Synthetic Apologetics, and Outdoor Research Chaos Jacket Review

Post by blogger | November 17, 2011      

Goose down and I don’t have a good relationship, or much of any relationship for that matter. I don’t I own a single piece of feather filled gear that I use on a regular basis.

Enjoying the late afternoon light on Baker, immune to the dropping temps.

Maybe this is illogical bias indoctrinated from a young age, but I don’t think I’ll ever change. Not only do synthetics retain their insulation when wet, they have been loosing weight at a rapid pace over the last few years.

But down is light. Isn’t this Wildsnow? Where light is right? You might have a point, but down is not as light as you think.

For one thing, the smaller piece of gear you have, the smaller the weight difference (there’s that 3rd grade arithmetic coming in handy). Down and synthetic booties are virtually identical in mass. When you move up to a jacket, the weight difference becomes measurable, but not significant. The Outdoor Research (OR) Chaos Jacket (billed as a belay parka) weighs 25.4 oz, while OR’s down belay parka, the Maestro, is 2.5 oz lighter. Hardly something to dance in the streets about.

With something like a sleeping bag the weight becomes more significant, but not extreme. Besides, any down-wearer worth his feathers knows that you should keep your jacket in a drybag worthy stuffsack, which adds at least an ounce, inching your feathers even closer to their heavyweight rival.

Perhaps most importantly, once down absorbs just a tiny bit of moisture (as it is prone to do), all difference between it and the mass of synthetic fill is gone gone gone. In fact, it can even end up heavier, as folks packing sodden down sleeping bags can attest to. Along those same lines, try drying a down sleeping bag or jacket once it’s soaked. Nearly impossible in the field, while you can hang your synthetic on a tree in the sun and it’ll quickly lose any residual moisture.

So there, feathers aren’t that light. And to top that, synthetics have more advantages. As a Ramen-eating, bike-riding college student, I appreciate the fact that synthetics are a smaller blow to the bank account (though technical gear such as this still ain’t cheap). If you rip a hole in a synthetic jacket, you don’t have to worry about your precious insulation cascading out like water from a punctured Camelbak. And lastly, no mater how hard you try, in the mountains your gear will get wet at some point, whether it’s condensation from your water bottle in your pack, sweat when your hiking, or spindrift that’s blowing a million directions at once. Covering up with a hardshell works in mellow weather, but in the alpine snow always creeps in. Bottom line: unless you care for your down garment fastidiously, and are using it in relatively dry conditions, eventually you’ll end up with (to put it politely) “two wet plastic bags with a few feathers in between.”

And yes, down fans, the puffy feathers do have a few things going for them. Down (if properly cared for) will continue to insulate for years after a synthetic jacket has turned into a flat, cold version of it’s former self. And it sure compresses nicely for packing. To me, those things mean little.

Admit it, you’ll be buying the newest and greatest jacket in a few years either way, so what does fill longevity have do do with it? And does wadding your jacket into a tiny stuff sack really reveal the meaning of life?

Probably the most significant “advantage” of feathers (at least for the average shopper), is that when you try on a down jacket in a store, it envelopes you in a thick, puffy embrace that instantly has you overheating and whipping out the wallet. While the lowly synthetic sits, thin and shapeless, on a rack, waiting for an intelligent mountaineer to reward with warmth during some abysmal Cascade downpour.

Whew! Now that I got that off my chest, we can move on to the review:

I tend to carry one big puff jacket at the bottom of my pack. I don’t pull it out very often, but when I do, I cherish it. My previous one was a thrift shop-score Patagonia that I got when I was starting high school, so it was time for a replacement.

The OR Chaos Jacket seemed like a good choice. It’s OR’s warmest synthetic insulated jacket (Primaloft Eco), with a shell made of Windstopper fabric. A hood and several pockets round out the feature set.

The jacket uses strategically placed Primaloft Eco. It has 133 grams in the body, 100 grams in the sleeves, and 60 grams in the hood. I wasn’t sure how this “body mapping” would work at first. I’m now impressed. While hoods provide useful additional warmth on the head, they also are extra weight and bulk that doesn’t get used that often, especially since I wear a helmet much of the time. The lighter insulation in the hood keeps the weight down, but provides a bit of insulation when needed, as well as “connecting” the heat from the head to the rest of the body. I haven’t noticed my arms getting overly cold due to their lesser insulation, and am grateful for the generous insulation in the main body, as one issue with puff jackets is they frequently are too thin, placing style over function. During one recent cold night out, I wore the Chaos inside my sleeping bag. I slipped my arms into the main jacket body, and toasted like a burning bagel all night, even in 30 mph wind and snow. (Please don’t ask me how I know about burning bagels.)

