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Can it beat down? We torture-tested Patagonia’s best new synthetic insulation

Over the past decade, Patagonia has worked to develop synthetic insulation built to last. The culmination of these efforts: a Hyper Puff line the brand released earlier this year, which boasted the warmest synthetic insulation to date — but it lacked the compressability and feel of down.

Ever the innovator, the Ventura, California-based company’s most recent addition to its apparel line is the Micro Puff — a jacket that feels like down and performs like synthetic. The Micro Puff is the best warmth-to-weight jacket ever engineered by Patagonia, and perhaps any company in the world. To put it to the ultimate test, we took the Micro Puff to the Bugaboos of British Columbia, one of North America’s ultimate alpine playgrounds.

An age-old debate between down and synthetic

Choosing the proper jacket for an alpine expedition is no small feat. Down and synthetic are the two primary categories of insulation, with companies offering a variety of both products to suit the exhaustive needs of outdoor enthusiasts. Down is the ultimate insulation in terms of warmth to weight ratio and provides a comforting, featherlight feel. Goose or duck down keeps you warm in the most brutal alpine conditions — that is, as long as it remains lofted.

The performance of the Micro Puff in the Bugaboos exceeded all warmth and weather resistance expectations.

Moisture from rain or snow immediately clumps down material, rendering it heavy and useless in terms of insulation. Outdoor apparel companies have turned to synthetic fabrics to compensate for this lack of performance. While synthetic insulation offers superior water resistance, the challenge has historically been to develop a product that matched down in terms of warmth, weight, and compressibility. Synthetic jackets retain loft in wet and humid conditions and also dry much quicker than down — but are bulky, less warm, and typically heavier.

This is exactly where Patagonia’s Micro Puff sets a new standard.

Above and beyond

We tested the women’s small Micro Puff during a week at elevation and a 15-hour alpine ascent of the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire. The performance of the Micro Puff in the Bugaboos exceeded all warmth and weather resistance expectations. We toted along a down jacket for comparison but found the Micro Puff was the only insulation piece worn all week.

During the day, air temperatures ranged from roughly 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit but powerful winds often made it feel much colder. The Micro Puff effectively blocked the wind and kept the body warm, and could even be worn comfortably while moving, achieving an impressive level of breathability. It retained a surprising amount of heat for its small size and weight. While climbing, the jacket allowed for a good range of motion and the stretchy hood served to keep the wind off our neck while allowing for use of a helmet.

At 4 a.m. the morning of our ascent of Bugaboo Spire, we wore the Micro Puff around camp and even in temperatures reaching freezing, the jacket provided adequate warmth over just a base layer. In addition, the Micro Puff was the only insulation layer we brought along for an unexpected overnight bivouac which we thought would push the jacket’s limits. However, it performed exceedingly well, maintaining enough body heat to keep us warm all night at the base of a glacier.

The Micro Puff also proved to be extremely rain and snow resistant. During light showers on a rest day, it maintained its warmth even when soaked on the exterior and dried quickly in the tent. When rappelling a steep col, we wore the jacket over our base layer and harness and the loosened snow battered us as we descended but we stayed dry and it never affected the jacket’s loft.

It’s all in the strands

To achieve this high level of performance, Patagonia designed the Micro Puff with PlumaFill, a polyester insulation that’s white, feathery, and designed to hold in heat. What truly makes PlumaFill unique rests with its structure which features strands of heat-trapping ultrafine filaments. These strands, as opposed to loose fibers, tend to stay in place, negating the need for baffles. This allowed Patagonia to engineer larger lofted areas, achieved with an interrupted stitching pattern that reduces quilt points, granting less heat loss. This patent-pending design both decreases weight and makes for enhanced insulation.

“Our R&D team spent years tinkering with and field-testing every iteration and combination of materials and insulation.”

“Knowing that down gets wet and loses heat-trapping loft, and that synthetics never quite achieve the same warmth and compressibility, our research and development team spent years tinkering with and field-testing every iteration and combination of materials and insulation,” stated Jenna Johnson, vice president of the technical outdoor department. “We were looking to solve for the Achilles’ heel of each type of insulation, and we ruled out dozens of technologies before getting to PlumaFill.”

Only 65 grams of PlumaFill are required to provide an extremely toasty interior that doesn’t clump or shift. Patagonia chose Pertex Quantum GL as the face fabric, a popular and lightweight ripstop nylon. Less than an ounce of this 10-denier material paired with PlumaFill achieves a down-like feel, loft, and an attractive, shiny exterior that you have to see to believe. The face fabric is coated with DWR (durable water repellent) which serves as the first line of defense against the elements.

For all of its innovative technology, Patagonia designed the Micro Puff to be simple. The product boasts a main zipper, two hand pockets, two interior pockets, and a helmet-compatible hood we found to fit particularly snug. The jacket stuffs down into its own pocket, compressing to a small, handheld size that weighs only nine ounces. There’s even a clip point for carrying it on a backpack or harness.

Worth the hype?

In terms of warmth to weight, Patagonia engineered the ultimate synthetic product. The only question to ask before an alpine expedition is how to justify leaving it behind. The jacket exceeded our expectations regarding weather resistance, packability, and warmth. The product’s only downside might be a slight sacrifice in durability due to the extremely lightweight nature of the Pertex Quantum GL face fabric. We sustained a few holes in the sleeves after scrambling across course granite but then again, that’s an extreme test of durability and the holes were easily patchable and never affected performance.

Available in Men’s and Women’s sizes for $300 via Patagonia’s website, you’ll never have to choose between down or synthetic again with the innovative Micro Puff.

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