When is down insulation like ski boots? Answer: when they play the numbers game. Take ski boots. Companies come up with boot flex ratings like “130.” Dig into it, and you’ll find some companies seem to be picking their flex numbers out of somewhat thin air — no firm industry-wide standard exists.
Down insulation numbers are a bit better than boot ratings in that if you can at least send your bird fibers out for standardized testing at the IDFL. But how many companies throw numbers like “900 fill” out there, yet don’t actually get their down tested themselves, consistently? That’s where the whole thing is similar to boot flex ratings.
In other words, you’re shopping for a boot, the sales person says “That monster is a 140!.” How do you know for sure?
You buy the story about the boots, then the sales person catches your glance at a rack of expensive down-filled puff jackets. “Along with those 140 boots, how about a jacket with 900 fill!” says the bubbling clerk like you’ll achieve samadhi just by touching the thing, and if you buy it, well, off the charts bliss!
Again, how in the heck do you know that jacket is actually filled with that kind of down, or even 800 or 700 rated fill? Granted, truth in advertising laws apply, and a big brand has lots riding on not getting their PR story straying too much from reality. Also, laws pertaining to sleeping bag and jacket fill do exist, though it’s obvious by the lack of tags inside many jackets that such laws are rarely obeyed or enforced. More, such laws appear to define things in a somewhat broad fashion that isn’t helpful in, say, comparing one 800+ fill jacket to another that supossedly has the same fill. See an example of fill laws here.
As far as I can tell, laws regarding bedding (sleeping bag) fill are a bit stricter than you have to apply to a plumage filled jacket. Yet in both cases there seems to be a rather bogus minimal legal standard of what the word “down” means, as defined by the percentage of down vs feathers. For example see the Canadian plumage product standards. They define “down” as still allowing 25% feathers, such fill would be something like 500 or less on the Lorch test and totally unacceptable for a high performance “down” filled parka of the kind we expect to be sold for activities such as backcountry skiing.
As consumers, the question of exactly what quality down you’re paying hundreds of dollars for should be easier to answer. Mainly, if a manufacturer is making claims, in my opinion their down would have to be independently tested and somehow certified and communicated beyond what is required by law. The provenience of that test should be stated on a hang tag or at least in their catalog, not tested to be “900 fill” by the economically biased down supplier, and definitely not tested in-house by the manufacturer (other than to verify independent testing.)
A good example of “mystery certification” issue is Marmot’s web page about their down. They claim their down is “certified,” but go on to explain they test it themselves. Without some digging I could find no reference to who “certifies” Marmot’s down fill, then I hit upon product pages that mention they get their down tested by IDFL, so good, but is there some kind of certification certificate they need to be sharing, or at least a product hang tag? It’s all mysterious and vague.
I then looked at Western Mountaineering’s website. They’re known for their beautiful down-filled gear but I couldn’t find information about fill power certification or testing.
I emailed Western Mountaineering, and they replied that “It is a three part verification process. The supplier has the batches tested. We visually inspect each bag [of down] by hand and use our more than 40 years of experience with down to visually check it. We also send random samples to IDFL for testing.” Excellent, but why did I have to dig for the information, and how many random samples do they actually send to IDFL?
Outdoor Research makes some nice down filled goodies, but don’t provide much info about their down. It took some digging, but the following came back from their PR folks, sourced from R & D at at Outdoor Research:
“Outdoor Research uses the industry’s two foremost down suppliers. They have internal auditing processes as well as tracking methods that allow OR internally to trace the down supply back to each specific farm. In addition, OR uses independent testing labs, specifically IDFL, ITS, and SGS to verify down quality. At this point, OR is not making a public statement about this at the consumer level, but certainly they could (since all the mechanisms are in place) if that’s something consumers begin to demand/want to see.”
From what I’ve learned, the only totally accurate way to verify the fill power for a batch of down is to independently test every batch, or even several parts of a batch. Otherwise, if you claim an actual fill power number you are guessing to at least some degree or are using in-house testing that could have serious bias issues. In the case of no independent testing, it would be fair to call the stuff something like “premium fill power down,” but to actually place a number on it when it hasn’t been tested third-party independently is perhaps disingenuous.
Moving along, we have the example of Mountain Equipment, who due to what they say is consumer demand in Europe are using their Down Codex as a big part of their marketing story. ME’s Down Codex gives you a serial number that allows you to track down-fill from the source to the exact jacket or sleeping bag you buy. That includes fill testing and how the source birds are treated. That’s pretty extreme in my opinion, but it shows you how far this could go and is perhaps where it should be. After all, plumage products involve everything from animal welfare to truth-in-advertising, so something that truly cuts through any bull could be the way things should go.
At least Marmot, Western Mountaineering and Outdoor Research say they use IDFL to some degree (others probably do as well, but that’s as far as my informal survey went). But the landscape is still a bit bleak when it comes to information. You can google like a maniac, and in the case of most companies making plumage products for backcountry skiers you’ll find nearly zilch about any sort of independent testing for down fill power. And again, you won’t find anything specific on the jacket hang tags or internal sewn labels.
The question is, will we North American consumers of down filled products open our wallets to companies who tout certifications or even complete supply chain documentation such as Mountain Equipment’s Down Codex? Or will we just glance at a jacket or sleeping bag, figure it looks puffy enough to be the so called “XXX” power fill, figure that geese are just geese, and buy it? Time will tell.
One last thing for my down rant. All the down experts I spoke with told me the practical limit for fill power is best termed as “850+,” meaning the down shows at least an 850 on the Lorch test, and perhaps more. I was told that claiming down as “900 fill” is perhaps in many cases disingenuous, since it’s actually fairly rare for down to consistently perform to 900 in the Lorch cylinder. An example of claiming 900 fill can be found at Marmot, with no explanation on how or where their down is “certified” to be 900 fill.
The issue with 850+ vs 900 arises because of the way down is “manufactured.” Creating various fill powers of down is done by starting with a pile of feathers and down that were removed en mass from the birds (usually geese slaughtered for food, of which down is actually a byproduct). The mix is placed in a large machine that produces an air current and “blows” the various grades of down to different levels or distances. The fluffiest stuff flies the farthest. That’s the 850+ down, some of which perhaps goes to 900, but calling it 850+ is much more fair to the consumer. So like the amplifier that goes to 11 but works pretty much the same at 10, 850+ down is the same thing as 900. Industry wide, I’ve noticed that the term 850+ is frequently used. Good. But marketing is marketing, and numbers are numbers, so you can bet it’s very tempting to eek out a 900 on a Lorch Test then be able to shout about your 900 fill down.
Get ready for winter and shop for it!
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.