5 November 2019
Baffles and coatings, wax and warmth; we dive deep into choosing the best down jacket for you
It’s easy to get caught up in the new-fangled tech talk associated with cutting edge outdoor clothing, but when it comes to down - one of the most essential warmth-providing materials in the world – most of the credit goes to Mother Nature. Head to the Arctic, climb Kili or just go into the countryside for a winter weekend away and you are going to want to have a down jacket of some sort on your body. A byproduct of poultry, down is made from the feathers of geese and ducks. It works by trapping air between the fibres, allowing you to wear what is ostensibly a relatively light and compressible garment (even though it looks puffy), that can keep you warm in the coldest of conditions.
The Achilles Heel
In nature, down from ducks and geese is naturally hydrophobic meaning it repels water. That quality comes from the natural waxy oils geese and ducks give off into the down feathers. However, the one thing down products like jackets are not meant to do, is get wet as they rapidly lose some of their insulating ability (and humans lack that natural hydrophobic wax). Luckily, all K-Way down jackets are coated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellency) outer layer, meaning your down will be safe in an unexpected drizzle.
The Synthetic Option
In contrast to down, jackets filled with synthetic insulation do better when they get wet because they retain their loft. It’s still not going to be comfortable or toasty (getting wet never is), but it’s better than sitting in wet down, which clumps and becomes compressed. Bear in mind though that synthetic jackets do not feel as light as down jackets, nor do they compress as well, taking up more space in your pack. They are also not quite as warm.
Down, Going Up
Where science comes in is on the added extras. With technological advancements, down jackets can now be treated with water-repellant coatings. Most jackets already have some level of water repellent applied to the outside, but you can now expect to hear about it being applied to the feathers on the inside too as we get closer to the holy grail of a hydrophobic down garment that keeps you warm even if you get a bit wet. Will it get to the level where a down jacket could replace a waterproof shell? Unlikely, but hydrophobic coatings will ensure your down garment lasts longer than it would otherwise.
The baffle is the name for the shapes the down is sewn into on a garment whether it’s a sleeping bag or a jacket. Think of them as shelves or pigeon holes for the down. Without them, the down would shift all the way down to the bottom of the jacket like when your duvet becomes bottom or top heavy. You get sewn-through horizontal baffles and box baffles. Sewn through baffles are light and more compressible, but because they are sewn together at the end points, that is a weak point for cold air. Box baffles are the best for heat but are bulkier and heavier. You’ll find these on proper expedition gear.
Down is rated by ‘fill power’; the higher the count, the higher the quality of the down and the more volume it takes up (giving you that wonderfully puffed cloud-like element as you walk around like the Michelin Man).
When to comes to choosing a down jacket, it’s important to get the right level of warmth for you. Sweating litres because you are too warmly dressed is almost as unpleasant as being chilled to your core by being under-dressed. If you are going on a polar bear photographic safari where you will be subjected to harsh, sub-zero temperatures for 24 hours a day (and forgot the warmth of Mzanzi), the you want the best, thickest, loftiest down jacket (around 850 fill power) money can buy. If, however, you just want to survive the Highveld winter, you want a quality, mid-layer insulation jacket like the K-Way Drake Down jacket. Maybe it’s fashion and a bit of warmth you are after like the K-Way Ashton Quilted Bomber? Do you actually need a stuffable, lightweight jacket and a shell? Think about where you are going in this jacket, what the climate is likely to be like and how long the jacket needs to last you.
Lastly, read the labels on each garment (they are often surprisingly informative) and ask a shop assistant for help. You can thank us when you’re toasty through all those winter weekends or while ticking off the Seven Summits.