The Gore Windstopper shell is another welcome feature. Indeed, every puff jacket made should have something like this. The Windstopper not only cuts down significantly on convective heat loss, but provides a bit of water resistance as well that’s noticeably better than just having DWR treated porous nylon as a shell. Many core users like to throw their puffy over everything during breaks, and in wet conditions, that means you need some water resistance.

I like pockets, and I tend to keep an arsenal of snacks and other odds and ends in them during a ski tour. The Chaos has a nice assortment. Two fleece lined handwarmer pockets, exterior and interior “napoleon” pockets, and two massive interior mesh pockets. The handwarmer pockets are nice for warming the digits (go figure). I don’t use the napoleon pockets much, but the mesh pockets are incredible. In my opinion every jacket should be made with these, as they add marginal weight, and have a ton of uses. I use them for storing hats, gloves, and water bottles in a warm place. OR’s version has drawstring on top, which helps to keep stuff in it’s place when you’re bouncing downhill.

The hand warmer pockets have a nice fuzzy lining.

The mesh inner pockets fit a water bottle with plenty of space to spare.

One gripe I have with the Chaos is the insulation. OR (like most other companies) uses Primalot Eco, as opposed to the higher performing Primaloft One. Perhaps the performance difference is minimal, but if you believe the Primaloft marketing, it is anything but, with more water resistance and warmth. Maybe OR gets a marketing boost from the green tint Eco gives their gear. In reality, I’d be willing to bet that if I throw away a few less plastic bottles, or maybe just hold my breath a few times, that I could have more of an “effect” than any environmental difference there is between the two different insulations. I’m needing high performance alpine apparel to take to limits that involve my personal safety and in turn the well-being of my companions — if I want to help the environment I’ll find some other, more significant no-compromise way to do it.

Early season ski trips always feel frigid. One theory is that we aren’t used to winter yet. Either way, I’ve already pulled out the Chaos on a few occasions this season, and it’s been toasty. Down might cuddle you when it’s all sun and powder, but when your soaked and benighted, bashing your way through some God-forsaken slide alder, you’ll find out who your real friend is, synthetic!

Weight: 24.3 oz size medium Chaos (confirmed on postal scale)
Fit: size medium fits my 5’10” 150lb frame. A little baggy, but I can fit all my other layers underneath easily, which is nice.

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55 Responses to “Synthetic Apologetics, and Outdoor Research Chaos Jacket Review”

  1. Philip Maynard November 17th, 2011 10:33 am

    Louie, I don’t usually bring down with me to the Cascades. But, it’s golden in drier climates! It’s also not that hard to keep it dry or dry it out – and wet synthetic sucks too!

    You do make excellent points about weight in thinner garments. Once you’re under 20oz or so for a jacket, the extra fabric needed to baffle down offsets the tiny weight savings. I use a NanoPuff when it’s not cold enough for my Rab Neutrino Endurance.

    Have you used the First Ascent Igniter? That’s my current gold standard for jackets in that weight class, and I’m interested to see how this compares.

  2. Bryce November 17th, 2011 11:32 am

    As a card-carying PETA hippie, I went with the Chaos becuase it contains 100% less animal carcass than down alternatives, as well as my Cascade native’s deeply held suspicion of down… Great jacket. I did havve some minor craftsmanship issues with the handwarmer pocket that I remedied with a neele and thread in a couple of minutes though. The repair has held up fine through a few years of abuse. Impossible to get cold in this jacket, and by pairing it with a colder but lighter synthetic sleeping bag I’m able to keep the total weight of my synthetic insulation down to something reasonable.

  3. Down November 17th, 2011 11:42 am

    I thought you were all about the Feathered Friends down puffy?

  4. Gaper Jeffey November 17th, 2011 11:42 am

    Louie – “Not only do synthetics retain their insulation when wet, they have been loosing weight at a rapid pace over the last few years.”

    What is your reference for stating that?

  5. Gaper Jeffey November 17th, 2011 11:53 am

    To clarify – I’m referring to the second part of the sentance “[syntehtics] have been loosing weight at a rapid pace over the last few years.”

    Have they, and if so, by how much? Primaloft has been around for a long time.

  6. Lou November 17th, 2011 11:57 am

    Down, I think you’re thinking of me, Lou? I live in Colorado, Louie lives in the wet and scrappy. The down puffs are nice for dryer climes, and I still use my Feathered Friends stuff around here, but I like my synthetic as well — especially when I travel.

    Gaper, “long time” is relative to your age (grin).

