Stumped on which model will best suit your needs? We can help. We researched over 50 of the best models available on the market, purchasing the top 11. With temperatures starting to drop with the arrival of the fall season, change is upon us, and with it, a change in our wardrobes. With a brand new update for 2018, our testers traveled everywhere from Alaska to Russia to Antarctica, climbing mountains and exploring cities across the globe - with these jackets in tow. This roots our opinions in real-world settings, to which we add some standardized tests to objectively rate and compare each model. We rated each jacket based on warmth in similar settings, weighed them and compared compressibility, and assessed them for durability and weather resistance. The following is a thorough look at a collection of the industry's best down jackets.
The Best Women's Down Jackets of 2018
It's that time of the year; it's time to bundle up and hunker down - or set out on some exciting winter adventures! This fall, we thoroughly analyzed each model in our current fleet and added in the Cerium LT from Arc'teryx, an excellent lightweight version of the Cerium SV, a previous Editors' Choice winner. On that topic, the Cerium SV was knocked down to a Top Pick winner after several more months of testing revealed long-term durability issues with the ultralight fabric. It's still a big-time favorite, but not an everyday wearing type of jacket, and is more suited for the rugged adventurous type. For the 2018 season, the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer is the winner of our Editors' Choice award.
Best Overall Women's Model
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded - Women's
The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer wins our Editor's Choice award for best overall. For several years running, this jacket has been one of the warmest we have tested for the impressive light weight. It is made of highly compressible 800 fill down. It is also impressively durable, which is rare among the lightest of the lightweight down jackets. We were able to rock climb in this jacket without snagging or worrying about abrasion. It also held up very well over time, where some of the lighter weight fabrics literally started to disintegrate, getting thinner over time.
The Ghost Whisperer comes with a hefty price tag, it looks fairly "outdoorsy" making it less versatile, and it is very lightweight which means it is not intended for the coldest temperatures. As such, it is not likely to be your quiver-of-one. However, if you're looking for a great jacket for cool autumn temperatures in the desert or as a midlayer for cold winter activities, this will be a trusty companion. The jacket has a collection of useful features: it stuffs into its hand pocket and has a loop that is easy to clip to a harness. This was our favorite for sunset ascents of desert towers when speed and low weight are critical to getting to the rappels before dark—and you still want to look outdoor-chic for those beautiful sunset summit shots. If you're looking to ditch the hood, this hoody is also available in the Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket - Women's.
Top Pick Ultralight Competitor
Arc'teryx Cerium SV Hoody - Women's
The Arc'teryx Cerium SV Hoody is one of the best down jackets we have ever used. It is extremely light weight for how warm it is—in fact, it puffs up so much that we had a hard time believing it was really as lightweight as our scales reported. Some of this warmth comes from the thoughtful design, too. The jacket features a storm collar that seals weather out and warmth in, making it fit more like an expedition parka—except, again, for the extreme light weight. This was our go-to jacket for frigid days wandering around our favorite winter wonderland, and especially for technical ice climbs where warmth is paramount, lightweight a close second, and abrasion is not an issue.
Speaking of abrasion, over the long term, this is not the most durable model. The very lightweight fabric also comes with a limit to its durability, and over months of rigorous use, the threads started to run thin. This is not an everyday use type of jacket, but if you value lightweight and warmth above all else, this is a good investment.
Read review: Arc'teryx Cerium SV Hoody
Top Pick for Poor Weather and Rough Use
Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket - Women's
The Rab Microlight Alpine is one of the most durable pieces we've ever reviewed. Now, with a few detail-oriented updates, it's even more comfortable and functional than before. With the new polymer (instead of wire) hood brim, you don't look ridiculous when you forget to bend it into shape. The folks at Rab have also updated the jacket's fit, expanding the chest box and tapering the sides. This makes the jacket a little less boxy, which helps it flow from mountain to town activities. In this year's round of field tests, we noticed a lot of compliments around town, as well as in the mountains. It is sleek and sharp.
