What’s up with down?


At this time of year, our thoughts are probably centered on iced rum drinks, not on down jackets. But come autumn and that first nip in the air, down jackets suddenly are much more interesting. Because of their compressibility, light weight and warmth, it is my belief that down jackets and vests are ideal for we travelers.

I know a bit about down. When I ran a repair department, I used to buy goose down by the truckload. It came in bags that weighed about 55 pounds each. 55 pounds of down fills quite a large bag, even though the down that bought was compressed. Just to put things in perspective, a 55-pound bag of down takes up quite a bit more room than a 55-pound bag of lead. (Just a data point)

I am a big fan of goose down. Goosedown is durable, light, efficient, expensive and slightly stinky.

You read that right: stinky.

Even though it is washed before you get buy it inside a jacket, sleeping bag or whatever, it still retains an odor. Not unpleasant to me, but I used to get calls from customers wondering what that smell was. They would actually complain about it. “Lady, that’s the smell of a goose, and no, it won’t go away. The Queen wouldn’t pass that test!”.

You want hypoallergenic? Go with polyester and leave me alone.

Notice that I wrote “goose” and not “duck”. Oh, and save me your letters about wonderful Eider down. Yes, I know about Eider down. Way expensive. If I took up gambling I would actually save money over buying an Eider down anything.

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Goose down is a commodity.

It is graded for various things, including consistency, purity (no chicken or sparrow feathers, please) and fill power. Fill power is easy to show, harder to describe in print. Simply put, feathers are denser than goose down clusters. The best down clusters fill a graduated cylinder and still weigh almost nothing. The poorer goose down, at the same weight, won’t fill the measurement cylinder as much. More fill power equals more loft. That’s what you want.

“It is better to have love and loft, than never to have loft at all”

Since the whole point is having goose down (that is made up of lightweight plumules) to trap air (and therefore, insulate you from cold), you want the best (the stuff with the most loft per ounce) that you can afford, not the cheap stuff made up from wing feathers, neck feathers and broken bits (what I call “beaks and feet”). The cheap stuff is sold to the pillow and department store duvet makers. The good stuff is what you want.

Most of the products that you buy (with down inside) usually use goose down that comes from China. Said down is from young birds, it is the byproduct of the meat industry and supplies is your basic 550-600 fill. Vegetarians might want to seek their insulation elsewhere. It is good down, but not the best.

The very best down, the 700-900 fill, is a by-product of the goose liver paté industry. It costs roughly double of what the lesser-quality, Chinese down sells for.

Mature geese are bigger. Mature geese have bigger feathers and bigger plumules, which come from the underbelly. (Australians know all about this, they come from down under too) Most of this down comes from Hungary, and the geese are not killed or even hurt terribly. The down is ‘harvested’ and the goose gets thrown back into the pen until the next harvest. Mature geese not only have larger down clusters, they also have larger livers. Eventually, said goose will become a contributing factor in paté. Talk about commitment!

A sleeping bag with 700 fill power down will be light and fluffy, a bag that uses something less than 500 fill will resemble an inflatable life raft and will be about as heavy.

There is something of a space race to push products with high ratings in the goose down, but it is not necessary to play along. Most people will do fine with the fill power ratings in products sold by the better companies. 550 is nothing to sneeze at, it is fine. Would I pay a significant extra sum for an 800-fill power sleeping bag? Not a chance. But I will bring along my down jacket when I travel this winter.

And I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “what if my down jacket gets wet?” My response to that is “don’t let it”. Seek shelter. That’s what tents are for.