Are you looking to stay warm and safe in foul weather and wet sleeping conditions? Whether you’re backpacking or planning for survival scenarios, you’re probably spending some time thinking about the different insulation options for clothing and sleeping gear. The Primaloft vs down question isn’t an easy one to answer, and ultimately, you’re the only one who can make the call on which option is best for your needs.
In order to accomplish this, you should arm yourself with the right kind of information to make an informed decision that you won’t regret. Let’s take a look at the battle between synthetic and natural insulation to see which contender comes out on top.
Understanding Your Options
So what makes Primaloft and down so different that you need an entire article to judge which one is best? It may seem cut and dry at first, but simply knowing that one of these materials is man-made and the other is not only tells a small part of the story. Each of these materials has unique characteristics that offers both advantages and disadvantages.
If you want to arrive at the best possible conclusion, you’ll need to understand the differences between a synthetic material like Primaloft and an animal-derived insulator like down. As you read through these characteristics, keep in mind that synthetic insulators like Primaloft are specifically designed to mimic down.
They’re even referred to as “down alternative” in some cases, in part because their texture is quite wispy and airy, much like down itself. Primaloft and down may seem awfully similar at first glance, but if you dig deeper, you’ll see some fundamental differences that you can use to make your final gear purchasing decision.
What is Primaloft?
As a down alternative material, Primaloft is fluffy, but it has more of a uniform, cloud-like texture than down. If you’ve noticed that Primaloft is capitalized and down isn’t, there’s a reason: Primaloft is a patented material, and its name is also its brand. This insulating material is made from 100% polyester and looks like a flossy collection of fiber-like threads.
Primaloft can come in different textures, including continuous-filament sheets and small, ball-like fiber clusters. Developed in the 1980s, Primaloft is part of a new generation of insulating materials that serves as a great alternative to down and feathers.
In fact, the U.S. military commissioned Primaloft’s parent company to develop a feather alternative insulator, and that’s how Primaloft was born. In its initial patent from the mid-80s, Primaloft is referred to as synthetic down.
What is Down?
Though the two words are often used interchangeably, down is not the same thing as feathers. It seems like a mere semantic difference at first glance; after all, both down and feathers used for insulation come from domesticated waterfowl like geese. However, down is much smaller and fluffier than feathers, which is why it’s so great at insulating.
Overall, it has a loose structure that allows for a lot of warm air pockets to get trapped in place, and the small size means that these air pockets are smaller and more likely to stay in place with movement. So if you happen to be a tosser and turner in your sleep, you won’t have to worry about losing that precious heat. You can also check out our piece on the excellent features of the Nemo Tango Solo Down Comforter to give you more choices.
Down has these qualities because it’s actually a water bird’s undercoat, which lays between the skin and the top layers of feathers. It’s no coincidence that down is such a great insulator – that’s the role it plays on a bird’s body and in our sleeping bags.
Common Uses for Primaloft and Down
Though Primaloft and other synthetic insulators are now used for housewares and bedding, they were actually born out of a need for reliable outdoor gear. Down is also often used for bedding and other housewares, but its natural function is one of outdoor insulation, albeit for birds.
So where will you find Primaloft and down used for outdoor equipment? If you can think of a cold-weather gear item that’s intended to protect your body from extreme temperatures, chances are pretty high that you’ll be able to find both down and down alternative materials used in its construction.
Down isn’t just for fancy comforters and pillows. In a wilderness or survival context, a down sleeping bag can literally save your life. The same goes for down-alternative materials such as Primaloft. It’s not about luxury: it’s about warmth and weight.
Modern wilderness sleeping bags can pack down to be smaller than a jug of milk without sacrificing insulating power and tactical efficiency. From mummy bags that provide protection for your head to simple rectangles, you’ll find a variety of different Primaloft and down filled sleeping bags to choose from.
Sleeping bags that aren’t intended for rugged outdoor purposes may use a different kind of polyester fiber fill that isn’t as efficient at providing insulation in extreme conditions.
If you’re planning a serious trek or you’re looking for the means to survive in a disaster, you should stick with down or higher-tech polyfill materials. Save the cheap polyester insulation for car camping and other casual, low-stakes situations.
You’ll find footwear insulated with both down and Primaloft available from various sources, but when it comes to the kind of shoes you’ll actually wear while hiking, you aren’t likely to find a lot of down options. The reason why this is relates to warm-when-wet insulating properties, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Down slippers are common, and if you plan to camp overnight in freezing temperatures, these insulating foot protectors can be crucial in preventing frostbite to the toes and feet while you sleep. On the other hand, Primaloft is used in a variety of different rugged boot styles that can keep your feet safe and warm while hiking through slushy puddles, snow drifts and other potentially hazardous conditions.
