Down-insulated outerwear, with its unmatched warmth-to-weight ratio and recent fashion appeal, has been hot news for some time. For a while, companies raced to produce the best water-repellent down that would maintain loft—and warmth—even when wet. Then they started cramming higher-quality, higher-loft feathers (see Montbell’s insane Plasma 1000 Jacket) into incredibly small, lightweight packages. And right now down jackets are downright fashionable.
If all the fresh demand wasn’t enough to drive feather prices through the roof, the avian flu that obliterated China’s goose and duck population in early 2013 was. Today, bird feathers cost manufacturers twice as much as they did two years ago. But rather than pass the extra costs on to consumers—some have increased prices by as much as 25%—many companies are, in essence, diluting the down by mixing it with synthetics in novel ways that maintain or even improve performance. Others are creating body-mapped pieces for aerobic activities that use down sparingly, only where the body requires extra warmth or, in the case of Mountain Hardwear, developing a synthetic alternative that mimics down's construction.
Here are a few of our favorites so far:
Columbia TurboDown Diamond Jacket
The pinnacle piece of the new TurboDown line, this “down jacket on steroids” layers 850-fill goose feathers directly on top of Columbia’s proprietary synthetic Omni-Heat insulation for a warmth that could drive away
the next polar vortex winter cold.
This jacket puts the feathers where you need ‘em in the core and hood, where they’re layered with Polartec’s synthetic Alpha insulation. The rest of the jacket is stripped down—just the breathable Alpha throughout—for high-output winter sports like Nordic skiing, running or cycling.
PrimaLoft Down Blend
Following a 2013 management buyout, the insulation specialists at PrimaLoft are dramatically recasting themselves with a big rollout of a proprietary down-synthetic mix called Down Blend, which comes in three grades—Gold, Silver and Black. It’s classic PrimaLoft blended with water-repellent down into an insulation that’s said to be as warm as 750 fill power goose down (650 duck for Silver), but which also retains 95-plus percent of warmth when wet and dries four times faster than conventional, untreated down. Look for the new Down Blend in pieces from Black Diamond (start with the Convergent Down Hoody, pictured left; $499 blackdiamondequipment.com), Sherpa Adventure Gear, adidas and Helly Hansen (for a top-of-the-line, do-everything coat, try the Supreme, pictured right; $900; hellyhansen.com).
Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor
MH discovered a new construction technique—quilting a 40-gram layer of its Thermal Q.Elite with a 60-gram insulation layer to create a baffle-like effect—that makes it as toasty warm as 130 grams of insulation, but with considerably less weight. It still doesn't match down's incredible warmth-to-weight, but it comes much closer.