Belay Parka: Down or Synthetic?

A puffy coat make the difference between Type II and Type III fun, but which is better, down or synthetic? Let me ‘splain. No no, there is too much. Let me sum-up: If it’s idiot-proof, I like it. But that’s just me. Most people are smarter and more careful, so for them down can be a great choice. When it really matters, though, I go for synthetic belay parkas (but I usually use a down sleeping bag, if I bring one – will get into bivy ideas another time). OK, I will ‘splain.

First, some plusses and minuses of each:

Down

-Lightest insulation available. Unparalleled warmth-to-weight ratio.

-Compresses way better than synthetics. Longer life, too – doesn’t die or pack-out like synthetics can over time (some synthetics are way better/worse than others here).

-Nice, soft, cozy feel

-More expensive (especially high-quality down)

-Completely worthless when wet

-If the shell rips, you lose your feathers. Some down parkas therefore use burlier fabrics, which counters some of the weight savings.

Jonny Copp in a river of spindrift, descending from the first ascent of Going Monk, Mt. Andrews, AK.

Synthetic

-Bomb- and idiot-proof

-Maintains a high degree of its insulating value when wet

-It’s heavier and doesn’t compress as well. Some synthetics pack out after just a few seasons, making them less effective.

Down would be a slam dunk if it weren’t for the whole “worthless when wet” thing. And that’s a big thing with alpine climbing. Granted, a good DWR and water-resistant fabric works great for shedding snow, especially on shorter outings, and for winter climbing you’re usually dealing with a fairly dry medium (snow). But anyone who’s gone winter climbing or, much worse, alpine climbing, knows that you still get wet – groveling through nasty snow, pressing against dripping ice, climbing through rivers of spindrift that gets everywhere and then melts on you. Keeping down dry in most alpine environments requires diligence.

In my book, the more committing the situation, the bigger deal this becomes. While I love my big puffy down parka for a portable belay heater while cragging, for anything where just bailing and strolling back to the car could be problematic, I go for synthetics. Part of this relates to climbing philosophy – I don’t like to bring a lot of stuff, and since I usually skip or skimp on bivy gear, the stuff I bring has to be versatile and trustworthy if shit hits the fan. Having a clumped, wetted-out, worthless parka when strung-out on a route can be disastrous.

Personal examples of idiot-proof attributes that make me favor synthetic belay parkas:

-On one of my many failed attempts at the north buttress of Mt. Hunter, my down parka somehow got wet and formed some golf-ball-sized chunks of frozen down inside my pack (synthetics don’t clump together when wet like down). My theory: spindrift snuck into the pack (which always happens if you’ve removed the lid from your pack, which makes sense for saving weight), but melted just a bit from the body heat coming off my back, but then refroze. I know of several people who use down parkas in AK and other cold places without problems, though – perhaps it’s a personal reflection but, again, I’m a fan of idiot-proof things. For another example, I don’t want to be diligent about brushing off every speck of snow when I’m hastily stuffing the parka into my pack at the end of a belay.

-Another time in AK, part of a down parka got stuck in the zipper. Out of frustration, I yanked harder, and, poof, feathers everywhere. Fortunately it was just in the draft tube.

My shredded-but-still effective MicroPuff pullover (left; first-gen Dragonfly, now Houdini, on right) after 7,400-vertical-feet of granite on Great Trango Tower.

-Proving that I finally learned something, On Great Trango we just brought little sweater-style pullovers – mine a Patagonia Micro Puff (no longer made in the Pullover, and it’s gotten too heavy IMO; but the Nano Puff is the best product we’ve made since the R1 Hoody) and Josh’s a down version from Feathered Friends. Josh’s was super sweet, a little lighter, and slightly warmer since we stayed dry. Mine still would’ve worked if we got wet, important to me since we didn’t bring much to weather any sort of storm. On our final morning, day five, I led through an icy off-width while wearing every piece of clothing I’d brought. Were I wearing down on that lead, it’d have looked like someone shot a goose. I shredded the shell fabric – but the synthetic fill, though exposed, stayed put and kept me warm.

Lots of options exist for belay parkas in various weights (will talk about smaller, three-season puffy coats soon), but for winter warmth, as with many climbers I love Patagonia’s DAS Parka (DAS stands for Dead Air Space, which is what a good belay parka should trap). Of course I’m biased because I work for them, but plenty of long-suffering Patagonia product developers can attest to how I fucking rant when something isn’t right and real-deal (I should post one of my product rants sometime; looking back, some have been fairly entertaining…they’re good folks for tolerating my diatribes). Quite simply, the DAS rules.

