Gear Review: Insulated Jackets (Down VS. Synthetic)

Down VS. Synthetic

The never ending debate for thru hikers and backpackers alike is whether synthetic or down is a better option for insulation. Really, I think it depends on the climate and conditions you'll be hiking in, especially when talking about jackets or worn layers. As far as sleeping bags or quilts go, down wins every time, no questions asked.

As far as insulating jackets go, I've tried 3 different pieces over the last 4,500 miles. Three different brands, three different weights, and three different prices. Some swear by synthetic for every application due to its ability to retain heat when wet. Some swear by down due to its warmth to weight ratio. It should always be left up to the user to decide which is best for which condition, but here are some thoughts on the subject based on what I've used and where I used it.

What I've used:

  • Patagonia Down Sweater
  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket
  • Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka

Patagonia Down Sweater:

Before I had even set out on my first thru hike, I had picked up a Down Sweater from Patagonia because it looked nice, was Patagonia (I thought that automatically meant it was amazing), and it was fairly inexpensive for a down jacket. I had seen this jacket used plenty of times on my section hikes of the AT. People swore by Patagonia so I picked one up in the Fall of 2015 to test out on a section hike and the weekenders leading up to my attempt at a thru hike. 

I was actually fairly impressed at first with the fit and cut of the jacket. It was comfortable, fit quite nicely, and seemed to be exactly what I needed. It seemed to be of a high quality design and build, and it definitely seemed to be warm, living up to its' 800 fill claim. The jacket compresses into it's own pocket, making it the about the size of a small water bottle allowing easy storage in your pack. It's constructed of 100% recycled ripstop and has a coating of DWR for moisture repellent. 

As far as weight goes, it's a moderately light piece of gear clocking in at 13.2oz. By no means is it a UL option for insulation, but not too heavy either. With Patagonia comes a fairly decent price tag as well. At $229 from their website or REI, it's a moderately expensive piece of gear. 

My first hike with it was a little 20 mile stretch on the AT in Virginia from Catawba to Daleville. I didn't have to bring the jacket out until night when the temperature dropped into the 40's, and when I did I was fairly happy. It immediately struck me as a warm piece of gear. I could feel it trapping heat underneath which was a good sign. I loved the pockets both on the outside and the interior chest pocket which is where I stored my phone when it was cold. For my first night out with the jacket, I was pretty happy.

When I got home from the little overnighter, I not only found that there was a snag in the jacket which was leading to feathers falling out, but I also realized that I wanted a hood. I'm not sure what I was thinking purchasing a warm jacket without a hood, but I immediately realized that it was a mistake on my end. 

I honestly really do enjoy the jacket for what it is, however; I believe there are some both lighter and warmer options out there for the price. If you pick up the jacket, you'll be satisfied with it thats for sure, but keep in mind the lack of hood and the weight! 

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer:

At this point, the Ghost Whisperer is probably the favorite among thru hikers. Last year on the AT and this year on the CDT I saw more than a handful of people using this jacket. I was one of those people last year on the AT. After I returned the Patagonia Down Sweater to REI, I picked up the Ghost Whisperer on clearance because it was a color scheme from the previous year. 

The sub 8oz Down Jacket had killer reviews and everyone was raving about it online, so as you can imagine I was INCREDIBLY stoked about it. I'll be upfront about it. This jacket is awesome.

It's incredibly warm as it's packed with 800 fill down, it's incredibly compressible as it packs into its own pocket, and let me reiterate, the jacket is SUB 8oz. The price point for the MH Ghost Whisperer Jacket is a whopping $350 from their website, however; you can pick these up quite often on Amazon or REI for much cheaper. Whether it be last years model or a weird color, keep an eye out. 

