You’ve heard it before, it’s what’s inside that matters. That’s certainly true with outerwear. Here are five things you need to know before you buy a down jacket for your kids.
Down Coats & Fill Power
When it comes to insulation in jackets, there are really two major considerations, weight and warmth. The technical term is weight-to-warmth ratio. Down has arguably the best weight-to-warmth ratio of any insulation type on the planet, hence its popularity.
In simple terms, fill power is a measure of how much space or volume one ounce of down will occupy at maximum loft. A higher fill power will achieve greater loft (think fluffy) and trap more body heat so you stay warmer. Most outdoor manufacturers use a fill power between 550 and 900, meaning one once of 550 down will loft to 550 cubic inches. So, when it comes to fill power, higher numbers are a good indicator of the quality of down.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of kids jackets land at the low end of this spectrum. What does that mean for your daughter? It means their jacket will almost always be heavier, less compressible, and less durable than jackets with a higher fill power. Oh, and you guessed it, less warm. Fortunately, manufacturers are starting to wake up and produce more options for kids jackets with higher fill power. Try and stick to a fill power between 650 and 700 for the best balance between price and quality.
Treated or Untreated Down?
What happens when down feathers get wet? Goop happens. Don’t believe me? Head upstairs and steal some of those precious feathers from your bedroom pillow and put ‘em in a bowl of water. What does that mean for your daughter hiking in the rain with her brand new down jacket? When down get wet, the feathers lose loft and the insulation value essentially disappears. So, in this scenario, your daughter gets cold. Not good. This is why so many old-timers don’t trust down in the outdoors.
But wait, there’s good news! It’s called treated down.
Treated down has totally changed the equation by impregnating feathers with a water-resistant jacketing that helps resist moisture at the molecular level. That means treated down can maintain loft in all but the most extreme conditions. So now, your daughter stays warm, even in miserable conditions.
Unfortunately, a lot of manufacturers are still making kids jackets without treated down. I believe untreated down in the outdoors is a major safety issue since you’re relying on a jacket for insulation and warmth. Unless you’re buying a jacket strictly for casual use, make sure it’s got treated down.
Okay, call me shallow, but I think the outside matters too! The outer shell is what protects the down from the outside environment and it’s usually made of polyester or nylon. The last thing you want is to spend all that money on high power fill only to have your kid drop feathers from a puncture hole and spread down along the trail like breadcrumbs.
Some companies manufacture kids jackets with “ripstop” fabric, or an interlaced nylon weave, to help resist abrasion and ripping. They make parachutes from this stuff, so it works! If you spend any time in the outdoors, sticks happen, so ripstop helps protect against incidental punctures. The materials used for kids down jackets are just plain bulkier and for good reason, they’re designed to take a beating so kids can be kids. But, all that material comes at a cost. Yep, you guessed it, weight and compressibility.
You’ll also want to be on the lookout for jackets with DWR or “Durable Weather Resistant” finish on the outer shell to shed light rain or moisture. This coating works to bead water during periods of light moisture, but the coating will degrade over time. Luckily, it’s simple to reapply with aftermarket applications.
To Hood or Not to Hood?
Let’s keep this simple. Most of your body heat is lost through your head and neck. So, when the temperatures start to drop, your kids need something to cover their noggins. Do you get a hood or buy a stocking cap?
The answer really depends on the type of outdoor activity and your preferred layering system, which is a topic of another discussion. But, for backpacking, my kids don’t wear their down jacket as a mid-layer, except in the most extreme conditions. Instead, the jacket functions almost exclusively as an outer layer for when we land at camp or take breaks along the trail. So, having a hood is both warmer and convenient.
The hood on a down jacket adds maybe 2 ounces to the overall weight of the jacket and provides exceptional insulation (think weight-to-warmth ratio). Sure, you can bring a stocking cap, but my vote is always on less gear. Plus, the hood is attached to the jacket, so my kids always know where to find it, which means there’s less chance it’ll get lost.
For casual outdoor activities, or if your kid is regularly layering over their jacket to stay warm or dry, I’d opt for a non-hooded down jacket to avoid bunching behind the neck and back. Nobody likes to look like a hunchback.
The Price Tag
The price for your kids down jacket will range between $60 and $130 depending on manufacturer, fill power, treatment, and construction. If you’re like me, you might be trying to calculate the number of days your kid is going to use this jacket and thinking it doesn’t warrant dropping a bunch of moolah. It seems like a luxury item. Plus, kids grow, so the life span of this jacket might be less than two years before the sleeves start resembling something like a t-shirt. So, what do you do?
Remember, this is a critical piece of gear for your kids in the mountains and it could be the difference-maker between fun and frozen (or worse) when combined with a base-layer and mid-layer. Follow these simple tips to save some Benjamins and buy the best down jacket you can afford:
- Wait for a sale! Keep a close eye for deep discounts on down jackets, especially in the Spring. I’ve purchased all my kids down jackets at 50-70% off, which makes it a no-brainer.
- Pass it down! Yep, the younger ones might complain about how “Jonny” always gets the new stuff, and they get stuck with hand-me-downs, but high quality down will last multiple.
- Sell it! High-quality down products keep their value on major auction websites, so you’ll likely be able to recoup much of your initial investment as long as it doesn’t get abused.
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