  7. Randonnee November 17th, 2011 12:08 pm

    True, Louie- “Not only do synthetics retain their insulation when wet, they have been losing weight at a rapid pace over the last few years.” My experience as well. New synthetics are the stuff. I have worn and slept in wet synthetics, they are warm when wet. And the stuff gets lighter every year it seems.

    I just bought last year’s markdown-brand-name hooded synthetic parka for my 12 year-old daughter. She has been in a big down coat for 5 years, it is finally too small. She first was skeptical of the sleek new synthetic coat- being a mountain girl who rolls in the snow with glee. She soon found the new sleek synthetic coat to be very warm, and not so “puffy” (looking). It must breathe well, as she likes it so much that she wears it in the house when doing her homework.

    Our soldiers in Afganistan have been using synthetic pants and coats. USMC calls one of their favorite garments “Happy Pants”- very warm when standing post. I have the civilian version synthetic warmest-coat. It is long and quite warm. I believe it would be good for a bivy. The long big synthetic coat is nice for the snowmobile-approach, since my skitouring clothes beneath are not realy suited for snomo riding. That big coat gives me comforting thoughts in regard to dealing with an emergency while out in the winter mountains.

    My synthetic wardrobe size now rivals my Dynafit randonnee ski gear collection…

  8. John S November 17th, 2011 12:09 pm

    Lots of good points! My habitat is the relatively dry Canadian Rockies, so down is a staple insulating material around here, but you’d have to pry my DAS Parka off my cold dead body. However, I say the same thing about any of my exceptional Weatern Mountaineering sleeping bags. There is no synthetic bag that even comes close to my Puma. I guess I just go for whatever works for the conditions and avoid any sort of “taking sides” when it comes to gear.

  9. stevenjo November 17th, 2011 12:16 pm

    I love this topic almost as much as tele v. AT. The warmth and comfort of down is a temptress, and Louie summed it up nicely with the hug analogy. But I’m also a Cascadian and during all but a few cold bluebird days we actually get out here, the 31F snow storms turn to instana-rain on just about everything it hits including outer layers and pack seams. I’ve contemplated replacing my plastic Pati DAS with something down – like I said, a temptress – but can’t imagine rummaging through a steamy pack and pulling out a damn down parka. Maybe others out here have found a way to manage, but so far know one has shared the secret. Until I move to a continental snow pack its plastic for me.

  10. Gentle Sasquatch November 17th, 2011 12:25 pm

    I would rather see naked ducks than plastic in the environment but truth be told I rarely take either of the two puffy evils when going into the backcountry. For me it is wool, maybe fleece and a shell .

  11. Jacob November 17th, 2011 12:47 pm

    Whether synthetic or down, when it’s wet it DOESN’T insulate, as the water will conduct heat regardless of the material it is attached to. What synthetics do better is dry-out so if you soak both of them through, the synthetic will feel/be warmer faster as it can use even your body heat to dry out a bit. Mostly semantics I know, but still true.

  12. Louie November 17th, 2011 12:53 pm

    I haven’t used the Igniter, but it looks nice, but it’s kinda hard to compare to the Chaos. It looks like it has a slimmer fit, maybe not designed to be thrown over everything. It also has a little less insulation (100g vs 130g). It also has lighter outer fabric, that isn’t as wind and water resistant as the Chaos. Definitely lighter though.

    What I meant by synthetic loosing weight is that recently primaloft and others have been coming up with lighter synthetic insulation that is warmer. A few years ago they came out with primaloft sport, and now they have primaloft one, which is warmer and even more water resistant. The best synthetics of 10 years ago are now in budget jackets that aren’t nearly as warm as the high end stuff. It’s hard to quantify, as R and CLO values are confusing, and hard to find for certain insulations and garments.

    Of course the holy grail is a synthetic that insulates as good as down. I think we’ll see something like that in the next few years. It’ll be a game-changer.

  13. Lou November 17th, 2011 12:59 pm

    In my view, synthetic and down have insulative parity now in terms of weight vs R value, once the down gets even slightly damp. What I still don’t like is how quickly synthetic still gets matted down if you stuff it tightly many times. Down seems to loose it as well when frequently stuffed, but seems to bounce back eventually until it gets really old.

  14. Lou November 17th, 2011 1:07 pm

    Jacob, to be clear, I think we’re talking about insulation being “damp” rather than “wet.” In the case of damp, it’s an obvious known phenomenon that down collapses to one degree or another, thus loosing loft and R value, while the synthetic is more resistant to collapse, quite a bit more resistant.

  15. Mike November 17th, 2011 1:38 pm

    I used an Ignitor for a couple weeks on a glacier in AK and was happy with the performance. My down bag didn’t fare so well, it never got a chance to dry out and probably would’ve done better with a vapor barrier liner. I’m not going synthetic for a bag, but it certainly takes some work to keep a down bag working on a long trip.

