Is Lighter Better?
Patagonia Just Made Its Lightest Jacket Ever, But Does That Mean You Should Buy It?
“We tried everything and came up with nothing,” declares the splashy text at the top of Patagonia’s website announcing its latest innovation: the Micro Puff Hoody. It’s a tricky play on words (and a damn smooth humblebrag), but it gets right to the point — the Micro Puff is the lightest insulated jacket that Patagonia has ever made. But does that mean you should buy it?
Let’s start with a (very) brief history lesson. Jackets filled with synthetic insulation have been around since the 1970s, when small groups of gear pioneers began experimenting with a fluffy polyester batting called Dacron that was manufactured by DuPont. Climbers and adventurers such as MSR’s Larry Penberthy and the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Paul Petzoldt prized the stuff for its ability to combat the deleterious effects that rain and moisture had on down insulation, which had been the standard bearer for lightweight warmth since Eddie Bauer began selling his Skyliner Jacket in 1936. Since those early days, synthetic insulation has been continually pushed by materials producers like Polartec and PrimaLoft (along with brands big enough to house their own R&D departments) to be both lighter and warmer.
Weight: 9.3 ounces (264 grams)
Shell and Lining: 0.7-ounce 10-denier 100% nylon ripstop Pertex Quantum with a DWR finish
Insulation: 65-gram PlumaFill 100% polyester
Innovation has been a vital piece of Patagonia’s business model since Yvon Chouinard began forging his first climbing hardware using an anvil he bought from a local scrapyard. Developing proprietary materials instead of sourcing them from suppliers, as many outdoor brands do, has been a core factor in Patagonia’s consistent ability to be an industry leader and not a follower. Some of its breakthroughs include polyester fleece and polypro base layers, and, more recently, active insulation and neoprene-free wetsuits.
The Micro Puff is another tally on Patagonia’s nigh half-decade long progress report. On the outside, it looks just like any other synthetic insulation jacket, if not with just a little extra sheen. Instead of using horizontal baffles, as it does with many of its down jackets, or the quilted design exemplified in the synthetic Nano Puff, Patagonia applied a unique stitching pattern to create a mostly-continuous maze of channels that prevent the insulation from bunching. The shell itself is a super lightweight, water-repellent ripstop nylon called Pertex Quantum.
It’s a far cry from the wall insulation-style fabric sheets of the early synthetic jackets.
But enough about how things look — the real story behind the Micro Puff is about its guts: Patagonia’s brand new insulation, dubbed PlumaFill. Synthetic insulation comes in many different forms, but PlumaFill is unique: it’s made up of down-mimicking polyester fibers that are secured together in one continuous, fluffy line. It’s a far cry from the wall insulation-style fabric sheets of the early synthetic jackets. These long strands zigzag their way through the jacket’s interior, providing warmth and never bunching, even when soaked. The same can’t be said for down.
But Patagonia isn’t the only company taking a crack at a different type of synthetic insulation. PrimaLoft, a leading industry supplier of synthetic insulation, recently introduced a down-like fiber called ThermoPlume. The tiny filaments are shaped like sails, which allows them to flow freely without clumping — just like down feathers — and enables manufacturers to build garments much more efficiently. It’s a different take on the same problem: how can synthetics be pushed to provide the same, or better yet, superior, performance as down?
Despite its weakness to moisture, when it comes to weight, down has always reigned supreme. One of the chief goals of PlumaFill is to reduce the weight of a warm, compressible layer while using synthetic fill. The Micro Puff certainly achieves this — it’s 3.5 ounces lighter than its equally-warm synthetic predecessor, the Nano Puff. But, it isn’t really an ultralight jacket.
For many, this is a good thing. If Patagonia had wanted to create a jacket that truly spared no excess in shedding grams and ounces, it wouldn’t have constructed the Micro Puff with two zippered hand pockets or two interior mesh pouch pockets — these things add potentially unnecessary weight, after all. But the fact that they’re here leaves enough utility in the jacket for the everyday user who might not necessarily be austerely counting ounces while packing for a climbing expedition. It certainly is light enough for those activities though — even if there are still down jackets out there made by other brands that have it beat when it comes to total weight (we’re looking at you Montbell).
The risk that the Micro Puff runs is not landing firmly on either side of the road. It’s possible that the jacket doesn’t go far enough to please the ultralight crowd entirely, and those who aren’t ounce-counters might have a hard time shelling out $300 when there are so many, albeit slightly heavier, options in Patagonia’s collection that will provide just as much warmth and plenty of compressibility. That being said, the innovation that powers the jacket, PlumaFill, should be the big takeaway here. It’s an impressive new technology that gets exceptionally close to combining the best traits of down and synthetic and perfecting insulation once and for all.