The Best Down Jacket for Women Review

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Wearing the especially warm Valandre Split S, which uses high quality 850 fill down collected from geese at the prime fourth molt when down is the strongest and freshest.
Credit: Luke Lydiard
We had the privilege of evaluating exciting new products on the market for the 2012 season that use innovative down treatments such as Color-Tec and DownTek. We got our hands on the L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Jacket, which uses the relatively new technology of treated hydrophobic down, which we evaluated with a couple unique tests. We also got to test the Hi-Tec Timaru that features dyed down showing through a transparent shell material. After rigorously wearing and comparing these top-of-the-line women's down jackets, we realized a number of the top competitors have similar desirable qualities. Some jackets have obviously different features and purposes, such as the Valandre Split S being an extra warm and well-articulated jacket, meant to be moved in while in the cold. The North Face Aconcagua jacket is meant to be stylish and more suited for everyday around town wear. Others such as The North Face Catalyst and the Patagonia Down sweater fill the same purpose of being a lightweight and packable jacket and have almost identical features. Read on to find out how we ranked these jackets and what differences we discovered with direct hands-on use.

See also our: The Best Women's Parka Review

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Down Jackets - Women's Displaying 1 - 5 of 11 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #5 #6 #7
Product Name
MontBell Frost Smoke Down Parka - Women's
MontBell Frost Smoke Down Parka - Women's
Read the Review
Video video review
Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's
Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's
Read the Review
Video video review
Patagonia Down Sweater - Women's
Patagonia Down Sweater - Women's
Read the Review
MontBell Alpine Light Down Jacket - Women's
MontBell Alpine Light Down Jacket - Women's
Read the Review
Video video review
L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Jacket - Women's
L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Jacket - Women's
Read the Review
Editors' Awards    Editors' Choice Award       
Street Price $199Varies $221 - $320
Compare at 5 sellers
Varies $120 - $229
Compare at 8 sellers
$123
Compare at 2 sellers
$179
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50% recommend it (1/2)
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1 rating
Pros Adjustable cuffs, lightweight for a hooded jacket, high quality down, two materials contribute to durability, hood has slight rimIncredibly light, compact, warm for its size and weight, packs into its own pocketStuffs into pocket, light and warmLight and compressible, very large hand pockets, high quality downHigh quality down, inexpensive, hydrophobic down coating, fleecy collar, interior stow pocket, beefy zipper
Cons Chin-guard is small, some testers don't like the techy lookNo way to cinch the hood, colors that you either love or hateFabric is not very durableBoxy fitHeavy main fabric, no hooded option
Best Uses Alpine climbing, belaying, backpacking, around town.Backpacking, hiking, mountaineering, and around townAlpine climbing, belaying, backpacking, around townAs an insulating mid-layer or outer layer, hiking, climbing, skiingLight alpine insulating layer, camping and around town, general winter activities
Date Reviewed Nov 24, 2012Sep 10, 2012Nov 24, 2012Nov 24, 2012Nov 13, 2012
Weighted Scores MontBell Frost Smoke Down Parka - Women's Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's Patagonia Down Sweater - Women's MontBell Alpine Light Down Jacket - Women's L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Jacket - Women's
Warmth - 20%
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Style And Fit - 20%  
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Water Resistance - 5%
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Comfort And Cozyness - 20%
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Durability - 10%
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Weight - 25%
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Product Specs MontBell Frost Smoke Down Parka - Women's Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's Patagonia Down Sweater - Women's MontBell Alpine Light Down Jacket - Women's L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Jacket - Women's
Down Fill 800 fill goose down 850 fill down 800 fill goose down 800 fill goose down 850 fill goose down
Main Fabric 15-denier Ballistic Airlight nylon shell & lining with nylon taffeta reinforcements Whisperer 7D x 10D Ripstop recycled polyester ripstop w/ DWR 30-denier Ballistic rip-stop nylon shell ripstop nylon shell
Unique Features stuff sack included stows in pocket stows in interior mesh pocket stuff sack included DownTek treated water repellant down stays drier and dries faster than untreated down, stuff into pocket
Color Selection 3 colors 4 colors many, different every season 4 colors 5 colors
Weight 9.95 oz (size S) 6.5 oz 11.3 oz 10.02 oz (size S) 12.21 oz (Size S)
Number of Pockets 2 hand pockets 2 hand pockets 3 (2 hand, 1 stow) 4 (2 zippered hand, 2 interior drop-in) 4 (2 hand, 1 stow interior, 1 drop in interior))
Hood Option Yes Yes Yes No (Hood option is Alpine Light Parka) No

