Puffy Jackets on the AT: Down Vs Synthetic For Warmth

There are two options for staying warm on the Appalachian Trail: down or synthetic. Synthetic jackets are more affordable, but…

There are two options for staying warm on the Appalachian Trail: down or synthetic. Synthetic jackets are more affordable, but they don’t offer the same compression in a backpack as a down jacket.

The real question is whether a down or synthetic jacket is better for a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.

There are two options for puffer jackets that a thru-hiker can purchase, down and synthetic fiber. Down has more compressibility and is lighter in overall weight for similar warmth whereas a synthetic insulated jacket handles moisture and maintains warmth regardless of moisture levels.

The choice is easy when looking for an ultralight jacket as this will always be down, but your environment matters.

If your hike is in a wet environment, that should be a large part of the deciding factor when you choose between down or synthetic.

Down vs. Synthetic Jackets for Backpacking

This battle is nearly as old as time; the largest part is firmly entrenched in down as the best choice for backpacking, typically due to being the lightest jacket.

There are good reasons for this, and there is a place specifically where synthetic wins out every time, which is wet conditions.

Why Choose a Down Puffy Jacket for Thru-Hiking?

Down has long been one of the best options for warmth and for lower weight, but it does come with some significant downsides due to being natural. An example is this nice new release, the Goose Down Jacket by Zpacks.

Down is very compressible and packs down to a small size, making it easy for thru-hikers to fit into their backpack.

Down jackets are also typically lighter than synthetic jackets of the same warmth rating, making them more comfortable on the trail and easier to carry when not worn.

Down jackets are also typically more expensive than synthetic options, but they can last a very long time when taken care of properly, and this makes the cost per wear cheaper in the end.

The biggest reason people choose down is that it is warmer for its weight over synthetics, which makes them great choices for cold conditions or low-exertion activities.

Down can have issues though with jacket loft failing over time as they pick up bodily oils from being worn which reduces their insulation.

This is why it’s important to wash your down jacket regularly with a special cleaner or cold water, and if you want the best performance, drying them in a dryer on no or low heat can help restore some of that lost loft.

Why Choose a Synthetic Puffy Jacket for Thru-Hiking?

The biggest reason to choose a synthetic puffer jacket is that it can handle moisture really well and still retain its warmth, an example of APEX synthetic fabric is the Enlightened Equipment Torrid Apex.

This makes synthetic choices much better for wet conditions instead of a down jacket, when the risk of being both cold and wet is high as well as the difficulty with drying out properly, which can lead to mold and mildew.

A synthetic jacket like either the Patagonia Micro Puff or Nano Puff is also typically less expensive which can make them a better choice for those on a budget or looking for their first puffer jacket as you won’t have to worry quite as much about taking care of it down the road.

Synthetic jackets are not compressible at all, meaning that it will take up a good amount of space in your backpack and fill it up more easily than down.

These jackets are typically heavier as well, but they pack into their own pocket, making them easier to clip onto the outside of a pack rather than having additional straps like down options.

Which is Better: Down or Synthetic Jackets?

For me, as long as you take good care of down gear, it will last far longer, decades, than a synthetic. Synthetics break down over time as they are compressed, and the insulation breaks down.

Since a thru-hike will be less than six months on average, the down jacket makes far more sense overall. There are a few reasons why someone may decide to instead focus on synthetic insulation.

Let’s go over some of the reasons why you focus on synthetic insulation:

Ideological Ideals – Are You Vegan?

If you are against animal use, as a vegan, for example, your only choice will be to use a synthetic jacket.

This is because down uses the feathers of geese and ducks, which are often live-plucked, to get them to fill a jacket properly.

There isn’t much cruelty involved in how companies obtain their materials, but it does give some people pause when they think about what use animals for our own purposes, including warmth.

Best Overall
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2

The Ghost Whisperer 2 is a hoody made with recycled materials and responsibly sourced down insulation. The warmth of its original design has been improved upon, while still keeping the atmosphere in mind!

Warmth to Weight
Arc'teryx Cerium SL Hoody

The Super lightweight Arato 7 face fabric with DWR finish repels moisture and Down Composite Mapping strategically places synthetic insulation in areas where it may buildup to provide maximum warmth.

Budget Choice
Patagonia Nano Puff

The Patagonia Nano Puff Insulated Jacket offers warmth without weight so you can trek into the alpine with a lighter pack. Its Primaloft Gold Eco insulation adds that touch of extra warmth needed for active endeavors in cold places.

The AT: Where Rain Is Your Consistent Companion

Another reason you need to look more deeply at synthetic-based puffy jackets is that you will be in wet conditions.

Since your journey takes you through some of the wettest areas where it rains almost daily, then down insulation just isn’t hold up against that moisture and retain warmth as a synthetic jacket would.

Are Weight and Packability important to you?

Synthetics’ big downfall in a head-to-head battle is definitely down to its high overall weight and lack of compression.

These two factors are massively important for thru-hikers as you want to be able to carry the least weight in gear possible.

In addition, you need this gear also not to take up too much space in your backpack, as it can be viewed as mission-critical that you conserve every inch of space.

What Will Your Activity Level Be?

The last benefit to a synthetic will be that due to the insulation being artificial, it can get wet from sweat and exertion while not losing heat, allowing you to dry it later.

This means you will be able to hike in the rain while wearing it under a rain jacket or other rain gear and not have to worry about your insulation getting wet on a wet-out.

Sometimes that little bit of extra warmth is all you need to not feel that urge to quit and to get yourself through another day on the trail.

Available Money For Gear

The last big deal for many hikers will be the gear cost. A synthetic jacket is typically far less expensive than a high-quality down insulation option like 800-fill goose or duck down that you can get on the market today.

This means that many hikers will try to save money and buy these cheaper synthetic puffer jackets instead of spending more upfront for an ultralight down jacket, which can be $400 or more.

The counter to this is that the down jackets are typically lighter, compressible, and offer better warmth-to-weight ratios on average than synthetics.

However, this is changing as new materials emerge that change the game.

In Summary

Down jackets are typically better in the long run than synthetic ones because they last decades and have a better warmth-to-weight ratio.

However, a synthetic jacket is your best bet if you’re vegan or hiking through consistently damp areas where it rains almost daily.

Synthetic also has drawbacks to their general weight and packability, so consider that when making your decision. If you want to see my choice of best down jackets for thru-hiking, check out my guide here.

The bottom line is to do what’s right for YOU!

Zpacks goose down jacket

Stay warm and comfortable on those chilly nights in the backcountry with the Zpacks Goose Down Jacket. This ultimate, ultralight, Goose Down Jacket strikes the ideal balance of warmth and weight, appealing to outdoor enthusiasts seeking to stay warm at an incredible weight!

*As an affiliate we earn from qualifying purchases, thanks for supporting our work!

Josh Koop

I turned 40 and realized I needed to change my life from being a desk-bound IT worker slowly dying in a cubicle. I have been working on ways to build my knowledge and skills, along with gear. I have plans to do a thru-hike on the Lone Star Hiking Trail, Ouachita Trail, and Pinhoti Trail in the next year.

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