While shopping for a down sleeping bag, jacket, quilt, comforter, or pillow you may have noticed that there are two different types of down available. This guide outlines the pros and cons of goose vs duck down to help you decide which insulation is the best choice for you. We’ll compare the warmth, weight, price, durability, compressibility, loft, odor, and more.
What is Down?
Down is a fine layer of wispy fibers that lie between the protective outer feathers and the skin of waterfowl like geese and ducks. It grows in large and small clumps. Birds use their down the same way we use it, for insulation. It also increases the bird’s buoyancy.
Down fibers differ from feathers in that they don’t have a hard central quill. Instead, each plume of down consists of many tiny fibers that radiate out from a central point with fine filaments radiating from each fiber. Each ounce of down contains around 2 million filaments that intertwine and cross over one another in all directions.
The unique structure of the down plumes gives the material its excellent insulation property. When many down plumes are loosely bunched together (or lofted), they create a structure that traps pockets of air between the fibers. As heat radiates from your body, it warms the trapped air pockets. This keeps you warm and slows heat loss. This works because air insulates incredibly well and doesn’t conduct much heat.
Down Fill Power
As a natural product, down varies greatly in quality. Before talking about the difference between goose and duck down, we have to understand fill power. Fill power measures the down’s ability to loft and trap heat. It is calculated by measuring the number of cubic inches that one ounce of down can fill when lofted or fluffed up.
For example, if a sleeping bag is insulated with 700 fill power down, that means that one ounce of down fills 700 cubic inches of space. 800 fill power down fills 800 cubic inches. Most down ranges from 600-800 fill. Down has a maximum fill power of around 1000.
Manufacturers use fill power to indicate the quality of the down. Goose and duck down fill power are measured in a lab using exactly the same method. This allows you to directly compare both types of down.
When it comes to fill power, a higher number is better. High-end fill is considered to be 750+. Higher fill power means less down is required to fill a given volume and reach a given temperature rating. When less down is used, the sleeping bag, jacket, or quilt weighs less. It will also compress down smaller.
For example, a 40° down sleeping bag may require 10 ounces of 850 fill power down to achieve that temperature rating. The same exact 40° sleeping bag may require 14 ounces of 700 fill power down to achieve the same temperature rating. In this example, the bag with higher quality down weighs 4 ounces less.
Goose Down Vs Duck Down
Both goose and duck down perform about the same for a given fill power. There is no significant performance difference between the two. Having said that, there are very few potential differences in terms of price, fill power, quality, and more. I’ll outline those difference in this section.
Prices of Goose and Duck Down
Duck down is cheaper than goose down. The main reason for this is simply that there is a bigger supply of duck down because more ducks are raised around the world than geese. Down is a byproduct of the food industry. Birds are not raised for their down alone.
Manufacturers can source duck down quite a bit cheaper than goose down. For example, this 850 fill goose down costs $12.67 per ounce. This 800 fill duck down costs $8.33 per ounce. That’s a difference of $4.34 per ounce. If a sleeping bag needs 15 ounces of down, that means the goose down version will cost $65.10 more in materials, which is significant. Some of these savings get passed on to consumers.
Of course, manufacturers probably pay less than this due to economies of scale. Higher quality down with a higher fill power also costs more. On average, a goose down product costs around 30-50% more than a comparable duck down version.
Down wasn’t always so expensive. The price increased significantly over the past 10 years. For example, according to this article form the Wall Street Journal, in 2009, goose down cost $12 per pound. By 2012, it cost $28. The article is a bit outdated now but prices have continued to increase.
There are two causes of this explosion in down prices. First is the increased demand for ultralight down jackets and sleeping bags. More people want high end outdoors gear. Second is a decrease in demand for goose meat and eggs. Most down is produced in China, where people are diets are changing and fewer farms are raising geese. There is a much smaller supply of goose down available these days.
Because goose down has become so expensive, many outdoors manufacturers are switching to lower-cost duck down to keep the prices of their products reasonable. After all, most casual campers don’t want to pay $500 for a goose down sleeping bag.
For a given fill power, both goose and duck down insulate equally well. For example, a 20° 700 fill duck down sleeping bag will be just as warm as a 20° 700 fill goose down sleeping bag. Both types of down share the same structure and insulate exactly the same way.