This jacket is a bit heavier for its size, but it seals out weather so well we think it's worth the few extra ounces. Plus, the outer fabric was among the more durable when compared to similarly lightweight jackets in the review. We love the slightly longer arms, and the taper ensures the sleeves stay out of your way, even when rock climbing. The Microlight is light and compressible with 750 fill power hydrophobic down and stands up to light rain and wet snow better than most with its Pertex exterior fabric. We appreciated the new stuff sack, which makes it easy to travel with, but we would have preferred it if it were girth hitched to the pocket so it won't fall out when we open the pocket (like the clever design featured in both the Arc'teryx Cerium LT and SV in this review). As a reliable all-around performer, the Rab jacket earns our Top Pick for Weather Resistance and Durability. This model will be reliable from town to summit. This great hoody is also available in a jacket! If you're looking to ditch the hood, check out the Women's Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket.
Read review: Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket - Women's
Analysis and Test Results
The deeper in the woods or the mountains you go, the more important the things you carry with you become (and how much those things weigh). Having the appropriate gear and clothing in the mountains is imperative to having a good time, and an insulated jacket can be the difference between summit and surrender, celebrating and suffering. Down jackets range broadly from lightweight and packable to heavy-duty expedition parkas. In this review, we focus on the technical lightweight category. The jackets in this review are typically great stand-alone insulation for milder climates, like spring and fall in the desert or brisk mornings on foggy northern beaches. They may also serve as an insulating layer for light aerobic activities in frigid environments, or to wear under a shell jacket in inclement weather. This review aims to help you find the right jacket for your uses, but also to equip you with the knowledge to evaluate jackets for yourself the next time you're browsing at an outdoor store.
While value isn't taken into account when ranking via our metrics, we consider it to play an important part in the purchasing of a product. While some hunting for a new down jacket may want the cream of the crop, others are more interested in the model that offers a high performance to value ratio. With that in mind, consider the scores that those models within your price range earned in testing. Choosing an affordable jacket with a high score ensures you'll be making your dollars go farther. A good one to look at is the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded ($350), which took the highest score at a significantly lower price than some of its competitors, or the Rab Microlight Alpine, which earns a high score and costs $280.
Types of Insulated Jackets
The down versus synthetic question will probably never be an easy one to answer. Even the best synthetic fibers are no match for the warmth-to-weight ratio of natural down feathers. But when down gets wet, it might as well be a pasta meal when you've run out of white gas--it's pretty much useless. We talk more about synthetic, down, and hydrophobic down in our Buying Advice Article. If you're interested in hydrophobic down models, check out the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded and Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket reviews.
After years and months of using these jackets, wearing them across continents and for many different activities, we have come up with an evaluation of which jackets are best at what, and we have awarded some for outstanding performance. Check out the chart above to see where each down competitor in our review ranked in overall performance.
Down is measured by the amount of space taken up by an ounce of down feathers. Because down insulates by trapping air and holding it in place for your body heat to warm up, the more loft you can get, the better. This means a higher numbered fill power is of higher quality. For example, 850 fill power down fills 850 cubic inches for every ounce of down.
This also means that a 550 fill jacket, like The North Face Aconcagua can be just as warm as an 850 fill jacket — it'll just be bulkier. But the most common misconception is that a higher number means warmer when in reality a 550 fill jacket can be warmer than a super thin 850 fill ultralight jacket.
The Arc'teryx Cerium SV Hoody earned our Top Pick award because it has the most loft, and provides very high warmth for the weight. But the slimmer Rab Microlight Alpine.
Most of the jackets in this review are designed to be lightweight, technical insulating layers. Most of them have down in the 750-850 fill power range and provide excellent warmth and loft for the weight. These jackets are optimized for the mountains, which is a challenging balancing act of lightweight, durability, and warmth.
Depending on your top priority, you will likely find a good match among our award winners, and we encourage you to view the ranking chart and each review.
No synthetic fiber has matched down to its incredible warmth-to-weight ratio.
You will probably always remember your first down sleeping bag; did it revolutionize the way you felt about carrying gear on your back? For many, the investment in lightweight down products correlates to increased happiness in the backcountry.
If you are looking to shave ounces, the featherweight Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded - Women's is the obvious choice.
Weighing only 4.5 ounces, it's the lightest in our fleet. The Arc'teryx Cerium SV is even more impressive for its warmth to weight ratio. It weighs 10 ounces and is the warmest in the bunch. The REI Co-Op Down is also relatively lightweight but not as warm.
If you're looking for a good around-town down jacket, the weight may not be a critical factor in your decision. However, since down is one of the best materials for lightweight, warm jackets (and sleeping bags, quilts, booties, etc.), we think this is an important metric for judging the quality of a down jacket. The best jackets were those with the highest quality fill power down (800 and above), which also overlaps with our next rating metric.
