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How to Choose a Down Jacket

Sunday November 10, 2019
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Down jackets aren't cheap, especially quality offerings from the top manufacturers. Dropping what can be upwards of $300 shouldn't be taken lightly, so when shopping for a new down jacket, its important to do your due diligence. That's where we come in. Our buying advice article will help you narrow down what questions you need to ask yourself. Is down worth it? Absolutely. This article will break down why down is the best insulator available and goes into detail about what makes these jackets so lightweight and warm. There are a few tradeoffs, and we explain to them so you can make the best-educated decision before selling your kidneys or 1st born for the change necessary

What Is Down?


Every duck, goose, even chickens have a lofty layer of "feathers" located under the thicker feathers that helps to insulate the animal from the cold and wet conditions they find themselves in. Ever wonder how a duck stays warm while swimming around in frigid, barely-above-freezing water? That's where down comes in. The thicker feathers on the outside provide a waterproof seal to protect the down underneath from getting soaked. The best down feathers don't show an obvious "quill" and instead have a spherical appearance that does an outstanding job of lofting up.

These down clusters create millions of infinitesimally small air pockets. Your own body heat warms the air and then held in place around you by the down. When the down around you is thicker, you can trap more warm air around yourself, creating a warmer layer. That is why thicker jackets, blankets, socks, sleeping bags, etc. are warmer than thinner ones. We have not found a more powerful insulating layer than down, even in the lab. No synthetic fill can touch its warmth, weight savings, compressibility, or longevity. Synthetic fill will break down and lose loft every time you stuff it into a tight stuff sack.

Testing down jackets and the strength of the sea ice  Bay of Sails  Antarctica.
Testing down jackets and the strength of the sea ice, Bay of Sails, Antarctica.

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; unfortunately, down has a major weakness - it loses its insulating ability when it gets wet. If you're caught out in a heavy downpour for an extended amount of time, with the average down jacket, the jacket will completely lose its loft, becoming a wet and heavy sack of feathers that will take a long, long time to dry out before it's useful again. Modern synthetics retain much of their loft, even when wet.

Having the right insulation in the mountains is imperative to having a good time and sometimes survival  and a good jacket can be the difference between the summit and surrender. Down is the most efficient insulator  with a warmth-to-weight ratio yet to be surpassed by synthetic technology. Here we test the OR Transcendent Hoody on sea ice in Antarctica.
Having the right insulation in the mountains is imperative to having a good time and sometimes survival, and a good jacket can be the difference between the summit and surrender. Down is the most efficient insulator, with a warmth-to-weight ratio yet to be surpassed by synthetic technology. Here we test the OR Transcendent Hoody on sea ice in Antarctica.

If you have a synthetic jacket on and you walk through a blackberry bramble and rip some holes in it, the continuous filament insulation will stay in place and continue to keep you warm, and you patch up the holes later. On the other hand, if you accidentally slice the shell of your down hoody, you will see hundreds of your precious feathers blowing in the wind. Most down garments are more expensive than their synthetic counterparts, although the extra cost will be offset in the long run due to the increased longevity of the product if you do manage to keep those dear feathers intact. If you see a few poking through the fabric occasionally, not to worry, there happen to be hundreds of thousands of them in each jacket.

As a highly technical layer that features only the very highest quality materials to make it as light as possible  the Ghost Whisperer does not come cheap. Sometimes quality is worth its price  however  and this is certainly one of those times.
As a highly technical layer that features only the very highest quality materials to make it as light as possible, the Ghost Whisperer does not come cheap. Sometimes quality is worth its price, however, and this is certainly one of those times.

Down with a high-fill power generally lasts longer than synthetic insulation. After stuffing a synthetic jacket into the bottom of your pack hundreds of times, a synthetic jacket won't loft up as much as when it was brand new, losing much of its warmth. Some of our testers still love there down sleeping bags that are nearing 20 years old, and they are still lighter than the newest synthetic bags. Down jackets can maintain their loft, stuffing after stuffing, remaining warm years longer than synthetics.

