Jacket Smackdown: Down Vs. Synthetic

Don’t let its name deceive you: Mount Rainier’s ‘Sunset Amphitheater’ is a cold and inhospitable place. A perfect spot for a jacket test.

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We were high on the mountain. As the sun disappeared over Seattle, an orange glow casted across the Imax-like canvas, lighting the wall ablaze, and the temperature began its plummet to 10˚F.

On went the parkas. It would be the last we would feel the sun’s warmth until midday the following morning on this shadowy mammoth peak.

Ski mountaineering around Rainier’s slopes, we found a great opportunity to put two high-end down and synthetic jackets to the test against each other. The parkas were of similar cost, weight, and compressibility. The test would weigh the pros and cons of each insulation type.

In the right corner we had professor Chris Minson wearing MontBell’s Mirage down parka. In the left, I donned Mountain Hardwear’s Super Compressor synthetic parka. We traded parkas throughout the week to compare warmth and comfort. Here’s a breakdown from the test.

down vs synthetic

The Gear: MontBell’s down Mirage Jacket vs. Mountain Hardwear’s synthetic Super Compressor Jacket.

Price: MontBell Mirage, $309; Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor, $295. Both available now.

Tested For: Mountaineering, cold-weather backpacking.

Who’s It For:

  • Super Compressor: Cold weather enthusiasts, ski-mountaineers, and climbers.
  • Mirage: Shoulder season; cold-weather enthusiasts with bias for off-the-slopes fun.

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Specs:

MontBell Mirage

  • At 13 ounces, the Mirage is the weight class winner.
  • Luxurious 900-fill down is baffled between the 7-denier ballistic nylon liner and shell. The hood has 2-way adjustments that sit on either side of the microfleece-lined chin, and a rear draw cord cinches the hood around the head. The waist hem can be drawn shut through the pockets. A simple velcro hook and loop tab protects the wrists from the elements.
  • The jacket has a one-way vertical main zipper and two hand-warmer pockets. A large sleeve pocket runs down both chest panels and are large enough to swallow a 1L Nalgene each.
  • The Mirage compresses in its stuff sack to about 5 x 10 inches (though it can compress smaller).
  • Made in China.DSC06045

Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor

  • At 17 ounces, the synthetic Super Compressor is 4 ounces heavier than the Mirage.
  • Mountain Hardwear lofts the Super Compressor with its Thermal.Q Elite fill, pairing thick and thin fibers to mimic down’s properties. Through a proprietary baffling construction, the jacket pitches additional insulation space that is cited to ricochet body heat inside the hyper-lofted space.
  • The sleeves use a cuff-less design that gently snugs the wrist. Two-way hood adjustments sit on either side of the microfleece-lined chin, and the two bottom pulls can be adjusted at the hem with a single hand.
  • The main waterproof zipper has both a top and bottom pull. The two hand-warmer pockets are lined with microfleece.
  • A generous chest pocket can swallow the jacket into its own stowable sack, which measures 5 x 8 x 9 inches.
  • Made in China.

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The Good:

Mirage: I typically avoid storing a puffy in a stuff sack. It becomes more of a down brick than a space saver. So we stuffed the 900-fill Mirage loosely in our packs. The Mirage easily diffused between items in the pack. Its an incredible space saver. We also loved the internal pocket sleeves, allowing us to dry out socks or keep a warm bottle from freezing at night. And the fit was exceptional; we loved how well the hood fit around the bare head.

Super Compressor: While both jackets were warm, we were surprised that the Super Compressor took the edge. It wasn’t by much, but it was noticeably warmer.

It’s also the little details that make the Super Compressor so nice. Chris loved the microfleece pockets (though I did not — they catch on dry hands — which is sort of like nails on a chalkboard to me). We both loved the recessed cuff with its über clean design. The two-way zipper makes the jacket harness compatible. The oversize fit gets zinged by city slickers, but it really sings when you want to throw it over all of your clothing, making the Super Compressor a purebred belay jacket.

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The Bad:

Mirage. While 900 fill is the golden fleece of down, we would have really liked to see MontBell use DownTek — a nano-treated down that helps maintain its loft when wet. This would add an extra measure of insurance for perspiration or inclement weather, or drying damp socks next to the body.

Super Compressor. The hood is designed to be used with a helmet, which unfortunately doesn’t make it compatible with the naked head. Even with its two draw cords, the hood flopped over the brow. We both wished the Super Compressor had internal chest sleeves to dry damp socks, gloves, or what-have-you.

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Who Should Buy It:

Mirage: Shoulder season to winter backpackers who practice fast and light ethos.

Super Compressor: Mountaineers or ski mountaineers who need both warmth and durability over an extended duration.

Parting Thoughts:

When out in the field, a winter parka lives between two worlds. On one hand, it stays in the pack for most of the day, hogging valuable space that could be used for calories or supplies. But unfurl it and enjoy protection from winter’s bite. For Rainier, even though it was heavier and bulkier, we felt the Super Compressor had a slight edge due to its warmth and over-jacket size cut. But neither jacket won or lost; each has its niche.

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Mirage: Ski mountaineering pushed the limits of the Mirage. The 10˚ mornings on our tired bodies were at the bottom of the Mirage’s well of warmth. The ballistic nylon shell is very light, making it prone to snags. Paired with the one-way zipper, it’s not designed for belays that might find you reclining against shards of granite. But this is why the MontBell designers billed it as a mid-layer.

To bolster its warmth and durability, we wore the Mirage under a hardshell, which increased its warmth by a few degrees and added a measure of durability.

Where the Mirage really shines is shoulder season backpacking, where its high warmth-to-weight ratio pays dividends after long days on (and off) the trail. We’d fully recommend the Mirage for anything that requires space savings and warmth. And as long as you are a careful user, this could extend into mountaineering.

MontBell is exceptionally good at decluttering design so it’s purposely lacking some of the bells and whistles found on the Super Compressor.

Super Compressor: The additions of double zippers and fleece lined luxuries came at a 4oz. weight penalty on the Super Compressor. But we were generally impressed by both the Compressor’s warmth and compressibility when compared to the 900-fill Mirage.

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However, the Super Compressor’s boxy fit and bulk is overkill for general backpacking or camping, making it exclusive to winter and mountaineering or related pursuits.

If you are looking for more bang for the buck, the Mirage is a jack of all trades with toaster warmth. If you are looking for another bolt in the quiver, the Super Compressor serves its unique purpose quite well.

Contact Brand/More Beta: Montbell, Mountain Hardwear

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Contributing Editor (and Gear Junkie Idaho Bureau Chief) Steve Graepel is allegedly a crook and a thief, conning his friends to steal away time from their families in pursuit of premeditated leisure, which typically involves a bike, a pack-raft, skis, running shoes, climbing rack, or all of the above.
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