One of the main reasons to buy a down jacket, other than the stellar warmth to weight ratio, is the compressibility. For many outdoor activities, space is a huge commodity (along with weight). This may be because you're carrying all your gear on your back, cramming it into a small bike commute bag, or stuffing it into dry bags. Whatever the adventure, it's pretty nice to have everything you need in a compact and lightweight kit.
The first aspect we look for when searching for a highly compressible down jacket is the down fill power. A higher number means more loft, and that means more warmth to weight, and a higher level of compressibility; this is the best stuff. Generally, anything above 750 fill down is considered high quality, but we rarely consider anything below 800 fill anymore.
Next, the rest of the jacket's materials will factor into the compressibility of the jacket. A sturdier fabric will be bulkier, as will a jacket with other materials, like fleece or soft shell, integrated into it.
And last, we also considered the size of the stuff sack or stowable pocket that the jacket stuffs into. This is not a direct reflection of how compressible the jacket actually is, but since it does affect how big the jacket is when stuffed, we thought this was worth at least some consideration. Excessively large stuff sacks or oblong, large pockets made for annoying carrying when stuffed, while too-small stuff sacks or pockets could be challenging and slow to stuff. More trade-offs.
The Arc'teryx Cerium SV, as well as the Cerium LT, were some of the most compressible jackets in this review. The two end up very different sizes when stuffed, however, because the SV is designed for colder temperatures and therefore has bigger baffles and more down. The LT is designed for more mild temperatures and is, therefore, lighter weight with less down insulation overall.
The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer was one of the most compressible. It's thin and light to begin with, like the Cerium LT, and the high quality down allows it to get super small. A small compressed size is ideal for climbing, backpacking, or even bike commuting where pack space is a commodity. If compressibility is not as important to you as some of the other metrics in our test, we'd suggest taking a look at the Rab Microlight Alpine or Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody.
This category is a catch-all for the little things we liked or didn't like about the jackets, from pockets and hoods, to draw cords and well-placed soft fleece patches. In general, we like models with durable plastic zippers that don't bend or kink over time (counter-intuitive, but plastic zippers are much more durable than metal ones). Hem drawcord cinches are key to keeping cold drafts out. A little fleece or creative baffling in the right place goes a long way in promoting freedom of movement.
But a jacket didn't have to have a lot of features to score highly in this category. The Ghost Whisperer has very few features, but Mountain Hardwear kept the ones that count for a high functioning climbing layer. It got high marks for careful selection of key features. In general, we love hoods because they add warmth. We also appreciate chest pockets for ease of access while climbing—and because it helps keep essential items, like snacks or electronics, warm and accessible. The streamlined design also makes the jacket look sleek, easily sliding with you into Happy Hour or your favorite Apres Ski venue.
Arc'teryx stole the show again in this category with details such as a separate stuff sack girth hitched into the chest pocket. This feature meant we could cram it into our luggage or carry it on the back of our harness without fear of snagging the jacket's material while chimneying up a long rock route. And when wearing the jacket, if we unzipped that chest pocket to retrieve our phone or snacks, the stuff sack wouldn't fall out. The Cerium was the highest scorer in the bunch with the Rab Microlight placing second.
The durability of a jacket's material is important when spending over $200. Fabrics are, in general, very durable these days, but there are a few things to pay attention to. Lower denier ratings typically translate to lower weight but less durability, but fabric is not the only durability concern.
In our tests, the lightest fabrics ended up being the most fragile. If it is important to you to have a lightweight jacket, it might be worth sacrificing a little durability. The North Face Aconcagua topped our charts and provided an incredibly durable fabric made of 50D nylon; the Aconcagua is tough. The Canada Goose Perren is another top-notch model that offers rugged material that will hold up to some serious abuse.
