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 provides 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.
Synthetic vs. Down Insulation
The first decision when buying an insulation layer is to decide if you need a down or synthetic jacket. Down is much warmer for its weight and compresses better, but when it gets wet, it will lose its loft, meaning it will also lose its ability to keep you warm. Synthetic insulated jackets are quite a bit heaver at the same thickness and warmth, and they don't compress and pack down as well, but they keep much of their loft when wet. This means that even when wet a synthetic jacket can still retain some of its insulating capability and thus its warmth.
Down tends to last longer, and the feathers themselves allow for more breathability than synthetic insulations. Your average synthetic jacket will lose much of its warmth over 5-7 years, depending on wear, compared with your average down jacket that with equal care can retain its warmth for 10-20 years. Down also has a higher resiliency after being compressed than synthetic insulations, so after being unpacked a down jacket will regain its shape more quickly.
Synthetic jackets are more durable when it comes to abrasion. If you climb that last chimney pitch in the dark wearing your synthetic puffy coat and put some holes in it, no big deal. If you put holes in your down coat, the filling will leak out like the first winter snow. Depending on the quality of down used, it also tends to be more expensive than synthetic insulation, although the extra cost will be offset in the long run due to the increased longevity of the product. The pros and cons of down and synthetic insulation are summed up in the chart below:
- Longer lifespan, durable
- Very breathable
- Highly Compressible
- Very warm
- Generally more expensive than synthetic
- Loses its ability to loft and insulate when wet
- Leaks out of even the smallest tears in a jacket
- Is an animal by-product
- Generally more affordable than down
- Retains loft, and therefore insulating properties, when wet
- Stays intact if the face fabric of the jacket tears
- Does not require the death of birds to produce
- Quite breathable
- Is heavier than down for the same loft
- Fibers break down quicker than down, not as durable
- Doesn't compress as easily or as small as down
- Warmth-to-weight ratio much lower than down
Hydrophobic Down vs. Regular Down
Hydrophobic down is down that has been coated with a DWR coating, similar to what companies apply to the outside of jackets to repel water. The hope is that these coatings will allow the down to repel water as well as synthetic insulation, thereby eliminating the one serious drawback to down — it's inability to maintain loft, and therefore warmth retention, when wet. Many different companies have developed proprietary hydrophobic down, and in our review four of the jackets — the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded, Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Hooded, Rab Microlight Alpine, and the Marmot Tullus Hoody — incorporated their versions of this technology.
It is not exactly clear how long one can expect these coatings to continue to work, as DWR coatings on face fabrics inevitably wear off after a reasonable amount of use. At least one manufacturer's marketing claims included the words "permanent" water resistance, although we find this a bit hard to believe. An even more important question might be: "Why don't all of the down jackets in this review incorporate hydrophobic down?" Unfortunately, we can't answer this question, and admit that it does seem odd that with this technology seemingly widespread at this time, only four of the top 10 jackets used it. Presumably, cost of development as well as cost of implementation have something to do with this fact.
We will admit that we found it difficult to successfully test the claims made about hydrophobic down and its performance in a wet environment compared to regular down. We wore the hydrophobic down jackets into the shower for minutes at a time, getting them fully and completely soaked with water, and did indeed find that they seemed to lose little to no loft due to the soaking. This would suggest that the claims are mostly accurate. That said, some of the other jackets we doused fully in the shower performed equally well, as in, also lost little to no loft when wet, because the DWR coatings applied to the face fabrics were very effective at preventing water from being absorbed into the down (at least when they are fresh). The best that we can say is that we couldn't disprove hydrophobic down as a potentially superior technology, and when considering whether to buy a jacket that uses it or not, there is really no reason not to get the hydrophobic down jacket.
Down Fill Powers
Fill power is perhaps the most commonly misunderstood purchase decision factor. Usually a manufacturer will advertise a "fill-power" of 650, 700, 850 etc. These numbers are a reference to the quality of the down insulation used. The number is actually a volume — the amount of cubic inches one ounce of down occupies. For example, one ounce of 800 fill-power down will occupy 800 cubic inches when compressed by a standardized weight. If you use two ounces of 800 fill on jacket A, and two ounces of 700 fill on jacket B, jacket A — with the 800 fill down — will be warmer because it has more loft. However, a jacket may have eight ounces of 850 fill down and yet be of similar warmth to a jacket with twelve ounces of 650 fill down. The jacket featuring 850 fill down has similar warmth but will weigh less, and be more compressible, since it has less down in it. In other words, higher fill power down allows for better warmth-to-weight ratios, but is not always the definitive factor when considering warmth of a jacket.