Fill Power of Goose and Duck Down
Goose down offers a higher maximum fill power than duck down, topping out at around 1000. Duck down, on the other hand, maxes out at around 750-800. With modern down sorting technology, 850 fill duck down is becoming possible. This is the main difference between the two and the main reason to choose goose over duck down. For reference, 750-900 fill power down is considered to be high end.
The fill power of the down plays a role in the efficiency (warmth-to-weight ratio) and the compressibility of a sleeping bag, jacket, or quilt. Remember, higher fill power down lofts more and occupies more space. This allows manufacturers to use less down by weight. It also packs down smaller because less down takes up less space when compressed. If you want the lightest, warmest, and most compact sleeping bag, quilt, or jacket possible, you’ll want to go with high fill power goose down.
There is one exception to this rule. Eider duck down or Eiderdown offers the absolute highest maximum fill power of any down at around 1200. This unique down is harvested from the nests of Eider ducks, mostly in Iceland. It is not plucked from the bird. Due to the rarity and small supply, Eiderdown is incredibly expensive. To learn more, check out this interesting article about Eiderdown from the Guardian.
The fill power of the down depends on a number of factors including the size and age of the bird. Older and larger birds tend to develop higher-quality down with larger down plumes. Because geese are larger than ducks, they produce larger, higher-quality down clusters with higher fill power. Geese are also slightly older than ducks when they are harvested. This gives the down a bit more time to develop. Additionally, geese tend to live in colder climates than ducks so they naturally produce larger down clusters.
The sorting process also plays a role in the fill power of the down. Large clusters are sorted from small clusters. Feathers are removed. Some sorting techniques work better than others. Because goose down is of higher quality to start with, the end product may end up being of higher quality in some cases.
Durability and Longevity of Goose and Duck Down
Both goose and duck down are equally durable and long-lasting. The fibers can be compressed and decompressed for hundreds of cycles before breaking down or losing loft. If properly cared for, a high quality down sleeping bag or jacket can maintain loft and keep you warm for well over a decade, even under heavy use. Some people can get 15-20 years of use out of their down sleeping bags and jackets.
The durability of down depends primarily on its fat and oil content. Some birds naturally have more fat and oil on their down than others. The more the better.
Fat and oil increase durability by making the down more pliable and water-resistant. The down can compress more without breaking down. It will also be more weather resistant.
Fat and oil content could relate to the season that the down was harvested, the climate the bird was raised in, the bird’s diet, conditions it lived in, the health of the bird, genetics, etc. All of these factors can also play a role in the overall quality of the down as well.
The way the down was initially processed also plays a major role in its durability. Overwashing can cause down to degrade prematurely. When down is washed, some of the natural fats and oils get washed off of the plumes. If enough washes off, the down can become brittle. When this happens, the plumes can start breaking down when they are compressed and decompressed. At this point, the sleeping bag or jacket loses loft, meaning that there are fewer air pockets between the fibers to trap heat. It won’t keep you as warm. High quality down is processed in a way that leaves the necessary oils and fats intact.
To extend the life of your down sleeping bag or jacket, try not to wash it too often at home either. Once or twice per year is usually enough. Also, make sure you use the proper detergent. Nikwax Down Cleaning and Waterproofing (#ad) is a popular option. You can spot clean as necessary.
For more info, check out this great guide to properly washing down gear from REI.
One drawback to down insulation is that it tends to have an odor. Even when it’s clean and new. Usually, it just smells a bit musty. In some cases, it downright stinks like a barnyard. The odor tends to worsen when the down becomes wet. Both goose and duck down can smell.
Natural oils and fats from the ducks or geese cause the odor. If the odor is particularly strong, it is usually caused by something living in the down like bacteria, fungus, or mites. Dust and other contaminants that were not washed off during processing can also add to the smell.
Generally, duck down has a stronger odor than goose down. There are a number of theories as to why this is. It could have to do with the diet of the birds. Another theory is that ducks tend to collect more dirt, bacteria, and other contamination on their down because their chest rubs against the ground because they are shorter.
Whatever the case, if you have a sensitive nose, this is one reason you may want to avoid duck down. Down that has been treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) coating usually smells less.
The odor of goose and duck down tends to dissipate naturally over time. If your new down sleeping bag or jacket is particularly stinky, the best way to get rid of the smell is to hang it outside in the wind and sun for 2-3 weeks. If you believe bacteria, mold, or mites, caused the odor, give the down a good wash. Otherwise, just try to wait it out.