Just as your feet can be at risk for serious injury in cold weather, your hands must also be protected. Given how vital your hands are for outdoor survival, it makes sense to use the best-possible insulating materials. Down and Primaloft are both great options for gloves.
You’ll find a variety of different styles available to choose from, including some gloves that you can use as layers in extreme cold. Mittens that are designed to serve as a top layer for severe cold temperatures also typically use either down or a synthetic alternative to provide superior insulation and cold protection.
Both insulation types are also commonly used for jackets, coats, parkas and vests, allowing you to select the style and warmth level that works best for your needs. In many cases, the down or Primaloft insulation carries through the entire garment, including collars and hoods.
That gives you a more comprehensive meaning of staying safely warm in uncomfortable or dangerous temperatures. Down jackets are often a bit thinner and less bulky than Primaloft jackets, but they are also more likely to leak their filling.
Is One Better Than the Other?
The only person who can truly say which option is better is you. Your unique needs, wants, budget and lifestyle all should play a part in your decision-making process. However, when experts weigh in, they tend to come down on one side of the argument. Synthetics just don’t have the same insulating power as the real deal.
Down insulation is lightweight, ultra-warm, super packable and excellent in a range of different scenarios, though it doesn’t perform well in wet conditions. While synthetics such as Primaloft can mimic these effects, they can never quite duplicate them.
However, that doesn’t automatically mean that everyone should ignore synthetic options and go buy up all the down gear they can find. There are some special considerations to think about before you choose.
Anyone having trouble deciding between down and synthetic may want to consider whether they have a down allergy. In most cases, down allergies are easy to notice – you’ll get the itchy eyes and uncontrollable sneezing symptoms almost immediately after coming into contact with something containing down.
However, if your symptoms are more subtle, you may not notice. If you’re looking for survival-scenario solutions, it may be worth it to take an allergy test to see whether down is a safe material for you. Down alternatives like Primaloft would be your best bet if you do have a down allergy.
Both down and Primaloft are great materials to use for cold-temperature protection. It’s what Primaloft was specifically designed to do, and it’s what down does do every day in the wild. When it comes to a warmth-to-weight ratio, though, down beats Primaloft hands down. No man-made insulation has managed to best the warming powers of Mother Nature at her best.
On the other hand, down is almost completely useless when it gets wet. Those tiny air pockets that make down such an effective insulator collapse completely under the weight of wet down. It’s just not a good material to use for staying warm in wet weather. That’s where Primaloft gets a distinct edge.
As mentioned above, Primaloft was actually developed specifically to address the poor wet-weather performance of down and feathers. Synthetic insulators do a great job of maintaining their shape and warmth while wet. They also dry off much more quickly than down does. It can take down a long time to dry out, especially if there’s a lot of ambient moisture in the air.
The fact that down compresses so easily when wet actually points to another advantage it has over synthetics like Primaloft. Down packs incredibly well. It’s very easy to stuff it into a compression sack and get it down to a small fraction of its original size.
Primaloft can also pack relatively well; it has air pockets too, after all. However, it doesn’t pack down quite as well. If bulk is a concern, Primaloft may not be the right choice for you.
There are some distinct budget-related differences between these two insulation types. While cost will vary based on the item you choose, the store you buy from and the manufacturer’s general price point level, Primaloft is typically more affordable than down. Primaloft is made in a factory and doesn’t require the use of livestock animals the way down does. See also our article comparing synthetic and down sleeping bags for more information.
Down is expensive in part because it takes many animals to create enough material for a single jacket or sleeping bag. If you want to focus on the most affordable cold-weather gear available, Primaloft and other synthetic insulation options are your best bet for staying within budget and still getting a high-quality product.
Wrapping Up on Insulation
By now, you should have a good understanding of which insulation type works best for you. If you still aren’t sure, it may be time to shop around and see what appeals to you most. You may find a sleeping bag made with either insulating material that suits all your needs, and that can make your decision for you. Check out our piece on how to choose the best down sleeping bag for more information.
Ultimately, both down and Primaloft have their pros and cons. The best approach may be to think carefully about how much control you’ll have over your exposure to wet weather. For many people, down’s inability to remain billowy and maintain its air pockets when wet may be the ultimate dealbreaker.
To find out how to make your sleeping bags last, read our article on how to wash your down sleeping bag to help you.
Do you have thoughts on the battle between synthetics like Primaloft and down, the genuine article? Share your opinions, experiences and warnings in the comments so your fellow adventurers can learn from your knowledge.