The quantity of down is just as important as the quality of down when figuring out how warm a jacket will be. While it is common with other down filled products, like sleeping bags, to list the actual amount of down used to stuff the product in ounces, this is unfortunately not the case with down jackets. If you want the lightest and warmest jacket, then high fill-power down is very important, and this will usually come with a higher price tag. Conversely, if you want to save some money, lower fill power down is usually cheaper, but more of it is needed to create the same warmth, and so your jacket will be heavier. This interplay can be perfectly seen with the two top scorers in this year's review, the Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody and the Rab Microlight Alpine. Both of these jackets tied in our comparative rankings for the warmest jacket. The Arc'teryx uses high quality 850-fill down, weighs only 11.8 ounces, but costs a whopping $379. On the other hand, the Rab uses lower 750-fill power down, and therefore weighs over three ounces more, but also costs $100 less.
Traceable or Certified Down
Down is a fluffy white substance that ducks and geese use as insulation from the cold and which resides between their skin and outer feathers. It is not a substance that can be synthetically replicated, and must be harvested directly from either ducks or geese, although in general goose down tends to be a bit higher quality and have higher fill powers. In order to address concerns about where the down in their products comes from, and to assure buyers that the animals were well treated before relinquishing their down for your jacket, most companies are using "traceable down," or "certified responsibly sourced down," which essentially means that they disclose their down sources and the harvesting practices of those sources.
Companies that trace their down ensure that it is solely the product of the food industry, and that animals were never live-plucked simply for their down. They take great measures to ensure that the humanely treated animal's down does not mix with other down from animals that were not humanely treated (some of the worst practices involve live plucking the birds as well as force-feeding). Users who are concerned about the welfare of animals are encouraged to purchase down jackets from companies that trace their down or use only responsible sourced down, and to put pressure on companies that do not. In this review, the only jacket that we could not find any evidence of specifically using responsibly sourced down was the Marmot Tullus Hoody. While we did not punish any company or jacket in this review that did not disclose that they use responsibly sourced down, we encourage you to consider this humane and important aspect of your jacket before making a purchase.
In general, there are two primary construction methods used in these down jackets: sewn-through and welded baffles. Although it is a reasonably common form of creating down baffles, none of the jackets we reviewed this year feature box-baffles.
This method is most common. It is easier, less time-consuming, and therefore cheaper for manufacturers than other forms of baffle construction, like welded baffles. The outer material is stitched directly into the inner lining, separating the down in different baffles, which are horizontally oriented. This method uses less fabric and is lighter than more complicated box baffle construction, and is less costly. Because of weight, simplicity, and cost, most of the lightweight jackets, and many of the heavier ones, utilize this construction. Although sewn-through construction saves weight via the use of less material, it is less warm than box baffle construction because the down is pinched at the seams of the sewn-through baffles and thus loft is reduced to zero at each point of baffle stitching. The sewn-through baffling prevents the migration of the down, but due to the simple construction it also reduces the optimum loft of the down, creating "cold spots" at each baffle seam. Most of the jackets in this review are made with sewn-through construction.
The photo below shows three things: 1) How down insulates much better than a cotton hoody (duh). 2) How heat escapes from the seams of sewn through construction. 3) That the founder of OutdoorGearLab.com, Chris McNamara, is actually an alien.
Welded or Bonded Baffles
Two of the jackets in this year's review feature "welded" or "bonded" baffles, which are essentially the same thing, described with different verbiage. These jackets are the Columbia Outdry Ex Gold and the Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Hooded. This construction technique fuses the inner and outer pieces of fabric together to create a baffle that holds the down using heat, chemicals, glue, or a combination of all three. (Honestly we aren't sure about the exact techniques used to achieve these effects, they aren't disclosed, and are likely different and proprietary from company to company, and also depending on materials.)
There is one major benefit to these techniques: since there are no holes in the outer fabric from sewing the baffles they are more wind impermeable and water resistant or proof. Other benefits touted by the companies but which are either negligible or unverifiable are: lower weight (the thread used to sew a jacket can't weigh very much?), longer life span and durability (the jury is still out), and greater warmth retention (not verifiable). In regards to the last point that welded or bonded baffles are warmer than sewn-through baffles, we must point out that in both of the jackets that had welded baffles, the inner and out fabric still pinch together between baffles, creating an un-insulated dead space, just like sewn-through baffles.
