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Thermoball Synthetic Insulation vs Goose Down

Thermoball Primaloft Synthetic Insulation
Thermoball Primaloft Synthetic Insulation

Thermoball is a new form of Primaloft synthetic insulation designed to mimic the insulating properties and compressibility of goose down while providing a lower cost alternative to down coats and jackets. Co-developed for The North Face’s new line of insulated jackets, Primaloft Thermoball provides the equivalent warmth of 600 fill power goose down while maintaining its warmth when wet.

The Thermoball Difference

Most synthetic insulation comes in the form of a flat roll like the insulation you put into your house’s walls and roof. Primaloft Thermoball is different because it resembles loose goose down clusters making it more compressible and warmer than other forms of synthetic insulation. Studies by an independent laboratory (University of Kansas), show that Primaloft Thermoball is equivalent to 600 fill power goose down and about 10% warmer than previous forms of Primaloft.

The Soaring Price of Goose Down

Most of the world’s goose down comes from China where it is raised in rural farm communities. But the price of down has more than tripled in the past two years as more and more people move into China’s cities in search of better pay and living conditions. The result has been a drop in goose down production and much higher wholesale prices. In response, outdoor apparel and gear manufacturers have begun raising the price of goose down products or lowering the quality of the goose down that they make products with. They’ve also invested heavily in developing alternative forms of synthetic insulation like Primaloft Thermoball, that provide warmth to weight ratios that are comparable to goose down at a fraction of the cost.

The Advantages of Synthetic Insulation

While synthetic insulation is not as warm as goose down, it does have several advantages. Number one is the fact that it stays warm even when it gets wet. It’s also far easier to care for than apparel or sleeping bags products filled with goose down, which must be washed with specialized soap and carefully dried – while apparel and gear filled with synthetic insulation can be washed and dried at home with normal detergents. Originally developed for the US military as a substitute for goose down, these are the reasons why synthetic insulation is preferred for childrens-wear and normal consumer use.

A Synthetic Insulation Revolution

The development of Thermoball is the first foray of new and improved forms of synthetic insulation under development to help fill the void being created by higher goose down prices and falling supply. This is a highly competitive arena featuring manufacturers such as Polarguard, Thermolite, Thinsulate, Thermoloft, Climashield and many others. In the next few years, you should expect industry-wide changes in the use and perception of synthetic insulation in lightweight apparel and sleeping bags as material science technology catches us with goose down’s warmth and compressibility advantages.

For a look at the new apparel using Primaloft Thermaball, click below

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  1. Traditionally down has had one more major advantage over synthetics: longevity. Synthetic insulation tends to deteriorate in use (use, compression, wash) where down performs incredibly well for years if you just remember to wash it regularly. Maybe not so much an issue (or advantage) in clothing but more so with sleeping bags. Any insight on the service life of the Thermoball insulation?

    Also any ideas if the “lifestyle” down clothing is also partially affecting the rising prices of down? Down clothing seems nowadays very popular as fashionable winter clothing and as standard of living raises I guess the demand for this lifestyle clothing also increases?

    • I’d expect the service life to be similar to regular Primaloft. Of course, it could be much less, given the new form factor.

      Lifestyle clothing is incidentally having a huge impact on the price of goose down worldwide, but it us being driven by demand in developing nations where the standard of living is going up. The most notable country is China itself, the worlds largest goose down importer. I’ve been told by industry insiders that they are simply not exporting the stuff anymore. Hence the sharp increase in the price of goose down.

      • Thanks for the extra insight. Good discussion going on here once again. Luckily we still have the Eastern European goose down here which is apparently not yet affected so badly. Maybe it’s about the time to stock up the down kit… ;)

      • I am feeling pretty good about my Montbell Exlight jacket purchase right now ($50 on Gear Swap)

  2. Have you tried any thermoball garments yet, Phil? I’m skeptical of any marketing claims made by gear manufacturers who claim something is as good or better than the tried and true old stuff. Independent studies are a good step, but I still only see hype when new products like this come out. All kinds of synthetic insulations have claimed to be almost as good as down over the years, but they never come close to that magical combination of weight, compressibility, long life, and loft. I’ll wait to hear about serious firsthand wilderness use before I judge too much.

    • Don’t let the name fool you. This is just Primaloft that’s 10% warmer than the previous best version of Primaloft. I had a reader contact me about it and this is the gist of the response I sent her. I thought the price increase and scarcity of goose down worth mentioning because it will be a major trend in the next few years. This has been confirmed by the designers at major sleeping bag mfgs that I have come to know over the past few years. I doubt anyone could “tell” the difference between Thermoball and regular Primaloft by putting on a coat. The added warmth is a laboratory measurement.