So, to sum-up, down or synthetic? By the way, it’s almost marg-thirty, so why not get a little inappropriate, in deference to the season of holiday parties…

Think of it like women (or men – all about equality here). High-maintenance chicks suck. It’s a big drawback. Even if they’re hot. It’s like a down jacket. It doesn’t matter how comfy or nice looking it is, in the long run you’ll end up a beaten-down man with the thousand-yard stare, shivering and cold and lonely and broke and hating the world. For a quick session, though? (Meaning a day at the crag, get your mind out of the gutter!) Oh yeah.

But I’m in it for the long haul, baby.

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~ by Kelly Cordes on December 30, 2009.

12 Responses to “Belay Parka: Down or Synthetic?”

  1. Great write up and the ending is perfect.

  2. I agree completely and I nearly wept when I saw how thin the new Primaloft-filled DAS was! Am I mistaken? Is it not quite a changed thing these days? Sitting in the cold right now in my nearly beaten DAS I hope I’m wrong, but it just didn’t look that warm. Thoughts?

  3. I’d say synthetic too. True, it might not be that compressible (man, the DAS takes a huge part of my backpack) but for what you get in return is worth it.
    I just bought a Nano Puff, it still needs to arrive, but when it does I’m sure it’ll be a great little jacket that I can’t live without, just as I can’t live without the houdini jacket. Genius. happy new year!

  4. Kelly, do you do anything to keep the R1 hoody from causing your glasses to fog up? That and its clinginess, which makes it hard to put on and take off, are the things I’m having issues with. Other than that, it is pretty good.

    • Hi Scott, sorry for the delay.

      R1 hoody — sorry, haven’t had that problem yet with it. But I usually pull the hood *over* my helmet. It stretches it out, but it always seems to recover just fine. It has to be super cold for me to wear it under my helmet; don’t know, I just feel claustrophobic with it or something, and can’t hear as well. I love it as an over-hood on/off deal, it feels like a quick +/- 10 degree thermostat. I’ve loved the thing for so long that I might be overlooking things like your mention of clinginess — haven’t noticed it. Sorry, I’m not much help!

  5. Good thoughts. I’ve heard that only Arc’teryx makes “truly” hydrophobic synthetics, but I’ve gotten rained/snowed/sleeted on for hours in Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear stuff without problems.

  6. Sorry for my delays here, thx for the comments.

    Dissertation on the new DAS — they switched to PrimaLoft One, which is an ultrafine fiber, thinnest on the market (hard to make it so thin and still durable, which might be why it’s one of the most expensive synthetics) and, I believe, the highest warmth-to-weight available in synthetics. I dug up an old email from Patag talking about their testing, in which they found it 20% warmer for its weight than other synthetics. It’s super compressible, too, takes up way less pack space than the old DAS — 40% more compressible.

    But indeed it seems to loft less — so, is it less warm? Intuition would say “yes.” Primaloft, however, claims that they achieve the same warmth with less loft (vs other synthetics) b/c the superfine fibers are less bulky. You don’t get your warmth from the fiber bulk, but from the air that they trap. That’s the whole reason for the fibers, to trap your warm air, and that’s why down gives unmatched warmth-to-weight (when dry) — nature does it up with incredibly fine diameter in full 3-D structure, sticking out in every direction, things that fiber manufacturers haven’t been able to replicate. I dunno, imagine an airtight box made with 2×4′s vs made with super thin plywood, same interior volume of air trapped. Not the greatest example, but hopefully you get the point. If the air trapped is the same — since that’s where the warmth comes from — then you could have less overall bulk and perceived loft but the same warmth. This is why the same loft height in down is way warmer than the same loft height in, to really illustrate the point, cheapo synthetic fill with big bulky fibers.

    I’m fully confident in saying that Patagonia wasn’t trying to dupe anyone. I’m trying to find the lab CLO values (insulation lab specs) on the new vs the old DAS. They tell me they were going for comparable warmth, while getting the benefit of the 40% greater compressibility.

    Also, apparently the new DAS’s arrived super packed-down, and putting them in the dryer fluffs them up and improves performance.

    All of this does point to perhaps a perception problem, regardless — seems it’d have been good to have made all this clear so that people aren’t thinking the DAS is now super cold (assuming that they are correct in saying it’s comparably warm). Benefit of hindsight there for sure, and probably a lesson learned.