I set out on the AT with this jacket packed away in my pack when I started my hike back on 3/13/16. For the first few days, the weather was unbelievably warm. I was able to hike in shorts and a t shirt up until Hiawasee when the temperature dropped below freezing and the snow started to fall. My first impressions of the jacket stayed true to the end of the trail. I used the Ghost Whisperer as my primary layer for insulation throughout the entire trail, and as  Spring tried to poke its way through Winter, I got to test it out in some frigid conditions. My first day in North Carolina, the temperature hardly reached above freezing, and as the sun dropped below the horizon, so did the temperature. That night I entered NC, the temp dropped to a freezing 8 degrees allowing me to put every bit of gear and clothes I had to the test. I had multiple base layers on, my Ghost Whisperer, and I was tucked away in my Nemo 20 degree Spoon Bag. To my surprise, I was warmer than I imagined I would be when I looked at the small thermometer I had attached to my pack. (lol). b

The jacket did its job. It kept me warm as could be down to 8 degrees, the furthest I've ever pushed my gear in the cold. For the late spring and summer months it was TOO warm. This thing is incredibly puffy, and the way they designed the cinch cords for the torso, it really traps the heat in quite well. I can vividly remember walking around Hot Springs with it on and feeling like I was going to pass out because of how warm it was. I ended up keeping the jacket in my pack the entire hike. It was completely useless during the summer, but once I started getting back to elevation in Mass and Vermont, eventually leading to NH and Maine, I was stoked that I had it again.

It's a fairly durable jacket. It went through 2,000+ miles of abuse on the AT and only suffered two holes that were spewing down feathers. One of them was caused by a snag on a thorn and the other I wasn't able to identify what caused it. 

This jacket is one of the more popular options for good reason. It's a piece of gear that should last you quite some time if you take care of it. Mountain Hardwear makes some of the best technical pieces on the market, and this jacket isn't any different. 

Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka:

Ah yes, the jacket I've been wearing all this year. On trail, I logged a little over 2,000 miles with this jacket this year on the CDT and Long Trail, and as I write this I'm wearing it as it's a bit chilly in the coffee shop today. 

The UL Thermawrap Parka is the hooded version of their UL Thermawrap which a few of my buddies have. (Neemor and Scooter). This cold layer jacket is stuffed with 40 gram STRETCH Exceloft synthetic insulation, providing plenty of warmth for 3 1/3 seasons IMO. The jacket has recently been redesigned with a better fit, and "strategically placed stretch areas", making for an incredibly comfortable jacket. It has hand pockets on both sides, and a chest pocket with a zipper on the left side making for easy access for your phone or anything that needs to be next to the body for quick access or importance. The price point for the Thermawrap Parka clocks in at $209 straight from Montebell's website. A much lower price than the Ghost Whisperer. 

Thermawrap in the Smokies / Cred: Kylie Torrence  

Thermawrap in the Smokies / Cred: Kylie Torrence  

I used this jacket to add a layer when it got below freezing on the CDT when I slept. I used this jacket as my pillow when it was too hot, but most importantly, I used this jacket to HIKE in. This was my number one concert on the CDT due to the trails volatile weather. I wanted a jacket that I could hike in if need be during a cold spell, cold rain, or even snow. I needed a jacket that could keep its warmth and dry out quickly if it got wet. This is that jacket.

This thing compressed quite small just like most jackets do. It's got all the features that I and most folks want; pockets, hood, warmth, and weight. Speaking of the weight, it clocks in at a low 9.2oz, making it just a bit heavier than the GW, but not by much. I find the warmth to be more than sufficient for most conditions, granted you have base layers beneath it. It's probably the most comfortable jacket I've ever worn, and even after 2,000 miles and then some, I still don't want to take it off. 

As of right now, it has suffered zero damages from the trail, even during some of the bushwhacks. It has lost zero warmth from when I got it, which means I'll be getting at least another season out of this bad boy. Honestly, I love this jacket so much that I'll probably never use anything else, well, except for maybe next year on the PCT. I'll talk about that more in depth at a later point. 

Final Thoughts:

Like I said, I think theres a time and place for everything. If I were to redo the AT, I probably would carry the Thermawrap for its ability to retain heat if it gets wet, which on the AT is a common occurrence. Just like the AT, the CDT brought plenty of interesting weather, and the comfort I felt knowing my warm layer could get wet if it came down to saving my life was more than enough to use it again. 

If you're planning a trip that has very little weather fluctuation, or if its a generally dry or warm climate you're going to, I would suggest bringing a down jacket. It's generally lighter and warmer, and if you don't have to worry about anything getting wet, why carry synthetic?