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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Down Quality
Down fill is measured by placing one ounce of goose down in a graduated cylinder and measuring the volume the down occupies in cubic inches. The number in the hundreds (600, 800, etc) is a measurement of this loft, meaning the puffier, or loftier, one ounce of feathers is, the better quality the down.

Down quality effects three important aspects of a jacket: warmth-to-weight ratio, compressibility, and price. Higher quality down means that your jacket will be warmer for the weight. This means that if two jackets were identical except that one had three ounces of 600 fill down and one had three ounces of 800 fill down, the 800 fill jacket would be warmer than the 600 fill jacket. The higher quality down jackets also compress smaller, but they tend to be much more expensive.

Almost all the jackets in in this review use 800 fill down. A couple of jackets such as The North Face Nuptse and the Hi-Tec Timaru use 700 fill, while the Valandre Split S uses the highest quality down at 850. The lowest quality down used is 550 fill in The North Face Aconcagua jacket.

Comfort & Coziness
We evaluated comfort and coziness by the subjective opinion of how wonderful the jacket feels to wear, as well as with a more objective observation of the detailed features that add comfort such as soft chin guards and fleece-lined hand pockets. Some jackets such as the Hi-Tec Timaru have no chin guard at all, the MontBell Frost Smoke has a small one, and the entire collar of both the L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 and the OR Aria are lined with fleece. The MontBell Alpine Light Jacket and Parka have huge, soft hand pockets for storing things and for warming frozen fingers. We felt that most of the jackets felt similarly cozy and comfortable.

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The Frost Smoke with the hood. The chin guard is smaller than on most other down jackets, but overall the jacket is very comfortable.
Credit: Luke Lydiard

Compactness & Weight
If you plan to do a lot of hiking with your down layer, the lighter and more compressible it is, the better. A light jacket hardly adds weight to your pack at all, and it doesn't take up much space either. The thinner jackets weigh the least. The MontBell Frost Smoke weighs 9.95 ounces, the Mountain Hardwear Nitrous weighs 10 ounces, and the Ghost Whisperer weighs a mere 6.5 ounces. The heaviest jacket is the North Face Aconcagua at 25 ounces. This jacket uses a thick outer material that adds weight.

The jackets that compress the best are the same jackets with the highest quality down. The main materials used on the jackets also affects how well and how small they compress. Jackets like the Nuptse and Aconcagua that have thicker materials end up packing down as the largest bundles. The Nitrous, which is very light and simple, ends up being the smallest. Below is a photo comparing the size of several of the jackets when stuffed.

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These are the down jackets stuffed into their respective pockets and sacks so that you can see a size comparison of their compressibility.
Credit: McKenzie Long

Warmth
All of the light 800 fill jackets like the MontBell Frost Smoke and The North Face Catalyst are roughly the same warmth. They are thinner jackets meant to be lightweight technical insulating layers, but the down quality provides excellent warmth and loft for the weight. The Valandre Split S - Women's is the warmest jacket we evaluated by virtue of being the thickest and loftiest. It is constructed with box-baffles instead of sewn-through quilting and uses 850 fill down.

Durability
The durability of the material is important when spending around $200 on a jacket. With the experience in this review, the lightest fabrics ended up being the most fragile. The Nitrous jacket wore a hole in the sleeve with just normal wear. The Down Sweater snagged and easily ripped a hole. Heavier jackets such as the Aconcagua seemed be very durable and last through rough wear. Both The North Face Nuptse and the MontBell Frost Smoke have reinforced patches in high use areas, which adds to the durability of the jacket. If it is important to you to have a lightweight jacket, it might be worth sacrificing a little durability. The North Face Catalyst Jacket] is a good compromise; it is a lightweight jacket but the Pertex Quantum fabric is significantly more durable than other lightweight materials. The unisex Brooks Range Mojave uses this same durable fabric. The Hi-Tec Timaru suffered from lack of durability in construction, with the seams in the pockets ripping out within the first month of use.