    Lou and Louie, “lose” and “loose” are not the same word.

  16. Mike Marolt November 17th, 2011 2:34 pm

    After spending almost 30 days at 21000 feet shivering to no end in my -30 degree synthetic bag, and found myself toasty warm in a -25 degree bag at 27000, i emphatically disagree. Synthetic costs less, but you get what you pay for. Synthetic is heavier, less compactible, and simply not as warm. And with new covering material, moisture is not a problem with the high end down. I took a shower in my Mammut summit parka just to test it, and it stayed 100% dry. Honestly, totally dry. Did the same thing with my north face down suite. Down can get wet from persperation, but if you are sweating, you probably shouldn’t be in down anyway. None the less, i wouldn’t take down where it is wet, but all other, down is my choice, no question.

    Sorry Louie, not buying the synthetic argument.

  17. Mike November 17th, 2011 2:36 pm

    Louie, what do you use for a sleeping bag? I am also a Cascade skier and have a synthetic jacket but recently purchased a down sleeping bag because they seem to compress more than an equivalent rated synthetic bag. I have a dry bag to carry it in, but still have concerns about down in our climate.

  18. Mike Marolt November 17th, 2011 2:55 pm

    @ Mike, actually, i do take down where it is wet. I have had a down sleeping bag and coat on a couple ecuador expeditions and it doesn’t get wetter than ecuador. At base, it rains almost constantly. Also, come to think of it, had down at BC on Manaslu a year ago and my tent was a pool for the month. Everything on the floor was soaked, but with a good mat slept dry and warm. No problems. You just have to pop for high end.

  19. Louie November 17th, 2011 3:18 pm

    Unfortunately good synthetic bags are hard to find. It seems most companies only make high end down bags, and use cheaper materials and manufacturing on their synthetic bags.

    I have a North Face Pyxis (0 degree) that’s probably around 6 years old. It’s a nice bag, but it’s a little worn out now. I don’t think they make the Pyxis anymore, instead they have the heavier and cheaper Snow Leopard.

    My bags suprisingly light (somewhere around 3 lbs I think). But yeah, it doesn’t compress as well as a down bag. I don’t use a compression sack either. That means I either have to carry a bigger pack, or strap it on the outside. For one night trips and bivys, I end up just strapping on the outside of my daypack.

  20. SB November 17th, 2011 3:28 pm

    Durability is a big issue. I have down jackets that are 10 years old and still puffy and synthetics which are 2 years old and about shot. Maybe not a big dieal on a lw jacket (the fabric and zipper is about shot too), but definitely a big deal in sleeping bags, which can and should last for many years.

  21. Lou November 17th, 2011 3:48 pm

    Good point SB, my jackets get so trashed from mountain living that I really don’t care how long the insulation lasts. But my sleeping bags, I’d like them to be good for decades, and even have the ability to give them away to others. The synthetic bag I used on Denali was good for one trip, in my view…

  22. LB November 17th, 2011 5:44 pm

    Like the article! I’ve gone down to mostly primaloft nano puff and vest like layers under my shell instead of my down sweater that I’ve used before. Almost as compact and really like the feel.

    One comment though- if you’re after a good primaloft layer I’d investigate L.L.Bean’s (gasp!) ascent primaloft, which has primaloft one. I’ve had it for two winters and really liked it. Hood is a little large and the fit is a little large but other than that it’s been an awesome jacket.

  23. Marc November 17th, 2011 10:27 pm

    It’s all about the environment you’ll be in.

    Cold/Dry – Down

    Cold/Wet – Synthetic

  24. Curtis November 17th, 2011 11:30 pm

    Not only are all these good points, but ever noticed how the dudes with down jackets don’t want to pull them out when it’s sleeting…and you’re absolutely freezing?!!!! With a synthetic (esp. with WindStopper shell), there’s no question about it! When the chips are down, and the snow is more like chunky rain, synthetic jackets rule the day! The Chaos is great too, I just wish they’d seam sealed it so it would be truly waterproof (‘cuz Windstopper is waterproof, Gore just doesn’t like us to know it!) Hip, hip hooray for the Cascades! (Sorry, it’s snowing outside and I’m a little giddy.)

  25. Dimi November 18th, 2011 2:18 am

    I’ve no experience in the north Americas, but i think most people use down as a emergency layer here in Norway, or when camping. most would use a wool jumper over merino base instead of fleece as well. then always a pro shell or similar shield to protect against wind and snow/rain. I suppose the winters are much drier here, i am not sure.. but natural fabrics are definitely more popular here, maybe because “they are” more expensive..

