Why Synthetic?


A very popular question that I receive is:

why did you make the switch to using synthetic products?

There are a few reasons hikers may choose to use non-animal down products.

(side note here: many people wonder why I use the terminology “animal down” and not just “down”…  well, because, ‘synthetic down’ has been around for at least a decade… and people really should try to remember that when using the term ‘down’… do you mean ‘animal down’ or ‘synthetic down’??!!??)

Common reasons for using synthetic products:

Most people think that hikers use synthetic insulation for some ethical purpose – and some do – but that is far from the only reason, though based on the emails/messages I get from people asking this, it does seem most folks think there is some ‘holier than thou’ ethical reason that people make the switch to using synthetic insulation, for whatever strange reason.

  1. Those within in the PNW (and similar wet regions) that might want to use gear (garments/quilts/etc) in wet conditions.
  2. Those who have medical issues and cannot use animal down products.
  3. Those who have moral, ethical, and/or religious stances against the use animal down products.
  4. Those who want to use/wear a quilt/garment that will retain thermal warmth when compressed.

For the most part, those four reasons make up the vast majority of reasons for why people choose to use synthetic hiking products.

What I use:

For an overview of what I use, here is an article that I published:

Synthetic Garment Layering

That article goes into detail of what I tend to use, as of 2016-2018.

What my fellow big-milage hikers feel about synthetic products:

If you do not know who Jupiter Hikes is, shame on you :-p

Jupiter recently hiked the 4,200 mile Eastern Continental Trail, had a full synthetic setup, and happens to be vegan. Both he and I use the identical setup when it comes to synthetic garments, the Mountain Laurel Designs ‘FKT Quilt’ and the Montbell ‘UL Thermawrap’ jacket. I think I have a few months more overall use of the FKT quilt then he does, but he has a loooot more miles of use then I do.

I recently asked him to share his insights on why he uses synthetic products and why he made the switch:

I originally went with synthetic yes, for the reason it’s not using duck or goose feathers. HOWEVER I have found while around those who use down, hiking with them, and talking to them, as well as my own experiences that synthetic is really the superior option in so many cases. On a long distance hike, especially one where you’re pushing yourself it’s bound to happen that you’ll be stuck in the rain, or even find yourself sleeping in the rain. Maybe your gear is wet. Your tent or your tarp, and a down user will then be trapped. My girlfriend literally sat outside in the rain with her tent set up until it stopped (got lucky) because she was so worried about getting her quilt wet (by getting the inside of the tent wet climbing in during a storm.) She sat there for an hour miserable, knowing wet quilt meant cold for the next few days of humid weather without chance of drying.

Me on the other hand have never been happier with the stuff. I have slept directly in the rain, and yea that’s not the most comfortable but I was still warm. My point being that it’s super safe, even if you’re not me cowboy camping in the rain.

Given wet, or humid climate and those things surrounding that I think synthetic is superior. In the desert and hiking like that maybe down is the best bet for pack ability and weight given you don’t have to think about it getting wet.

Seeing Bink using synthetic drove home the point for me further. He said things to the same effect.

Synthetic on the east coast is a no brainer for me. Maybe for the nerds out there who can drop money to go in town every time their gear or clothing is wet this is not a concern, and chances are they could use the weight savings of down.

I asked him how long he has been using synthetic gear and he said about a year before his ECT adventure, so somewhere around the 2015 hiking season.

Somewhere along the way in our chat, he said something that made me go “OMG, me too!

Another big gripe with down is how painful it is to wash. Synthetic is so easy! Also also migrating down in the night leaving me cold, and the annoying process of pushing it back in place.”

My response to that went like this:

you know, cold spots are the #1 reason i originally switched. omg… all these damn quilts these days that are designed with pass-through baffles… totally screwed up!! I shouldn’t have to tend to my quilt mid-night/sleeping.

Seriously… animal down migrating during the night soooo pissed me off with both the animal down sleeping bags and quilts that I have previously owned. Of the three synthetic quilts that I have now owned, not one single night have I had to deal with my insulation shifting/migrating. OMG, like it should be.

I also briefly conversed with the man himself, Andrew Skurka, about this issue. He has used both animal down products and synthetic insulation products, including the same Mountain Laurel Designs ‘Spirit 28’ that I own and use in colder temps, while on his adventure through Alaska. As both a huge mileage hiker, and a professional guide, and outdoor educator, it would be remiss to not seek and value his experience.

I asked him if he chose to use synthetic insulation because of ethical reasons or something else.

I love animals, but the issues does not factor into my perspective on this subject.”

Then approached the subject of when he recommends to hikers to go with animal down or synthetic:

“I recommend synthetic insulations in only two situations: (1) You are on a very limited budget, (2) You are backpacking in very wet climates with no opportunity to dry out ever. For all other situations, I recommend {animal} down.”

I fully agree with Andrew on these two points. Wet conditions are one of the very few reasons why I made the switch to synthetic insulation. Price did not really factor into things, because I know of a number of pieces of synthetic gear that are as expensive, if not more expensive, than their animal down counterparts. This is especially true in the high tech world of top garments.

I also bounced the same basic question to John Zahorian, who hopefully most of you know as well, and his response went like this:

“I still use a down sleeping bag (at least for now) but am all about the synthetic clothes life since the coldest situations I’ve ever been in were cold wet and windy, and the right synthetics are real good there. Would probably do a synthetic bag if i did a wet trail (wouldn’t mind one now on the gdt) but on a lot of dry western trails you tend to get plenty of drying out opportunities.”

As I keep asking around to other hikers that I know that use synthetic gear, I will update this page.