Also, we noticed that the width of these dead spaces is actually quite a bit larger on the welded jackets than the sewn-through ones, and so we surmise that this method of construction may actually be less warm than sewn-through baffles, not the other way around. While there are many other factors at play, including type and quantity of insulation, as well as the properties of the face fabrics, we found that these two jackets were amongst the least warm of any we tested.
The main fabrics (the outer shell and the lining) affect a jacket's performance in four primary ways: durability, weight, warmth, and water resistance. A lightweight model that weighs about nine ounces usually has only three ounces of down. The remainder of the total garment weight is the fabric, zippers, and other various small features like cinch cords for adjustability. Jackets with lighter materials are obviously more compressible and lighter.
Different fabrics have different levels of durability. Thinner and lighter materials are usually more vulnerable to abrasion and snagging. There are many super-light shell fabrics on the market that are rather impressive — they allow for the construction of jackets with phenomenal warmth-to-weight ratios. However, if you are looking for a down jacket that you can use and abuse for years and years, considering shell fabric durability may be your primary concern considering that down is itself inherently durable if properly cared for. When researching a jacket you're considering purchasing, take the time to note the shell fabric material and it's relative weight compared to other similar jackets. The material used as the face fabric of a given jacket is described in the specs column of a jackets review page.
The shell fabric will also affect the warmth of the jacket. You want the material to breathe a bit, allowing perspiration to escape. Otherwise, the down would wet and lose its loft. Finally, the shell fabric is what protects the down from the elements. Fabrics with a tighter weave are more water resistant. Although all of these jackets tested here have some sort of DWR (durable water repellant) coating, these wear off in varying degree of quickness.
If weight and packability are your primary concerns, consider one of the jackets here with super-light shell material like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded. If durability is your primary concern, consider some of the jackets with slightly burlier shell fabrics like the Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody.
Hood or No Hood?
Overall, hoods keep you warmer, especially in windy conditions. In order to be sure that we were comparing apples to apples, we chose only jackets with a hood for this year's review, with the exception of the REI Co-op Magma 850, which only comes hoodless. Many of these models are also made without a hood for a few less dollars, and we made note of that in the specs column. If you're looking for a down layer to keep you as warm as possible, then get a hood.
If you often wear your jacket as a mid-layer, consider a non-hooded model, which will layer a bit easier under your chosen outerwear, which probably has a hood. Keep in mind that not all hoods are designed the same. Some hoods are made to wear over a climbing helmet and are rather large if you don't happen to be wearing one at the time. Other hoods, like on the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer, are designed to be tighter fitting to the face and worn under a helmet. These hoods are good at keeping the cold out and offer a tighter, sleeker profile while climbing or hiking.
Stuffable / Clipable
One of the great advantages of down is its compressibility; many jackets either come with a stuff sack or compress into their own pocket. Jackets that stuff into either a chest or hand pocket and have a clip-able carabiner loop are more advantageous for climbing then a separate stuff sack because of the ease with which you can attach the stuffed jacket to your harness. This is particularly nice when climbing multi-pitch routes where you only have a small follower's pack, as it allows the leader to lead with the jacket on their harness and thus have it at the belay, while the follower carries the pack. The other issue with a separate stuff sack is that you have to be careful not to lose it. Take a peek at the photo below to compare the sizes of several jackets stuffed into their stuff sacks or pockets.
Besides the obvious differences in warmth, lighter jackets and parkas also differ quite a bit in terms of pockets and features. Several of the light down jackets reviewed here skimp significantly on features as a means of saving weight. Features that are often cut include draw cords on the hood and waist and having fewer pockets. On the other side of that spectrum are parkas that are designed for expedition use and are full of features intended to make your life easier in the cold. Below we briefly make mention of the common features found on these jackets, and what styles worked well, and what didn't.
These are the two front pockets designed for keeping your hands warm or stowing your snacks in. Every handwarmer pocket in this review was zippered, which we love for keeping your valuables safe when moving about. Some had fleece linings, which felt nice. An important aspect to consider is whether the pockets are high enough to sit above a pack's waist belt, otherwise they become unusable when wearing a pack.
Internal/External Chest Pockets
Most jackets have one of these, although some do not. These pockets are great for storing items like a smartphone, sunglasses, or chapstick close at hand. Internal pockets are generally better insulated, a nice feature for keeping a phone's battery alive in the cold, while external pockets are without doubt easier to access quickly.
Internal Stash Pockets
These are some of our absolute favorite pockets, but unfortunately only two out of 10 jackets had them — the Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Hooded and the OR Transcendent Hoody. These are large, un-zippered pockets on the inside of the coat with a top opening. They are great for storing hats, gloves, warm water bottles, or even rock climbing shoes, on the inside of your jacket where they can stay toasty warm within your heat envelope.
