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How to Choose Insulated Jackets & Layers

When you dress for skiing or snowboarding, or any outdoor activity for that matter, you’re trying to do two major things. The first is protect yourself from getting wet from snow and rain (and sweat), which is accomplished by wearing a waterproof/breathable shell. The second is staying warm enough. That’s the job of an insulated layer, which can be a separate garment or another layer built into the interior of your shell. An insulated hardshell can be the right choice if you almost always ride in cold weather and your level of exertion is constant throughout the day, or if you tend to get cold. Separate hardshells and insulated layers are more versatile in warmer climates or for those who alternate between times of intense physical activity and cooldown.

Down Insulation

Under optimal conditions, the most efficient insulating material is down, the soft fluffy stuff found under the feathers of birds. The most common source of the commercial down found in clothing is geese and ducks and is composed of the quill-less plumules from underneath the exterior feathers that look like dandelion seeds blowing in the wind. Down is usually combined with a smaller percentage of very fine feathers for insulation purposes.

Down Fill Power Ratings

Down varies in quality, with the very best coming from older, larger and more mature birds. It is rated by a “fill power” system, with the fill power of down used in garments typically in the 500 to 800 range. The higher the number, the more efficient the insulation and the more you can expect to pay. Down of any fill power will be warm, but the use of a higher fill-power results in a more compressible, lighter garment compared to a garment of equal warmth that uses a lower fill-power.

To determine the fill power rating of down, one ounce (oz) of down is placed in a graduated tube and the volume it occupies is measured in cubic inches (in3). The number of cubic inches is the fill power, with higher numbers indicating higher quality down that creates more "dead air" and has better insulating ability. The down from very mature birds and certain species like the Eider Duck also develops a characteristic known as "cling" in which tiny hooks form on the down clusters, allowing even greater insulating capability and causing the down to remain in place without shifting or settling.

Pros and Cons of Down Insulation

Down-filled garments are unbeatable in dry, cold climates. They are the first choice for high altitude mountaineering and skiing or snowboarding in cold clear weather because they offer the best warmth to weight ratio and are highly compressible. They also offer tremendous durability, and, when cared for properly, can retain their loft (the abililty to fluff up and retain heat) for decades.

The weakness of down is moisture - when it gets wet, down plumules clump together and lose their ability to trap body heat. This can occur from the outside (snow, rain) or the inside (perspiration), and once down gets wet it is usually very slow to dry. Even down that has been treated to be water-repellent or moisture-resistant should not be exposed to heavy moisture.

For down to remain effective, it’s critical to keep it dry. Even though most shell materials used in down garments are treated with Durable Water Repellent (DWR), it’s best to combine down insulating layers with a waterproof/breathable outer shell of GORE-TEX, eVent™, or other quality material, or buy a garment that combines the two. For warmer climates or maximum versatility, buying separate insulating layers and outer shells is usually a good strategy.

Down Jacket Baffles

The shape and size of the compartments used to hold the down also matter. The tubes, or “baffles” can be either stitch-through or box wall construction, with box wall being the warmer of the two. Stitch-through allows heat to escape in the stitched areas but is the simpler, more common construction and can still be plenty good for the average outdoor enthusiast when combined with adequate layers in mild conditions. Smaller baffles also help keep the down from shifting and help keep the garment uniformly warm.

How to Wash Down Jackets & Other Garments

When cleaning down garments, don’t dry clean them - traditional dry cleaning methods strip natural oils from the down and that reduces its effectiveness. It’s best to wash down garments yourself in a front loader washing machine. Wash the garment once at warm temperature with just water, then again with a down-specific product like Nikwax Down Wash. Rinse again with no added cleaner to remove any residue. Dry the garment at low heat in a dryer with a couple of tennis balls thrown in to restore the loft – this may take several hours. Don’t store your down garment in a compressed state (like its stuff sack) – hang it up in a dry place. If feathers work their way part way out through seams or the fabric, don’t pull them out as it enlarges the holes and can pull other down with it. If you can, try to pull the feathers back into the garment from the back side.

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic insulation, usually made of thin polyester fibers, provides warmth similar to down, but retains heat more effectively if it gets wet. On the other hand, it’s not as compressible (doesn’t pack as small) as down and can be less durable. Synthetics don’t have quite the same warmth-to-weight ratio as down but they can perform better in damp conditions.

Synthetical Insulation Weight & Warmth Ratings

Synthetic insulation is rated in gram weights — 60 grams (g) means a 1 meter by 1 meter piece of the insulation weighs that much. The heavier the weight, the warmer the insulation. Common synthetic fill weights range from 40 to 120 grams, and are often lighter in the sleeves than the body of a coat.

Pros & Cons of Synthetic Insulation

A synthetic-filled insulating garment can be the best choice if you wear it next to your body during high exertion activities or in wet weather. If you ride in a maritime climate, or are often in temperatures that hover around the freezing point, synthetic filled garments are a good choice. Many experienced skiers and snowboarders have more than one insulated jacket – synthetic for warmer, wetter days and down for colder ones.