  26. Tore November 18th, 2011 4:31 am

    As a norwegian, living at lat 69, with almost nine months of winter I will insist on down being superior at low temperatures. First of all, if you’re wearing a down jacket in the wet, you’re doing something wrong. Try it at minus 20C, or 50 for that matter. Zero? That’s warm! And if you’re somehow wearing a down jacket at plus two in a pour, put a shell over it. It it’s freezing, put the shell under the down, that way you’ll keep moisture from your body at a minimum. I’ve also been working in the industry for a few years now, and I can absolutely guarantee that gram for gram, down is superior to any synthetics out there when it comes to heat keeping properties. I’ve tried primaloft and whatever, but it all ends up as what I wear on the city when the weather is bad. It’s too heavy, not compressible enough and not warm enough for longer trips.

    But you’re right about down being more “fragile”, but stick to a few easy routines and that’s easily sorted out. For instance, by putting your shell inside or outside as I said. But if you’re on a budget and can’t be bothered to take care of a down jacket, syntethics are great.

    If it wasn’t so bloody heavy, proper wool is pure genius! REAL wool that itches and smell. You could still wear a thin layer of merino under it. Second only to reindeer fur!

  27. Lou November 18th, 2011 6:44 am

    Curtis, from what I hear, two things about seam tape on Windstopper: 1.) adds quite a bit of cost to manufacturing. 2.) Gore hates it, and is said to somehow actively discourage it, due to them not wanting Windstopper to even be hinted at being something to provide water resistance (even though it does.)

    Windstopper is really just first generation Goretex, that’s what I hear and makes sense. I was an early adopter of 1st gen Goretex, which we ended up calling “Leaktex” and gave up on for wet weather. But we liked it for cold weather use when wind protection and moderate water resistance were more important than rain performance.

    In case of a jacket such as Chaos, if you’re hardcore and don’t mind a bit of a rough look, just Seamgrip the more critical seams on the outside. If you’re careful, you can do a fairly neat job with narrow beads of the stuff.


  28. Dimi November 18th, 2011 7:02 am

    Tore, I own a heavy 300 weight Arc’terxy Hylus hoody, very very warm (and protects against wind and light rain), but also very heavy and large. I would say no larger but certainly heavier than some of my older wool jumpers (which i still prefer as a layering piece). Nothing compares to my Rab down jacket, so light and warm. never had issues with it getting wet, but then again, i would only take it out if i was expecting to go down past around -18C.

  29. Zeb November 18th, 2011 7:44 am

    Thanks for starting an interesting discussion, Louie. If I may pose a related question about insulating layers — that is, the layer underneath the shell. Do people prefer fleece or a puffy-style garment? For instance, in the Patagonia world, would you use a mico-puff or R3? I would assume that the fleece (or wool for that matter) would breath better and thus be better as a layer underneath a shell.

  30. Curtis November 18th, 2011 9:12 am

    Thanks for the tip Lou, I may just get that techie…@Zeb, I’ve switched to the micro puff under my shell due to its versatility as a wind/snow/light moisture shell. The exception is a long trip where I need a pillow, since fleece makes a much more luxurious pillow! I’m trying to keep myself to three jackets on any given trip, but it’s tricky here in the PNW when the forecast is for snow and mild temperatures. Anybody else find themselves carrying three or more jackets?!

  31. SB November 18th, 2011 9:18 am


    Micro puff is way warmer than R3. Maybe nano puff and R3 would be more comparable. I think many people have ditched thicker fleece in favor of lightweight puffies due to weight and compressability, but both work.

  32. Zeb November 18th, 2011 9:40 am

    Thanks SB — I actually meant nanopuff; I get my Patagonia puffs mixed up sometimes. So puffies over fleece for weight. But I don’t see how puffies breath well. Wouldn’t using one defeat all the extra money you pay for some high tech breathable shell?

  33. Don The NorthCascades Wanderer November 18th, 2011 9:59 am

    Like any other piece of gear personnal choice is ultimately the correct answer. I have been wandering the mountains for a lot of years. I’ve seen the trends come and go. One such example was wool, fleece came out and everyone switched, Marino wool shows up and now there are those that switch back. Down is the same thing, I happen to have switched some of my stuff over to down because I like the stuff. Yep, you have to be a little smart about not getting it wet, but I personnaly still find it a better alternative to synthetic fills……………..But this is my preference.
    Keep up the great gear reviews

    Don from Lynden, Washington

  34. Matt Kinney November 18th, 2011 10:47 am

    Thanks louie. That is one of the better ski clothing reviews I’ve actually read to the end.

