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Buyers Guide: Choosing the Right Insulation

Puffy Snowboard JacketMost skiers and snowboarders know (okay, pretty much every skier and snowboarder knows) that insulation is essential to staying warm. Insulation works by both trapping your body heat against your core and creating a barrier to keep cold air off your skin.

But what some people don’t know is that there are several types of insulation ranging from down to synthetics to all-natural alternatives, each with their own pluses and minuses. Considering that insulation is used in a variety of outdoor products ranging from jackets to sleeping bags to shoes, it’s a good idea to brush up on different fill options before buying anything, especially as quality insulated products can be a bit expensive.

While Peter Glenn offers returns and exchanges, it’s always better to get it right on the first try so you don’t have to keep ordering and mailing products back until you find the one you like. 

Types of Insulation: 

Insulation can be broken into three categories: animal-sourced fills, synthetic fills, and organic/natural fills. Within those categories are a handful of sub categories:

  • Animal-sourced fills come from geese and ducks. There are two main products: feathers, which are plucked from the top layers of the animals, and down, which are the fibers under the feathers that are generally a bit warmer than the feathers alone. Occasionally, you’ll find a brand using other materials – bison fiber, for example, has become popular with a few trendy brands. These down jackets are measured in fill power (eg: 600 fill-power.)
  • Synthetic fills are fills made in labs and factories that don’t take any materials from animals. These are often made out of polyester, which is a plastic-based product. Increasingly, brands are using recycled polyesters, often made from old plastic bottles and consumer materials. You’ll find some fills from leading brands like PrimaLoft® are made from 50% or more post-consumer recycled materials. These insulated jackets are measured in grams (eg: 100g of insulation.)
  • Natural fills are somewhat new to the market and include options like kapok fibers (which come from the seeds of kapok trees) and cork, though that’s rarely used in clothing. 

You can also mix any combination of these; many brands offer synthetic/down blends to offer nearly the same amount of warmth as pure down with a price tag closer to a synthetic.

Ski or snowboard jacket choosing 

Factors to take into consideration:

  • Warmth: It’s hard to say which is warmest, as any fill can create an exceptionally warm jacket. As a general rule, if you have the same amount of down fill and synthetic fills in two different jackets, the one with down will likely be a bit warmer. The exception to this is if they get wet, since down doesn’t insulate as well as when wet. That, however, can be mostly overcome by using waterproof outer materials (GORE-TEX is one such option) or treating the down with a water-resistant coating. 
  • Weight: If getting your gear to be as lightweight as possible is the goal, you’re probably looking at down rather than synthetics. Down generally has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio, which means you get more warmth with less weight. That also means that it’s a bit more packable, so it takes up less space in your ski bag or luggage. 
  • Cost: Good news for fans of synthetics: they’re generally a bit cheaper, with natural fills coming in at around the same price. 
  • Ethics: Some people have concerns about down, as it’s sourced from animals. Nearly every major brand has vowed never to use down plucked from live animals and, as such, it comes from animals killed for other purposes (meat, for example.) Some brands that partner with Allied Feather & Down use a service called Track My Down, which allows consumers to see exactly where their down was sourced from. You’ll find that service on products from ski brands like Helly Hansen, J. Lindeberg, and Spyder, among many others. Each item comes with a number (try 13150315388 on the site to see how it works) that shows you stats like the goose species and any treatments done to the down. However, down is still sourcing from animals, so if you’re sensitive to that, you may want to consider synthetics or plant-based fibers. 
  • Environmental: This is, of course, somewhat subjective, but it’s worth noting that down uses feathers that would otherwise end up in landfills while synthetics are made from plastic (though increasingly more and more are made from recycled products.) Natural fibers are often easy on the environment, though every item is going to require some amount of production in a factory to turn the insulation into the final product. Most companies nowadays have information online about the ecological impact of their chosen method.

Ski Jacket InsulationBest uses for each:

  • Buying a sleeping bag? You’ll probably want down, especially if you’re using it for backpacking or hut-to-hut ski trips. Since you get more warmth with less weight, down is generally favored for mountaineer. The exception to this is if you generally camp in warm conditions or do mostly car camping where warmth and rate are less important. 
  • If you ski in wet conditions, you probably want a synthetic fill. While it’s unlikely that your insulation will get wet given modern waterproofing technology, you’ll be in dire straits if you’re in the backcountry in a storm and find that your wet insulation isn’t keeping you as warm as you need it to. 
  • Layering: If you layer while you ski, you may want a blend of insulations in your piece. That’ll provide a good mix between moisture control, warmth, and cost, since you don’t need your sweater or sweatshirt to be insulated as heavily as your outer jacket. 

Insulation may seem like a no-brainer (it’s insulated or isn’t, right) but that’s not the case any more. Brands like The North Face offer Thermoball technology, which uses specially shaped fibers to trap body heat almost as well as actual down, while brands using down have been able to make it nearly as waterproof as synthetics (looking at you, Rossignol’.)

The bottom line is that you should do your research before buying, especially as a quality insulated jacket will make a huge difference in chilly weather. When you’re browsing gear on Peter Glenn, you can scroll down and use the menu on the right to sort by insulation type or, if you’re undecided, by warmth rating. 

Happy skiing – and stay warm out there!