Down Insulation Efficiency and the Warmth-to-Weight Ratio
A great way to measure the efficiency of a sleeping bag is to look at the warmth-to-weight ratio. This measurement is helpful when comparing sleeping bags with the same temperature rating but different types of insulation. An efficient sleeping bag has high warmth but low weight.
For example, a 1000 fill power 20° goose down sleeping bag might weigh 19 oz. A 700 fill power 20° duck down sleeping bag might weigh 26 oz. In this case, the goose down sleeping bag has a much higher warmth-to-weight ratio because it weighs 7 oz less but will keep you just as warm. It’s more efficient.
Goose down can have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio because it has a higher maximum fill power than duck down. If the goose and duck down fill power is equivalent, the warmth-to-weight ratio will be the same, assuming all else is equal.
Volume and Compressibility
The compressibility of the sleeping bag depends on the fill power of the down. Sleeping bags insulated with higher fill power down can compress more so they take up less volume in your pack. Goose down sleeping bags can compress smaller than duck down because they have a higher maximum fill power.
If you care about the packed size of your sleeping bag, you may want to consider the warmth-to-volume (or warmth to compressibility) ratio. This will help you compare the packed size of two sleeping bags with the same temperature rating but different types of insulation.
Most manufacturers indicate how much volume in liters the compressed sleeping bag takes up. An efficient sleeping bag will be warm yet compress down very small. A 20° 900 fill goose down sleeping bag may compress down to just 6 liters. A similar 20° 700 fill duck down sleeping bag may take 10 liters in your pack.
You may need a larger pack to accommodate the bulkier sleeping bag or you may need to store it in a more tightly compressed state. When you store a down sleeping bag tightly compressed, it takes longer to loft when you’re getting ready for bed.
Both goose and duck down come in white and gray colors. Both colors of down perform exactly the same in terms of warmth, durability, compressibility, and weight assuming they have equal fill power. The color has no effect on performance.
For campers, the down color is really irrelevant because you won’t ever see the down. It will be hidden inside the shell of your sleeping bag or jacket.
Having said this, some people care about this type of thing. For example, the bedding industry tends to prefer white down because it isn’t as visible when it sheds from a comforter or pillow if you use light-colored sheets.
Even though duck and goose down perform almost the same, goose down is still considered to be the gold standard for down insulated products. It is just considered more premium. This is probably mostly from marketing and history. Goose down has a better product image and has been in use longer. If money isn’t really a factor for you and you just want to use the best, highest quality product, goose down is the way to go.
A Note About the Ethics of Goose and Duck Down
Both goose and duck down are byproducts of the food industry. Birds are not raised for their down alone. One big problem is that the birds aren’t always treated ethically during their lives. In some cases, they are unnecessarily harmed or even abused during their lives.
Unethically sourced down is often harvested while the bird is still alive. This is called live plucking. The industry does this so that down can be harvested from the same bird multiple times because it regrows. This brings down costs. The problem with live plucking is that it causes the bird great pain. The skin often tears while the feathers are plucked out.
Unethical down has also been linked to the force-feeding of geese for the production of foie gras. Sometimes the birds are simply kept in unclean or unhealthy environments or not allowed enough space to roam about. Factory farming is not pretty.
When down is ethically sourced, the bird is killed before the feathers are removed. This is much more humane because the bird doesn’t feel any pain from plucking. In addition, the birds are given the five freedoms including freedom from hunger or thirst, discomfort, pain and diseases, fear and distress, and the freedom to behave normally. The birds are treated ethically throughout their entire lives including on the farm where they’re raised as well as in the slaughter house where the meat and down are harvested.
Several organizations exist which certify down so you know that the down in your product was ethically sourced. These independent organizations inspect the entire supply chain including the farm, slaughterhouse, and factories to ensure that no birds were mistreated to make your sleeping bag or jacket. To ensure that the same down makes its way from the farm to the product, they use a transaction certificate system.
These days, every decent outdoor gear manufacturer uses only ethically sourced down. It’s a major marketing point. A few organizations that certify down include the Responsible Down Standard (RSD), Global Traceable Down Standard, American Down and Feather Council, and Dawnmark.