    I think down works pretty good in wet and windy Valdez as long as you are aware that you are using down and care for it. I have used all sort of stuff and have now reverted back to wool by using Ibex (or green) products more. This year I got the Ibex Equipo Jacket versus a down puffy Merino wool from head to toe is working very nicely as our winter has already produced frigid temps. I am amazed at how it regulates sweat fits when on a fast skinning pace. I still like and use down puffys. I have actually wore out three Patagonia down sweater with Chugach glob, wearing them 4 seasons or in Alaska where we only have two, ski season and summer. :-).

    I use a two layer system 95% of the time, but at the bottom of my pack is a stuffed bag crammed with an expedition quality Patagonia Das Parka if things get brutal.

  35. Lou November 18th, 2011 10:54 am

    BTW, I’ve got a Powderhorn jacket here with what they’re calling “waterproof down.” Anyone else playing around with this stuff?

  36. Jack November 18th, 2011 11:28 am

    My down jacket gathers dust in the closet next to the often used Cloudveil synthetic jacket; I sweat alot and even in super cold temps here in the east the down jacket eventually becomes useless at some point. When I was 18 and went to NOLS (1983) in Wyoming my folks sprang for a new EMS puffy jacket (the aforementioned jacket) that was soooo warm…alas, the instructors at NOLS pulled anything down out of our packs before we left and issued us synthetic versions…much to my amazement the first night (of the winter trip) one of the cute female instructors pulled out the exact same EMS down jacket!!

  37. Louie November 18th, 2011 12:09 pm

    Yeah, I’ll admit, my preference is probably partially due to living in the Pacific North Wet.

    My layering system is pretty simple. I tend to stay warm, so I wear a t-shirt as a base layer. Over that I wear a polartec powershield 02 softshell (super breathable, at the expense of some waterproofness). I carry a burly Gore Tex hardshell as well. On warm days I hike in the t-shirt, and on “cold” days I hike in the softshell. I also carry the aforementioned puffy in the bottom of my pack, and that’s it for upper body layers.

    On longer trips or ultra-light missions I might add a layer, or substitute a lighter hardshell, but it basically stays the same.

    So in regards to the question about under-shell layers, the answer is simple. I don’t really carry one.

  38. Lou November 18th, 2011 12:53 pm

    Jack, good nolsie story!

  39. Robert November 18th, 2011 3:13 pm

    Zeb said, “Do people prefer fleece or a puffy-style garment? For instance, in the Patagonia world, would you use a mico-puff or R3? I would assume that the fleece (or wool for that matter) would breath better and thus be better as a layer underneath a shell.”
    I’m not an expert, but here is a little story about two climbers, one using fleece, one using a puffy:
    “I went to fleece exclusively after topping out on Shoestring in -10º F (before wind-chill) temps, with 30-40 mph gusts. We were working hard and sweating heavily while moving, and my Capilene 3 and R2 fleece let the sweat out. My partner was wearing a MicroPuff inside his shell, and it was a frozen mess, stuck to his shell and not warm at all any more. It breathes, but not nearly as well as the fleece.”

  40. SB November 18th, 2011 4:34 pm

    I have to wonder about all of the stories about sweating inside your clothes. It is much better to strip off something and not get wet. No need to sweat in winter weather.

    In -10 weather, you should layer over the top. Shirt, light insulation, shell, then puffy. Take the puffy off if you are too warm, and put it back on if not. You should almost never have it on while moving, and put it on immediately when you stop moving. Use hats/balaclava/hood/zips and speed up/slow down to manage heat while moving.

    If it is raining, that requires a different strategy.

  41. Plinko November 18th, 2011 6:25 pm

    North Face ups the anti next year with the Thermoball Jacket, (claimed weight to warmth ratio is 15 percent better than Primaloft).

    Like Louie, I own the OR Chaos jacket (and pants) and it’s been great here in the PNW. Down has it’s place, just not here.

  42. Lou November 18th, 2011 7:35 pm

    I hope that TNF jacket isn’t vaporWEAR (grin). 15% will be awesome, perhaps a game change.

  43. Arne November 21st, 2011 12:50 am

    Most jackets don’t come with standard insulation ratings, so to compare down to synthetics I checked the weight of sleeping bags with similar insulation ratings according to industry standards. These two bags are from the same manufacturer:

    T-Comf: -3°C
    Weight of bag: 1,45 kg
    Weight of insulation: 0,7 kg

    T-Comf: -4°C
    Weight of bag: 2,9 kg
    Weight of insulation: 1,9 kg

    The down bag is half the total weight, and requires on 37% of the insulation weight. Down clearly beats synthetics.

