The Best Down Jacket for Men Review
What is the best mid- to lightweight down jacket available? To find out, we comprehensively evaluated 14 jackets in side-by-side tests. These tests took place in environments as diverse as the damp mid-altitudes of Washington state and New Zealand, and in the extreme cold and dry of Antarctica. Whether in the brutal cold of the southern extremity of the earth or the roaring mountain weather of the 43rd parallels, we tested these jackets to their limits. We evaluated each one for warmth, water resistance, compressibility, style, durability, features, and weight. The jackets we tested ranged in weight from sub 7 oz. to just over a pound, and have a variety of features and materials. Read on to hear how these jackets performed!
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Down Jacket
Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer
Best Bang for the Buck
MontBell Frost Smoke Parka
Top Pick Award for Poor Weather
Arc'teryx Thorium SV
Top Pick Award for Use as a Mid-Layer
Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody
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Analysis and Test Results
The farther you get from home, the more important the things you carry with you become (and how much those things weigh becomes increasingly important). Having the right gear in the mountains is imperative to having a good time, and a good jacket can be the difference between the summit and surrender. Down is the most efficient insulator on the planet, with a warmth-to-weight ratio yet to be surpassed by synthetic insulation technology. Down is also very resistant to the damage caused in compression, meaning you can stuff it in your pack time and again without compromising its ability to keep you warm. In contrast, manufacturers have yet to produce a synthetic insulation that is completely immune to compression. Every time you stuff synthetic insulation into a small space you are literally damaging its fibers, decreasing its warmth retention capacity. Synthetic insulation also tends to be heavier for the warmth.
After considering all this, the choice to go with down for a technical insulating layer seems like a no brainer. Until you consider that down's Achilles Heel, its Kryptonite, is literally the most pervasive substance on the surface of the earth, and is known to frequently fall out of the sky. When down becomes wet, it almost completely loses its capacity to retain heat. New hydrophobic down technology has significantly improved down fill's resistance to water. However, this technology is in its nascent stages and has yet to equal the heat retention metrics of synthetic insulation when wet. Additionally, when you tear the outer fabric of a synthetically insulated jacket, the inner insulating material typically doesn't come out of the jacket. The opposite is true with down jackets, where tears can be critical issues in need of immediate repair. This makes choosing the right jacket for your particular needs that much harder.
In addition to the materials used to insulate a jacket, the shell materials, key features, fit and style, and cost should also factor into your decision. What will you be using your jacket for? Will you be moving light and fast at low altitude in moderate temperatures? Then consider a jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer or Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Down Hoody. Both of these jackets are adequately warm for most summer, low altitude (below 9,000 feet) climbing and backpacking trips, and are ultra-light and super compressible. Will you be on a big mountain slog such as Denali or Rainier? A heavier jacket like the Arc'Teryx Thorium SV will keep you warm enough in the cook tent and it will often be cold enough to wear them while climbing. These jackets are not a substitute for an expedition weight parka, but are great additions to a layering system. Are you looking for a jacket that stuffs into its own pocket and can be clipped to a harness? A napoleon pocket on the chest can provide easy access to a map and compass and a little fleecing lining in the hand warmer pockets goes a long way in the cold. The features a particular jacket has should all be carefully considered before making a purchase. Small things in the store, such lack of adjustability in the hood, can be become big things in the mountains when the wind starts to blow.
As much as we don't like to admit it, nobody wants a jacket that makes them look like a bag of potatoes when they put it on. A jacket that looks good typically fits the wearer well, being an appropriate length in the sleeves and torso and the correct cut, whether that's athletic, slim, or standard. Whenever possible try a jacket on before you pull the trigger. Brands change their designs, cuts, and sizings often and what worked before may no longer be they same. Also, what works for others may not work for you.
Research the outer fabric just as much as you do the insulation. Knowing if the shell is Durable Water Resistance (DWR) treated or not, and the Denier (good way to measure strength vs. weight) of the material will help you get a jacket that works for you and isn't overkill. Wind and water resistance and super durability are great qualities if you need them, but if you're looking for a jacket that you can wear on evening strolls on the beach with your dog, how important are they? Outdoor clothing isn't cheap, particularly if it's good quality. For most of us, saving a little money never hurts and it can be well worth your time to shop around a bit before making your decision. Think about what you need your new jacket to do, where you're going to take it, and how long you want it to last, and then try to find a jacket that aligns with all your needs. The bottom line is that you want to be stoked with your purchase, now and for as long as you own it hopefully. A little homework will often yields some good results. Giving our Buying Advice article a read is a great start.
