The Best Down Jacket for Men Review
What is the best mid-to-lightweight down jacket available on the market today? We evaluated nine jackets in side-by-side tests over the course of two years, testing in the damp mid-altitudes of Washington state and New Zealand, to the extreme cold of Antarctica, to the dry, high altitude regions of the Colorado Rockies. Testing each jacket to its limit, we ranked each one based upon its performance for warmth, weight, water resistance, compressibility, style, and features. Keep reading for the complete review; you'll find out which contender is the best overall, which jackets we recommend for specific purposes, and how we evaluated for each metric.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
The farther you get from home, the more important the things you carry with you become. How much those things weigh also becomes increasingly important. Having the right gear in the mountains is imperative to having a good time, and a lightweight but high quality insulation layer can be the difference between the summit and surrender. Enter the down jacket.
What Is Down?
Down is the natural insulating layer found on geese and ducks that keeps their bodies warm even while swimming around in nearly freezing water. The down layer lies in between their skin and their oily layer of hollow outer feathers, which give them the ability to float and provide a waterproof membrane that protects the down. Down is typically white or grey, and an individual piece of down looks like a blob of tiny little fibers all somehow joined in the middle and radiating outward. Not only is that what they look like, but that is pretty much exactly what they are. Lots of these little blobs all clustered together form millions of tiny air pockets, providing "loft," which serves as an incredible insulator. The more inert air that can be trapped in between you and the cold outside air, the better you will be insulated from its chilling effects. Down is the best insulator on the planet in terms of warmth-to-weight ratio. It 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.
Why Buy a Down Jacket?
If you are looking for a lightweight, compressible insulating layer for cold temperatures, then you have two choices available today: down or synthetic insulation. Both of these types of jackets are made of nylon or other synthetic materials, with insulation stuffed inside them to provide loft and warmth. For truly cold environments such as high altitude climbing, winter climbing, glacier travel, polar exploration, storm skiing, or any prolonged exposure to cold, a down or synthetic insulated jacket is a must. Lighter weight layers such as fleece will only serve you down to a certain temperature or amount of time spent outdoors; beyond that you will want real insulation.
Down is a great choice because, like we mentioned above, it literally has the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any insulation in the world. It is also extremely compressible, shrinking down to a tiny fraction of its original size when compressed, and is resilient, meaning you can compress it over and over again without damaging or breaking the fibers that it relies on to provide insulation and therefore warmth. 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 damaging its fibers, decreasing its warmth retention capacity. Synthetic insulation also tends to be heavier.
Noting these factors, 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 – water. When down becomes wet, it almost completely loses its capacity to retain heat. Down found on a duck or goose never gets wet because it is protected by their oily feathers, but this is not the case for down found in a jacket. New hydrophobic down (down coated with water resistant chemicals) 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, as the fibers inside are all bound together. The opposite is true with these contenders, where tears can be critical issues in need of immediate repair.
Criteria for Evaluation
This review compares mid-weight and lightweight down contenders designed for technical applications where the wearer will be moving and working up body heat for at least part of the day. Expedition weight down parkas have been intentionally excluded from this review because of their limited use: they are designed for standing around in the cold or sometimes moving while in extreme cold.
In order to decide what were the best on the market today, we tested and rated each on a scale from 1 to 10 for six different metrics: warmth, weight, water resistance, compressibility, style, and features. Each metric was weighted based on their relative importance to the function of the jacket to come up with a product's final score. Read on below for a description of the characteristics of each grading metric, how we tested for them, how they were weighted into a product's final score, and to find out what were the best and worst performers for any given category.
Warmth is the most important criteria when judging or selecting a jacket, because, after all, if not for its warmth, why do we even need a jacket? As such we decided to weight each jacket's score for warmth as 30 percent of its total score.
Lightweight down jackets are typically designed with a sewn-through baffle construction that helps produce a lighter weight and less expensive jacket. The baffles are the individual compartments that hold the down, and are needed so that it doesn't all just sink to the bottom and you end up wearing a pillow with sleeves. Sewn-through construction means that the fabric on the outside of the jacket is literally sewn to the fabric on the inside to create the baffle, which are typically horizontally oriented, although some are quilted square shaped. This design makes jackets lighter, thinner, and generally less expensive.
On the downside, it does create thin places near the seams where there is no down and trapped heat has a chance to escape. The alternative to sewn-through construction is box baffles, which are shaped like a three-dimensional box, and do a better job of evenly distributing the down. The box baffle style, although warmer, is much bulkier, less easy to move in, and often makes a jacket more expensive. The only jacket in this review that features this design is the Arc'teryx Thorium SV.
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 jacket 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.
Although it features only 700 fill-power down, compared to many in the review that used 800, the Marmot Guide Down Hoody was without doubt the warmest jacket that we tested. It was also the heaviest, and one of the puffiest. Despite their very thin construction, both the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded and the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody surprised us with their warmth due to the high quality 800 fill-power down stuffed into their thin baffles, although overall they were about average. On the other end of the spectrum was the REI Co-op Hoodie that used very thin baffles filled with only 650 fill-power down, and more importantly, didn't do an effective job at sealing out the elements.