Hood Drawcords and Elastic
The jackets in this review used three methods of securing and tightening the hood: simple elastic, a single draw cord in the back, or dual draw cords on the side of the face. While elastic was the least adjustable (in fact its not adjustable at all!) we found that this method is the simplest and lightest, and did a pretty effective job of keeping the hood in place. Our favorite method was the single draw cord that tightens at the back of the head. These cords were both easy to use, and held the hood in place very well. While they are our preferred method for adjusting a hood on a shell jacket, in the case of these down jackets we didn't really enjoy the dual side-of-the-face draw cords. We found them to be more finicky to find the proper adjustment, annoying to loosen, and uncomfortable where they rest against the side of the face.
Hem Draw Cords
It is common to have one or two draw cords on the hem to tighten the jacket around the waist and hips. We very much appreciated this feature, as the one jacket that was not adjustable, the Marmot Tullus Hoody, allowed plenty of cold air to flow up into our jacket. The location of the pull cords as well as the type of buckles used made a difference in how much we liked these features. We greatly appreciated draw cords that lived inside the hand warmer pockets, as the alternative is a dangling loop of elastic hanging down from the waist when tightened that could catch on sticks or bushes along the trail, or even on our crampon points when ice climbing. Our favorite buckles were the Cohaesive buckles that lived entirely within the fabric of the jacket — they are super low profile and are easy to release and loosen with gloves on. Only The North Face Morph Hoodie had the perfect combination of both pull cords and buckles.
Best Jackets for an Intended Use
The best way to approach buying a lightweight down jacket is to first consider what you intend to use it for. This holds true for just about any piece of equipment, in reality. Carefully considering how and where it will be used will help you to understand what sorts of conditions it will need to protect you from. It will also help you to paint a picture in your mind about what characteristics are top priorities, and tailor your eventual choice based on those desires. Below we pick out a few of the most common uses for a lightweight down jacket, and offer our opinions on what to look for in a jacket for that purpose, as well as some specific product recommendations.
Generally speaking, the lightweight down jackets in this review are not going to be sufficient for high altitude mountaineering expeditions. For hanging out in glacier camp on Denali, or battling your way up to 8,000m on Cho Oyu, you are going to need a dedicated expedition parka or 8,000 meter suit. In general, these parkas are far thicker, heavier, warmer, have more features, and are more expensive than the jackets we tested here.
That said, for mountaineering expeditions that are not tackling the extreme cold of the highest altitudes and latitudes, many of these jackets will work great, especially as a layering component. Weight becomes a primary concern, but so does warmth, as a down jacket on a mountaineering trip will primarily be used when not moving. The Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody offers the award-winning combination of warmth and light weight in a jacket that fits big enough to wear over your other layers.
For backcountry skiers, a lightweight down jacket will serve primarily as a mid-layer to be thrown on to ward off chill on the down hills. Typically a person will generate way too much heat on the skin track to consider wearing a down jacket while moving uphill, but will usually want to trap that warmth as the sweat cools for the chilly downhill. In these circumstances, light is certainly right. A thin down mid-layer to go underneath a hard or soft shell that keeps the powder and moisture off is the way that we typically layer. Great options are the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded, the REI Co-op Magma 850, The North Face Morph Hoodie, the Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody, the Rab Microlight Alpine, or the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody.
For resort skiing, we like to wear a down mid-layer under our shell all of the time in the winter, as the temps are usually cold, and whether you are riding the lifts up or skiing down, you are likely being blasted by cold air. Warmth becomes a bigger priority than weight in these circumstances. All of the jackets we recommend for backcountry skiing would work great as a mid-layer here.
There are many different scenarios where you might be climbing and want a down jacket, broken down a bit more detailed below.
Down jackets make great belay jackets while hanging out at the crag in ideal sending temps. Features we really like for this purpose are internal stash pockets, where we like to keep our thermos, gloves, and even our shoes toasty warm in between burns on the project. We also love a two-way zipper, which allows us to easily access our belay loop by unzipping the front of the jacket from the bottom up, and not having to scrunch up the bottom of the jacket. The OR Transcendent Hoody has nearly perfect features for use as a belay jacket, but isn't nearly as warm as the Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody which is also ideally suited for this use.
