The Down Allergy Sufferers Guide to Down Insulation

The Down Allergy Sufferers Guide to Down Insulation

For performance gear that offers sufficient warmth while being sufficiently light weight, outdoor enthusiasts turn to down insulation. This could be a problem if you have a down allergy. Or could it?

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad.Me and my down allergy, tucked away into my lofty 900 fill power down insulated quilt.

Many allergy suffers forgo down insulation because they’re afraid of an allergic reaction, or believe they have suffered one in the past. It turns out that allergies to feathers and down are extremely rare. What’s more likely is a reaction to the dust and particles present on lower qualities of down. Read more about this here.

As a lifelong allergy sufferer, I’ve had experiences in the past that have led me to think that I might be allergic to down, and that I would have to sacrifice warmth and carry a lot more weight on camping and backpacking trips. Synthetic insulation is an alternative to down products, but not necessarily the best one. It’s not as warm as down and is much heavier; requiring more weight for more warmth.

Dismayed at the synthetic insulated gear options for my PCT 2015 thruhike, I did some research and decided to put down insulation, and my allergies, to the test.

I Lived in Down for a Summer

I even walked the trail in my down sleeping bag! Kidding of course, but I did tuck into for at least 8 hours each night!
I even walked the trail in my down sleeping bag! Kidding of course, but I did tuck into for at least 8 hours each night!

Well, almost. The summer I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail for four months, I slept underneath a down insulated quilt and wore a down jacket for a big part of the day everyday. Not once did I suffer even a sniffle.

How did I do it?

When it comes to down for allergy sufferers, it’s all about the fill power.

Fill power is the measurement for “loft” or fluffiness of the down. In the industry, the fluffier the down, the more air it can trap and the better it can insulate. Down with a high fill power is warmer than low fill power down.

I wouldn't have been able to comfortably hike Mount Whitney in my down insulated parka if I had a down allergy!This jacket may not look like much, but it’s incredibly warm, lightweight 800 fill power down.

High fill power down is also better for allergy sufferers. I’m very allergic to dust and I have experienced zero problems with my 800 fill power jacket and 900 fill power quilt. Here’s why:

Regular feathers and low fill power down are not the same as high fill power down. High fill power down, 800 and higher, is subjected to a more thorough washing and purification process that cleans and removes particles like dirt and dust that decrease the loft and warmth of the down. Dust and dirt also cause allergic reactions for some. So chances are, even if you aren’t allergic to down, you’re allergic to the dust that’s on it.

Could You Be Wrong about Your Down Allergy?

Yes! And there a couple of reasons why:

  • You may have had allergic reactions to “down filled” pillows. Even though they say they are down-filled, many down filled pillows are not 100% down. This means they contain a mix of down and regular feathers.
  • You may have had an allergic exaction to low fill power down that contained a sufficient amount of allergens.

How to Shop for Down Insulated Products if You Have Allergies

You simply need to avoid low fill power down or down that has been mixed with feathers. The safest down for allergy sufferers is high fill power down, think 800 fill power and above. This down will be the cleanest but also the highest quality, so you’ll be getting the best bang for your buck.

The fill power should be on product specs for the item. If the fill power is not specified, it probably is low fill power or not even 100% down, and just another way of marketing down as a “luxury” material to unwitting consumers.

Our MontBell jackets fit the bill with 800 fill power down. I can attest that they are warm, lightweight and sniffle-free!

Outdoor manufacturers frequently make down insulated products like jackets and sleeping bags with a high fill power, because it is both lighter and warmer (two very important things for outdoor enthusiasts). Some manufacturers of high fill power down insulated products we like are: MontBell, Marmot, and Z-Packs. But there are many more!

You can also shop for many of the products you like online at outdoor-oriented online retailers, or directly from the manufacturer. Check out our review of discount gear websites to get your down insulated products at the best price!

Maintenance for High Fill Power Down

Always follow care instructions that come with the product.

In general, you should avoid getting your down products wet. There will come a time, especially with outdoor products like sleeping bags, that you’ll need to clean your down. In this case, you can use a specialty detergent specifically or down insulation like Gear Aid ReviveX Down Cleaner. Wash with the instructions specified on the detergent.

Don’t wash your down often! Once per season should be enough, and only if the product is pretty dirty and actually needs it.

Have any more questions about finding the right down insulated products for a down allergy? Let us know in the comments!

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