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How to Choose a Down Jacket

Saturday May 2, 2020
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Looking for a new down jacket can be a daunting process. They cost a pretty penny and you wouldn't want to realize a week into a purchase that you didn't get what you truly needed. So when shopping for a new down jacket, its important to do your due diligence. Lucky for you, our buying advice article will help you narrow down the 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. Down jackets do come with a couple of tradeoffs, and we discuss 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 soft layer of down located under the main flight feathers that help insulate the animal from the cold and wet conditions they find themselves in. Ever wonder how a duck so casually swims around in icy water? The down layer is what makes that possible. The thicker feathers on the outside provide a waterproof seal to protect the down underneath from getting soaked. The highest quality down feathers don't show an obvious "quill" at all, instead, they have a spherical appearance that does an outstanding job of providing loft.

These down clusters create millions of tiny air pockets. Your body heat warms up the air which is then held in place 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 thick jackets, blankets, socks, sleeping bags, etc. are warmer than thin ones. No insulator is more effective than down, even in the lab. No synthetic fill can touch its warmth, weight savings, compressibility, or longevity. Synthetic fill breaks down and loses some 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


Down or Synthetic, which is right for you? There are some vast differences between the two, and each one has its specific benefits. It's not as easy as saying which one is better because each Application will be different requiring different attributes. Down-filled insulation is considerably warmer for its weight and compresses smaller and easier; unfortunately, down has one huge drawback - it loses its insulating properties when wet. If you get caught in a downpour for an extended period of time, the average down jacket will completely lose its loft, becoming a flat and soggy sack of feathers that will take days, yes days, to fully dry out without using a dryer. Modern synthetics, however, will retain the majority of their puffiness, even in super wet conditions.

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.

In addition to being better in wet conditions, if you have a synthetic jacket on and hike into a blackberry thicket and tear a few holes, the continuous filament insulation will be much more likely to stay in place and continue to insulate, and you can patch up the holes later. Alternatively, if you did the same to the shell fabric of a down hoody, you will see hundreds of precious feathers blowing in the wind.

Most down garments cost more than their synthetic counterparts, although the added expense will be offset in the long run due to the increased lifespan of the product if you do manage to keep those dear feathers safe. If you do see a few poking through the fabric occasionally, don't worry, there are hundreds of thousands of them in each garment.

The Montbell Superior Parka uses square baffles whereas many of the others in our test have horizontal baffles.
The Montbell Superior Parka uses square baffles whereas many of the others in our test have horizontal baffles.

Products that use down will generally last longer than their synthetic counterparts. Stuffing a synthetic jacket into the bottom of your pack over and over will cause it to reduce the total loft, and in the process lose much of its original warmth. Some of our testers still love their down sleeping bags that are almost 20 years old, which are still lighter than the newest synthetic bags. Down jackets may lose some loft after years of use, but with proper washing and storage, but even after hundreds of compressions, they last years longer than any comparable synthetic version.

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

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 treated 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 alleviating) the main drawback to down — its inability to maintain loft, and therefore warmth retention, when saturated with water. 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 verify 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 jackets that did not have the treated down also performed equally as well when doused 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 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 jacket with a higher fill power 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 "donating" their down to your jacket or sleeping bag, most companies are using "traceable down," or "certified responsibly sourced down," which essentially means that they disclose their sources and the harvesting practices of the down used.

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 just for their down. They take significant measures to ensure that the humanely treated animal 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). People who are concerned about the welfare of the duck and geese are encouraged to purchase down jackets from companies that trace their down or use only responsibly sourced down. While we did not reduce the performance metric score for any company or jacket that didn't disclose the down harvesting practices, we encourage you to consider this important aspect of your jacket before making a purchase.

Construction


In our review we only selected jackets that had sewn-through 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 more-expensive and warmer expedition-style jackets.

Sewn-Through


This method is most common. It is easier, less time-consuming, and therefore cheaper for manufacturers than any other form of baffle construction. The outer material is stitched directly into the inner lining, separating the down into different baffles, which are usually horizontally, rectangle or occasionally, diagonally 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. 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. However, the bonded section of the seam is wider than a single-threaded stitch, so the "cold-spot" created is therefore slightly larger. We have reviewed welded baffle jackets in the past but this year all of the products have the standard sewn through type.

Materials


The main outer shell and lining fabrics affect a jacket's performance in three primary ways: durability, weight, and water resistance. A lightweight model that weighs about nine ounces will usually have only an estimated three ounces of down fill. The remainder of the garment weight comes from the fabric, zippers, and other features like cinch cords. Jackets with lighter materials are obviously more compressible and will weigh less.

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 down proofing and 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 is great for wet weather because it has 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 is great for wet weather because it has 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 owning a lightweight and extra packable jacket is your primary goal, consider one with a super-light shell material like the Arc'teryx Cerium SL or the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 Hoody. If durability is your primary concern, consider a jacket with a heavier (higher denier) shell fabric 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. A stuffable jacket that has a clip-able carabiner loop is advantageous for climbing because it can easily be clipped to the back of 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 above.

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 (previously tested)  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 (previously tested), 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 in our test go light on features as a means of saving weight. The first features to be 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 external handwarmer pocket in this review was zippered, which we love for keeping your valuables safe while out and about. Some had thin fleece linings, which felt nice, but most are just light nylon to keep the weight down. We also pay attention to where the handwarmer pockets are located. A well-designed pocket will be high enough to be used even with a backpack waist belt or harness on.

Every jacket in our roundup has two zippered handwarmer pockets  the Ghost Whisperer 2 included.
Every jacket in our roundup has two zippered handwarmer pockets, the Ghost Whisperer 2 included.

Internal/External Chest Pockets

Many jackets have this handy 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 pockets seem so simple but can be some of the most useful pockets. These are large, drop-in un-zippered pockets on the inside of the jacket. 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 a drawcord pull (or two) 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 cold air to flow up into our jacket. The location of the pull cords, as well as the type of buckles used, made a big difference in how much we liked these features. We greatly welcomed drawcord tails that are housed 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.

A hem-cinch that dangles to the side is susceptible to getting caught on carabiners if warn with a harness and just generally feels less "finished".
A hem-cinch that dangles to the side is susceptible to getting caught on carabiners if warn with a harness and just generally feels less "finished".

Hood Drawcords and Elastic


The jackets in this review used four separate methods of securing and tightening the hood: simple elastic, a single drawcord in the back, dual drawcords on the side of the face, and a combination of dual drawcord and a rear adjustment. 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 when worn tight or for long periods of time. 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 Patagonia Fitz Roy, and the Editors' Choice Award-winning The Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer 2 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, 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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