Gear Guy

Can you explain the confusing options for synthetic-fill jackets?

Man, I confused! I want to purchase a synthetic-fill jacket for an upcoming canoe trip in Big Bend National Park. But it seems that all the major brands employ a different type of fill, running the gut from Polarguard HV and 3-D to Heatshield and Primaloft. So, Doug, I turn to you for expert guidance. Which is the best synthetic fill for warmth and compressibility? If there is not a "best", then what are the advantages of each? Finally, what jacket would you take? Steve Hurst, Texas

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It can indeed be confusing. The list of synthetic fills is a long one, and chopping through them to find what you think is the best can be intimidating.

Polarguard 3D, for instance, is a newer version of HV (Delta is newer still). The stuff, fancy moniker notwithstanding, is basically the same—a long-staple (comprising continuous fibers), polyester-based material that in the case of 3D and Delta shapes the fibers for better loft. Polarguard is durable and well tested. But, it is slightly stiffer than some other synthetics, more of an issue in jackets than in sleeping bags. Primaloft is popular for outerwear because it’s a short-staple (meaning, shorter fibers!) material that is designed principally as a “synthetic down.” It’s very soft and more water repellent than Polarguard, so if it gets soaked, it dries a little faster. It’s also a bit more compressible. The downside is that it’s somewhat less durable. Heatshield is a proprietary The North Face product, but no doubt sourced from one of the big makers of synthetic fills. Generally, I like Primaloft for a jacket fill, specifically for its feel. I haven’t found durability to be an issue. My second choice would be a jacket made with Polarguard 3D.

So, first pick is the Marmot Belay Parka ($230), made with Primaloft. The Arc’Teryx Fission is lovely—but at what cost? A hefty $345, to be precise. My next choice would be Mountain Hardwear’s Chugach ($135). I also like Pagatonia’s Puff Jacket, another good buy at $159.

Let me wrap this up by offering you this nugget of reassurance: If you put on a blindfold, wear each of the jackets you’re mulling over, and walk around on a cold day for an hour (without tripping over anything), I really doubt you’ll be able to tell all that much difference between them. They’ll all keep you warm!

See more of the Gear Guy’s wish list: Marmot Belay Parka; Arc’Teryx Fission; Mountain Hardwear’s Chugach; Patagonia’s Puff Jacket.

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