      • Fair enough. I continue to hope that synthetic will eventually “catch up” to down as well. Until then, I’m just glad my down lasts a long time :)

  3. “Warm when wet,” Philip? Come on, you’re usually pretty good about seeing through press releases. This claim reminds me of “waterproof/breathable,” which itself is an oxymoron — a fabric cannot both prevent water from passing through it while also allowing water to pass through it.

    Unless synthetic insulations can defy the laws of physics, the only way the “warm when wet” claim can be true is if the “wet” is warm. If it’s cold, which is usually the case, then warmth will be sucked away from the user due to the increase in thermal conduction of the insulation (the mass of both insulation and moisture).

    If the claim were modified to “warmer when damp,” I could agree with that, as down degrades more easily in humid conditions like those in the East so synthetics tend to have a more reliable performance across conditions, albeit inferior to down in optimal conditions with regards to warmth/weight, compressibility, and lifespan.

    With specific regards to Thermoball, I’d be curious to know the warmth/weight relative to down when it’s an a garment or bag, as that’s really my only concern — insulations don’t wear very well without some fabric and baffles to keep it in place. The TNF jackets that I’ve seen have extensive quilting, more than even “low-profile” down jackets, so I would suspect the warmth/weight of these jackets is probably more like what’d you’d find with 400 or 500 fill down feathers.

    • Completely agree. I guess it didn’t even register. The synthetic guys have been making that claim for such a long time that I just ignore it since it’s such a crock of …I guess we really do need to keep repeating it though.

      I do think its cool that Primaloft is trying to simulate down clusters. The question is how far they can take it and whether it will even really compete with down in the 700-850 fill power range. I wouldn’t bet on it for a long time…

      • I just purchased the North Face thermoball women’s jacket to tide me over while North Face replaces (hopefully, at no charge as it should be under the Limited Lifetime Warranty – I’ve only owned the jacket for 2 years) the zipper or jacket I love and wear for all outdoor winter activities. Although the Thermoball is as light – or lighter – than my NF 800 count down jacket, I’m pretty sure it won’t keep me as warm in what promises to be a very cold NE winter. Glad I bought a NF down vest the week before, as I think it’ll be under the Thermoball jacket most of the winter (until Old Faithful is returned).

    • Can I do winter in Texas? Do I get to keep the down gear?

    • Why can’t something be waterproof, but breathable?

      Water vapor has no surface tension, and has no hydrogen bonding – which holds molecules of liquid water together. A membrane (such as Gore-Tex), if has pores of the correct size, would be expected to allow a single molecule of water vapor to pass, but impede liquid water from penetrating. See, there really WAS a reason to pay attention in physics class!

  4. Nice to hear of an improvement in synthetic insulation (no matter how over-stated!). Down is an irrelevant comparison to me – I’m allergic to it.

  5. Primaloft is clearly feeling a bit of heat from its customers (gear companies) about DriDown – which is a coated form of down (chemically treated) to make it more resistent to wetting out. Anecdotally, I’ve seen widespread demand amoung hikers for treated down and many of the cottage manufacturers who make down quilts and sleeping bags have started to incorporate it in their products. But when I talk to manufacturers about whether there has been a marked uptick in demand for down – on a much larger scale – they say they’ve not seen any increase in the market share of down vs synthetic insulation. Which indicates to me that treated down is taking market share from untreated down, and people who buy synthetic insulation are sticking with it and not switching over., probably because it’s less expensive – esoteric knowledge – but I like thinking about this kind of stuff.

  6. I don’t think it WILL be an improvement over Primaloft One though, since the movement inherent in the sphere form means a ton of stiching is needed to keep the spheres in small pockets. It will not compete with a jacket as technical as the Rab Xenon in terms of warmth to weight. It’s The North Face – what did you expect?

