A Rough Guide to Plumage
Fill Power: A rating derived from the number of cubic inches one ounce of down can fill inside a lab container. The higher a jacket or sleeping bag’s fill-power rating, the better its warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility.
Goose vs. Duck Down: Geese have thicker down clusters and can achieve higher fill-power ratings. But an increasing amount of down is coming from ducks. Despite the perception that duck down is inferior, the two insulate identically if rated to the same fill power. Goose is more durable.
Water Resistance: By treating each feather with a special coating, companies have figured out how to make a new type of down insulation that resists moisture up to 60 times longer than untreated down, o...
Want proof that the world is flat? Consider this: how much you pay for your next jacket or sleeping bag could depend on whether 1.4 billion Chinese order Peking duck. China produces roughly 70 percent of the world's down, a by-product of the estimated three million tons of ducks and geese its population consumes each year. But China is rapidly urbanizing, and the burgeoning middle class is eating more beef and less fowl. Combine that with panic over recent bird-flu outbreaks and growing demand in the West for jackets, sleeping bags, and comforters, and the result is a massive spike in down prices. In 2009, a pound sold for $10; today it goes for $50.
In the U.S., higher materials costs are driving up prices on store shelves, where down jackets and sleeping bags now sell for about 30 percent more than they did five years ago. That has some manufacturers ramping up R&D to devise man-made fibers that can match down's exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio. Indeed, synthetics are undergoing a massive technological upgrade. "On a scale of one to ten, we're at five in terms of potential," says Joe Vernachio, vice president of global apparel and equipment at the North Face. "We'll be having sixes and sevens soon," he says. And a nine or ten? "It's out there," Vernachio says, "but we haven't seen it yet." Here's a rundown of the current crop of next-gen insulation.
What It Is: Clusters of tiny balls of synthetic fiber designed to mimic the loft and compressibility of feathers.
Who Has It: ThermoBall is currently exclusive to the North Face, but expect other brands to bring out products with it in 2015.
Warmth: One of the most insulating synthetic fibers we've ever tested.
What It Is: A fusion of natural and synthetic insulation.
Who Has It: This fall, Columbia will introduce TurboDown, which combines natural down with a proprietary insulation and the company's popular reflective technology, a metallic lining that bounces heat back to the body. Insulation maker PrimaLoft and major supplier Allied Feather and Down have plans to unveil down-poly blends within the year.
Warmth: Should be comparable to straight down, but it remains to be seen.
What It Is: Developed for U.S. Special Forces, it's essentially a knit sheet of polyester that can be sandwiched between open-weave, breathable fabrics.
Who Has It: 66 North, Eddie Bauer, Marmot, and more than a dozen others.
Warmth: Not nearly as toasty as ThermoBall but lighter and much more breathable.
What It Is: Synthetic fibers infused with ceramic or other materials that absorb body heat and, like a rock in the sun, slowly radiate it back to the wearer.
Who Has It: Ski-apparel maker Powderhorn has experimented with the technology; the North Face and Allied Feather and Down are both working on the idea.
Warmth: Mayo Clinic testing on female soccer players has proven disappointing. Says North Face's Vernachio: "We haven't been able to put it in a product yet that humans can detect."