Whether you’re in hot sticky weather or cold arctic conditions, wool and down are staples of every experienced backpacker and camper.
Wool and down are both great but they have different types of applications.
Which one is better?
Let’s start out by talking about down.
Down is an incredibly light insulator that can really be compacted but not all down is created equally.
Down comes in what they call a fill power, starting down at 450 and the fill power can go up to over 1200 nowadays.
The higher that fill power, the lofty the down is itself. Loft is what gives you that insulating power and what keeps you warm.
The cheaper down in that 450 range is usually made from ducks and the higher fill power up in that 1200 range comes from geese.
Typically in a quilt or a sleeping bag, they have baffles and a two inch baffle is rated for 30 degrees and if you go up to a four inch baffle, it’s usually around zero degrees Fahrenheit.
While down is great it isn’t perfect and has some imperfections.
The best way to stray warm is with battery heated clothing.
The first is if down gets wet, you lose all insulating power. So if you’re going to be camping someplace and your down sleeping bag gets wet, you will have problems.
If you have a down puffy on, you need to wear a really good raincoat or shell over the top to keep it dry and you don’t want to be too hot because you don’t want to get sweaty because your down will get wet that way.
They are making improvements to down, where some is so-called waterproof, but they aren’t there yet.
Quality down can be super expensive.
You can go out to Sam’s Club or Costco and buy a decent puffy for about fifty dollars, but if you want to buy a high quality down, cold weather quilt, it’s going to run you over $500.
Down can be super fragile. I wouldn’t recommend walking through the woods with it, through brush because they have a lighter shell and it’ll probably get ripped or torn on something.
And if you sit around the campfire, there are rogue sparks everywhere, one of those sparks hit your coat and you’re gonna have a hole in it.
The last negative I want to mention about down is where it comes from.
A lot of down has actually plucked off of live ducks and live geese. It’s pretty horrific, right?
If you want to make sure that that doesn’t happen, check with the manufacturer of your quilt or your puffy coat to make sure that that down was sourced ethically.
Wool is another amazing natural insulator, but like down, not all wool is created equally.
You probably have that thick itchy wool sweater, but nowadays they’re making wool out of a new material, it’s called Merino wool. It is made from a Merino sheep.
Merino wool is very popular with backpackers. You’ve probably heard of brands like Smartwool, Minus 33 and Darn Tough socks.
They are the gold standards for base layers for through hikers. The reason for that is Merino wool. It not only will keep you warm when it’s cold, it will keep you cool when it’s hot.
Most of the time when you’re out backpacking and working out on the trail and the sun’s coming down, it’s going to be warm out. Merino wool is cooler than polyester as a base layer. And not only is it cooler it’s anti-microbial, which means that you will stink less if you wear smartwool.
After two or three days on the trail, you can get pretty smelly. Do all your friends a favor and buy a smart wool t-shirt and smartwool underwear so you aren’t so funky.
Beyond the funky factor, smartwool also will insulate you when it’s wet. If it’s cold out and it’s raining out, it’s getting cooler, that smart wool t-shirt as thin as it is is going to keep you a little bit warmer than if you’re wet in that polyester shirt.
The drawback of smartwool is the cost.
I have a smartwool t-shirt that comes in at about $50 and I have several pairs of Darn Tough socks and they are usually over twenty dollars.
So smartwool is not cheap.
Thick heavy traditional wool probably doesn’t have a use by the modern day ultra lightweight backpacker, but it is a staple when you’re out in the cold deep winter.
Traditional hikers are looking for clothing that is durable, warm and weather resistant. Thick quality wool shirts, pants and blankets can literally last for generations. And don’t be afraid of that rogue spark burning a hole in it.
If you gonna buy wool items, you want to make sure at a minimum it’s 24 ounces, even better up to 28 ounces.
No matter if you are in the arctic cold weather type conditions, or if you’re backpacking in the summer when it’s a little bit warmer, you definitely need to layer your clothing so you can maintain a proper body temperature. Sweating is what gets y
I wear a lot more wool items than down items when I am backpacking, but where down really catches up is I rely on down to stay warm when I’m sleeping.
It’s very important for me when I am out backpacking during the day, and I may get cold and wet, that I have a warm, comfortable spot to lay at night and to warm up even if I’m cold during the day.
Both wool and down can be super expensive. You’re not going to buy all of these items overnight. I’ve bought them over time. Buy them as you can and and you’ll build up your arsenal for keeping warm out on the trail.
For over 12 years, I have been testing and reviewing heating technologies that overcome cold weather conditions. In recent years, I have specialized in the heated apparel. I’ve made it my mission to educate people about heated clothing.