I was attending a gear show in Colorado when I first noticed a trend—brands were replacing down insulation with wool in jackets. While a few industry leaders like Smartwool have had a wool-insulated jacket on the market for a while, efforts to champion sustainable practices and reduce manufacturing’s carbon footprint seemed to be leading to a bigger shift across the industry. It was no longer just wool-specializing companies like Smartwool and Paka Apparel that were wrapped up in the fiber, it was also Ortovox, Mountain Equipment, and half a dozen additional brands with an eye for sustainable practices. Here’s what we know about wool, and why it could be the next-generation insulation for puffies.

Wool puffy
Credit: Smartwool

Heat Efficiency and Temperature Regulation

Wool fibers have a natural spring to them, which allows them to both trap heat and create loft. The tiny air pockets that the materials create cater to a temperature-efficient garment. What’s more is that, while insulators like down are typically used with only the intention of keeping you warm, wool has reactive fibers that respond to your body and how it’s performing. Like active insulation, wool generally traps heat when you’re less active and releases it when you’re generating extra heat.

As a result, more and more brands are recognizing the material as an insulative alternative to down. Generally speaking, this strategy creates a more versatile layer that can be used in a greater variety of environments. However, by weight, down still usually takes the cake.

Down vs. Wool: Sustainable Practices in Production

The sustainability rating of down is widely debated. If it harms ducks and the planet, how good can it be? It turns out that it’s actually not a bad option. While both duck and goose down require a good amount of water to be processed, the material is biodegradable, competing with wool. Some manufacturers also work diligently to create ethically sourced down, with the birds de-feathered after their deaths.

Comparatively, wool is a natural, biodegradable fiber that’s also renewable, and recyclable. Although in many ways the material is a greener solution than some alternatives, wool production does emit relatively high greenhouse gasses. Irresponsible wool practices have also led to deforestation in some parts of the world.

While the manufacturing industry still has leagues to travel to become truly eco-friendly, efforts are constantly being made to make it easier for consumers to invest in green products, and wool insulation is one example.

Wool insulated puffy coats
Credit: Smartwool

Odor Reduction

Whether it’s the Pemi Loop or the Northville-Placid Trail, spending days on the trail in the same synthetic shirt can make it so the humans in the next town over will smell you. While many adventurers take pride in this phenomenon, some people prefer to smell a little more hygienic, which is where wool comes in. Wool is naturally antimicrobial and doesn’t support the growth of bacteria in the material. This is why even after several days in the same shirt, the shirt won’t stink—and less stench means less water use during the lifespan of the product.

General Durability

Did you know that wool fibers can bend up to 20,000 times without breaking? This reality makes it competitive against most other fibers. It is difficult to tear, and it performs well against abrasions. However, heat does tend to cause shrinking in the fibers, and it’s more likely to lose shape than a synthetic alternative. Still, if you take your wool base layers out on a multi-day adventure and find yourself scrambling around rocks, wool can hold its own.

Wool jackets
Credit: Smartwool

Embracing Wool As an Insulator

Determining how to find the right jacket can be a challenge even for those who have been using outdoor gear for years. Coupled with the reality that materials and manufacturing are always progressing and adapting to change, it can seem like the possibilities are endless. The latest trend across the retail industry is using wool as an insulative material in jackets to compete with puffies, and it’s unlikely that this practice will disappear anytime soon. Due to the material’s ability to regulate temperature, support sustainable practices, and keep you smelling fresh, it’s one of the best materials on the market. So, don’t be surprised when you continue to see more and more brands catching on.