    One little detail, Louie writes:
    “The jacket uses strategically placed Primaloft Eco. It has 133 grams in the body, 100 grams in the sleeves, and 60 grams in the hood.”
    Should these numbers be relative to area? It seems strange that the whole body has only 33% more insulation than the sleeves, and only twice of the hood.

  44. Dimi November 21st, 2011 1:08 am

    it looks like the only downside you guys can find of down is it doesn’t insulate well when wet. I really have to ask why you would need the insulating properties of down in rain or sleet anyway? keep it dry in your pack until it is needed for the tea breaks or base camp etc. sweet should not be an issue either, no need to hike in down.

    Down jackets are for extreme cold and should not need to handle a rain storm or horizontal sleet. i think core loft is the best synth out at the moment, but still a long way from 800+ fill down.

  45. Louie November 21st, 2011 2:20 am

    That North Face jacket sounds pretty cool. Hope it comes out soon, seems I have been hearing about it for a while.

    What manufacturer are those bags from?

    It’s my theory that much of the weight difference in synthetic vs down sleeping bags is due to top notch materials in down bags, and heavier materials in synthetic bags. For example, Mountian Hardwear’s (one of the few manufacturers of good synthetic 0 degree bags) lightest down 0 degree (Phantom 0) is 2 lbs 10 oz, while their lightest synthetic (Ultralamina 0) is 3 lb 5 oz. Big difference, right? However, the Phantom uses lighter fabric, and has only one zipper, while the Ultralamina has two. Might not make much of a difference, but their heavier down 0 degree down bag (Banshee sl 0) is 3lb 6oz, same weight as the synthetic!

    Down is of course lighter, but maybe not by a whole lot (especially in jackets, which have a fraction of the insulation of a sleeping bag).

    I could have been more clear about insulation in the jacket. Synthetic insulation thickness is normally measured by weight per area, usually grams per square meter. OR’s website is a little vague, but that’s what they probably mean by those numbers. So to clarify: That means that the thickness of insulation used is 133 grams per square meter in the main body, 100 grams per square meter in the arms, and 60 grams per square meter in the hood.

    There’s plenty of people who’ve died from hypothermia in rainstorms, and I bet more than a few had down jackets 🙂

    Rain is only one of many ways down can get wet, and if it gets soaked, its worthless. Even if you get just a little moisture in there, the warmth quickly drops below a synthetic of the same weight. I keep my puffy in the bottom of my pack mostly for emergencies, and it’s only convenient to have for breaks and such. If I have a real emergency, like an injury or an unplanned bivy, I need that insulation, and I need it to work! I don’t want to wast effort making sure my down is meticulously protected from every bit of moisture. Even in a cold, snowy environment with sparse liquid water, stuff can easily get wet. Spindrift melting from body heat, breath condensing if you have your head buried inside your hood, or just the moisture that your body gives off. I’ve never slept a night in any “breathable” bivy sack, and not had condensation on the inside, and I can assure you I wasn’t sweating.

    CoreLoft is the stuff Arcteryx uses, right? It’s hard to cut through the marketing mumbo-jumbo, but that’s just a continuous filament insulation, probably very similar (maybe even the same stuff) to Primaloft Infinity. Continuous filament insulations have advantages in durability and loft, but aren’t as warm as some (Infinity is 61% as warm as Primaloft One).

    Whew! Like skiing vs snowboarding, right vs left, and just about everything else, synthetic vs down is a personal choice. I’m just laying out why I choose synthetic for the sports I do in the places I like to do them.

  46. Dimi November 21st, 2011 4:23 am

    I suppose that down is better except when synthetic is better 😉 Really, there is no argument and no reason also to write off down.

  47. Zeb November 21st, 2011 6:48 am

    Can anyone suggest a good source to learn about the science of insulation? It’s pretty confusing on the surface. E.g., it seems to me that insulation and breathability are direct opposites, a zero-sum game. The more a fabric “breaths” the more warm air it loses and thus the less is insulates — or so it would seem. Is breathability for water vapor the same as for “regular” air? Another example: I always hear that insulation involves trapping air — but then ziplock bags would make the best insulation. Is there a bible for all this?

  48. Michael Pike November 21st, 2011 10:35 am

    Backcountry says the Chaos is no longer available. They stock the Havoc which is 18oz in Large.

  49. Lou November 21st, 2011 11:17 am

    Good points Louie!

    I’d ad that one of the most famous down disasters in history happened years ago, when a couple of students on an Outward Bound course died of exposure in their wet down sleeping bags.

