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Backpacker Magazine – Fall/Winter Gear Guide 2012

The Science Behind Water-repellent Down

Will water-repellent down bags make synthetic insulation obsolete?

by: Will Rochfort

The Science Behind Water-repellent Down
The Science Behind Water-repellent Down

More Sleeping Bags
Snooze better with these field-tested bags.
Hikers love fluffy, lightweight, packable down—when it’s dry. But no one likes wet, wilted down, which loses its power to insulate. That’s just one reason synthetic-fill bags have long had a place in a backpacker’s gear closet (the other is affordable pricing). But a new generation of water-repellent down promises to change the way manufacturers make—and hikers use—sleeping bags.

Two companies, Sierra Designs and Down Decor, have devised ways to coat individual feathers with a molecular-level polymer that creates a hydrophobic finish on each plume. We spent several months testing these new fills (Sierra Designs’ is DriDown and Down Decor’s is DownTek) in a variety of products, and the improvement over untreated down is remarkable. Even in soggy Scotland, the treated down held its loft in conditions that saturated untreated down. Testers detected no difference between the two competitive brands in the field. Backpackers going on long trips will appreciate treated down’s advantages (in bags) the most. It’s rare that a bag gets totally soaked. But on extended trips, especially in cold conditions, body moisture migrates into the down, reducing loft over time.

The treated stuff will hold up much better than standard feathers, and there is virtually no difference in feel, loft, compressibility, or durability. The best part? New-school down doesn’t cost much more (up to $30) than the untreated version. You should still consider synthetic fill if price is a big concern and packability is not. But whether you want a light bag for long treks or for wet conditions (or you just want the peace of mind of knowing your bag won’t wilt in an accidental dunking), you should consider an upgrade.

Bonus: Water-resistant down is also available in puffy jackets, and in this application the advantage is obvious, even to the casual user: There’s no need to pull on a shell in wet flurries—and potentially sweat-soak the down from the inside as you heat up. That’s why we gave Editors’ Choice Snow Awards to the Sierra Designs Tov and the L.L. Bean Ultralight 850.

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unfortunately sierra designs doesn't use great fill power down- 600 fill has about the same warmth to weight ratio as synthetic fills.

Fortunately the dri down technology will soon be available from other companies, I know for a fact that mountain hardwear has stuff in the works. Once there is an 800+ fill bag that is more worry free that will be the bee's knees... having that option is also going to push synthetics to be more lightweight more quickly which is awesome too... I do wonder if synthetics will ever catch up to down but its always possible.

the dri down process is basically going to be available to all companies, it wont even be proprietary, it will just come from the same factory like standard 300 weight fleece might and then be sent to Patagonia, north face, etc for manufacturing use.

my big question is whether or not the dri down will be permanent as opposed to something like a dwr coating which wears off

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Nov 07, 2012

I wonder about the health implications of the chemicals used to create dridown. It it safe to breathe in? Or have next to my skin?

Tanya
Nov 07, 2012

I wonder about the health implications of the chemicals used to create dridown. It it safe to breathe in? Or have next to my skin?

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Geoff B.
Oct 24, 2012

You can go to the Sierra designs web site for stats on how their Dri-down does vs. untreated down.

Tevye
Oct 24, 2012

For lifelong vegan and vegetarian hikers and backpackers, and they are quite a few... they would rather put up with the weight and packability issues with synthetic then the propagation of pain and torture from the animals that died, usually horribly, to give us humans that down.. be it a byproduct or not, or be it water- repellant or not. Peace.

Josh
Oct 24, 2012

How much weight is added to a bag when the down is treated?

Eric B.
Oct 23, 2012

This is one of the products, like Cuben fabric, that is a great technological advance for backpackers.

Now if "Never Wet" DWR gets into the market (as they promised) a "Never Wet" treated down jacket that is filled with Dri Down or Down Tek treated down we will have a product that will be weather resistant in everything but an all day rain.

We all await Unobtainium weightless hiking poles as the next breakthrough. ;o)

Jake
Oct 23, 2012

Where are the numbers? It would be nice to have a direct comparison of treated down to un-treated. I understand this water resistant down is better, but by how much?

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Oct 23, 2012

Jr
Oct 23, 2012

No if you allergic to down you are allergic to dry down

Joe
Oct 23, 2012

I thought synthetic was obsolete decades ago.

Anonymous
Oct 12, 2012

Err, Will.

Steve C
Oct 12, 2012

Kristen,
Many of us can't use down because of being allergic. Does the water-repellant treatment also make it hypo-allergenic?

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