There are a literal ton of options out there for both synthetic and down, so take your pick really. Montebell makes some INSANE down jackets that I have my eye on. REI has a few of their own options that are comparable, as well as OR, Marmot, and just about every other brand out there. Overall, it's really hard to go wrong on a jacket of any kind, but to let you in on a secret; I pay close attention to weight and performance, as should you!

Take your pick and hit the trails!

From Thru Hiker to Ultra Runner

When I got back from the AT last year in early October, I started looking for something to do in my free time. Something that would challenge me as much as hiking did. Something that would push my mental limits and utilize the condition my body was in after hiking 2,189 miles. I figured running was probably as good as anything, but I knew I didn't enjoy running on road, so I started going to my local Metro Parks here in Columbus to get some miles on the trails. The feeling of running with dirt, roots and rocks beneath my feet rather than asphalt or concrete reminded me of hiking, in turn flipping the switch for my love of running. 

Prior to getting home from the AT, I had never run more than a 5k and definitely didn't enjoy it. Sure, I sometimes ran on the treadmill to get cardio in or something like that, but by no means was it something I wanted to do. I had done a few 30+ mile days, plenty of 25+ mile days, and sustained those miles for days on end, so I figured if I could hike that at 3mph+, I could probably run those distances with some hiking mixed in at a much faster pace. I started looking into some Ultra Marathons (anything over 26.2 miles) in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park area and settled on the Run for Regis 50k that was taking place in early February.

I had around 14 or so weeks to train, so I signed up for it. My motivation went through the roof right off the bat. I picked up a pair of Hoka Challenger ATR 3's, an Ultimate Direction SJ 3.0 running vest, and hit the trails pretty hard for the first few weeks. I put in the work and by the end of December, I had ran my first 10+ mile stretch without any walking. Not only that, but it was at a respectable pace of around 10 min/mi on trail. Not too bad, eh? 

After the honey moon phase wore off and I realized that I was going to be running 31 miles, I began to lose a bit of interest and dialed back my training. Actually, to be quite honest, I went into complete shut down and stopped training all together.

About 3 weeks of absolutely no running led me to the starting line of my first 50k. My brother and his girlfriend drove me up to the Park because honestly I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to use my legs afterwords. We got there in the early part of the morning pre sunrise. The ice formed a layer across the grass and the breath emitted by mouth seemed to linger in the cold air for longer than normal. I went in to get my race packet and jacket and waited. I didn't know a single person that was racing, so I kind of just made small talk with some people that were waiting. 

Going into the race, I felt fairly confident even with my lack of training, but arriving to the starting line and hearing everyone talk about their past races, I immediately felt inexperienced, and truthfully, a little out of my element. 

I chatted with my brother a little bit before they called us to the start, and I can vividly remember him being completely and utterly astonished that I was about to run the race. It was frigidly cold, 31 miles was a long distance, and the thought of running for 7 hours was pretty ridiculous both to him and I, but clearly I couldn't back out at this point. An air horn went off in the distance and that was my signal to head to the starting line. 

As I walked to the start, I wanted to make sure I was in the middle of the pack to get a sense of pace and how the race would go. Again, I had never raced in general, let alone this distance. The first 3 or so miles I ran middle pack, alone with my headphones in. Around that time though the course opened up to a field and the next thing I knew there were a few guys running the same pace as me and we kind of struck up a small conversation. The guys I began talking to were Jeff and Matt, two seasoned Ultra runners who were quick, determined, and out there for the pure joy of it. They both love running and participate pretty heavily in the Ultra Community. We got to talking and I explained to them that this was my first race ever and that I had recently just finished the AT. They both snickered and laughed. It was ironic that I never ran before, but had just hiked the AT. They were as impressed as I was confused about the race up to that point. The next thing I knew, we had arrived at the first aid station, pressed on to the second, and the third. I had spent the last few hours of the race completely lost in thought, conversation, and grit. I was feeling good, fueling even better, and surprising myself with my endurance. Up to that point, my longest run had been the 10 miler that I did. I couldn't believe that I was already 2/3 of the way done with my first ultra. 

