There are so many considerations to make before shelling out upwards of $300 for a mid-weight down jacket. Worth it? Yes! Our buying advice article will explain why down is one of the best insulators known to man and go into detail about the materials and designs that make down jackets warm and lightweight. Additionally we lay out the tradeoffs of different design strategies so you can better choose the right jacket to meet your specific needs.
What Is Down?
Down is the natural insulating layer found on geese and ducks that keeps their bodies warm, even while they're hanging out in nearly freezing water. The down layer lies in between their skin and an oily layer of hollow outer feathers, which give them the ability to float and provides a waterproof membrane that protects the feathers. 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.
These down blobs create millions of infinitesimally small air pockets, where air is warmed by your own body heat, and then held in place around you by the down. The more inert air trapped around you, the warmer you'll be. That's why the loftiest jackets and sleeping bags are also the warmest. Humans have yet to come close to the insulating powers of the mighty goose despite years of research and development put into synthetic insulation. It still has the best warmth to weight ratio on the planet. Additionally, down is more resilient than synthetic insulation, retaining its loft even after years of being compressed and re-lofted.
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 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 time to dry out before it's useful again. Modern synthetics retain much of their loft, even when wet.
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. These jackets can maintain their loft, stuffing after stuffing, remaining warm years longer than synthetics.
Synthetic jackets are usually more durable when it comes to abrasion. If you scrape up that last chimney pitch and rip some holes in most synthetic jackets, the continuous filament insulation will stay in place and keep you warm, and you patch up the holes later. Shed the shell of your down jacket and you'll see hundreds of your precious feathers blowing into 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. The pros and cons of down and synthetic insulation are summed up in the chart below:
- Best warmth-to-weight ratio
- Lasts Longer
- Highly Compressible
- Very warm
- Often pricier than synthetics
- Loses its ability to loft and insulate when wet
- Leaks out of even the smallest tears in a jacket
- Geese are killed for their feathers
- Usually cheaper than down
- Continues to insulated, even when wet
- Doesn't leak out if jacket tears
- No geese die to keep you warm
- Some types of synthetics are more breathable
- 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 (or at least alleviate) the one serious drawback to down — its inability to maintain loft, and therefore warmth retention, when wet. Many companies have developed proprietary hydrophobic down, and in our review four of the jackets — the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded, Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Hooded, and the Rab Microlight Alpine — 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. Theoretically, the interior coatings should last longer than the treatment on the face fabrics since its more protected from dirt and oil.
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. Keep in mind that none of these jackets is a substitute for a truly waterproof hardshell.
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 number 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. This information allows us to compare fill weights and material weights and is extremely helpful when ranking jackets based on their warmth to weight ratio. 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 of the top scorers in this year's review, the Feathered Friends Eos and the Rab Microlight Alpine. While both of these jackets are warm, the Rab weighs 4 ounces more because it needs more 750 fill power down to achieve warmth similar to the Eos, a jacket that uses 900+ fill down.
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. The only exception here is eider down, which is harvested for abandoned eider duck nests. This type of down isn't as popular because it's expensive and of lesser quality than goose 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 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. We didn't dock points from companies that don't use responsibly sourced down, but always mention when they do. For some folks, jackets with ethically sourced down will have them feeling warm in more ways than one.
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.
Furthermore, 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 jackets with welded baffles 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.
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 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 the heavier, higher denier material used on the Black Diamond Forge Hoody. 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 out and lose its loft. Too thin and the wind will cut right through unless you compliment the jacket with a windproof layer. Finally, the shell fabric is what protects the down from the elements. Fabrics with a tighter weave are more water resistant. Although most of these jackets tested here have some sort of DWR (durable water repellent) 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. We feel the Pertex Quantum shell fabric used on the Feathered Freinds Eos is a great compromise between weight and durability.
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. Also consider that if you want a stuff sack with a clip in loop and the jacket you want doesn't come with one, you can just buy one, since all the jackets in this review pack away small enough to clip to a climbing harness. 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 drawcords 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 hand warmer 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 fleecy material adds weight. 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 a doubt easier to access quickly.
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. While this feature is common in heavier down parkas, only the Outdoor Research Illuminate featured drop-in pockets in the midweight category.
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) we found that this method is the simplest and lightest, and did a pretty effective job of keeping the hood in place. If you're sleeping in your down jacket, there would be a hard plastic cord lock to roll over onto. 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. Additionally, the hoods with cinch cords are large enough to fit over a helmet, but stay in place and out of your face when you're not wearing a helmet.
Hem Draw Cords
It is common to have one or two drawcords 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 drawcords that lived inside the hand warmer pockets like the ones on the North Face Summit L3 Down Hoody, 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.
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 North Face Summit L3 Down Hoody offers the award-winning combination of warmth and lightweight 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 the 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 (or long transitions with lots of milling about and cornice whacking.) 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 Hoody, Feathered Friends Eos, the Outdoor Research Illuminate Hoody, the Rab Microlight Alpine, or the Black Diamond Forge Hoody.
There are many different scenarios where you might be climbing and want a down jacket, broken down a bit more detailed below.Rock
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.
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 hard shell, 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, the Feathered Friends Eos, and the Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody all fit the bill nicely.
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.
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'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. Remember, this jacket isn't waterproof and is no substitution for a hard shell.
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.
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.