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is there really a difference between 650 and 850 down?

8:15 a.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Answer: there is, but I don't think it is all that important.

I was out early today, started out before the sun came up here in the DC suburbs.  for no other reason than curiosity, I stuffed two overkill down jackets into my backpack: a mountain hardwear sub zero parka, with hood, and eddie bauer's first ascent peak xv, the new deep winter puffy jacket i picked up on sale.    both of these are heavyweight jackets, intended for cold temperatures, but also with 'overbuilt' shells and features designed for using them in bad weather and rough surroundings - lots of storage, waterproof/breathable outer shells, heavier nylon at wear/abrasion points on the shoulders and sleeves.  nothing at this level of warmth would be considered ultralight, but each of these somewhere between 8-16 ounces heavier than a comparable feathered friends down jacket.  

'significant' difference? one has 650 fill power down, the other has 850 fill power down.

when i stopped, i pulled them out and put them on (it was in the low 30's).  back at home, i laid them out on the floor side by side.  what i observed from the process:

-both are absurdly warm.  better for -30 than 30, for sure.  

-the loft on both the sleeves and the body of the jackets was indistinguishable.  interestingly, the loft on the detachable mountain hardwear hood is a fair bit higher than the first ascent.  they are both fine, but mountain hardwear's hood is really outlandishly stuffed.  

-both are clearly designed for use on a mountain - the heavier shell material, inner pockets that are large enough to hold a water bottle and spare hats/gloves/snacks, enough outer pockets to hold more stuff, zippers & hoods that, when fully sealed, protect  your face, cinch down easily, have enough room for a helmet, and that put the hood pulls in a place where they won't slap your face in a strong wind.  

the newer jacket , the first ascent, is a mildly more simple design in some respects.  it doesn't have a two-way zipper that opens at the bottom as well as the top; whereas both have draft tubes under the zipper, the mountain hardwear has a flap, with velcro tabs and a bottom snap, over the zipper.  the mountain hardwear hood is removable, attaches with snaps, whereas the first ascent hood is built in and cannot be removed.  the inner nylon shell on the first ascent is notably lighter weight than the mountain hardwear.  

-the older mountain hardwear jacket with the 650 fill weighs several ounces more.  i don't have a hanging scale, but i lifted each by the hang loop with my index finger, and the difference is fairly easy to feel.

price, which is a little hard to compare for jackets purchased at least a few years apart, isn't really an issue.  both of these were certainly not cheap, but moderately-priced compared to premium brands (western mountaineering, feathered friends, valandre, in my mind, are in that category).

[as an aside, i have an 800 fill down sweater and an 850 fill down vest.  the vest is less than 10 ounces, like wearing practically nothing, but it also has among the lightest-weight nylon shells i have ever seen.  the down sweater's warmth to weight ratio is awesome, but again, superlight nylon.  paying more for the lighter/fluffier options is certainly nice in how light they feel]

my takeaway is that the real difference between 650 and 850 down is marketing.  i suspect that at least half the difference in the weight of these jackets is in design and fabric improvements.  for jackets that loft equally, i would be willing to bet the difference in the weight of the down fill is no more than five ounces.  for many people and many applications, i suspect it would be better to focus on the features and fabric of a jacket rather than the fill.  

11:52 a.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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[as an aside, i have an 800 fill down sweater and an 850 fill down vest.  the vest is less than 10 ounces, like wearing practically nothing, but it also has among the lightest-weight nylon shells i have ever seen.  the down sweater's warmth to weight ratio is awesome, but again, superlight nylon.  paying more for the lighter/fluffier options is certainly nice in how light they feel]

Your quote above.  You just answered your own question. 

1:12 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Did I? My point is that if the same jacket and vest mad of ultralight nylon were stuffed with 650 instead, there would not be much difference. No one makes outdoor gear with the lightest nylon and the most streamlined designs, then stuffs it with 650 fill power, so it isn't generally possible to make a good comparison that I was able to do with the much heavier jackets.