Then I hit mile 23. The mile that I couldn't run. The mile that I hiked at a 3mph pace. The mile that Jeff and Matt stuck with me to push me into the next aid station. I was exhausted, sore, ready to be done, and not prepared for the last stretch. I didn't have a specific pain or ache or anything. I was just exhausted and tired. I had never run that far before. I had never pushed my body to that extent. Even on the 30 mile days I pulled on the AT, I was able to rest and take breaks as needed. I was only walking, and let me tell ya, running is much, much different from walking.

I got to the aid station at mile 27? and was prepared to stop. With only one loop left, I had done more than a marathon and was satisfied with my effort. I told Jeff and Matt that I didn't want to continue, and they didn't leave until I got up and started running again. 

The community within Ultras is overwhelming. Everyone sticks together and motivates each other. It's a family. I picked up my feet, determined to finish at that point, and crushed the last loop, finishing in just under 7 hours and accomplishing my goal of not only finishing, but finishing sub 7hrs. What a feeling of success and excitement as I crossed that finish line. My brother was waiting for me when I got there, and I honestly couldn't control my emotions. I was exhausted and for the first time since the AT felt content with myself and my effort. Joy, pain, and pure uncontrollable bliss filled my heart and I lost it. That was the closest I've come to feeling the same way as I did when I stood on top of Katahdin. Pure, unadulterated bliss. 

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I was hooked.

Onto the CDT:

From the time I finished my first 50k to when I left for the CDT this year, I ran frequently, but didn't follow any specific training plans as I wasn't prepping for a race. I was doing everything I could to get in shape for the CDT, as big mile days are pretty much needed right out of the gate. I went vegan as far as my diet was concerned. I picked up rock climbing to do on my off days of running, and by the beginning of June, I was feeling pretty ready for big mile days and what the CDT had to offer. 

Fast forward to July 7th of this year. I began my hike in Glacier National Park at the Chief Mtn. Border Crossing area with Lavender and Sonic, two friends I had met through the AT. We had permits for 6 nights in Glacier, and being a National Park, you have to play by their rules. We kept our pace pretty moderate for the first week as we got back into the routine of hiking everyday. By the end of the first full week, we were consistently pulling 20 mile days. Some turned into 25+ mile days, while some even clipped the 30 mile marker. I was in much better shape at the start of this trail than I was last year on the AT, and I immediately recognized that. 

One month and 757 miles later, my average daily mileage was just below a marathon per day. 

The more I hiked this year on the CDT, the more I began to think about actually pursuing some longer distance races in the off season. A lot of the time on trail, I would maintain a 3.5-4mph pace with a bit of jogging here and there, especially on the downhills and flats. The idea of running a 50 mile race, or a 100k for that matter began to probe my thoughts. I wanted to see how far and long I could push my body in the right conditions. Thru Hiking by no means equates to the right conditions to do those giant, sustained mile days, but I figured I'd give it a shot at some point during the hike. 

After we went through the Winds and I recovered from giardia, Mayor and I decided it was time to try a 24 hour push, with a goal of pumping out at least 60+ miles in that time frame. We left town at around 6:30 A.M and hit the trail around 7:00 or so and set off on what would be my longest day on trail, and in general. I wasn't sure what to expect once I passed mile 35, as that was my biggest day up to that point, but I was as ready as I was going to get. 

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From dusk till dark felt like a normal day on trail. We crushed as we normally did, stopping every few hours to rest, eat, and drink as much as possible. I was feeling quite good physically and even better mentally. We hit a water cache that had gatorade in it at mile 35, and continued to press on until around mile 37 when we set up for dinner and to watch the sunset. 

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From mile 37-47 of our push through the Great Basin of Wyoming, things continued as normal. I busted out my headlamp, and stayed pretty steady as far as pace was concerned. Mayor was a bit behind me that stretch and as I came to the next water source, I waited and watched Mayor stroll in with his headlamp illuminating the trail in front of him. When he arrived to the source, we filled up and sat down; our biggest mistake during that night. We immediately began playing out scenarios that involved sleeping and hiking significantly less miles than we wanted. As the plans started to be put into effect, we both realized what was happening and began to hike again. We didn't want to sit still for too long, but we were exhausted at that point. 

