Friday, 02 May 2014 22:50

Down Time - A buyers guide part 2

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Down jackets, and to some extent synthetics, are perhaps the least researched and most misunderstood garment in the average outdoors wardrobe. Whereas a lot of thought may go into the choice between GoreTex and eVent, lightweight or durable to many people a down jacket is just a down jacket. While part 1 of this guide covers what are essentially the fabrics and materials and how construction varies according to price part 2 looks at the features of down and synthetic insulated jackets in the same way as you'd look at hardshells, and taking activity into account.

Bergans Sauda

High end down jacket with box wall construction and insulated hood

The Hood

The down jacket hood, encrusted with ice, is an iconic image of adventure and hood design is an important part of selecting the right jacket. Not all down and insulated jackets have hoods because, quite simply, not all insulated jackets need them. Many hill-goers prefer a hat to a hood and jackets designed for use down to around -5 often either dispense with the hood or make it removable. As the temperature rating drops hoods become more universal as the importance of preventing heat loss through the head becomes more important.

If selecting a jacket with a hood it's important to make sure that the design and size of the hood fits the activity you have in mind. If climbing or mountaineering the hood needs to be able to accommodate a helmet, for example, and it makes sense to make sure volume adjustment is both simple and effective. Removable and stowable hoods should attach in such a way as to eliminate gaps where cold air and snow can get in and volume adjusters should be designed without long cords which can whip up into the wearers face.



Hood showing volume adjuster for helmet compatibility


Zips are one of the principle areas where heat loss can occur, particularly the main front zip, so it's essential to look at features which can reduce or prevent this. Baffles can be placed either inside or outside the zip to prevent heat loss through the zip. An internal baffle will generally sit naturally behind the zip, whereas a baffle on the outside will need holding in place using velcro or studs.

Zips should be easy to operate wearing gloves, and mittens for extreme cold rated jackets, and wherever possible shouldn't have long cords which can either be whipped in the wind or catch on nearby objects. As with hardshells zips can also be used to regulate the temperature, either through a two way main zip, or in some top-end jackets, by using pit zips. Pit zips can make an enormous difference to keeping the wearer comfortable through a range of temperatures or when extremely active in cold temperatures but need to be easily accessible to be seful; so check you can reach and open them with gloves on when trying a jacket.



To many users the design and layout of pockets is one of the most important features of an insulated jacket. Although most insulated jackets have both internal and external pockets it's the hand warmer pockets which naturally get the most attention. With lower priced jackets designed for temperatures at and around zero it's not uncommon for handwarmer pockets to be left open but as the temperature rating drops zipped pockets become the norm. Handwarmer pockets will generally have insulation on the outside but no insulation on the inside until you reach the colder rated jackets, but whether single or double insulated the pockets should have a soft-to-touch lining and be easily accessible.

In addition to the handwarmer pocket jackets often have one or more chestpockets and an internal, usually zipped, pocket. At least one chest pocket is advisable, preferably with enough room to take a map and an internal pocket can prove essential in cold temperatures for keeping batteries warm enough to function. Extras to look out for, and becoming more commonplace, include an option to route headphones internally from the chest pocket to the hood and ski pass/gps pockets.


Bergans Sauda Chest Pockets

Chest pockets on a Bergans Sauda (note protective storm flaps being held back to show zip entrances)


Hems and cuffs

There's little point in wearing an insulated jacket if cold air is given easy access at the extremities, so hem and drawcord adjustment is essential. While elasticated cuffs can give a good fit the velcro fastening is generally preferable, gicing both a better fit and allowing the wearer to adjust the gap to regulate airflow. As with zips hems and cuffs should be easily adjustable and preferably single handed. With cuffs this is simple using velcro tabs but with hems it usually involves an elastic cord running through plastic adjusters on either side of the jacket. Commonly the elstic will form a loop having passed through a simple plastic grip and it makes sense to check that these loops will either sit naturally inside the jacket or at least not be long enough to catch and snag on objects. 



Bergans Sauda Cuffs

Some jackets come with lycra thumb loops for close fitting



The collar is one of the most important areas of an insulated jacket. With warm air naturally rising the area around the neck provides the easiest escape so needs special attention. Where possible look for a lined collar with a soft facing and a baffle that encircles the wearer's neck. Where hoods are removable, or fixed and stowable, the hood can form the collar but be aware that this means when the hood is use the insulation around the neck has been removed.



The first thing to recognise when selecting a down or insulated jacket is that a down jacket is not just a down jacket. While you can spot one a mile away and a down jacket is instantly recognisable there's a massive range of variation. In the UK the winter temperature rarely drops below -20C and in urban and more southerly parts of the country -10C is a more realistic target rating so with increased insulation requiring more and/or more expensive down selecting a jacket with these in temperatures in mind will save you overspending.

Synthetic and the new waterproof down fillings are more suited to the UK winter climate where down can suffer from getting wet and synthetic jackets are particularly well suited as belay jackets. For urban and campsite environments, however, the DWR coating on outer fabrics is generally more than adequate to last until you can find shelter and a down jacket rated at around -5 is usually fine unless spending prolonged periods sitting around outside.

Put simply the bulk of the price of an insulated jacket comes down to the cost of the insulation and the more extreme the performance the higher the price. There's no point in selecting a jacket with too much insulation for the environment you're going to use it in, in fact it can be counter productive, and there's probably no more expensive way of over-specifying a garment than having too much insulation so rather than jumping in and just buying the "best looking" or "most featured" jacket take the time to look at where you plan using it first and buy accordingly.

Note: This article was restored from the archives. It's published creation date is inaccurate.