1:25 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Having had sleeping bags ranging from 500 fill (my Bauer Karakoram from 1960, about 6 pounds, rated at -40°) to 850 fill (my Feathered Friends with 4 ounces of overfill, rated at -40° also, 4.13 pounds and my Western Mountaineering Antelope, rated at +5°F, 2p11oz), with a number of bags in between, I can tell you that there is a significant difference between the old 500-600 fill and the current 800-900 fill. Also, the quality of the shells in terms of weight and durability has vastly improved over the years. "Thin" does not necessarily mean "less durable". I can compare the ripstop of the 1960s to the Pertex microfiber of current shells (both for the sleeping bags and for the parkas), and from experience tell you that the old ripstop is not as durable in terms of wear and puncture as current microfibers of lighter weight (most microfiber is a polyester).

In parkas, my comparison is my Terray (600 fill of prime French-grown goose down from 1964, the top grade available at the time), a top expedition parka in its day, designed by Lionel Terray for the first ascent of Anapurna, and the typical Marmot 8000 meter jacket of today (mine is about 10 years old, 750 fill, shoulders reinforced with Cordura for carrying expedition-weight packs), the current version of which is lighter, but just as durable as the cordura of 15 years ago). My Terray has stood up well, but is not as warm as the 8000m jacket.

I have toured the Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering factories and seen how the down is handled, as well as having seen what the down composition is. For both FF and WM, there are only plumules in their down. My comparison is seeing other people's bags that got ripped open, and several of the "top" brands had a fair amount of feathers mixed in, including two "top" brands that claim 850 down. (one fellow in an expedition camped near us was complaining bitterly about his bag getting ripped open, but I think it was his own fault for climbing into the tent before removing his crampons - still, it did give a chance to see what the fill in his BigName bag was like).

In my experience, the higher grades of down stand up better to multiple stuffings and unstuffings. I suspect that is largely because the plumules have no hard section of spine to break, and when you break the feathers, they don't fluff up as well - stuffing and compression sacks do that to feathers.

But - an interesting bit of information I came across a few years back. The Army does testing of all sorts of gear in its Natick labs. They determined that the best and most durable insulation for sleeping bags was - are you ready for this? - duck down mixed with chicken feathers! I got ahold of the report and read through it several times. From the data given, I have to say their results were correct. There was, however, a caveat that stopped the Army from letting contracts for large quantities of chicken feather bags - when wet, the chicken feather fill stinks so bad that their usual test groups refused to sleep in the bags.

1:30 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Yeah, the loft is different.

I have had chopped chicken feathers in old Army surplus bag, and down and duck feathers.  The down rating system is an objective measure of loft.  With less loft you need more fill for the same temperature rating.

2:38 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Is there really a difference between 650 and 850 down ?

 


down-loft-fill-power.jpg

Yes, about 30% ... You are quoting a quantity not "quality" so there is a mathematically measurable difference. What that means in practice is that if in the same garment you use the same weight in both, the 850 will give you approximately an extra 30% loft or you can use about 30% less down to get the same loft... Of course the comparison is only valid if all the rest is equal, so same fabric, construction and so on...

3:38 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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No Eider down in that photo, Franco ;-)

According to Wikepedia, it has a fill power of 1200. I wonder how much a glass of Eider would cost?

I have a 700+ (Euro grade) sleeping bag, and I can see a small amount of brown feathers mixed in with the white ones - the fabric is that thin.

Just noticed this, which looks interesting:

3:42 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Good posts Franco and Bill S.  I know exactly what it feels like to wear a high quality down item like the WM Meltdown jacket or a Feathered Friends down parka.  "Very light and very warm" about says it all.  Give me one ounce of 800 fill always and forever, amen.

5:25 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Feathered Friends is a wealth hazard.. Seriously visiting their Seattle store was like being in Down Heaven but by then I already spent more than I should have on other gear..

I am now lusting after one of those Hyperion vests...

(if you do go out a lot , then WM and FF are a cheap option . Buy right, buy once kind of option)

 

I take M if anyone has that as a wrong size ...

6:43 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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Buy Right, Buy Once is a lesson learned the hard way.  It's learned thru experience.