When shopping for a down sleeping bag or jacket, look for one of these organization’s logos or look the model number up on their websites to ensure that the down was in fact ethically sourced.
Goose Down Pros and Cons
- Higher fill power- Goose down maxes out at 1000 fill power.
- Lighter- The higher max fill power allows manufacturers to use less down, making a lighter sleeping bag weigh less.
- More compact- Because less insulation is required due to the higher fill power, the sleeping bag compresses down smaller.
- More premium- Goose down is considered to be higher end.
- More expensive- High demand and low supply of goose down drives prices way up.
- Poor value- Goose down products cost 40-50% more than duck down and perform almost the same.
Duck Down Pros and Cons
- Cheaper- The larger supply of duck down brings down costs.
- Better value- Duck down products are significantly cheaper than goose down products but perform almost exactly the same.
- Less lofty- Duck down maxes out at around 800 fill power.
- Heavier- Lower fill power means more down is required to achieve a given temperature rating. This adds weight.
- Bulkier- Lower fill power down doesn’t compress as well so the sleeping bag takes up more volume.
- Smellier- Duck down tends to have more odor.
A Third Option: Synthetic Insulation
Goose and duck down aren’t your only insulation options. Man made synthetic insulation offers an excellent alternative to down for some situations. Synthetic insulation is usually made from polyester, which is derived from petroleum. It’s basically a plastic.
A number of different types of synthetic insulation are available with slightly different designs and compositions. Most outdoor gear companies have their own proprietary technology. The best synthetic insulation depends on how you plan to use it.
Advantages of Synthetic Insulation:
- Better performance in wet conditions- Synthetic insulation is designed to maintain loft and provide insulation when wet. For this reason, synthetics are a better choice for hiking in rainy, snowy, or exceptionally humid climates. When down gets wet, it tends to clump together and lose its insulation property.
- Cheaper- Synthetic insulation is made from inexpensive and easily available materials. A synthetic sleeping bag costs about half as much as a comparable down bag.
- Hypoallergenic- Some people are allergic to down or dust, mites, bacteria, or mold that can live in down. Allergies to synthetics are incredibly rare.
- More ethical- Synthetic insulation is made in a factory from petroleum products and various chemicals. No animals are involved.
- No odor– Synthetic insulation doesn’t have that barnyard smell.
- Easier to wash- You usually don’t have to use special detergent or washing techniques.
Disadvantages of Synthetic Insulation
- Heavier- Synthetics do not loft as well as goose or duck down so more insulation is needed to achieve a given warmth rating. This adds weight. A synthetic sleeping bag weighs around 1 pound more than a comparable down bag.
- Bulkier- Because more insulation is required to achieve a given warmth rating, a synthetic jacket or sleeping bag can’t compress down as small.
- Less durable/ doesn’t last as long- Synthetic insulation breaks down as it is compressed and decompressed. You might only get 3-5 seasons out of a synthetic sleeping bag as opposed to over 10 years for down products.
- Not environmentally friendly-Synthetic insulation is made from petroleum products and various chemicals that aren’t great for the environment. It may take decades or centuries to degrade in a landfill. It can also degrade into microplastics that harm aquatic life.
For more info, check out my down vs synthetic insulation pros and cons list.
Down/synthetic hybrid sleeping bags are also available. These can use a blend of goose/duck down and synthetic fibers. Some models use different types of insulation for different parts of the sleeping bag or jacket. These blended products offer the benefits and drawbacks of both down and synthetic materials.
Final Thoughts About Goose Vs Duck Down
The warmth, weight, compressibility, and durability of your down sleeping bag or jacket have more to do with the quality of the down rather than whether the down comes from a duck or goose. Down quality is affected by the age of the bird at harvest, its diet, the climate it was raised in, the season, genetics, etc. The sorting, processing, and washing of the down also play a role in the quality of the finished product.
When choosing a down sleeping bag, jacket, quilt, or comforter, look at the fill power. 800 fill power duck down performs the same as 800 fill goose down. The warmth rating and total weight can also help you choose. A high-end duck down sleeping bag may be better than a mid-range goose down sleeping bag. Whether you decide to go with goose or duck down for your next sleeping bag, jacket, or quilt, I hope this guide has been helpful in making your decision.
Where do you stand on the goose vs duck down debate? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!
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