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!

Gear Review and Advice: Headlamps and Night Hiking

Between the AT, CDT, and Long Trail, I've hiked into or through the night more times than I can count. Last year on the AT, we night hiked to escape the heat of the day in the Mid Atlantic. This year on the CDT, we night hiked to push more miles per day. We night hiked to avoid the impending darkness that was approaching sooner and sooner. Really, I personally night hike because I enjoy it. 

If you night hike, you're gonna need a headlamp, flashlight, or a full moon. That last one works especially well in the Basin of Wyoming when you and your bud are trying to push through the desert as quick as possible and test your limits. (Yeah, I'm looking at you Mayor.) We hiked through the entire night in the Basin during our 63 mile push and maybe only used our headlamps for an hour at most. 

Anyways, a headlamp or flashlight will be necessary, and just like EVERYTHING else, the options are seemingly endless. 

What I've used: 

  • Black Diamond ReVolt Rechargeable Headlamp
  • Black Diamond Spot Headlamp
  • Petzl Tika XP Headlamp

Black Diamond and Petzl are undoubtedly the most popular and well known choices when it comes to headlamps. Last year I used all three headlamps over the course of the AT. This year I strictly used the Petzl Tika XP. I have my gripes with each of them, but truthfully, they're all great headlamps, so here's some thoughts!

Here's a photo of Scooter illuminating the Ski Hut with his headlamp. 

Here's a photo of Scooter illuminating the Ski Hut with his headlamp. 

BD ReVolt: 

I originally bought this headlamp because of its ability to be charged directly from my Anker Battery Pack. I knew that it had the Lumen power I needed, the red lamp that would prevent hikers from getting angry at me at night, and it was fairly light. 

As far as specs are concerned, the ReVolt is 3.4oz fully loaded with batteries. Speaking of those, it runs off of 3 Rechargeable AAA's, lithiums, or gives you the option to charge via USB. The headlamp itself is labeled as waterproof which provides a little bit of comfort for a thru hiker. As far as the light goes, it boasts One Triple Powered LED, and a Double Powered LED, combing for up to 300 Lumens with alkaline batteries. The thing is almost overkill as far as brightness goes, but it really does come in handy in the Green Tunnel at night or anywhere where there is no moon light. The red light is a double powered LED providing more than enough glow when you're packed in a shelter trying to avoid waking everyone up with your bright headlamp. (Don't do that. Use your red light for the love of god.)

The headlamp is easy to use with it's memory lighting allowing for you to turn the light back on to the adjusted brightness without having to cycle through all of its options. It has pretty much everything a thru hiker would need as far as a headlamp, however: the reason I switched last year was because the rechargeable aspect of the headlamp failed not 500 miles into my thru hike. I was left without a headlamp until the next town so I immediately texted my dad and told him to send out my backup, which was the Black Diamond Spot. Enter the time period where I was carrying two headlamps. SO UL of me right?

BD Spot: 

Another formidable headlamp made by BD, the Spot is a lesser expensive option to the ReVolt listed above. For the recent 2017 model, it boasts the same 300 Lumen Power of the ReVolt, but is not rechargeable, making it IMO MUCH more dependable. Last years model only put out 200 Lumens so they've made some adjustments this year. Sure, the rechargeable aspect is nice, but at this point, I prefer batteries. I like knowing that another piece of gear (shouldn't) fail me because of an electronic problem. 

At 3.2oz, its just under the weight of the ReVolt, making it a little more appealing. They also claim that the headlamp was and still is fully waterproof up to 3.3m. The only fault in this design is that sure, the headlamp will operate if water enters the battery compartment, but eventually those batteries will corrode. Kind of pointless right? Nonetheless, it offers the red light that backpackers and thru hikers should have, is light, and was and still is a good headlamp. Along with the power and weight being pretty spot on, it also offers a lock for the light preventing it from turning on in your pack or pocket. It does everything you need it to at a fairly decent price with some fairly decent technical specs. Overall, an awesome and affordable option for lighting. 

