The Truth About Wet Down Jackets

As light as a feather. There is a reason that phrase exits. Because no other material, not even space-age technology from NASA, is as warm, light and compressible as down. 

Down is backpacking’s miracle insulation.  

But down has one major flaw. When it gets wet, it looses all its magical properties. It can’t insulate, it gets really heavy, and can even be deadly. 

And that one fatal flaw is the reason why I spend so much time, effort, and worry trying to protect my down from getting wet. 

But what if I didn’t have to worry so much? What if my down could get a little wet, or really wet, and still keep me warm? 

Well that’s what DownTek claims their down can do. And I’m going to find out if it’s true.

Recently I was sent this jacket from Big Agnes:

Big Agnes Shoveled Jacket

Big Agnes is one of the many companies that uses DownTek in their jackets and sleeping bags. I wanted to give it a real good test to see if DownTek can really do what it claims to see if it can get wet and still keep me warm. 

So I was in Colorado for a few days and decided what better time is there to test wet down?

My plan was to dunk my down jacket in the half-frozen Arkansas river. The air temperature was just below freezing, and the water temperature was 44ºF. Sounds like a recipe for hypothermia.

Normally, if you got a down jacket wet in these temperatures, you would be in big trouble. 

To make sure I didn’t get in big trouble, I had my car running nearby so that if I started to get hypothermia, I’d be able to get warmed up quickly. 

To test whether or not the down still insulated while wet, I completely soaked the jacket in the river, then stood out in the freezing cold for about 30 minutes, so I had a pretty good idea of how warm I was in the jacket. Amazingly, I felt nice and warm.

But what if I did it again? How warm would I actually stay?

I dunked the jacket again, and got it totally wet in the half-frozen Arkansas River. It was heavy with water, and definitely cold to the touch—my hands were red. Then I put it back on, and observed that all of the water had collected at the bottom of the jacket so that I could wring it out. The down should have just been soaking up all of the water. Then I wore it for another 30 minutes to see if I felt any colder. 

Now if this had been regular down, I should have been freezing in just a few minutes. But if DownTek works, I still ought to have been decently warm. Keep reading to see what happened. 

Dunking jacket in freezing water

What Makes DownTek different?

Before I tell you what happened, I want to take a look at what makes DownTek different from other down.

Down insulates so well by creating loft and trapping thousands of tiny air pockets. Each one of those air pockets trap heat. More loft equals more air pockets which traps more heat. 

Down illustration

But when down gets wet, all those tiny air pockets go away and so does the heat. 

DownTek is one of several companies that have tried to fix this one major weakness by treating down with a durable water-repellent finish. When DownTek gets wet, the DWR repels the water allowing the down to maintain its loft. And theoretically still keep me warm. 

What About Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances?

Now I know anytime you start talking about DWR, people get concerned about PFAS, which are destroying the outdoors. DownTek has two DWR formulas—one that uses PFAS and one that is bluesign® approved to contain no PFAS. 

Big Agnes uses the bluesign® approved, PFA-free DownTek. 

Which is all fine and good. But …

Can it keep me warm when it’s wet?

Watch this video to get the full experience I what I went through to find out.

Bottom line: I was warm, even after dunking it in freezing cold water … TWICE.

Ok. So what does all this mean?

Well, after my experiment, I started to worry that the sun was keeping me warmer than I would have liked. When I started the experiment, clouds were covering the sun, and nearly all my warmth came from the dry jacket. But right about the time I started dunking the jacket in the water, the sun came out and started warming things up. Even though the ambient air temperature was still reading just below freezing, it was enough to make me question my results. 

So I went back after the sun went down, but couldn’t repeat the control of a dry jacket, because the jacket was still damp from dunking it in the steam. It’s at this point, my wife threw a bucket of water in my face with no sun to keep me warm.

Dumping a bucket of water in my face

Even after that, plus the remaining dampness from earlier, it really did feel like the jacket was still working. 

After thinking about it some, this may have been closer to a real-world scenario. You’re hiking during the day and drop your pack in a stream soaking your down. It has some time to dry out a bit before nightfall, but is still a little damp when you need it most. It seems, at least from my little experiment, that DownTek can still keep you warm. 

That Loft Though

Despite all the variables I encountered, I think the one sure sign that DownTek works is that the jacket maintained its loft. 

If you have ever washed a traditional down jacket or sleeping bag, then you know your nice lofty gear becomes as flat as a pancake when it’s wet. 

Loft means air pockets, and air pockets trap warmth. So, despite all the variables, I’m impressed with DownTek’s ability to maintain loft when wet. 

I really like this Big Agnes jacket. This is the Shovelhead jacket. At first I didn’t think I liked the vertical baffles, but after using this jacket for some extended periods of time, and after seeing how well it maintained it’s loft, I really like this jacket. It’s a little warmer than what I would normally need on most backpacking trips, but for cold cold weather, I really like this jacket

Options

One last thing I want to mention is that even though Big Agnes sent me this jacket at no cost, and DownTek provided the loose down for the illustration, I received no other compensation from Big Agnes or DownTek. 

With that in mind, I want to reinforce that DownTek is not the only company treating down with DWR, and Big Agnes is not the only company using treated down in their products.  But they are the only products I’ve been able to test. 

What About You?

So I’m curious, how cautious are you when it comes to keeping your down products dry? Does this make you worry less when down does get wet?

Leave me a comment and let me know. 

Or if I missed something or got something wrong, please leave me a comment. If there is anything I’ve learned from blogging, it’s that I can’t think of everything and certainly don’t know everything. So leave me a comment adding to the conversation, or check out what others have to say. 

Be sure to follow me on Instagram and YouTube, and as always, thanks for stopping by. 

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