Back in 2009, Utah-based company Klymit came up with a wild idea for cold-weather clothing: replace traditional insulation with gas. Its NobleTek inflatable clothing earned plenty of attention from the outdoor and technology industries, but it never really seemed to catch on. Under the guidance of start-up NuDown, the inflatable insulation has been repackaged into a simpler form. In place of a mandatory argon gas inflator, it now uses a simple hand pump to adjust your core warmth.
Klymit's original argon-driven insulation, seen on garments like the Ulaar jacket, was designed to offer some clear benefits over traditional fill insulation materials like goose down and Primaloft. It offered the wearer the ability to adjust the garment's warmth level throughout the day, adding versatility without so much emphasis on layering. Unlike traditional down insulation, which never worked well when wet, NobleTek worked wet or dry. The lightweight system also made for highly packable garments – instead of a big, puffy jacket, you could slide a deflated shell into your backpack or suitcase.
For a design as unconventional as blow-up winter clothing to catch on, it should offer a seamless user experience with little to no downside. NobleTek didn't. It had one really glaring issue that made it feel like a geeky, high-tech "solution" that introduced more problems than it solved. On top of selling you a pricy jacket, Klymit expected you to pay to essentially renew your insulation every time you ran out of argon canisters – not an attractive alternative to buying a down or Primaloft jacket once ... without having to pay for new insulation every couple months. A three-pack of argon canisters costs US$20, so argon isn't exactly cheap, either.
Beyond the added money spent on buying new cartridges, the system introduced an unnecessary amount of hassle. I tested one of the original Klymit vests, and for the rare occasion in which I wanted to take advantage of the advanced insulation adjustability, there were about 10 where I just wanted to grab a warm (and simple) piece of insulation and go outside, instead of spending time searching for an unused argon canister, pumping the vest, readjusting, etc. Maybe my personal climate just isn't that touchy, but the versatility didn't come close to winning out over the added hassle. I'd choose a regular down or fleece vest every time.
Long story short, Klymit's NobleTek was an intriguing idea with lackluster execution, which may or may not have had something to do with Klymit turning its attention toward more traditional inflatables, like sleeping pads and packrafts, as well as non-inflatable outdoor gear. In 2013, it sold the apparel side of its business to entrepreneur Jeff Pickett, who founded Reno-based NuDown. The spin-off has been offering Klymit's argon-based inflation jacket and vest designs, but it's preparing to launch a new line of inflatable garments that might just prove a bit more user-friendly.
NuTech, as NuDown is calling it, drops the annoying argon canisters in favor of regular old air. Each vest and jacket is equipped with a pocket-sized hand pump that lets the wearer pump things up for a higher insulation level and greater warmth. A release valve bleeds air for cooling down.
NuDown estimates that a single pump increases warmth by about a single degree in Fahrenheit. It says that 20 pumps will keep you warm on "slightly chilly days," with 30 to 40 pumps dialing things up for colder winter weather. Argon canisters can still be used with purchase of an optional $39 argon upgrade kit, and NuDown suggests that argon is a good option for the coldest days of 20º F (-7º C) and below.
NuTech enjoys the same versatility and packability benefits of the argon-based design without the need to replace canisters. There will still be a bit of extra pumping and tweaking when compared to an old fashioned puffy, but the new design seems to have tackled the biggest drawback of NobleTek.
Of course, air may not offer the same type of warmth as argon. Klymit expended a lot of effort in marketing argon as a superior form of insulation, offering three times the insulation power of the air trapped by natural and synthetic insulations. NuDown's materials suggest it's hedging its bets, still touting the superiority of argon while suggesting that air is sufficient for most winter weather. Hitting temperatures of 20º F really isn't that uncommon, so will air be up to the challenge of insulating the average user throughout the winter, or will many end up having to buy argon (or use a different insulating garment) to keep warm?
Research in the drysuit industry, where air and argon are used as insulations, suggests that there is no discernible difference between the two in thermal-regulating performance. Whether that holds true on a winter jacket/vest remains to be seen.
NuDown plans to show half a dozen NuTech vest and jacket designs at the upcoming Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and SIA Snow Show trade shows in January. It will bring the three men's and three women's styles to market in Northern Hemisphere Fall 2015, with prices between $400 and $600. So while you won't necessarily have to spend money down the line on argon canisters, you'll spend about 60 percent more up front, over the $250 to $350 prices of NuDown's current argon designs. Those high prices ($400 for a vest?) are exacerbated by the fact that you'll no longer be buying your way into something kind of techy and cutting edge – your $600 jacket will be insulated with air, the stuff you breathe every second of every day ... for free. Why shouldn't it be cheaper than the argon-based styles?
Judging from the sketches in the press release, at least part of the new lineup will escape the rough look of external air bubbles that plagued Klymit and NuDown garments past and present (like the ones in the photos). Some of the new jackets look more like classic shells on the outside, with the air chambers underneath. They will include technical features like waterproof/windproof fabric, fleece stretch panels, anti-odor charcoal wicking liners and RECCO avalanche safety reflectors.
Still, unless NuDown dramatically reworks its pricing structure, Old Down looks better than ever.