    • Theodore David Van Zyl

      Agreed You will find they are using Ball Fibre and that is so a old technology and surprisingly made in China like most things at present.
      The fools or maybe not so foolish to use the hype to sell a product
      The testing done before in the USA is bollocks
      Who paid them.
      Material engineers have been done this years ago. Any one of them will tell you Duck down is unlikely to be eclipsed but price can
      Result they are selling the a cheap Chinese ripoff

  7. I have a Hooded Jacket and Vest along with a Sleeping bag with the old Prima Loft in them and since there is only a 10% increase I see no reason to purchase a new Jacket or bag. I also have a Hooded Goose Down Jacket and Vest and two sleeping bags with 650 in them an will not give them up for anything else. I wear and use the Prima Loft when wet weather or damp weather is expected and the Down in drier air or above 10,000 feet. Not being a “naysayer” but the Outdoor Recreation Companies really have not improved on any of their products in many a year. In my opinion they just have gotten slicker with the advertising creating new Names for the same old stuff or like this, making it “puffy” instead of flat and claming a 10% increase instead of putting those “Slick” dollars into R&D. Now when we start talking a 50% increase then they will get my attention. It actually is quite amusing to go through the Sales catalogs and observe how the Marketing Maggots twist and turn and change and try to make something old into something new trying to get you to spend, spend spend..1 pound still weighs, one pound. A Skunk is still a Skunk no matter what color you dye the fur. And after almost 40 years of Backpacking, they still do not make a guaranteed waterproof Backpack without needing a rain cover or a dose of Camp Spray or a liner bag. I’d like a little pocket on the outside of the bag to store my wet ground cloth keeping it away from everything else..So if anyone knows of a Bag with such features please let me know…

    • Have you seen any of the Cuben Fiber backpacks? Light, waterproof, with pockets on the outside for your wet gear.

      • Most cuben fiber packs leak at the seams too. If you want waterproof packs, you still need to go the dry-bag route. Hopefully that will change if pack manufacturers can find a glue that is strong enough to keep a shoulder harness or hip belt attached to a cuben fiber pack without sewing, but I’d expect to see that on day packs well before anything that has to carry any appreciable weight.

    • I have an arc teryx naos 70 ( I believe they make 80 and 95 as well) that is basically a dry bag with a pretty serious suspension and belt system. They are pricey but i picked one up on ebay for 300 – not that far out of the higher end pack range, and no need for a rain cover.

  8. My complaint about synthetics is breathability. Put me in down or merino wool and I’m comfortable at a variety of temperatures, put me in synthetics and I’m quickly suffocating and overheating.

  9. I was looking at a Thermoball puffy at REI the other day, however, I already have a GoLite 850 fill down puffy that packs down to about the size of a 1L bottle and the GoLite puffy was the same price as the Thermoball one.

    In the past, I didn’t consider down because of the “still warm when wet” advertising of the synthetic manufacturers. About a decade ago, I decided I couldn’t carry on my backpacking predilection with the weight I was carrying on my bad back and knees and I began to acquire lighter gear which included down. I’ve grown to really love down and have no plans to go back. My pack weight is one third to one half what it used to be and I also lost twenty five to thirty pounds of belt weight. My back and knees approve.

    A while back, my grandson and I attended a lightweight backpacking workshop at REI. The guy conducting the event mentioned the perceived advantage of synthetic still insulating when wet and then asked: “If your sleeping bag is soaked, are you going to crawl into it? No way! You’ll find another way to keep warm.”

    For me, the solution is don’t let the down get wet. I know some hike in situations where constant precip makes that less of a reality and they have to choose gear accordingly.

  10. The “lower price” claim of thermoball isn’t holding true either. Have you seen the price on the TNF Thermoball Jacket?

  11. I actually got my GoLite Bitterroot down jacket on sale for half the cost of the TNF Thermoball jacket.

  12. This is a bit of a tangent, but “water repellent treatment” piqued my curiosity, since many of those treatments have chemicals believed to be toxic. Some of these toxic chemicals are also present in Teflon, Gore-tex, of course, and Scotchgard. The culprits are given as PFOA and PFOS. You can look them up on Wikipedia and know as much as I do. We all have them and they aren’t good.

    But the DownTek website claims the treatment is environmentally friendly. There is apparently some truth in this statement. The chemicals listed above are not present according to the site.

    They have a short video demonstrating the short term water repellency on the home page. Longevity is not addressed: http://down-tek.com/home/

  13. The claim that synthetics are “warm when wet” is true if you think of it as “still lofts when damp” and “put it on and it will dry with body heat”, both of which aren’t true of down.

    My gripe about garments with synthetic insulation is that they never put enough of the insulation in it. How many synthetic jackets have you seen that only have a quarter or half inch of loft? We already have the weight of the shell fabric, zipper, drawstrings, snaps, etc built in; add a few more batts of insulation!

  14. No one here has mentioned the morality of using down products. I, for one, applaud the development of synthetics that can mimic down and will reduce the killing of geese for their feathers (do any of you wear fur coats while hiking?). I know that some companies claim the geese are killed for food and the down is a byproduct, but given the high cost of down and the increase in demand for outdoor gear I think this claim is highly suspect.