6:56 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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thanks for all the great information.  really interesting and instructive. love that illustration with the glasses.

i'm not debating that the fluffier down insulates more efficiently for the same weight, or that people who spend a lot of time out in cold weather can appreciate the difference.  i still think that if someone has a limited amount of money to spend, or if someone were a more occasional/less demanding user, that a 650 fill power sleeping bag or jacket might do the job nicely, at a slightly greater weight.  

the 850 down vest i mentioned is the hyperion.  size xl, 9.6 ounces.  (marked down to $79 because they discontinued the color & probably because it had a few small stains that made it an unappealing presence on the sale rack).  yes, i think it's worth it.  

7:42 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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That picture was stolen by me from google images, I used it before.

We have outlet shops here in Melbourne too but nothing like FF, if we did I would probably have to go without food.

There is often a very big gap between good value for money and great gear. For example I could have had a Stoic Hadron vest for less than $70 recently but it isn't quite an Hyperion (mostly the clearance colours where a bit too loud for me) 

7:53 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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being from southern california, I will never have the need for an 850 powerdown parka. My LLBean down jacket is the warmest I have, I think it's 650. I also have their vest, also 650. still, its good to know the difference between them. something to put in the bag in case I ever need a down parka!

7:57 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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I think I saved Tipi about 6lbs by recommending to him that FF jacket, still he has to give me a hard time about my gear...

11:05 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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To clarify , following comments in another thread, I was directly adressing this line :

"my takeaway is that the real difference between 650 and 850 down is marketing"

And my answer was "yes there is a real , not invented, difference"

that was meant to be taken the same way as

"yes there is a difference between Everclear 151 and 190" (and no it isn't marketing or price)

Now to the question "is it worth the difference?" the answer is always "it depends"

11:20 p.m. on December 2, 2012 (EST)
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For me it's worth the difference.  Even when I was dirt poor back in 1980 I did everything in my power to find and buy the best down sleeping bag I could find.  Then it was the North Face Ibex rated to -10F at around $320.  Why did I spend so much back then for it?  Because I knew it would keep alive in the winter, with warmth to spare.  Buy Right, Buy Once.


Before that and for the truly impoverished there's another way---it's called Bulk and Layering.  Get a cheap fiberfill bag rated to 10F for $65 (or more) and then throw an old Army feather bag on top---you will stay warm at night at 5 below. The cost?  Weight and Bulk.

8:35 a.m. on December 3, 2012 (EST)
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i agree, walter, that spending more can save some weight and bulk.  but back when i started winter hiking & climbing in the northeast, i was a student and could not afford the best.  those US Army down bags were what i could afford, so i lugged two of them up the flanks of Mt. Washington and slept in them (used one as a bag, the other unzipped as a quilt) for a week or two each winter, in temperatures that often dipped below -20f.  i also couldn't afford the best boots, so i made do with regular leather boots & a used pair of supergaiters i picked up.  most of my other gear was EMS store brand that i picked up at discount b/c i worked there.  my down jacket, primitive by today's standards, was a sewn-through (not baffled) 550 fill tank of a jacket.  my setup back then was by no means ideal, but it kept me alive and kept all ten fingers and toes intact.  

[i pause a moment because EMS was recently purchased by a venture capital firm.  It remains to be seen what venture capitalists will do to the brand].

i didn't look at this as 'weight and bulk,' which sounds like the hiking equivalent of carrying a ball and chain up the mountain.  Rather, it allowed me to see and do and experience things that otherwise would have been out of reach.  

if someone were starting out today winter hiking/climbing and asking me if they need the best, 'buy once, buy right' as you say, i would undoubtedly shoot that notion down.  if someone has the money and wants to spend it on the best, i would explain the benefits of higher-end gear and let them fire away.  if someone were on a budget, i would be enthusiastic about their interest in getting outside and suggest ways to enjoy it with gear that is older, heavier, and not so close to the cutting edge.  

9:21 a.m. on December 3, 2012 (EST)
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Leadbelly2550---

I think it's called Dirtbagging.  After I got out of the Air Force in '73 I decided to start living outdoors and what did I use for a backpack?  My old USAF duffel bag with one strap over my shoulder and it continuously hit my left leg as I moved.  But it worked.  A motivated heart and willingness is more important than gear quality. 