The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer is an impressively durable jacket for the weight—the fabric resisted snagging and abrasion while climbing. Alternatively, the Rab Microlight Alpine performed very well and earned our Top Pick award for its durability and reliability in combination with weather resistance. The most durable jackets in this review were not our overall top scoring jackets. This is largely because extremely durable fabrics tend to be heavier. If weight and compressibility are less an issue for you, however, and you want a great around-town jacket that will stand up to years of use, check out the Canada Goose Hybridge Perren, a very stylish urban use down jacket, or the super durable The North Face Aconcagua
Down is one of the best insulators on the planet. No man-made fiber has managed to replace it for its impressive warmth to weight ratio. However, down has one critical Achilles heel—it cannot get wet. When it does, the feathers get matted together and the jacket, sleeping bag, vest, or whatever the item is, loses its warmth. This is because down traps heat in the air pockets between the down feathers. Most outdoor enthusiasts accept this risk and choose to take good care to keep their down items dry on their adventures, but if you spend a lot of time out in wet climates, you might consider synthetic insulation, at least for some of your insulation pieces—the synthetic fibers have more structure and retain warmth even when wet. Another way to manage the risk of down getting wet is to encase it in waterproof fabric, or at least materials coated with a durable water repellent finish (DWR).
Arc'teryx uses a clever Down Composite Mapping technology where they integrate Coreloft synthetic insulation in high-risk areas such as cuffs, shoulders, armpits, and hoods. In previous reviews, these jackets stayed wetter longer because the synthetic insulation would absorb water which would then leak into the down and the shell fabric. In this round of testing, however, even dripping ice climbs couldn't manage to get the Cerium's cuffs wet (which is one of the areas most prone to moisture).
Most of the jackets in this review are treated with a DWR (durable water repellent) coating on the exterior fabric to prevent water from soaking through the material and dampening the down. It is important to note, however, that these jackets are not designed to be remotely waterproof, so if you will be out in the rain, be sure you can fit your rain or hardshell jacket over your down jacket to ensure those feathers stay dry and lofted. The KUHL Spyfire took an interesting approach using DWR coated soft shell over the shoulders, which we found very effective for beading up and shedding light rain. The North Face Aconcagua was a top performer when it came to water resistance. Not batting an eye, it has an oily feel that allows water to bead up and roll right off. We appreciated this when we got caught in storms, and the chill started to creep in. The Arc'teryx Cerium SV and LT both earned the same score when it came to water resistance, and did a spectacular job of protecting us from the elements. It was our favorite model to wear on winter vacations to our favorite snowy wonderlands—especially great for those traveling from warmer climates and who therefore are not as acclimated to the cold. We especially liked the Cerium SV for ice climbing, winter backpacking, and long backcountry ski tours.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this review was the continued opportunity to test out some jackets with treated hydrophobic down: in a practical sense, we still cannot say we notice a big difference in the field. Water repellent fabrics still seem to make the most difference in a down jacket's water resistance. We took all of these jackets ice climbing and ski touring to test the water resistance. Dripping ice climbs offered an excellent real-world opportunity to observe the jackets' water repelling abilities. In the end, most jackets performed to our expectations, with the Marmot Quasar Nova falling behind significantly with how easily the shell material wet out and soaked through to the down.
The jackets in this review use sewn-through baffle construction instead of box-baffles, which are usually reserved for expedition parkas.
The sewn-through design is less expensive to produce, lighter and improves ease of movement. Several companies vary the sizes of its baffles to maximize mobility and insulation. We were very impressed with this solution. Under the arms, they place smaller baffles which eases movement of the arms and torso. Smaller baffles, however, also means more stitches, and therefore reduces its warmth. Since these smaller baffles are only under the arms, the area is often protected from the wind and otherwise covered by the arms themselves.
Overall we felt that the fit and the design of the sewn baffles are the primary components of style. No matter what, puffy down jackets make a woman look, well… puffy. But some look better than others. The shape of the jacket also contributes to Style points. But style cannot trump function, in our reviewers' opinions. In this review, we appreciated the style of the KUHL Spyfire which was an impressive blend of style while remaining adequately "mountain ready". However, as you know, style is subjective - and if you don't like the look of a particular jacket, you might not be inclined to wear it. So do yourself a favor and peruse the metrics for a model that performs according to your wants and needs, and satisfies your personal taste.
We hope we've been able to help you narrow down your top choices and make a final selection of a jacket for your wintertime activities. Check out the related articles below for more winter inspiration! Properly caring for down jackets is very important. Over time the down will get covered in dirt and oils causing it to lose its loft and therefore lose its warmth. To clean your jacket, we recommend using a specialized cleaner such as ReviveX Down Cleaner or a similar product from Nikwax to safely clean the down and restore its loft.
— Lyra Pierotti