Any time that we are alpine rock climbing, we prefer to be using a synthetic insulated jacket. Check out our Best Synthetic Insulated Jacket for Men Review for some good ideas. Lightweight down jackets don't want to make direct contact with rock, as the thin outer layers will likely tear, and feathers and down will begin leaking out immediately, ruining the jacket. If a synthetic jacket tears, the insulation remains largely unaffected, and you can repair the hole after the climb.
For mixed alpine and alpine ice climbs, we love using a lightweight down jacket that has the option of either being worn as a mid layer under our shell, or as an outer layer at the belays that we can put on and remove again frequently. Typically the temperature of the air will dictate which tactic is most appropriate. The Ghost Whisperer is the best down mid-layer in this review. For belay coat usage we would still recommend the Ghost Whisperer, and also think the OR Transcendent Hoody, the Rab Microlight Alpine, the Arc'teryx Cerium LT, and the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody are good options. The main features you want for this kind of climbing is light weight and very compressible, not to mention a fit that will go over other clothes.
Our experience with winter and ice climbing is that we are willing to sacrifice a bit of weight in favor of serious warmth, as we are generally willing to do anything to stay warm, keep having fun, and keep blood flowing from our torso to our extremities. We might easily wear a down jacket as a mid layer under our hard shell to keep us warm all day and to keep it dry and protected. We will always also have a large puffy belay jacket ready for times when we stop moving. For this kind of jacket we want the warmest we can get, with internal pockets for keeping extra clothing items warm and trying to dry gloves out a huge bonus.
Down has long been shunned in wet climates due to the fact that it shrinks up like a ball of cellophane when it gets soaked with water. However, recent advances in technology are making it so that you need not automatically dismiss down if you live in, say, Portland. The Columbia Outdry Ex Gold is actually water proof, meaning you could wear it all day long in a downpour and likely stay dry. That said, since it isn't very warm or super compressible, and is also fairly heavy, we would use this jacket around town, but wouldn't choose to lug it on a backpacking trip.
If you are going backpacking in a wet area, down can still be a good option. It still retains its awesome warmth-to-weight ratios, which can make it a real MVP piece on overnight trips. Combinations of high quality DWR coatings and hydrophobic down, like that found in our Top Pick for Wet Weather, the Rab Microlight Alpine, can keep you warm, even if it gets a bit wet. Both Mountain Hardwear Jackets and the Marmot Tullus Hoody feature hydrophobic down as well. It must be said that these jackets are not a substitute for a rain jacket, and if we took them backpacking we would still do all that we could to keep them as dry as possible.
Some people work outside in the winter in very extreme environments, and need extra clothing in order to stay warm. Granted, most of these people seem to get by with layering various inexpensive Carhart-style solutions, but depending on your job, a high quality insulation layer could make you a lot happier. However, this is another circumstance where we would recommend synthetic insulation over down, because of the increased durability should you tear the jacket. If we were to wear a down jacket for work, we would be sure to have a far more protective shell jacket layered over the top of it to protect it from rips or scratches. Any of the lighter weight, mid-layer selection of jackets in this review would work well in these circumstances.
Everyday Life/Around Town
If the primary reason for buying a warm down jacket is simply to keep you warm as you live your life in your freezing cold winter town, then you are probably like most people. For you, weight and compressibility probably have far less importance in your selection than warmth, fit, and style. We typically throw one of these jackets on over the top of whatever normal human clothes we are wearing for the day, so it is important that the jacket is large enough to be worn as an outer layer. When it comes to style, we typically shy away from overly technical garments, and instead gravitate toward what matches our regular wardrobe, and perhaps more importantly, doesn't make us look like a weirdo (or fat).
All of these jackets will keep you warm, but there is a wide range exhibited here. Your decision will certainly be different if you live in a town where the overnight low is 20, versus if you live in a town where the low is -20. If you just need insulation from 20, then any jacket in this review is fine in conjunction with your other clothes, and we recommend the ones that look the best. In our opinion, these are the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody and the OR Transcendent Hoody. If your home is truly butt-ass cold, then please choose either the Rab Microlight Alpine or the Arc'teryx Cerium LT, or better yet a heavier down parka, and don't be fooled into thinking one of these super light jackets will keep you happy and toasty at -20.
We hope that our research, in-depth reviews, and recommendations above have helped you to narrow down and effectively choose the best Down Jacket for you. As with most pieces of equipment, the process begins with identifying the conditions you will likely face, and then finding the product that best handles those circumstances. While we have ranked all the jackets we tested and given awards to our favorites, the reality is that all of these jackets have their pros and cons, and there is a perfect situation or person for every jacket here.