Most outdoors adventures know that the best defense against frigid cold is down-filled outerwear and sleeping bags, but many don’t know the basic facts about down – how it works, and how to care for it to keep it doing its job.
Getting the down low on down
For starters, there is a wide variety of what is called “down” in the industry, so a consumer must understand what true down is. Down is not an actual two-dimension feather. It is the fluffy three-dimensional filament cluster that lies underneath a bird’s feathers, like what covers the proverbial fuzzy duckling before it gets its feathers. In case you wondered why down products are primarily made out of duck or goose down, it’s because these big birds yield more down. Duck happens to be used in down products more commonly because it is a more common food source, and down is a byproduct of the meat industry.
Fill made of those spheres of soft and lofty fluff are what constitute true down, and this material is what traps heat and provides insulation from cold. For this reason, it pays to be an educated consumer in order to choose products with high quality and pure down, not a mix of feathers and down, or down that has not been processed properly in order to maintain its loft and heat-holding qualities.
Fill power to the people
Like with diamonds, down has many grades that may not be visible to the eye, especially once the down is under the cover of a jacket shell, but the categories of down make a difference in its performance. Fill power, which relates to the size of the down cluster, is one of the terms used to describe down quality. All things being equal, higher fill power down is warmer because it can trap more air. However, heavier weight fabrics will compress a higher fill power down, removing the loft and, thereby, its ability to insulate. In these cases, a 700-fill power down works better and costs less than a 900-fill power down.
Being baffled is good
Besides the superiority of the down material, the quality of a down-filled product depends on the way the product is constructed. It sounds rather simple to stuff coats and sleeping bags with down, but there is a lot more to it. The way that down is contained in baffles or channels in the shell of these items has an impact how effective the down is in keeping in warmth. Using a higher fill power down in small baffles can be a waste of money. If the down cluster is too big, it will be compressed and not be able to do its job as it is put into the jacket. Again, a lower fill power will work better with smaller baffles and be more economical.
The how is why
The reason some down fills are better than others has to do with how it is sourced and cared for before it is put into your coat or sleeping bag. Processing has a lot to do with the quality of the finished product. It’s easiest and most cost effective to wash down with harsh detergents and dry it quickly with high heat. This processing method, however, will remove most of the natural oils found in down that keep it pliable and resilient. If the down loses too much of its natural oil, it becomes brittle and will break down quickly, reducing performance and useful lifespan.
Feel good about your down
While it may be imperceptible to the user, where and how down is sourced and processed makes a difference, as harvesting down can impact the animals involved and our planet. Some down is sourced from birds that are plucked live, force-fed, or otherwise inhumanely treated. Industry leaders in ethically sourced down, like ALLIED Feather & Down, which supplies down for brands like the North Face, Helly Hansen, Outdoor Research and Slumberjack, carry the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certification which ensures that the down used to make their products is ethically sourced. They also use sustainable practices, like using recycled water for their washing process. For conscious consumers, Track My Down details the origins of the down a brand uses.
Down forever – caring for your down-filled products
Once you have chosen the best down product for your needs, keep it in great shape with these wear and care tips from ALLIED Down & Feather.
What do you do if your down jacket gets soaked from rain or a fall into the water?
The primary element in the destruction of down products lies in improper drying. Drying too fast and too hot will make the down brittle, but not drying thoroughly will cause the potential buildup of mold and bacteria which will destroy the loft. Tumble dry low until completely dry. This make take several cycles. Add three clean tennis or dryer balls to the dryer to help re-fluff the down as it dries
How do you clean a down jacket?
Machine wash on normal cycle with a mild detergent, preferably using down product specific, in cold water, followed by an extra rinse cycle without detergent.
How do you store down jackets and sleeping bags off-season?
Your down products should be stored in an area away from high humidity. The product should also be allowed to breath and stored uncompressed to retain the down’s resiliency and high loft.
How do you repair a tear?
Many outdoor stores will sell adhesive patches, like NoSo, that do a great job sealing up holes.
How long should a good down jacket last?
If properly taken care of, a down jacket will last for years. Typically, the shell material will wear out before the down loses its loft, so the durability of the shell will generally determine the lifespan.