From mile 47 to 63, when we finally called it a day and slept for 3 hours, exhaustion, hallucinations, and just pure insanity took hold. We meandered on throughout the night, no longer needing our headlamps due to the full moon that was overhead lighting up the trail in front of us. We heard coyotes and wolves howling. We stumbled upon a heard of cows that frightened us beyond belief, and hit our last water source of the night at mile 55. The spring was located within a wooden fenced in area, and as we approached we could see our buddy Mousetrap sound asleep in his tent right next to the source. I immediately began to fantasize about sleeping, and before I knew it, I was sitting down with my pack on, in my shorts and rain jacket, slowly dozing off into a deep slumber. With Mayor sitting next to me, he realized that I had literally fallen asleep for a few seconds and somehow managed to motivate me enough to get up and continue on. 

The last 8 miles actually flew by. We ended up passing a power plant in the desert that had a fence around it with horses running wild beyond the fence itself. As we rounded the corner and hit our goal of 63 miles in under 24 hours, we both knew that sleep was around the corner. We found the first flat spot, set up, and fell into a deep slumber. 

3 hours later I was awake, roasting in my tent from the desert heat. My legs worked, but hardly. I was sore, tense, and extremely dehydrated. We gathered our things, packed up, and got to the next water source.  A spring hidden in a pile of cow shit with cows gathered around isn't the most eye catching source, but nonetheless, we filled up, drank, signed the log book that was next to the Batchi Ball set and kept hiking. Over the next day and a half, we hiked another 37 miles with a full nights sleep in the middle. 

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As we pushed into Rawlins the following morning, we were both in disbelief that we had just hiked through the basin in essentially 2 days. 

My thoughts were running wild with anticipation of running another ultra when I got home. Not only was I ecstatic to compete again, I was looking to step up my game and enter a race that was maybe a little out of my league.

Next step:

Enter the Georgia Death Race; probably my most idiotic move to date. I signed up for the lottery, got in, and all of a sudden I had a 68 mile race with 40k of elevation change waiting for me at the end of March 2018. I couldn't believe that I had gotten into the race itself, but also that I was going to attempt such a thing. Sure, I did 63 miles in one go in the desert with a pack on, but the elevation was minuscule compared to the GDR that I was now going to be participating in. 

Along with the GDR, I'll be running the Winter Buckeye 50k here in Ohio at the end of January, the Run for Regis 50k in Feb, and tons of training runs in between. 

My confidence level is far beyond what I initially thought it would be when I started this endeavor a year and a half ago. Personally, I think thru hiking can translate quite well to trail running, and Ultras specifically. The mileage is important, but time on your feet is more important. Thru hiking teaches people to be patient. To listen to your body. To fuel your body as needed. To push your mental, physical, and overall limitations that are probably arbitrary to begin with.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts:

If you can hike 20 miles in a day, you can probably hike 30 miles in a day. If you can hike 30 miles in a day, there is a very HIGH chance that you can run a 50k. 

Think about it, no heavy backpack weighing you down. An aid station that provides drinks and food every 6-10 miles. Other people cheering you on and motivating you to continue. Really, running a 50k which is 31 miles, can be easier than hiking a 31 mile day because of those reasons. I think a lot of people doubt their ability to run because they don't enjoy it. I found joy from running because it was the only thing I felt that pushed me like thru hiking did. It was and still is the only form of exercise that can be attained at home that is as fulfilling as thru hiking. 

I like covering big distances. I like pushing my limits and finding where my boundaries are. I love being on trail, covered in dirt, sweat and grime, and embracing it. I absolutely love being at my breaking point and pushing past it.

For anyone reading this wondering if they can run an ultra, or should, do it. You can and will accomplish your goals if you put the time and effort into it. Thru hiking has led me to places I never thought I'd end up, and at the finish line of a 50k is most certainly one of those places.

Fuel your body correctly, train if you feel the need or want to, but pick up your trail runners, hit your local trails, and hike or run. It's all about being outside and enjoying what nature has to offer anyways, so why not right?

Honestly, I want people to pursue their passions and find other ways to enjoy trails other than thru hiking them. I want people to get motivated. I personally need to be motivated, and reading and writing my own thoughts and progressions helps with that. Ultra running is truthfully not much different from a huge day on trail during a thru hike. Like I said, if you want it, you can get it. You are capable.