The biggest consideration is what you'll be using your jacket for, which will dictate how warm it needs to be, how durable it needs to be, and what features it will need to work for you. Some very lightweight jackets will keep you warm even in fairly cold temps if you're working hard enough to generate sufficient body heat. So if you're planning on doing some vigorous hiking in cold weather, going light might be a great option for you. If you're into high altitude mountaineering or winter camping where there is a good chance you'll be standing still for extended periods of time, looking at an expedition weight parka like one found in our Best Winter Jacket Review or perhaps the thicker Montbell Mirage Parka might be a good alternative. Whatever you're into, a little forethought will go a long way in helping you find the right jacket for your purposes.
Types of Technical Insulated Jackets
There are few types of insulated jackets to choose from. Before you pull the trigger on a lightweight down jacket, here is a brief description of the main styles of warm jackets.
Pros: High warmth-to-weight ratio, durable for many compressions, comfortable
Cons: Doesn't function when wet (performance improved by new hydrophobic down technology), leaks when outer fabric torn
The Best Insulated Jacket For Men Review.
Pros:Doesn't leak when outer material is torn, functions when wet
Cons:Lower warmth-to-weight ratio, damaged in compression
Down coated with a DWR finish, known also as hydrophobic down, resists moisture much better than regular down. This treatment does not transform down, so it still does not function as well as synthetic insulation when wet, but it does allow it to function over a wider range of conditions than non-treated down. Additionally, some of the technologies used to treat the down actually increase the fill, or warmth-per-weight, of the down.
Pros:Resistant to water, Higher fill power possible
Cons:Does not perform as well as synthetic insulation when wet
Criteria for Evaluation
This review compares midweight and lightweight down jackets designed for technical applications where the wearer will be moving and working up body heat for at least part of the day.
Lightweight jackets these days are typically designed with a sewn-through baffle construction that helps produce a lighter weight and less expensive jacket. This design also contributes to ease of movement. However, it does create thin places where there is no down and consequently less warmth. This is why expedition weight parkas are often designed with a box baffle construction that eliminates the thin cold spots produced by a sewn-through style construction. The box baffle style construction, though warmer, is much bulkier, less easy to move in, and often makes a jacket more expensive.
Though thickness and loft has a lot to do with warmth, the warmth of a jacket can't be assessed merely by reading the tag to find out how much down was used to fill it. The design of a jacket and what features it has, such as a hood, the thickness and quality of the outer material, how well the jackets fits, etc. all significantly contribute to how warm a jacket will keep you. How well a jacket holds the cold out is just as important as how well it keeps heat in.
With 5.3 ounces of 900 fill down and box baffle construction, we found the lofty Montbell Mirage Parka to be the warmest in this review. Other thinner jackets, such as the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer and the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody, surprised us by how warm they were even without a lot of thickness because of the use of high quality down and well designed fit. The least warm was the Western Mountaineering QuickFlash Jacket because its boxy cut and lack of a waist cinch let cold air in.
The higher, further, and steeper we take ourselves the more important the weight of what we take with us becomes. The true utility of an object comes in measuring how much use you get out of it for how much energy is expended on carrying it. The warmth-to-weight ratio of a jacket is a key measure of value, and down jackets in general have the highest warmth-to-weight ratio available in a technical insulated jacket. Additional ounces are added or subtracted to a jacket's weight by the choice of fabric and design features. Frequently durability and critical features, such as a hood, are sacrificed on the altar of ultra-light design to the detriment of the final product. An ultra-light jacket that doesn't keep you warm or that falls apart after limited use doesn't really have a lot of value.
The fabrics used by most major manufacturers are typically very high quality. The primary difference in fabrics are their weight and thickness. The heavier the material, the stronger and more durable it will be, with lightweight materials being correspondingly less robust. The denier of fabric is a description of its thread count, which in practical terms means weight, with a higher number being heavier and therefore typically stronger. So a 7 denier fabric is much finer and lighter than 30 denier fabric, but also less durable. Though there are exceptions. For example the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer has a very lightweight 7 denier fabric that in testing performed better than many heavier denier fabrics.
Though we had some incredibly light and very warm jackets such as the Montbell Mirage Parka, which weighs only 12.8 oz., the real contenders for the best weight-to-warmth to weight ratio weigh less than a cup of water. The Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer at 7.5 oz. is the best warmth-for-the-weight since man discovered fire.
The Arc'teryx Cerium SL is the lightest jacket in this review, weighing 6.5 ounces, though we still like the Ghost Whisperer better because it is warmer and more compressible and it weighs only one ounce more. The heaviest model in our review is the durable The North Face Nuptse at a hefty 24.7 ounces, which doesn't even include a hood!
