically getting three jackets for the price of one. So, you’re actually getting really good value for your money, even though this jacket is on the pricier side.

Pros

  • Windproof, waterproof and breathable
  • Lots of pockets
  • 3-In-1 jacket

Cons

  • Pricey
  • Mobility is limited
Columbia Women's Snow Eclipse Mid Jacket, Water and Stain Repellent

The Snow Eclipse is a good affordable option. It is longer than most other jackets I showed you, so it also the warmer option, due to better coverage. Plus, it is insulated with 150 grams of synthetic down, which performs really well in cold and even wet weather.

The shell features Columbia's Omni-Sheld technology, meaning that it is water-resistant. But what's even better is that the material of the shell basically repels anything that touches it, so it's also stain resistant! Plus, the shell is really stretchy, and you will have great manoeuvrability in this jacket despite its length.

The cuffs are elastic and they keep the draft out, and so does the front storm flap. But the hem is not adjustable, so it’s not 100% windproof. But it is definitely wind-resistant enough to get you through the day.

It features a removable hood with a faux fur trim, which is not adjustable. And it’s pretty wide, so it won’t keep your head too warm. But it will protect you from the rain. Additionally, there are three pockets on the jacket – two hand warming ones on the outside, and an internal one for your personal items.

Pros

  • Affordable price
  • Wind and water resistant
  • Removable hood

Cons

  • Hood and hem are not adjustable

Down Vs. Synthetic: Our Top Choices

Both synthetic and down insulation have their advantages and disadvantages. Synthetic performs better in wet weather, since it doesn’t clump up like down and can still stay warm. But it is bulkier than down, so synthetically insulated jackets tend to be heavier. Obviously that’s not always the case, as you saw with some of the synthetic jackets I showed you in this review.

One of the best lightweight and packable synthetic jackets is the Patagonia Nano Puff. It’s one of the most popular women’s jackets from Patagonia, precisely because of how thin and lightweight it is. Plus, it stows into an internal pocket, so it is also a great choice for travel. The PrimaLoft insulation in the jacket should keep you warm, while the DWR coating will repel any moisture. This is a great option for hiking or other winter sports, but I don’t suggest you wear it as your only jacket in temperatures below zero.

Sale
Patagonia Womans Nano Puff Jacket Black 84217 (m)
43 Reviews
Patagonia Womans Nano Puff Jacket Black 84217 (m)
  • Patagonia Womens Nano Puff Jkt, Black, M

Out of the men’s synthetic jackets, I think the North Face ThermoBall Triclimate is the obvious winner. It is warm, breathable, windproof and waterproof – everything you want a good winter jacket to be. Plus you’re getting three jackets for the price of one, so you will have something to wear nearly all year round! And it has lots of pockets for your personal items, including an internal pocket with an attached goggle wipe. Overall, this is definitely one of my all-time favorites, and I highly recommend it.

Sale
The North Face Thermoball Triclimate Jacket Urban Navy/Urban Navy LG
31 Reviews
The North Face Thermoball Triclimate Jacket Urban Navy/Urban Navy LG
  • 3-in-1 jacket has a waterproof, breathable DryVent 2.5L shell and a removable ThermoBall-insulated inner jacket.
  • Waterproof, breathable, seam-sealed DryVent 2.5L shell

Out of the down jackets, I think that Columbia’s Flash Forward down parka is a great choice. It is by no means a perfect jacket, but it is insanely affordable, especially considering the quality you are getting. The insulation in it is 650 fill power goose down, which is super warm and really high quality. Plus, this is a lightweight jacket, so you can stay warm without feeling like you’re carrying a rock on your back.  

Sale
Columbia Women's Flash Forward Long Down Jacket, Black, Small
232 Reviews
Columbia Women's Flash Forward Long Down Jacket, Black, Small
  • Binding at Cuffs; Insulation: Responsibly-sourced down
  • 661 fill power down insulation. 2-way center front zipper

Out of the men’s down jackets, I think the Marmot Guides Hoody is the best option. It is insulated with 700 fill power down, which is very high quality. It is warm, wind-resistant and coated with Down Defender, to improve its performance in wet weather. The jacket has an adjustable hem and cuffs, so you can easily adjust the temperature if you get too hot. And it has a very simple design, which can easily fit into anyone’s closet.

Sale
Marmot Guides Down Hoody Men's Winter Puffer Jacket, Fill Power 700, Team Red/Dark Crimson, Small
62 Reviews
Marmot Guides Down Hoody Men's Winter Puffer Jacket, Fill Power 700, Team Red/Dark Crimson, Small
  • Softshell 90% polyester with double weave, 10% stretch elastane, 7.0 oz/yd
  • Imported. Regular Fit

Go to Amazon to see the color options and prices of these jackets. And in case you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, check out our other posts – maybe they’ll help!


RELATED POSTS: BEST DOWN PARKAS FOR WOMEN AND ​NORTH FACE VS. COLUMBIA

About the Author Roger Timbrook

Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!

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