Starting the hunt for a new down jacket is without a doubt one of the most overwhelming endeavors you can experience when it comes to shopping for outerwear. Down jackets are one of the more expensive parts of any layering system and typically will last you for many years. This makes choosing the right one all the more important. Down is the lightest and warmest insulator you can find, but not all down jackets are created equal. If you’re not sure where to begin your search, our buying advice article will break down the different features of down jackets and will help teach you what to look for based on your specific needs.
What Is Down?
Every duck and goose has a soft layer of down located under their main flight feathers that help insulate the animal from the cold and wet conditions they find themselves in. The down layer is what makes it possible for them to exist in such harsh conditions. 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" but instead have a spherical appearance that provides a large amount of 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.
Synthetic vs. Down Insulation
While you might assume that in this modern age, a synthetic option would greatly outperform anything found in the wild, that just isn’t true when it comes to insulation. 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 one excels where the other does not. Down-filled insulation is considerably warmer for its weight and compresses into a smaller package. 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 can take days to fully dry out. Modern synthetics, however, will retain the majority of their puffiness, even in super wet conditions.
In addition to performing better in wet conditions, synthetic insulators stand up to punctures better. The continuous nature of filament insulation keeps it in place and continuing to insulate, while down jackets will often leak significant amounts of feathers through even small holes.
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 see a few feathers poking through the fabric occasionally, don't worry, there are hundreds of thousands of them in each garment.
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.
- Best warmth to-weight ratio
- Longer lasting
- Super compressible
- Very warm
- More expensive than synthetics
- Loses loft when saturated
- Can lose a fair amount of feathers through even small tears
- Animal by-product
- Quills can stick you in the back where you cant reach
- Significantly less expensive than down
- Insulate when wet
- Doesn't leak out of small tears
- Not an animal byproduct
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
There are two methods predominantly used when constructing down jackets. Box-baffling and sewn-through baffling. Either can be welded or stitched.
Box-baffling is when small “boxes” or pockets of down are created between the inner and outer layers. This technique is more expensive and time-intensive and is typically reserved for the most expensive options. The main advantage to this is that it creates more room for the down to loft and reduces cold spots where each baffle meets at the stitching.
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.
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.
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.
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 Outdoor Research Illuminate Hoody.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 midlayer 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 Down Hoody and the Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody both fit the bill nicely.
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, Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody, Patagonia Fitz Roy, and the The Mountain Hardwear 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.
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 2, the Rab Microlight Alpine, or the Arc'teryx Cerium SL.
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.
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. If you're traveling to a wet area, make sure you bring a down jacket 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.
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.