Most of the water resistance of a down jacket is derived from the treatment, quality, and weight of the outer fabric. The insulating capacity of untreated down is almost completely negated by water, so consequently jackets insulated with down have historically had a bad reputation in wet environments. New advancements in technology have resulted in a treatment for down that substantially increases its water resistance. Though a down jacket will never get you through a rainy day, the combination of good fabric and treated down will significantly improve a jacket's performance in a wet environment. The Ghost Whisperer and the Columbia Platinum 860 Turbodown Hooded Jacket are a couple of the few down jackets in this review that uses hydrophobic down. Additionally, some jackets, like the Arc'teryx Cerium LT and Arc'teryx Thorium SV have used a composite of down with synthetic insulation in key areas such as the hem and sleeve cuffs that are prone to getting wet. This allows these jackets to function in s slightly wider range of conditions.
More than just how small a jacket can get when stuffed away, compressibility is a measure of how well a material resists damage and recovers from being compressed. Down is still superior to synthetic insulation in this regard. Every time you stuff a synthetic jacket away the insulation is literally breaking and its heat retention capacity is diminished. Down can handle many more compressions and expansions than synthetic insulation. Down is also smaller when compressed and is significantly lighter weight than synthetic materials.
The down used in the construction of the jackets we reviewed is very high quality and resisted degradation throughout the course of our testing. Consequently, the stratifying characteristic of the these jackets tended to be how small they were when compressed. The jackets with few features, lightweight fabric, and high fill power down typically compressed down the smallest. The Montbell Mirage Parka, though well featured, got incredibly small when packed down into the included stuff sack, but the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer disappears into its own pocket and will clip into your harness! The Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody also packs down notably small.
Even if the existence of Facebook is not your sole motivation for getting outdoors, looking good is never a bad thing. Once the least sexy item of clothing in your pack, the oft maligned puffy jacket used to be the great equalizer, turning all who wore it into the same androgynous blob. With the introduction of lighter materials, the fearless use of some flashy colors, and a lemming-like focus on fashion, the outdoor clothing industry has made some impressive forward bounds. Most of the jackets in this review features athletic or trim cuts and narrow baffles that keep the "puff" in the puffy jacket to a minimum. In fact, some of the jackets reviewed, such as the Arc'teryx Cerium SL seem to be designed with form in mind over function. The Montbell Frost Smoke comes in subtle but eye catching colors and is designed with a trim (but not too trim) cut that made it very appealing to the fashion minded among our testers. We also find the Ghost Whisperer and the classic Patagonia Down Sweater to ooze an outdoorsy chic.
Considering the financial investment involved in purchasing a high quality down jacket these days, we certainly want them to last. Whether you're a commuter or a climber, or both, nobody wants feathers leaking out of their new ultra-light jacket. Paying attention to the quality and weight or denier of the outer fabric, looking at how well the jacket is sewn together, and doing a little research on what's stuffed inside your prospective new jacket are just a few ways to make sure you get what you pay for.
Reviews such as this one are a great start and will help you when the numbers alone don't tell the whole story. For example, one of the lightest jacket we tested, the Arc'teryx Cerium SL, performed poorly in durability test, but the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer, only a mere one ounce more (and with a hood!) performed very well. These featherweights aside, the true contender for the belt was a little beefier, the Arc'teryx Thorium SV brushed aside weather and laughed of the serrated limestone edges with its heavier 40 denier fabric. Also notable is the inexpensive and rugged Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody, which survived all manner of rough usage and held up amazingly well.
With so many companies producing high quality clothing, it often comes down to the little things that make all the difference when deciding on a jacket. This often means that a zipper that out performs another, pockets a few inches higher up, or a hem a few inches lower down might make or break your choice. We've tested plenty of jackets that got away with elastic instead of a drawcord in the hood, but none that had done away with the drawcord at the waist except for the Western Mountaineering QuickFlash, and we did not like this design choice. There are a few things that you can do without, but some features are absolutely essential.
One of our favorite jackets was very light on features. The Ghost Whisperer is ultra-light and ultra pared down, retaining only the features it needs to perform: hood, 2 hand pockets (one is a stow pocket with a clip loop), waist and hood cinches. Proof that an abundance of gimmicky features don't make a jacket any better! The most well-featured jackets were the Montbell Mirage Parka, Montbell Frost Smoke, and the OR Transcendent Hoody, all adjustable jackets that still manage to be very light.
Properly caring for down jackets is very important. Over time the down will get covered in dirt and oils, causing it to lose its loft and therefore lose its warmth. To clean your jacket we recommend ReviveX Down Cleaner to safely clean the down and restore its loft.
An inexpensive jacket in this category is pretty much an oxymoron. It's definitely an investment that shouldn't be taken lightly, especially when considering how important it is to stay warm in cold, harsh environments. We hope that a careful consideration of your winter climate, in addition to the analyses of top-shelf and popular models in this in-depth review, will be all you need to narrow down your choices. Our Buying Advice article is definitely worth a look too, as it provides further info on how to select the right product for your individual needs.
— Thomas Greene
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