    • It would seem to me that there will likely be more of a demand for meat than feathers. At any rate, If this did not hold true, I have no doubt that the meat is still being sold and eaten. If a goose is being killed for it’s feathers, And we assume there will always be someone who will want meat, All this means is that more geese die, and the price of goose meat goes down.

    • Bob, I also wonder about if people think about animals when they think about products. Especially I found that many hikers are quite schizophrene when it comes to the point … On the one hand admiring/enjoying nature and I think many hikers enjoy watching also “wild animals” (fisher/hunter excluded) and might even mean to respect them. On the other side then it comes to products like food and clothing there seems to be no respect left for the animals … then taste, function and wheight seem to count.
      On Meat/feathers/killing of geese – well, what’s this efficiency issue anyway. It seems to be only worth thinking about for humans who like to exploit animals and want to get away with a peace of conscience.

    • Bob, and the rest. I sympathize with the cruelty aspects of down. I have a down bag that I bought years ago–like 30–without a thought. Then one night lying in the bag the geese were alighting in the lake and I thought about that. No more down purchases for me.

  15. Living in Alaska, I mostly rely on synthetic insulation. When hiking, camping, and sea kayaking in our frequently very wet weather, I’ve found that no matter how careful I am, over time my gear gets damp.

    I recently purchased a TNF Thermoball jacket, and so far I really like it. It is very lightweight, stuffs small, and is quite warm. I’ve started carrying it rather than a fleece or pile layer. My impression so far is that it is good stuff.

  16. This product sounds so promising. My daughter who lives in upstate NY has developed a horrible allergy to wool and down and has had to get rid of her clothes containing these things and also had to replace the down fill of her sofas and chairs. She has had terrible bouts of asthma also. We have been trying to find a material for a heavy coat that does not contain wool or down; however, these jackets seem very light and it gets so cold for so long in NY that I don’t think they would be warm enough. Does anyone know of a solution to this issue?

    • Simply look for a heavier parka that has more primaloft (thermoball) insulation in it. It wil lbe warmer than these stylish thin things.

    • No, these are warm enough. Just make sure it’s sized right. I always like to go up a size so she could layer clothing underneath. She doesn’t need a ‘heavy’ coat. She needs a lightweight well insulated coat.

      • One thing about thermaball jackets is that theres a lot of quilting going on – which means cold spots. They are great jackets, but their intent was to have something that feels “down like” and was extremely packable. If those aren’t an issue to you, and you want something that’s really warm, it is a good idea to make sure that it has more grams of insulation (eg., more grams of primaloft), and with less stitch lines. Thermoballs are supposed to be the equivalent of a 600 fill jacket of a similar weight. Adding an additional windproof shell on top will increase the warmth, because it blocks wind and adds a layer of warm air. I think the north face has triclimate jackets which are a thermoball jacket and separate shell sold together.

  17. we need options beyond down and feathers, thank you for this info, we MUST move away from these cruel products

  18. sadly, most don’t realize that down is gathered from LIVE animals, they are not a byproduct of the meat industry.

  19. You go on about how Thermoball does like 600 fill down but you failed to mention how many grams of Thermoball you are using. For example is it 100g, 60g, what? I have used some Primaloft I feel it is not as good as 200g Thinsulate insulation (which I feel is the best). You just stated Thermoball but fail to give me a guide post. I am noticing that most companies these days are sticking 60g of Primaloft in a jacket then just selling the jacket marked Primaloft without knowing how much is in the jacket then freezing their butts off. I have a Primaloft jacket that was sold to me exactly like this I mentioned from a large outdoor catalog and stores so I know about this getting cold with Primaloft and I have been very disappointed about by Primaloft.
    It is a shame as through the years all of these companies have gone through all this development of insulation( just clouding the insulation choices for people) for jackets, parkas, sleeping bags, gloves, footwear but they still have not come up with anything better than Thinsulate! Although another great insulation for some reason fell out fashion(not functional ability, great stuff) is another DuPont product Holofill. So I seriously doubt this Thermoball will come close to measuring up to Thinsulate. How will Thermoball compare to Thinsualte? I wish I was financially able to buy more jackets with Primaloft as I would like to have a 200g Primaloft jacket to see how it functions. I like the way the Primaloft jacket I do have feels as it feels very similar to down wearing it. Then again it would have to very good to beat Thinsulate in my mind and experience or even Holofill

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