Down Insulation


Pros:
- Best warmth-to-weight ratio
- Longer lasting
- Super compressible

- Very warm

Cons:
- More expensive than synthetics
- Loses loft when saturated
- Can lose a fair amount of feathers through even small tears
- Animal byproduct

- quills can stick you in the back where you cant reach

Synthetic Insulation


Pros:
- Significantly less expensive than down
- Insulate when wet
- Doesn't leak out of small tears
- Not an animal byproduct

- Some types of synthetics are more breathable

Cons:
- Not as durable in the long run.
- Doesn't compress as easily or as small as down

- Lower warmth-to-weight-ratio 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 (or at least alleviate) the one serious drawback to down — its inability to maintain loft, and therefore warmth retention, when wet. Many different companies have developed proprietary hydrophobic down, and many jackets in our review feature it.

The TNF Summit L3 has hydrophobic down  so even if the impressive DWR were to wear out  the down should continue to keep its loft.
The TNF Summit L3 has hydrophobic down, so even if the impressive DWR were to wear out, the down should continue to keep its loft.

We will admit that we found it difficult to successfully test the claims made about hydrophobic down 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, and lost very little loft. The DWR face fabric could be part of that reason. We also know that even regular non-treated down is somewhat hydrophobic by nature. Down has natural oils that resist water. While it's likely the newer type is better in wet environments, we don't feel it's a deal-breaker, and we would take great care to protect any down from a downpour.

There is a lot we don't know about the durability of hydrophobic down. DWR finishes have been notorious for wearing off of shell fabrics, and determining the lifespan of a DWR coating on a down feather would be virtually impossible.

Down Fill Power


Down fill-power has been one of the more confusing metrics for those looking for their first down jacket or sleeping bag. Most people initially think a higher fill-power automatically refers to a warmer garment. However, the fill-power just refers to how much a certain weight of down lofts. To keep things as simple as possible, let us pretend that 1 ounce of 600-fill down will loft up to fill six two-liter bottles, then 1 ounce of 900-fill down will loft up to fill nine two-liter bottles. Basically a higher fill power jacket will use less weight of down to accomplish the same amount of loft/warmth.

Various samples of down with identical weight show that as fill power increases from left to right the down lofts higher  increasing the amount of dead air space available to insulate and trap your body heat.
Various samples of down with identical weight show that as fill power increases from left to right the down lofts higher, increasing the amount of dead air space available to insulate and trap your body heat.

Fill-power also refers to how compressible a jacket is. A higher fill-power jacket that uses less weight of the filling will in-turn compress smaller than a jacket of the same warmth that uses more of a lesser quality down fill.

Traceable or Certified Down


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 sources and the harvesting practices of those sources.

A close up of the fabric of the Down Sweater Hoody. The 800 fill power down really lofts out these thin sewn through baffles  making this one of the puffier jackets in the review. What we really liked about it is Patagonia's commitment to tracing and using only the most responsibly sourced down.
A close up of the fabric of the Down Sweater Hoody. The 800 fill power down really lofts out these thin sewn through baffles, making this one of the puffier jackets in the review. What we really liked about it is Patagonia's commitment to tracing and using only the most responsibly sourced down.

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 significant 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 responsibly sourced down. 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.

Construction


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 as they are more common with warmer expedition-style jackets.

Sewn-Through


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.

With its very high quality 850-fill power down  the Cerium LT Hoody has a great warmth-to-weight ratio. It uses sewn-through baffles to keep the jacket light.
With its very high quality 850-fill power down, the Cerium LT Hoody has a great warmth-to-weight ratio. It uses sewn-through baffles to keep the jacket light.

Welded or Bonded Baffles


Welded or bonded baffles are essentially the same thing, described with different verbiage. This construction technique fuses the inner and outer pieces of fabric together using heat, chemicals, glue, or a combination of all three, creating baffles. (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. However, the bonded section of the seam is wider than a single-threaded stitch, so the "cold-spot" created is therefore slightly larger.

