Almost everyone has somewhere in their closet a piece of synthetic insulated gear, but what is the difference between the Thinsulate in your gloves, the Primaloft in your jacket, and the Polarguard in the sleeping bag you want to buy? The array of Synthetic insulation choices out there can be a bit dizzying at times, so we are here to provide a breakdown of the most common types and their primary uses.
Generally, it is worth keeping in mind that warmth is really a function of trapped air space. So, while some materials insulate more efficiently than others, it is really loft that makes the big difference in how warm a garment or sleeping bag is. Many articles provide a good gauge of the thickness of their insulation by putting a gram-weight number right on the tag, like “60 gm/m Coreloft” in the Arc'Teryx Atom LT. That number refers to the weight in grams of one square meter of the insulation. So, thicker, warmer insulation will weigh more per square meter and hence have a higher number. As a guide, 60 gm is on the thinner, lighter end of the insulation scale. 100gm is standard for mid-weight insulated jackets, and 150-200gm thicknesses can be found in really warm jackets.
In addition to trapping air, insulation works by reflecting the body’s radiated heat, preventing it from escaping into the environment. Reflective barriers (like silvery hanging liners inside some jackets) work way better than synthetic insulations for this type of heat loss, but every once in a while you will see this function brought up on a manufacturer’s hang tag.
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Thinsulate, made by 3M, was one of the first name brand synthetic insulations out there, and was introduced back in 1979 with the slogan “warmth without bulk.” It uses small diameter, mixed polymer fibers to provide insulation, so that it can pack more fibers in the same space to more efficiently trap air and reflect more radiating heat back. Thinsulate is relatively inexpensive, and you see it most often in jackets and gloves.
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Thermolite is a whole family of synthetic fills from the same company that makes Coolmax Polyester. Thermolite is hollow-core insulation focused on managing moisture, drying quickly, and keeping you warm when wet. In its various forms, you see it in sleeping bags and all kinds of clothing. The different grades are:
Climashield makes insulation that is continuous filament, like Polarguard, but with a focus on softer, more compressible products that can work in gloves, outerwear, and shoes in addition to sleeping bags. They also treat their fibers with silicone to enhance water resistance. It shows up in products from The North Face and Patagonia among others, in three different incarnations:
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