Dry Down Insulation | A Definitive Guide


Staying warm when camping, hiking, or trekking is key to ensuring a safe and enjoyable trip. Maybe you’ve worn your trusty down jacket out in rainy conditions and have been disappointed at how little insulation it provides once wet. Perhaps you are tempted by a dry-down option but are concerned that it may just be a more expensive gimmick.

Dry or hydrophobic down is an insulating material designed to reduce the negative effects of water and moisture on traditional down insulation. Many debate its improved thermal effectiveness, lightness, and durability, while others maintain the benefits are negligible compared to traditional down.

What is dry-down insulation? How does it work? Should you consider upgrading your gear? Read on to find out if hydrophobic down is the right choice for you.

What is dry down insulation and why is it used?

As a great natural insulator, down sourced from ducks or geese has been used to keep us warm for centuries.

Lightweight and durable, it’s often a top choice for trekkers, campers, and hikers in cooler conditions and is commonly used for multiple purposes, including jackets, sleeping bags, and quilts.

This versatile material, however, has one key drawback. When it gets wet, its effectiveness as an insulator is reduced.

This is because wet down clumps together, and its loft (the fluffiness of the down) is reduced, and it no longer keeps you as warm as dry down.

To combat this key flaw, hydrophobic or dry down technology has been developed with the idea that down, which repels water, will perform better in wet conditions that otherwise reduce the efficacy of the traditional insulator.

Although hydrophobic down was a US military development some time ago, it has recently gained more traction in the outdoor industry as customers search for more lightweight and effective gear.

Dry down products are more expensive than traditional down, but not significantly.

What are the benefits of hydrophobic down?

1. Water resistance

The key benefit and the intended consequence of the development of dry-down insulation is its water resistance.

Although not completely waterproof (it will get wet if exposed for long enough), manufacturers claim that hydrophobic down can remain dry for 10 times longer than traditional down in the presence of water.

This is particularly useful for down jackets which are often more exposed to moisture and elements during a camping trip or trek than, for example, sleeping bags.

In addition, dry-down products can dry up to 33% faster, which is ideal if you need to use your insulating jacket again after a wet day of hiking.

A perhaps less noticeable consequence of water’s effect on traditional down is that we produce moisture ourselves through sweat and breathing.

An insulating material that is not susceptible to water is, therefore, theoretically useful on occasions even when not exposed to wet weather, for example, a sleeping bag inside a humid tent.

Water resistance

2. Increased thermal performance

The true result of dry down’s resistance to the usual effect of water is that it remains successful as an insulator even in damp conditions.

Because the down retains its loft even when wet, it remains a very effective insulating material in all conditions.

You should therefore notice more warmth and comfort if you get wet on a hike with your dry down jacket and even, as previously discussed, from general wear or use as a sleeping bag or quilt at night since it is not affected by the moisture produced by your body.

Given that sufficient warmth is key to a safe and enjoyable trip, these benefits should be great for any cooler weather trip. 

3. Durability

A hydrophobic coating to natural down should improve your jacket or sleeping bag’s durability, making it a great option in the long run.

So, although you may pay a little more for the increased technology, you should benefit down the line as you don’t need to replace your gear as quickly.

Although there have been claims that the hydrophobic technology reduces after washing, outdoor gear suppliers such as Kelty are adamant that they have been unable to detect a decrease in performance.

Even after multiple washes, they maintain that dry-down products can last through the number of washes expected in the lifetime of the jacket, sleeping bag, or quilt.  

4. Sustainability

Petroleum products aren’t used by those who choose down as a sustainable material and may be worried about the impact of the additional dry-down treatment.

Thus your product is still more sustainable than other synthetic options, which may be manufactured using these.

Companies such as Sierra Designs have PFC-free hydrophobic products, which means you can use them safely, knowing that no PFCs will get into the water system from your products or the manufacturing process.

Sustainability

5. Safety

Suppose you have safety concerns about the technology used to create the repellent.

In that case, manufacturers are swiftly reassuring us that the chemicals used in the process have been tested and are considered non-hazardous by an internationally reputable agency.

Are there any drawbacks to dry down insulation?

Although the availability of such a great insulator with the added benefit of water resistance sounds like a dream come true, some hikers and campers maintain that the effects are not as extensive as manufacturers purport and that the technology is not necessarily useful unless in specific circumstances.

Some well-respected companies, such as Western Mountaineering and Zpacks, opt not to sell treated-down products.

With such great benefits, why aren’t all manufacturers making dry-down products? What is the catch?

Some purists believe that the ‘shell’ of the insulating jacket or bag is far more important than the actual down inside in terms of keeping moisture out and maintaining good insulation.

If a water-resistant sleeping bag is what you need, then a water-repellent shell can be far more effective at keeping you and your bag dry and warm.

Users have commented that there are differences in how treated down acts compared to untreated, including having more issues with treated down clumping than untreated, which ‘lofts’ more easily.

Therefore you need more treated down to get the same insulating effect as untreated.

More practically, it remains the case that untreated down is generally very effective as an insulator unless it is wet.

This tends not to be much of an issue for products like sleeping bags or quilts that are generally not exposed to wet conditions too much and should be kept protected in your pack or your tent.

It is far more beneficial if you opt for dry-down products only where these are likely to get wet, for example, jackets.

So there’s little point in upgrading any down sleeping bags or quilts if these work just fine.

Final Words

Dry-down insulation can be a good step for improving a key drawback in the performance of a great insulator.

However, for some gear, for example, sleeping bags that are not exposed to a significant amount of water, it may not be necessary and worth any additional expense.

Shailen Vandeyar

A camping geek who loves to watch sitcoms and plant trees when not out in the woods, exploring the infinite beauty of mother nature.

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