Plus, as I said in some other post, Frequency of trips is really the main reason for getting the best stuff, in my opinion.  One trip a year?  Use a duffel bag and a couple army feather bags.  Out all the time?  Cherish the high priced spread.

12:07 p.m. on December 4, 2012 (EST)
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See new thread "The Lowdown."  Maybe you can make do with the old jacket.

11:58 p.m. on December 4, 2012 (EST)
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My musings on this topic:

  1. Does  the high loft down hold retain it loft better over time? 
  2. Does the rigors of field use impair the high loft down capacity to achieve its superior loft   Do keep in mind loft rating are performed using tubes similar to this in the image provided by Franco, which in no way resemble real world application. 
  3. The space savings of higher versus lower loft down, however, is not well documented, as I know of no articles that compare the stuffed and packed volume occupied by two equally warm down articles, albeit each filled with down of different lofts.  In theory the high loft down takes less pack space, but is it a significant difference?

In any case high loft down is more comfortable.

Ed

11:32 a.m. on December 5, 2012 (EST)
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"High loft down is more comfortable."  How?  Why?

11:51 a.m. on December 5, 2012 (EST)
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In another thread that is running parallel, i think Bill S noted that higher-quality down may last longer because the ratio of down to feathers is better, and the spines of the feathers are more likely to get broken (and lose some loft) from repeatedly getting stuffed into a sack.  that makes sense; i can't tell from personal experience whether that is true or to what degree it affects loft; my oldest down bag didn't suffer meaningful deterioration in loft from what i could tell, but i think Bill has more experience than i do.  personally, i think that down bags are much more likely to suffer other, more serious problems from a lot of use - baffles pulling loose, for example, or tears in the fabric. 

i do think higher-loft down compresses more easily, though i also think that some of the newer, lighter-but-tougher shell fabrics are part of the equation.  again, i'm cribbing an observation from Bill that i have seen in a new down vest i just picked up. 

7:46 a.m. on December 6, 2012 (EST)
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alan said:

"High loft down is more comfortable."  How?  Why?

 Because the fluffyness feels softer, like hugging a cloud.

Ed

8:13 a.m. on December 6, 2012 (EST)
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leadbelly2550 said:

In another thread that is running parallel, i think Bill S noted that higher-quality down may last longer because the ratio of down to feathers is better, and the spines of the feathers are more likely to get broken (and lose some loft) from repeatedly getting stuffed into a sack.  that makes sense.... 

I am not convinced down (or regular feathers) lose warmth when the main shaft is broken.  Both provide warm in manufactured articles by trapping dead air between their fibers.  Breaking the main shaft of a feather does little to alter the manner how this works, because the dead air is mainly trapped by the gaps between the miniscule elements of the feather known as hooks, barbs, and barbules.  But breaking any of these micro structures will compromise the insulating qualities, if such damage is rendered to enough of these structures, as that will result in a pile of keratin fibers more capable of packing parallel and closer to each other, reducing the ratio of dead air to fibers in the volume of feathers.  At least that is my theory.

As for bags losing loft, all of my down bags eventually lost some loft over extended use, and I treat my bags with great care; I always washed up and wore clean garments to bed, and rarely had to wash my sleeping bags.  And they were never handled in a manner that would tear the baffles.  When my bags were worn out, it was due to brittle rip stop shell fabric caused by drying and sterilizing them upon awakening in the morning sun.  But I definitely got my dollar’s worth of use from them in the mean time.

Ed

12:03 p.m. on December 6, 2012 (EST)
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I bought some duck down bags from REI in about 1969 that got used a lot, in the neighborhood of 60-70  nights a year.  I used to literally say prayers to ducks and geese thanking them for keeping us warm in places like the Northtern Rockies.  Over time the down started to shift and lose some of its loft.  I washed them by hand and had them dry cleaned a couple of times over the years, but they were never the same.  I bought some Marmot bags that have higher quality down and better baffles.  Now the old bags only get used for company or as an outside bag to go over the Marmots.

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