Additionally, the best synthetic fibers compete with the lower quality levels of down in terms of insulating efficiency. Many synthetic fibers also have a “green” or “eco” version, made with recycled material.

Washing Gear with Synthetic Insulation

Washing synthetic-filled clothes is normally pretty simple, but always check the instructions on the label first. There are no natural oils to worry about, so you can use your regular detergent, but beware of upright washing machines with agitator vanes as they can snag and tear thin shell fabrics. Machine drying at medium heat is usually fine as well.

Types of Synthetic Insulation

One of the best known and arguably the highest quality synthetic insulations, PrimaLoft® comes in several versions, including PrimaLoft® One, PrimaLoft® Sport, PrimaLoft® Black, Gold, Silver, and PrimaLoft® ECO. The company claims the ultra-fine structure of its fibers provides superior warmth retention and compressibility. These are widely used by many outerwear companies.

Popular in garments and sleeping bags for over 35 years, Polarguard® boasts continuous hollow fibers for lightness and increased insulating ability.

Polartec® Alpha®
This super breathable insulation for high-output activity was invented for the U.S. special forces as a means of creating sustained comfort through temperature vartiations without the need to shed layers.

The North Face uses this proprietary synthetic insulation in many of its jackets and pants.

A trademark of the 3M Corporation, Thinsulate® claims that its dense structure of very thin (~ 15 micrometers) fibers provides warmth without thickness. Typically used in gloves and applications where the insulation layer is very thin.

Lite Loft™
Lite Loft™ products are variations of 3M Thinsulate™

Exclusive to The North Face, this PrimaLoft®-produced synthetic insulation mimics the insulating properties of down with fiber "clusters" to effectively trap heat in small air pockets. ThermoBall™ is especially effective when wet, giving it an advantage over down.

Insulation and fabric from the Invista™ Corporation, which also produces Coolmax®

Synthetic insulation produced by the DuPont Corporation

A proprietary Arc’teryx synthetic insulation that features continuous double stranded polyester strands of different diameters; the finer filaments are crimped to help trap heat and the larger filaments help promote loft. The fibers are treated with silicone for water repellency.

Columbia's proprietary synthetic insulation 

Another Arc’teryx proprietary insulation used in some of their jackets.

Thermal R™
Marmot’s proprietary family of polyester insulation products used in sleeping bags, clothing, and gloves.

Patagonia’s brand of recycled Polyester insulation used in many models of outerwear.


Yup, fleece is still around too, and works pretty well as an insulating layer under a waterproof/breathable shell for skiing and snowboarding and other acitivites, as long as it doesn’t get wet. One advantage is you probably already own a fleece jacket. It’s breathable, which can be good during strenuous activity but a disadvantage if you’re trying to stay warm on top of a windy peak.
On the other hand, fleece doesn’t have the same warmth-to-weight ratio as a good down or synthetic layer, and it’s not very compressible. If you need to stash it in your pack, it’ll take up more room. Fleece comes in various weights (light, medium, and heavy)so you can pick the right weight for the weather. Fleece garments with a GORE Windstopper membrane can also be effective in more severe weather as they will block the chilling effects of wind.
For casual skiing or snowboarding in moderate temperatures, a fleece mid layer in combination with a waterproof/breathable shell can be just right. Fleeces tend to be made from fibers that dry quickly and have simple care instructions.

Merino Wool

Merino wool midlayers are popular for their excellent next-to-skin comfort, natural odor-fighting abilities, and as a natural fiber alternative to synthetic polyester fibers. Merino wool comes from the Merino sheep, a breed renowned for having some of the softest and finest wool of any sheep. The Merino sheep often live in climates that vary greatly in temperature and the sheep must produce wool capable of suiting it in both cold and warm conditions.

Like synthetic layers, wool is often measured in grams per square meter, with light to medium weight garments starting around 100g and heavier wool insulation weighing up to around 400g or so.

Wool can be a great low-bulk alternative to traditional down and synthetic insulations. Unlike down, often a byproduct of the poultry industry, wool is sheered from live sheep which can then regrow their wool. Wool is biodegradable, unlike synthetic insulation, and is not a product of the petroleum industry. 

Mid layers made from Merino Wool such as Smartwool are increasingly available in heavier weights and can work for resort riding in warmer temperatures as well.

A wool baselayer and/or midlayer paired with a waterproof shell makes for a versatile, natural-fiber setup that can be layered heavier or lighter to match the conditions. 

How to Wash Merino Wool

Wash Merino wool in cool or warm water using a mild soap and a gentle cycle. Do not bleach. Air-drying flat is recommended to avoid shrinking in the dryer and stretching of the fibers if hung. Refer to the care label on your products for guidance. 

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