Materials


The main fabrics (the outer shell and the lining) affect a jacket's performance in three primary ways: durability, weight, 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. 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. Many super-light shell fabrics on the market are rather impressive; they allow for the construction of jackets with a phenomenal warmth-to-weight ratio, while still offering an acceptable level of durability. You can tell a lot about the durability and weight savings of a shell fabric when manufacturers list the denier, the unit of measurement for the linear mass density of fibers. The North Face Summit L3 Down Hoody uses a 10D face fabric; 10D feels thin and fragile compared to a heavier, higher 20d, or "denier" material.

The Rab Microlight Alpine was our Top Pick for Wet Weather because it had a number of features designed to keep your down dry. Here you can see the combination of the Pertex Quantum Microlight fabric and the DWR coating working to prevent water from absorbing into the fabric and the down underneath.
The Rab Microlight Alpine was our Top Pick for Wet Weather because it had a number of features designed to keep your down dry. Here you can see the combination of the Pertex Quantum Microlight fabric and the DWR coating working to prevent water from absorbing into the fabric and the down underneath.

If weight and packability are your primary concerns, consider one of the jackets here with super-light shell material like the Arc'teryx Cerium SL. If durability is your primary concern, consider some of the jackets with slightly burlier shell fabrics like the Rab Microlight Alpine.

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 than 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 one small pack the follower carries, as it allows the leader to lead with the jacket on their harness and thus have it at the belay. The other issue with a separate stuff sack is that you have to be careful not to lose it.

Side by side you can see the differences in packed size. From left to right we have  The North Face Summit L3 Hoody  Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 Hoody  The North Face Sierra Peak Hoody  Rab Microlight Alpine Hoody  Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody  Arc'teryx Cerium SL Hoody  Feathered Friends Eos Hoody.
Side by side you can see the differences in packed size. From left to right we have, The North Face Summit L3 Hoody, Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 Hoody, The North Face Sierra Peak Hoody, Rab Microlight Alpine Hoody, Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody, Arc'teryx Cerium SL Hoody, Feathered Friends Eos Hoody.

Features


Besides the obvious differences in warmth, lighter jackets 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 drawcords on the hood and waist and having fewer pockets. Below we briefly make mention of the common features found on the jackets in our roundup, and what styles worked well, and what didn't.

Pockets



Handwarmer Pockets

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, but most are just nylon to save weight. An important aspect to consider is whether the pockets are high enough to sit above a pack's waist belt or harness; otherwise, they become unusable.

Internal/External Chest Pockets

Many jackets have this feature, 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 a doubt easier to access quickly.

The Rab's external chest pocket was a great spot to stash our phone where it would stay warmer so the cold wouldn't zap the battery life.
The Rab's external chest pocket was a great spot to stash our phone where it would stay warmer so the cold wouldn't zap the battery life.

Internal Stash Pockets

These are some of our absolute favorite pockets. 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, batteries, or even rock climbing shoes on the inside of your jacket where they can stay toasty warm within your heat envelope.

The internal stash pockets of the TNF Summit L3 were perfect for keeping our shoes warm between burns on the boulders.
The internal stash pockets of the TNF Summit L3 were perfect for keeping our shoes warm between burns on the boulders.

Hem Drawcords


It is common to have one or two drawcord pulls on the hem to tighten the jacket around the waist and hips. We very much appreciated this feature, a couple of jackets in our selection didn't have them, and they 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 welcomed drawcords that lived inside the handwarmer 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. Rarely but occasionally, a jacket with a cinch located on the hem would incorporate a place to clip the dangling cord up into the inside of the jacket.

Shown here on the Morph Hoodie is the hem pull cord that lives inside the front handwarmer pockets  and has a recessed release buckle that lives inside the fabric  and releases by being pinched  as our other hand is doing. This was the single most optimal combination of hem draw cord location and buckles on a jacket that we tested.
Shown here on the Morph Hoodie is the hem pull cord that lives inside the front handwarmer pockets, and has a recessed release buckle that lives inside the fabric, and releases by being pinched, as our other hand is doing. This was the single most optimal combination of hem draw cord location and buckles on a jacket that we tested.