Black Diamond Spot Headlamp, Black, One Size
$29.96
Black Diamond Equipment LTD

I used it as a backup until I got to an REI in Asheville where I swapped my ReVolt for the Petzl Tika XP and sent the BD Spot home. 

Petzl Tika XP: 

The heaviest option out of all 3 headlamps, the Tika XP is also the most reliable of the three in my opinion. It boasts 180 lumens with 3 options for brightness and a red LED for those shelters and camp scenarios. It doesn't have nearly as many 'features' as the above headlamps, but it is my workhorse for how reliable it is. In the 3,000+ miles I've used this headlamp, I have yet to experience any fault or failure in the product. It's as easy to use as any headlamp out there, but instead of being laden down with tons of features to fail, it presents the most simplistic design out of all of the options. It has one button which controls every aspect of the light, and provides more than enough light and power for any endeavor. 

Honestly, there's not MUCH to say about this headlamp because it's so simple. It takes 3 AAA batteries, gets the job done, and won't fail on you. For that reason, I chose to bring it along with me on the CDT and LT this year as well instead of swapping to a lighter and more 'capable' headlamp that had a bunch of features I really didn't need. I tend to value reliability and design over features/aesthetic/ability. 

Night Hiking:

Night hiking is probably the most underrated type of hiking. The miles seem to fly by due to the lack of light and lack of interest in the time. I've night hiked roughly 300-400 miles over the last two years, and I enjoy it probably more than most. If it's the middle of summer, nap and take a siesta during the day and crunch out some miles when the sun goes down. Click the headlamp on and go. I really enjoy it because it offers a different way to experience the trail. Different animals are active at night. You think differently at night. The trail is completely different without light. The lack of light makes you think more carefully about your steps, in turn paying more attention to the trail and each moment. Although you don't get the views you do during the day, you get something much more. Solitude. Time to think. Time to enjoy the most basic of reasons I and hopefully you hike as well. To do just that; hike. Sure, theres a level of eeriness in the woods at night, especially if you're alone. Sure, it's a bit more dangerous to traverse technical terrain at night when you can't visibly see each and every root and rock. 

Red Bass and I lighting up the sky with our headlamps in the Winds. 

Red Bass and I lighting up the sky with our headlamps in the Winds. 

I night hike and truly enjoy it because of the stillness in the air. It's quite calming when the only thing you can hear is the occasional gust of wind ripping through the trees. I find comfort in making the most of each minute and hour on trail, and that means taking the opportunity to hike as much as possible, even at night. It's not for everyone, but to me it's something that is unavoidable during a thru hike, making it that much easier for me to enjoy. I've had some of the most mind blowing experiences while night hiking.

Mayor and I heard coyotes and wolves howling in the Basin this year on the CDT around hour 5 of hiking through the night. I pushed my limits more than I ever have this year during our night hike through the Basin of Wyoming. Last year on the AT, Shotgun and I night hiked for 9+ miles one night and 2-3 of those miles were spent trying to outrun a Bobcat that was stalking us. 

Conclusion:

There's a lot of headlamps to choose from out there, and these are just the three that I've used in the past, so don't limit yourself to these options. I know plenty of folks who have used headlamps from Walmart, or other off brand lights. Some are more reliable, lighter, and flashier than others, but generally, headlamps all do the same thing. I'm currently looking into some lighter options, specifically a flashlight. There are some sub 1-2oz flashlights out there that are brighter than most of these headlamps. Casting light from the hip rather than the head creates less shadows, allowing for a more clear step while night hiking. I'll be picking up some flashlights later on so keep posted for a review of those when it comes time. Night hiking is fun if you allow it to be. Hike at night to get some extra miles or to find the perfect sunrise spot. Wake up early, click the headlamp on and climb the next mountain to get the perfect sunrise.

It's not for everyone, but dang do I enjoy night hiking!