Not all insulation in jackets is made equal. When I decide to kit myself for outdoor activity, I ask the question, between a down jacket and a windbreaker: which one would be best suitable for me?
The answer depends on the kind of environment I will be venturing into and the activities I expect to undertake. Will you be high–mastering on a wet and windy peak, be on a cross-country ski trail, or on a snowy belay ledge? These are examples of activities to help you know when and where each type of jacket will perform best.
A down jacket and windbreaker keep us warm by entangling body-warmed air within their fibers. A down jacket uses down insulation to achieve this, while a windbreaker applies synthetic insulation.
Down is a term used to refer to the soft fluff from geese and ducks that traps heat, keeping them warm. A down jacket borrows from this mechanism by using the natural material in its insulation to trap warmth. Down is nature’s best insulation, creating high-loft clusters which keep air and body heat in.
Besides its high efficiency in trapping heat, the down jacket is highly breathable, which allows it to carry away waste moisture from the body for evaporation outside. A down jacket is the crème de la crème in insulation capability because of its ultimate warmth-to-weight ratio and impressive compressibility, making it portable. It can be lightweight and keeps you warm the longest.
When choosing a down jacket, you will want to consider the weight of down in the material. For example, 100 grams is less warm than 300 grams. It also helps to look at the fill power of the jacket.
This is its ability to trap air due to fluffiness. Fill power is measured starting from 350 to 900 for goose or duck. The higher the figure, the higher the warmth and the more expensive the jacket.
As liked for its warmness a down jacket is, it also comes with several downfalls. For example, it is not capable of sustainably repelling moisture. When the jacket gets wet, it no longer has the insulating power, and it dries slowly.
In the process of washing and wearing, the down effect degrades, losing fluffiness, and gathers clumps. This makes it lose its heat-trapping capability, exposing you to cold weather. Too much down adds bulkiness and more weight, interfering with daily business activities.
Types of Down Jackets
Down jackets differ significantly in terms of warmth production.
1. Lightweight Down Jackets
Designed with about 3 to 4 ounces of down fill. Ideal for warmer winter days, skiing, or shoulder seasons.
2. Midweight Down Jackets
Balances light construction with a healthy ounce of higher quality fills down. Provides a significant boost in warmness compared to their lightweight equals.
3. Heavyweight Down Jackets
It is ideal for winter conditions. It has a burly design consisting of the highest amount of down fill, and possesses weather-resistant shell fabrics, long cuts below the waist, and large hoods for additional protection.
A windbreaker is a jacket consisting of thin insulated coat fabric to protect against the cold, wind, and rain as well. Unlike a down jacket, it does not lose its insulating properties in the rain or when wet. It can be made to replicate the properties of a down jacket, and retain them even when wet.
Made of polyester fibers organized in various sized filaments and intertwined, to replicate the down jacket’s lofty clusters. With its ultrafine fibers, they trap warmth in air pockets to provide warmth, but not as good as a down jacket. A windbreaker has a somewhat higher weight-to-warmth ratio than a down jacket—it needs to be heavy to provide the same level of performance in warmth as a down.
Due to its high moisture resistance, the jacket dries faster. It typically dries in a couple of hours, especially when placed on a windy or sunny day. A windbreaker is stylish as well, displaying fashion to create an impression.
It can easily be worn in the afternoon for relaxation. You can wear it to keep warm in the cold yet look stylish. They are lightweight and available in a variety of styles, giving comfort and keeping you warm.
The advantage of a windbreaker is it is useful in any given weather condition. You may not be able to predict the weather conditions you find yourself in—the jacket keeps you warm no matter what. A windbreaker is easy to maintain clean and doesn’t need to be ironed.
The jacket is available in waterproof and breathable designs, which provides the best comfort. For example, in a woolen material. It can be limited in protection against heavy downpours, but it’s geared to protect against the wind.
While both a down jacket and windbreaker provide warmth against the cold, they perform differently in weather resistance, drying time, cost, durability, weight, packability, fill weight and fill power, warmth, and more.
A down jacket is warmer than a windbreaker, attributed to a better weight-to-warmth ratio. This implies more warmness for the weight than a windbreaker. To achieve the same level of warmth, a windbreaker would need to add more ounces in weight for insulation compared to down.
On the other hand, the quality of down is a determinant of the level of warmness provided. The fill power index is a measure of the quality of down, which ranges from 300 to 900. The higher the figure, the higher the level of warmness.
The fill-power index is another measurement determinant for warmth. For example, an once of down with a fill power index of 800 inhabits 800 cubic inches. The higher the number, the more space it resides.
This implies it traps more body-warmed air to provide more warmth. This also means it is much fluffier, possessing more tiny air pockets. Ultimately, the amount of down used determines the warmth provided.
Windbreaker warmness is measured by the CLO value. However, even the best windbreaker can’t provide the best warmness as a 600-fill power down jacket.
Fill Weight and Fill Power
Fill weight is the sum of the amount of down in the jacket. Fill power, on the other hand, is the quality or quantity of loft. A premium down jacket can hit as high as 800-fill power.
Manufacturers prefer to indicate fill power on the cuffs, but fill weight is an equally useful measurement. Two down jackets can have the same fill power. So, you will also need to check the fill weight to determine which among them is better.
A 5.6 oz of 800 fill power provides better warmness than a 3.4 oz one. Therefore, it is required to look at both the fill weight and fill power to make an informed decision.
A windbreaker is the best jacket for wet and humid conditions. Both jackets provide warmness by entangling the body’s warmed air into tiny air pockets of fiber material. That’s why, by squeezing the jackets, you will see the air is pushed out and the jacket compresses.
A once of down possesses up to two million filaments, building a large number of tiny air pockets, enhancing the trapping capacity of a down jacket. However, down filaments, when exposed to water or moisture, easily absorb, resulting in heavy and stuck together material. Consequently, the insulation capacity is diminished as the air pockets have become incapacitated.
Therefore, a rained-down jacket will not trap body-warmed air as properly as a windbreaker. Treating down with Durable Water Repellant (DWR) will resist moisture for a long time. This would be handy in humid and wet conditions.
Treating with DWR makes it perform better than conventional down. In areas prone to getting rained on, such as shoulders, cuffs, and the collar, add more insulation material.
The thickness of the fabric is a determinant of how long jackets will last. Thickness is measured in D, and the higher the number, the thicker the shell. A down jacket can be significantly light but with a thicker fabric, making it immune to wear and tear.
Another main thing to consider is how you will be using the jacket. For an everyday-use jacket, like a windbreaker, you should choose one with a higher D figure for durability.
The down jacket is more packable because it compresses better thanks to the tiny air pockets it contains that make it so fluffy. It packs smaller than a windbreaker. However, factors like the amount of down used, zippers, etc. will make a windbreaker pack better.