Hood Drawcords and Elastic


The jackets in this review used three methods of securing and tightening the hood: simple elastic, a single drawcord in the back, or dual drawcords on the side of the face. While elastic was the least adjustable (in fact, it's not adjustable at all). Our favorite method was the single drawcord that tightens at the back of the head. These cords were both easy to use and held the hood in place very well. However, some tend to lay the internal elastic cord right across the ears, which can be quite uncomfortable. 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 drawcords. 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.

These dual draw cords inside the collar of the Rab Microlight Alpine offer fine tuning ability for the fit of the hood  and also do a great job of sealing off the face enclosure if it is really cold. They are relatively easy to use with one hand. You can also see the wire-brim of the hood.
These dual draw cords inside the collar of the Rab Microlight Alpine offer fine tuning ability for the fit of the hood, and also do a great job of sealing off the face enclosure if it is really cold. They are relatively easy to use with one hand. You can also see the wire-brim of the hood.

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. 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 ultimate 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.

Climbing


There are many different scenarios where you might be climbing and want a down jacket, broken down a bit more detailed below.

Alpine

If you're wearing down in the alpine, be careful not rip it open on sharp rocks. We suggest wearing it as a mid-layer under a more durable hardshell, or going with a more durable (but likely heavier) synthetic jacket.

It's useful to have a midweight down jacket that can be used as mid-layer under a hardshell or as a terminal layer to throw on top of everything at belays. The North Face Summit L3 Down Hoody and the Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody both fit the bill nicely.

Max Neale on the Evolution Traverse (bottom center) in the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket.
Max Neale on the Evolution Traverse (bottom center) in the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket.

Rock

Down jackets make great belay jackets while hanging out at the crag in ideal sending temps. Features we like for this purpose are internal stash pockets, where we keep our thermos, gloves, and even our shoes toasty warm in between burns on the project. The Rab Microlight Alpine, the Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody, the Feathered Friends Eos, and the Editors' Choice Award-winning The North Face Summit L3 Down Hoody are our favorite down jackets for rock climbing.

Winter/Ice

In our experience with winter and ice climbing, it is important 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. In these scenarios, we would be more likely to wear one of these down jackets as a mid-layer under our hard shell to keep us warm all day and to keep it dry and protected.

Skiing


For backcountry skiers, a lightweight down jacket will serve primarily as a mid-layer to be thrown on to ward off chill on the downhills. 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, Feathered Friends Eos, the Rab Microlight Alpine, or the Arc'teryx Cerium SL.

Mountaineering Expeditions


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.

Wearing lightweight down jackets to fend off the cold and wind on a mountaineering expedition in Argentina.
Wearing lightweight down jackets to fend off the cold and wind on a mountaineering expedition in Argentina.

Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer in Champagne Slot  East fork Hyalite Canyon  MT.
Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer in Champagne Slot, East fork Hyalite Canyon, MT.

Wet Climates


Down has long been shunned in wet climates because 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.

Testing the water proofness of the Columbia Outdry Ex Gold in a very wet early season snow storm. It certainly keeps the water out and the down inside dry  as claimed.
Testing the water proofness of the Columbia Outdry Ex Gold in a very wet early season snow storm. It certainly keeps the water out and the down inside dry, as claimed.

If you're traveling to a wet area, make sure you bring a down jack that at least has a DWR treatment on its face fabric, or even better, double down on your moisture insurance with hydrophobic down. Our favorite down jacket for backpacking or climbing when there might be cold rain is the Rab Microlight Alpine. This jacket has a very effective DWR treatment, Nikwax hydrophobic down, and it even has a wire brimmed hood to keep the rain off your face. However, it is important to remember that this jacket isn't waterproof and is no substitution for a rain jacket.

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 cold winter town, then you are probably like most people. For you, weight and compressibility presumably 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. In our test, we enjoyed hanging out in public with the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody and the Arc'teryx Cerium SL.

Despite the Cerium LT being one of the most expensive jackets in this review  we think that it is well worth the money  and loved how warm it kept us pretty much all the time while camping.
Despite the Cerium LT being one of the most expensive jackets in this review, we think that it is well worth the money, and loved how warm it kept us pretty much all the time while camping.

Conclusion


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 your adventures. 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 each one has a purpose that may fit your use perfectly.


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