    Also, it’ is indeed funny how makers don’t get a clue and use much lighter fabric for synthetic, since a rip or tear in synthetic jacket is of little to no consequence. This especially so with sleeping bags! As usual, it’s probably shelf appeal that drives the trend to making stuff with such heavy fabric.

  50. Ryan November 21st, 2011 12:57 pm

    I believe Robert’s climbing story is from Mark Twight. If there was ever someone who knew a thing or two about sweating. layering and cold it would be him. I think the situation he’s refering to involves technical terrain and a need for speed where you are going out of your comfort zone and start to sweat but can’t stop to re-layer.

    Twight’s system usually involves an “action suit” that’s used for moving and a warmer version for bivys and belays. On the final push up high that sometimes means wearing everything you have. Also keep in mind that the ability to withstand temps in certain clothing is largely dependant on your reserves. Did you spend the week prior at work and home or was it bailing off the same route, then trying to recover at base camp in the cold with altitude and limited food. -10 in your backyard is not the same as -10 a month into an expedition.

    Ultimately everybody gets to make their own decisions. I’m a big fan of down but absolutely see the place for synthetics. The NOLS story was funny to me in that it seems like the poster is in favor of synthetics and uses it to illustrate how NOLS recommends them. In reality NOLS wants its students wearing synthetics while the instructors who can be trusted are using down, at least in the case of the cute female one. There’s good reasons for either one but I do call BS on the best synthetics getting close to down. They’re sill a long ways off but even still there’s good applications for it.

  51. Ben November 21st, 2011 2:01 pm

    Zeb, if interested in the technical details of insulation you might look at – it’s about sleeping bag temperature ratings, not exactly what you asked, but has a lot of information.

    Insulation slows the rate of thermal conduction from warm body/air to the cold outside by creating lots of air pockets, since air doesn’t conduct heat very quickly. So it’s not just about physically stopping the motion of air from inside to outside, which is what a plastic bag would do. (A plastic bag would be a vapor barrier which is a whole different can of worms.)

  52. stephen December 3rd, 2011 12:04 am

    Ben, thanks for the link. I haven’t read it all yet but interesting stuff. I think the CE standard is a great thing as it should make aaccurate comparisons between bags much easier, at least once you figure out how your personal performance lines up with the standard. Having an objective test with published numbers is much better than trying to figure things out from sales and marketing guesstimations.

    Re down vs synthetic. I mostly use down and have never yet had it get wet to the point of uselessness in 35+ years. IMO, the secret to success is to use drysacks for storage. For instance, Sea to Summit’s compression dry bags are extremely useful for keeping gear both dry and small, and are quite light too. I only wear down clothing very infrequently during the day, and only if it’s extremely cold when there is thus zero chance of rain. However, a light down layer under a decent shell also works okay in particuarly wet and miserable conditions if one isn’t generating much heat.

    If it’s going to be wet then I wear wool, fleece (or old Helly Hansen pile), Marmot Driclime windshirts or vests (excellent) or the like, plus a lightweight hardshell. Most of the time I use softshell jackets and pants though, at least for skiing.

    My experience with down replacement products hasn’t been terribly positive, and I don’t like synthetic sleeping bags at all due to extra bulk, although they can be useful for very warm conditions where down bags need more materal to stabiise the fill and the weight difference is negligible. I’d rather layer other things than use “fake down” but that may just be me.

    Wool is fantastic, apart from the weight for items other than underwear, and its horrible fascination for moths; I gave up for quite a while as I couldn’t figure out how to stop it getting eaten during summer. Any hints would be apprecaited!

    Bottom line is that just about all this stuff is useful for someone, somewhere.

  53. re-bump the puff piece April 4th, 2012 8:11 pm

    so why don’t manufacturers use a better DWR on these synthetic puffies? Or is it just a problem with the fabric itself being less waterproof than what would get used for a hardshell? Anyone use an aftermarket DWR on their synthetic puffy?

  54. Mark W April 4th, 2012 9:31 pm

    I’ve wondered the same thing. I have a lightweight Primaloft pullover that never had much DWR. Weight to warmth ratio is pretty amazing with my jacket, though.

  55. Don Jon October 1st, 2013 12:42 pm

    Own the OR Chaos Jacket and have worn the Maestro jacket before.
    I will be honest the Maestro is 5x warmer than the chaos jacket. However, the Chaos is still a great synthetic jacket recommend it 100%

    But if it’s below -15C and I stop moving I will start to get chilled in the Chaos, whereas I’d feel confident in the puffy Maestro keeping me warm below -20C when I have to stop moving.

    If you need a synthetic jacket for very cold temps, I’d go with something more substantial like the MH B’Layman jacket, etc.

    Of course both very different jacket and each has it’s place and purpose.

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