Start Making Sense

Every industry does it: develop proprietary technologies or materials, appoint proprietary names to said technologies, use those proprietary names in marketing copy, loose customer’s attention. Your core audience may care about the details enough to investigate and learn what these various terms means, but the vast majority is left confused. So then it’s up to shop staff to educate (which is dicey depending on where you shop – some are great, some not so much) or leaving your interested customer to have to google search what the hell Dri-loxy Membrane means.

Due to my profession, I may be in-the-know on the construction of technical apparel, but prior to joining the outdoor industry, I was one of those customers. I’m still one of those customers in skin care (just tell me what to buy to even out my skin tone already!), electronics (walking in a Best Buy gives me full-blown anxiety), and wine (love to drink it, don’t know what any of the words mean).

Rant aside, I do think our industry is getting better. Brand websites are more informative and organized by activity, retailers like REI have 101 pages dedicated to product training, and manufacturers are taking responsibility to educate as well.

Here is a piece that I wrote for Ski Utah's blog, breaking down the convoluted world of insulated jackets: 

 

LOST IN INSULATION

New technologies, proprietary names, and head-spinning marketing campaigns can make selecting an insulated jacket DOWNright frustrating. (See what we did there?) We’re here to help you make sense of it all.

It’s true. If it weren’t our job to design jackets, we’d probably be confused, too. But selecting the proper type of insulation can make or break your cold-weather outdoor experience, so if you plan on spending time outside this winter, use this guide to help you select the insulated jacket that’s right for you.

First thing’s first: it’s important to understand that insulation is actually all about air. The more air that is trapped in between down clusters or polyester filaments, the warmer and lighter the jacket will be.

Next, we think it’s easiest to think of the world of insulation like “families”…who they are, the types of activities they excel at, and how they’re related to one another.

There are insulation suppliers, like Primaloft, Thinsulate, and Polartec, to name a few. And then most apparel manufacturers also develop their own proprietary insulations, along with their own names for them as well. They don’t do this to confuse you, but rather to help save on costs or to improve the design to their liking, thereby offering you, the end customer, a better selection of choices. So while there are seemingly bagillions of types of insulations to choose from, if you understand that they all fall under one of the above families and know the qualities of each, your selection is simplified and you’re practically an expert!

Here’s a closer look at each family:

DOWN

Who are they?

Made from a mix of down clusters (also called “plume”), and feathers. Plume, the undercoating found beneath feathers, is three-dimensional and lofty, while feathers are two-dimensional and can sometimes poke through fabric. When you see a ratio written in the description, this is what it’s in reference to, and the higher the ratio, the higher the quality. So when you see a jacket that states its insulation as “90/10 duck down”, it means 90% plume and 10% feathers.

Fill-power is the other measurement you should understand when considering a down jacket. This is the measurement of loftiness, or how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill, and typically falls between 600-800 for jackets. Bottom line, the higher the number, the better the warmth-to-weight ratio.

Think of the Down family as the trusted, old-school experts in the neighborhood, who have bone-chilling stories of camping in the Wasatch backcountry during the winter of ‘93.

 

 

Thumbs up:
Best warmth-to-weight ratio
Excellent compressibility
Exceptionally lightweight
Natural

Thumbs down:
Loses warmth when wet
Slow to dry
Expensive

Conditions & Activities:
Low activity in extremely cold and/or dry conditions
Polar expeditions, camping, trekking, recreational skiing,
sightseeing, traveling

 
 

SYNTHETIC

Who are they?

Synthetic used to mean one thing – poly fill. It was originally designed to mimic the warmth of down, while improving the areas of down’s weaknesses – maintaining warmth when wet, and cost. In recent years, new technologies have been introduced to improve synthetic’s structure and performance, so now this family has two offspring: Classic and Active.  

The Classic family is comprised of long and short fibers that all connect together to form a sheet of insulation. Think of this family like the loveable Griswolds - that all-American, tried and true family who enjoys fall hikes on Mt. Timp and family ski days at Solitude.     

 

 

Thumbs up:
Remains warmth when wet
Quick-drying
Lower cost

Thumbs down:
Heavier and bulkier than down
Less durable

Conditions & Activities:
Moderate activities in cold and/or wet conditions
Resort skiing, light backcountry skiing, trekking, snowshoeing, sightseeing

Examples: Thinsulate, Primaloft Black, Primaloft Silver, ELoft

 

The Active family is the more modern synthetic sibling, designed to retain the above strengths of down and synthetic, while improving breathability for high-output, stop-and-go activities. There are several varieties on the market with varying structures. They are the family who makes you tired just looking at them – waking at 3am for Mt. Superior dawn patrol and closing the day with a “quick” 10k sunset trail run. Do they ever stop? No…no they do not. 

 

 

Thumbs up:
Highly breathable
Remains warm when wet
Very quick-drying
Compressible

Thumbs down:
Not as warm
Can be expensive

Conditions & Activities:
Intense activities in cold conditions
or moderate activities in mild conditions
Trail running, ski touring, freeriding, fast hiking

Examples:
Polartec Alpha, Primaloft + Migration Resistance, Primaloft Gold

 

HYBRID

Who are they?

You can probably guess this one by now - the Hybrid family is the combination of down and synthetic, designed to maximize the benefits of both. Ratios of each ingredient vary, depending on the intended use of the jacket. The Hybrid family are like the newcomers to the neighborhood that everyone is intrigued by. They easily adapt to their surroundings, be it skiing Alta’s diverse terrain or climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and are seemingly good at everything they do.

 

 

Thumbs up:
Highly versatile
Thermoregulation
High warmth-to-weight ratio
Fast drying

Thumbs down:
Not suitable for extreme conditions

Conditions & Activities:  
Static to moderate activities in cold conditions
Resort skiing, light backcountry skiing,
trekking, snowshoeing, travel

Examples:
Primaloft Down Blends