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 by carrying it. The warmth-to-weight ratio of a jacket is a key measure of value, and a down specific jacket in general has 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 other 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.
To test weight, we simply weighed them on our scale as soon as they arrived. In the cases where a jacket came with an included stuff sack for compressing and carrying it, we chose to include that in the item's overall weight, since weight tends to matter more when its being carried than when its being worn. All of the jackets that we tested were men's size large, except for the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody, which we had in size medium.
The lightest jacket in this year's review was far and away the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded, which came in at 8.4 ounces, about four ounces lighter than its closest competition. Many jackets fell in the range of around 12 ounces, which is still incredibly light for how much warmth is afforded by such a piece of clothing. The two heaviest – Marmot's Guide Down Hoody and Arc'teryx Thorium SV – were also the two warmest, so there was clearly a tradeoff when considering absolute warmth versus weight. For this type of jacket, weight is a pretty important factor, so we chose to make it worth 20 percent of a product's final score.
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. So while a down jacket is never a very good idea for a rainy or wet day, having some level of water resistance is important simply to protect the down. All of the jackets in this review accomplish this to some degree by applying a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) coating to the outside of the jacket.
DWR coatings are chemical applications designed to repel and shed water before it has a chance to be absorbed by the face fabric and subsequently the down inside. By helping to keep the face fabric dry, DWR coatings also allow a jacket to breathe better should moisture accumulate from sweating on the inside. The only downside to DWR coatings is that they vary greatly in quality and durability. Once a DWR coating has worn off, it must be reapplied, and unfortunately this can sometimes happen in as little as a few uses.
Water resistance can also be gained by using treated down, that is, down which has had a DWR coating applied directly to it. Because we do not have access to the down that is inside of a jacket, we found it difficult to directly test how effective these DWR applications are at creating hydrophobic down. The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer and the Marmot Guide Down Hoody are the two jackets in this review that have hydrophobically treated down, and each of these applications are a proprietary secret. Another tactic is employed in the Arc'teryx Thorium SV, which blends down insulation around the torso with Coreloft synthetic insulation in parts of the body most likely to get wet, namely the hood, shoulders, and sleeves.
In our tests, the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody and the Western Mountaineering Flash XR both had similar abilities to force water to bead up and shed off without allowing absorption into the face fabrics or down beneath, a testament to their superior DWR applications and high quality materials. On the other end of the spectrum was the Marmot's Guide Down Hoody, whose DWR coating seemed rather ineffective, showing lots of evidence of water absorption after a very mild drizzle.
That said, we also put these jackets fully to the test in the shower, soaking them as much as we could, and the two hydrophobically treated jackets, despite absorbing water through their face fabric, neither allowed water to fully soak through to the inside of the jacket, nor lost any visible loft from the soaking. In general, our scores in this metric were a reflection of the performance of the DWR coating and the face fabric, although we chose to award bonus points to the jackets that used hydrophobic down. Water resistance accounted for 15 percent of a product's final score.
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 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 majority of these jackets were designed to be stuffed into one of their own pockets to serve as a stuff sack, a convenient feature.
The Arc'teryx Thorium SV came with its own separate stuff sack, which we appreciated, but is just one more thing to carry around and not lose. Only one jacket, the Western Mountaineering Flash XR, had no stuff sack or designed pocket stuffing method, and understandably received the lowest score. The Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody packed down into the smallest compressed size of any jacket, with the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer and REI Co-op Down Hoody close behind. Compressibility accounted for 15 percent of a product's final score.
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 feature athletic or trim cuts and narrow baffles that keep the "puff" in the puffy jacket to a minimum. That said, we still think the jackets in this review are predominantly designed with function in mind before form, although a few blur the lines. According to our crack panel of fashion experts, the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody had the most town-worthy look, and we recognized it as such with our Top Pick for Style. On the other end of the spectrum, the Western Mountaineering Flash XR, with its short, baggy cut that left a lot of waist line exposed to anyone who dared look, exuded more "outgrown hand-me-down" than it did outdoorsy chic. Style accounted for 10 percent of a product's final score.
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 means 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 (with varying results). However, only a few even attempted to do away with the drawcord at the waist, and usually we did not like this design choice (to be fair it worked for the Canada Goose Hybridge Down Hoody). There are a few things that you can do without, but some features are absolutely essential.
The top scorers in terms of features were two jackets that had a ton of them that all worked really well. The Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody has gigantic dual internal stash pockets, three draw cords for adjusting the hood perfectly, and fleece lined hand pockets, all things we loved. The Marmot Guide Down Hoody also has nice fleecy pockets, but also has a two way front zipper, hem pull cords inside the hand pockets, and Velcro wrist enclosures. Both of these jacket's features make them ideal choices for technical endeavors.
While the Ghost Whisperer Hooded was light on features in a conscious, well thought out way, two other jackets – the REI Co-op Down Hoody and the Western Mountaineering Flash XR – were noticeably devoid of features that are simply necessary for top performance in cold temperatures, like a waist draw cord for keeping the cold air out. These two jackets understandably received the lowest scores in the review. Features accounted for 10 percent of a product's final score.
Properly caring for your investment 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. Down jackets are 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.
— Andy Wellman
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