Style & Construction
All except one of the down jackets in this review use the sewn-through method of construction in order to keep them as lightweight as possible and make them less expensive. Reference our Buying Advice Article to learn more about the details of down jacket construction types. The one that uses box-baffles is the thickest jacket we evaluated, the Valadre Split S.

In terms of style, the most unique jacket is the Hi-Tec Timaru Down Hoodie - Women's. Using a new technology and a creative idea, Hi-Tec dyes their down and houses it in a transparent shell material, resulting in an unusual color that received raving compliments. This was one of our favorite and least technical looking jackets.

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The Hi-Tec Timaru Down Hoodie is a comfortable insulating layer for camping and cragging. One downside is that there is no soft or fleecy chin guard, so the fabric scratches your face when the hood is up.
Credit: Luke Lydiard

Overall we felt that the fit and the design of the sewn baffles are the primary determiners of how stylish the jackets are. No matter what, puffy down jackets make a woman look, well… puffy. But some look better than others. We did not like the look of the curving quilted baffles on the OR Aria (though one tester disagreed and enjoyed the look) and we did like the more traditional quilted baffles of theGhost whisperer, the Down Sweater, the Catalyst, the L.L. Bean Ultralight 850, and the Frost Smoke.

Water Resistance
It is not the down itself that actually does the insulating, it is the tiny air pockets trapped by the down fibers. Unfortunately once down gets wet all the fibers stick together, so it loses its loft and thus loses its warmth. If you plan on being in extremely wet conditions, synthetic insulation is preferable because it does not have this same issue and retains some insulating properties when wet. However, if you do have a down jacket, you want it to have some sort of water resistance so that in the event you do get wet, you don't freeze.

All the jackets in this review are treated with some type of DWR (durable water repellent) coating to prevent water from soaking through the fabric and dampening the down, but these types of coatings do not last very long and do not withstand a heavy dousing.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this review was the opportunity to test out some jackets with treated hydrophobic down: the unisex Brooks Range Mojave and the L.L. Bean Ultralight 850.

We performed a test with the two hydrophobic down jackets, the Timaru Hoodie, and two regular down jackets. We sprayed them evenly with water to try and note a difference in loft-loss between regular down and treated down. We did notice the treated down clumped slightly less. However it was difficult to guage how much was the function of the DWR coating on the exterior fabric and how much was the down itself.
Verdict: more testing is required.

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We extracted a small sample of DownTek treated hydrophobic down from on of our test jackets. We evaluated the look and feel of the treated down and sprayed it with water to see what happened. This is before.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab
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A sample of DownTek treated hydrophobic down after being sprayed with water. Notice how the water is beading up on the down rather than soaking into the fibers.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab

Editors' Choice Award: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer

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Wearing our two favorite lightweight down jackets, the MontBell Frost Smoke Down Parka (left) and the Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer (right) out in the winter elements while putting tire chains on a car.
Credit: Trish McGuire

The competition in this review was fierce. Many of the jackets were similar in weight and performance, and most seemed to be targeted to a similar use, which is a lightweight insulation layer for alpine climbing or longer trips in the backcountry. We finally settled on giving the Editors' Choice to the Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's because it is the most innovative ultralight jacket with an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. It is a light alpine jacket with high quality 850 fill down and only weighs 6.5 ounces. It is light and compressible enough to be brought on climbing and backpacking trips but stylish enough to be worn around town or car camping. It is comfortable, warm, lightweight, making it our top choice.

Best Buy Award: Montbell Alpine Light

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Wearing the light yet warm MontBell Alpine Light Jacket on a sunny and snowy afternoon while preparing to go skiing. This jacket makes an excellent technical layer or around town piece.
Credit: Luke Lydiard

We decided to award the Best Buy to the MontBell Alpine Light Parka - Women's because it is a high scoring jacket for its price of $199. We think this jacket is a deal. The version without a hood costs even less. The North Face Aconcagua jacket and the L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 are slightly less expensive, so even more desirable for people on a budget, but they are not quite as versatile. Other similar hooded down jackets in this review were in the $250 range, which is considerably more expensive for essentially the same function.

McKenzie Long
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