    So, is it just as warm? I don’t know — I haven’t been out in the *real* cold in it enough yet (been rock climbing too much!), and I gave away my old DAS, so I don’t have it to compare to. I asked a few fellow ambassadors, just in personal email (they didn’t know I was writing this reply), and Steve House thinks it’s definitely warmer — says “throw ‘em in the dryer on hot for 15 min. Those babies will loft right up.” Colin Haley says “While it’s hard to compare the warmth of two jackets really accurately, as far as I can tell the new DAS is just as warm as the old one. It is noticeably lighter and more compressible though.” Zoe Hart thinks it’s sweet, light, compressible but not as warm — that was at first. After using it some more, she’s not so sure.

    Seems to me that the jury might still be out some, as, since it’s new, not a ton of people have used it. But Steve and Colin get out *a lot* and, as I know from working with them and climbing with them, they’d be fully straight-up if they thought it was shit.

    Indeed it’s hard to truly compare (unless you had a half-and-half garment, which we actually use in some testing situations — allows you to feel differences under the exact same conditions), but anybody with personal experience out there have an opinion on it yet?

    I also looked at the new DAS comments on patagonia.com (shit, they just switched to Spring inventory, when they don’t offer the DAS, so the comments aren’t there now) — people seem psyched. A couple people aren’t (if i recall, one negative review, and one person unsure, and 5 or 6 very positive reviews), but it looks like they are basing it on initial perception (again, that’s an issue that should’ve been thought out first) without having used it yet. The positive reviews were all from people who’d used it. BTW, the folks at patag have told me that they don’t censor out negative reviews. (And indeed you can find some bad reviews on the site; but mostly, of course, to play devil’s advocate, it’s patag fans who go to the site to begin with, and so most reviews on most products are positive.)

    Lending support to the notion that Primaloft is what it says it is, and that the DAS could be just as warm (while being definitely softer and more compressible now) is the Nano Puff — that thing uses the same PL insulation, and pretty much *everyone’s* first comment is “wow, this is surprisingly warm.” (That’s just what I heard from people — I just went to the reviews of the Nano on the website, and, indeed people are loving it.) It has very minimal loft/bulk.

    Primaloft seems pretty sweet to me so far, though I’m not dismissing the naysayers — I need to use the DAS in more burly cold myself. So far, though, I’m inclined to think it might be as warm, as several folks seem to think. We’ll see.

    • Does “New” mean the 2009 and forward models of the DAS? Everything 2008 and prior is “old”?

      • good question/point — yeah, “new” is the one starting this past fall — Fall 2009. It’s the first DAS made with PrimaLoft insulation. Pretty sure there’d be a “PrimaLoft” tag on the inside of the parka, probably down on one of the sides, inside the parka. 2008 and prior is indeed “old” for my above references.

  7. Hi Kelly, interested to see Colin Haley had on what looked like a new-weight DAS Parka on his recent Alaska post. Would be good to hear his thoughts on the new model added this post if you could. Cheers, CH

  8. Wondering if you could point me to reviews on expedition parkas, I realize you have different qualifiers for your review but it is one of the best I’ve found for so far…except for the part about compairing parkas to chicks, lol…(note to self: don’t date guys with down belay parkas!) I’m looking for something that can withstand arctic conditions and temperatures (ave -22′F to -40′F and colder with winds) and prolonged exposure time, and with a longer fit (mid-thigh). Thanks if you can help me at all.

    -Kelly (yeah, it’s my name too)

  9. In regards to the DAS parka being made with less loft:

    People here are speculating that the DAS is being made with less loft because it is using Primaloft. The reasoning is that Primaloft is warmer and traps more heat so they can use less of it.
    However, I’d like to point everyone towards a fact. Primaloft, ounce for ounce, does not trap the same amount of heat as a good quality down does. There is no synthetic that can. Do you think a jacket stuffed with so little grams of down is going to keep you warm? If not, then why would so little Primaloft keep you warm? Keep this in mind. Just because Primaloft is an excellent cutting edge line leading synthetic does NOT mean you only need a little of it to keep you warm.

    I tried a friends old Chaos jacket, insulated with Primaloft. Not as much stuffing as I’d like, but enough to get by to be an O-K belay jacket. I bought the new Outdoor Research Chaos jacket and realized they put less Primaloft in it than the older ones. Now, it is absolutely not warm enough to be my belay jacket. A belay jacket needs loft, lots of loft, loft loft loft – No matter what the fill.

    I rest my case.

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