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The Lowdown on Hydrophobic Insulation

Getting deeper with DownTek, Patagonia, Sierra Designs and Westcomb on the ins and outs of water-repellant down.

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Many brands are incorporating hydrophobic down, and each claims theirs is better than the competition, but where the insulation differs most is in the initial processing.

Sierra Designs, for one, decided to develop its own water-shedding insulation technique. Its DriDown is a DWR-like treated down that makes it water-resistant much like the type of finish used on a jacket. The molecular finish is applied during the cleaning and drying processes.

But Sierra Designs’ process isn’t unlike that of DownTek, a company that produces hydrophobic down for a variety of brands in the outdoor industry. DownTek treats the down to increase its surface tension, which causes water droplets to be more spherical and roll off the down. In this case, the water adheres more to itself than to the treated surface, making the down water-resistant.

Then there’s Westcomb that thinks treated down is unnecessary. The brand sources its down from Toronto-based Feather Industries. The down used in Westcomb’s outerwear, however, is not treated chemically. Geese have natural oil in their feathers that provide immediate and long-term moisture resistance, and that water-repellency still exists in Westcomb’s products, the brand says.

And Patagonia’s Encapsil Down Belay Parka is treated with a plasma process that changes the down molecularly to make it water-resistant. Patagonia claims the process also boosts the loft to 1,000 fill power, one of the highest in the industry—though many competing brands dispute the ability to create 1,000 fill power.

But a major problem with down is maintenance. The idea that it cannot be washed has been reason enough for many people to purchase gear with synthetic insulation.

However, both DownTek and Sierra Designs found that using powdered detergent kept hydrophobic down outerwear water repellent with no degradation until after 20 washes—way more than most people wash their down-insulated gear. And, using liquid detergent, the hydrophobic down keeps its water repellency until about 15 washes.

That means in light rain, mist, snow, and from general perspiration, the DWR-like treatment shouldn’t diminish, according to Sierra Designs and DownTek tests.

As for how hydrophobic down will fare in real-world conditions when it comes to keeping you warm? It’s tough to say.

Experiments, such as the saturation shake test, measure how long it will take before the down is fully soaked. It also tests how long it takes to regain loft after saturation. DownTek says 30,000 shakes will saturate its product, which, for most people, is likely more water than the down will encounter during an average ski day.

DownTek thinks that, by next year, 99 percent of technical brands will incorporate hydrophobic down into products like jackets, sleeping bags and more. So, whether natural or chemically enhanced, water-repellant down is on the rise in the industry and worth checking out.