Since the beginning, there's been goose down.
Or close to it, at least. Goose feathers are the world's best insulator—super warm, featherlight (ha!) and very compressible. But the biggest drawback to down has always been that it loses its loft—and therefore its insulation value—when it gets wet.
In recent years, gear companies have approached a solution to this problem in different ways: Creating heavier, not-quite-as-warm synthetic polyester microfiber insulations like Primaloft and Polarguard (some of the first alternatives), using wool insulation (a more recent development) and giving goose feathers hydrophobic treatments like DriDown and DownTek (all the rage right now; more about that later this week).
This year, at least two companies think they've cracked the code on creating synthetic insulation that is equal or nearly equal to goose down in its weight, warmth and compressibility.
Mountain Hardwear is making bold claims about its Thermal.Q Elite. Weaving stiff fibers in a 3-D grid pattern that is said to mimic the structure of down and fine fibers that fill in the gaps, the company thinks it's hit on something better than anything else on the market. "The result is synthetic insulation that is 20% warmer for its weight than the nearest competitor, with better compression rebound," MH boasts. "Thermal.Q Elite is, ounce for ounce, the warmest synthetic insulation ever made." Expect to see it in several pieces in Fall 2013, including the 10-ounce, $200 Thermostatic Jacket (above).
The North Face, on the other hand, has partnered with synthetic insulation vets Primaloft to create its new ThermoBall technology. It also mimics down, but in a vastly different way, with tiny synthetic fiber clusters ("ThermoBalls") that trap air—and heat—like down clusters. Independent testing by Kansas State University has shown the new stuff to be as warm as 600 fill goose down. Its light, warm, compressible and, unlike down, maintains its loft and warmth when wet. Look for it in three pieces in Fall 2013, including the 11.5-ounce, $199 ThermoBall Full Zip Jacket shown here.
Stay tuned for more Future Gear updates from the Outdoor Retailer Show in the coming days.