Loving and hating the puffy

To begin with, there is the issue of terminology; “puffy” being a plain dumb word, but it is how we refer to synthetic or down fill jackets these days, so so be it.  As with most lexicological nits this one is seemingly benign, but it does promulgate a one-dimensional view of insulated jackets, a problem the outdoor industry has in the last few years finally grappled with in a substantive manner.

I find it odd that off all the layers I wear outside month to month and year to year, the insulating coat is at the beginning of 2018 the one I still find least satisfying.  Baselayers have been going in a good direction for quite some time, by getting thinner and more focused on speedy moisture transfer.  Between the Sitka Core LW line and what Patagonia now calls Thermal Weight I can go out into every condition with no complaints about either fit or performance.  Wool is still sorting itself out, and I’m still paying attention to the various new blends, but if those problems take a further decade to get solved I will remain not at all impatient.  Shells are also in a very good spot, especially the light and quite breathable ones (aka windshirts) that I wear almost all the time.  It will be swell when WPB laminates are both reliable and reliably don’t rely on DWR treatments, but at the moment I’m content enough with how well such things work.

IMG_3253Hot Forge along the Dirty Devil; cold, but good dry conditions once you’re out of the river.

Insulated jackets, on the other hand, are a source of consistent annoyance.  At least, they are here in Montana.  Last winter I had it easy, which is to say simple; I just brought the Hot Forge hoody on everything and was both warm enough and rarely had to worry about internal or external moisture.  Life in the desert is easy like that, with rare precipitation, low ambient humidity, and generally moderate winter temps.  The winter of 17/18 has been quite different.  Since early November we’ve had several feet of snow in town at 4100′, and many times that in the mountains.  Of those ~90 days, probably 1 in 4 has had a low in or below the single digits (F).

It may not be worth saying out loud that these conditions are a lot tougher to insulate for, but it is worth elaborating on exactly why.  Cold weather requires more insulation, of course, but it is also more difficult to manage layers in.  It shouldn’t be so, but I find it harder to stay sweat free at 10F than I do at 30F.  More significantly, colder ambient temps put the refreeze point somewhere within your insulation (or sleeping bag), which means that maintaining the function of your insulation (i.e. keeping it dry) becomes all important, the moreso the longer you stay out.

IMG_5395I’ve been in lots of driving snow this winter, which makes moisture management tough.

The Hot Forge hoody has done fairly well, and save for the truly frigid trips (where I’ve brought my MEC Reflex) has been in almost constant use.  The 4-5 oz of fill provides what I find to be the ideal amount of warmth, and the Primaloft/down blend dries far faster and moves moisture better than either plain down or DWR treated down.  The torso is a bit on the slim side for stuffing with gloves and water bottles, but the cut and feature set is otherwise ideal.

So why the complaining?  It has been possible to flatten the insulation in the Hot Forge in a way the pure Primaloft only does when you submerse it in water, which is a bummer.  A comparably warm Primaloft coat would be much bulkier, so that is a good enough trade off.  What has been disappointing is how quickly the insulation has packed out, leaving the usual down jacket problem spots (inside of the elbows, fronts of the shoulders) a bit thin.  This matches the pattern of what has happened with every thinner, non-baffled down coat I’ve ever owned, and leaves me thinking that under regular use in high moisture areas non-baffled down coats don’t have a functional life any longer than a Primaloft coat, which is to say about 18-24 months.  I still like the Hot Forge plenty, but for winter use in colder, more reliably moisture generating areas it does not strike me as worth full retail.  I don’t think the fill packing down necessarily has anything to do with the synthetic component, as many of the chamber elsewhere remain stuffed full, but this is something worth keeping in mind.  With baselayers and fleece that can last for a decade or more, and windshirt and rain coats whose DWR might make it 5 or more years before becoming dysfunctional, puffy coats end up being the least durable clothing item in the arsenal.  And with premium Goretex jackets excepted, the most expensive.

R0022003Down is better than a blanket when you forgot your puffy, and is also a lot less problematic for folks who don’t put off as much internal moisture.

So what is a better option, if anything?  I’m still scratching my head about that.  A synthetic coat with comparable warmth would be in the ~20 oz range, with the Patagonia Hyper Puff hoody and Nunatak Shaka Apex the leading contenders.  A lighter (and cheaper) synthetic coat isn’t a bad option either, assuming I’ll likely have the Nano Air Light along as well.  I also wonder if an equivalent down coat with more tightly stuffed baffles would hold up longer, better.  Or perhaps new synthetic like Patagonia’s Micro Puff will make this debate moot.  Until then, I’ll keep looking for new options, and keep looking for the cheapest option that will do the job, given the hard life insulated jackets lead.

 

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6 thoughts on “Loving and hating the puffy

  1. Love these posts…they are very helpful with how to spend often limited funds. And the puffy is indeed a dilemma…way too much options to choose from w/o a lot of reliable commentary on what temps it was used in and what level of humidity. And then the debate of buying one really nice down (I always dream of a Nunatak piece) or just several synthetic pieces over the same time period.

    Have you ever used Apex Climashield? From what I’ve read, if I’m not getting things wrong, it is generally considered more durable than Primaloft in the long run?

    1. It is more durable, but by no means immortal. I retired a Climashield quilt after five years.

      1. Good to know. Thank you.

  2. I’ve been very (very) impressed with my Nunatuk Apex jacket- much more loft & warmth than I would have thought (mine is 2.5 Apex, but offered in 3.6 and 5.0 as well)- it’s fully customizable as well (size/length/amount of insulation/fabric/pockets/etc), it’s a bit pricey, but can’t complain much due to it’s performance.

  3. Part of the problem is the “breathable” shell materials that don’t really breath. Modern base and mid layers work fine, but when it is below freezing, cotton or felted wool works fine as the outer layer. It holds the wind away, but lets moisture pass.

    I haven’t done much winter trips in recent years, but used to wear a double cotton parka and had no moisture problems. For single day outings, my favorite in recent years has been a thick Norwegian woolen sweater as the top layer. It breathes great but holds wind surprisingly well and is thick enough that snow does not melt too fast. I like the breathability for regular skiing. for downhill skiing there is a benefit, when going down the wind blows through and you don’t overheat, when going up there is less airflow and you stay warm.

    Can’t comment on puffy jackets, I have used them only in camp or when taking a break, as they would be too warm to use when moving.

    1. I do think the way forward with insulating layers for rest is to integrate some the technology pioneered by active insulation that would help them move moisture better and thus stay drier. It will be a tricky balance to maintain.

      Like you I never wear puffies while moving, but folks who are smaller and run colder this is a fine option.

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