What Is Down?
Down is the natural insulating layer found on geese and ducks that keeps their bodies warm even while swimming around in nearly freezing water. The down layer lies in between their skin and their oily layer of hollow outer feathers, which give them the ability to float and provide a waterproof membrane that protects the down. 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. Not only is that what they look like, but that is pretty much exactly what they are. Lots of these little blobs all clustered together form millions of tiny air pockets, providing "loft," which serves as an incredible insulator. The more inert air that can be trapped in between you and the cold outside air, the better you will be insulated from its chilling effects. Down is the best insulator on the planet in terms of warmth-to-weight ratio. It is also very resistant to the damage caused in compression, meaning you can stuff it in your pack time and again without compromising its ability to keep you warm.
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, but when it gets wet, it will lose its loft, meaning it will also lose its ability to keep you warm. Synthetic insulated jackets are quite a bit heaver at the same thickness and warmth, and they don't compress and pack down as well, but they keep much of their loft when wet. This means that even when wet a synthetic jacket can still retain some of its insulating capability and thus its warmth.
Down tends to last longer, and the feathers themselves allow for more breathability than synthetic insulations. Your average synthetic jacket will lose much of its warmth over 5-7 years, depending on wear, compared with your average down jacket that with equal care can retain its warmth for 10-20 years. Down also has a higher resiliency after being compressed than synthetic insulations, so after being unpacked a down jacket will regain its shape more quickly.
Synthetic jackets are more durable when it comes to abrasion. If you climb that last chimney pitch in the dark wearing your synthetic puffy coat and put some holes in it, no big deal. If you put holes in your down coat, the filling will leak out like the first winter snow. The white fluffy stuff that comes from birds also tends to be more expensive, although the extra cost will be offset in the long run due to the increased longevity of the product.
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 the one serious drawback to down — it's inability to maintain loft, and therefore warmth retention, when wet. Many different companies have developed proprietary hydrophobic down, and in our review two of the jackets — the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded and the Marmot Guide Down Hoody — 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. An even more important question might be: "Why don't all of the down jackets in this review incorporate hydrophobic down?" Unfortunately, we can't answer this question, and admit that it does seem odd that with this technology seemingly widespread at this time, only two of the top nine jackets use it.
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.
Types of Technical Insulated Jackets
Carefully considering the climate you intend to use your insulated jacket in, as well as the types of activities you are planning to undertake while wearing your jacket, will help you decide whether down is the most appropriate choice for your purchase. Below are brief descriptions, including pros and cons, of each type of insulated jacket to help you make a decision. For a much more detailed account of how down works, or whether you might want a synthetic insulated jacket instead, check out our Buying Advice Article.
Down quality is rated by a system that measures its fill power, which is the number of cubic inches displaced by an ounce of down. It is usually expressed with the word "fill" preceded by a number ranging from 300 to 900, increasing in increments of 50. The higher the fill-power, i.e. 800 fill, the greater the loft provided by the down, and therefore the less down it requires to provide warmth. Typically 550+ fill is sufficiently warm and light enough to be used in jackets intended for activities like backpacking and climbing. At the higher end of the scale, 800 to 900 fill down is often used for extremely lightweight and warm clothing. Recently the high end of this spectrum has been pushed out a little farther by technologies that have increased the loft per weight of down to 1100 fill.
Pros: High warmth-to-weight ratio, very durable, very compressible, comfortable
Cons: Doesn't function when wet, leaks feathers when outer fabric torn, more expensive than synthetic, must be harvested from animals
There are a number of manufacturer specific proprietary synthetic insulating materials on the market today that are designed to mimic the warmth and loft of down. Though synthetic insulation has yet to achieve the same warmth-to-weight ratio as down, it is more than adequate for most applications and performance is not as diminished when it becomes wet. If you are interested in this style of jacket, or the cons associated with down are too much to overcome for your needs, then reference The Best Insulated Jacket For Men Review.
Pros:Doesn't leak when outer material is torn, functions when wet, generally more affordable.
Cons:Lower warmth-to-weight ratio, damaged in compression, not as compressible, not as durable.
Down coated with a DWR finish, known also as hydrophobic down, resists moisture much better than regular down. This treatment does not transform down, so it still does not function as well as synthetic insulation when wet, but it does allow it to function over a wider range of conditions than non-treated down. Additionally, some of the technologies used to treat the down actually increase the fill-power, or warmth-per-weight, of the down. Surprisingly, only two of the jackets in our review featured this advantageous technology, so if this interests you, investigate the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded or the Marmot Guide Down Hoody.
Pros:Resistant to water, higher fill power possible, all of the advantages of regular down.
Cons:More expensive, still leaks feathers when torn.
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 amount 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.
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. In order to address concerns about where the down in their products comes from, and to assure buyers that the animals were well treated, many companies are using "traceable down," or "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 for their down. They take great measures to ensure that the humanely treated animals 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 onto companies that do not. In this review, the jackets that featured traced or some form of responsibly sourced down were the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody, Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody, Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody, and The North Face Trevail Hoodie. We realize it is possible that the other jackets reviewed also include responsibly sourced down, but we were unable to find statements that said that they do.
In general there are two primary construction methods used in these down jackets:
This method is most common. It is easier and less time-consuming for manufacturers than box baffle construction. The outer material is stitched directly into the inner lining, separating the down in different baffles. This method uses less fabric and is lighter than more complicated box baffle construction (see below), 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 (like a box baffle), 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.
Box Baffle construction is the best method for optimizing the loft, and warmth, of the down fill. As opposed to sewn through construction, in which the outer and inner layers of the jacket are sewn together to create separate baffles, box baffle construction means that each separate baffle is its own three-dimensional cube or rectangle. This means that there is much less pinching of the down at the baffle's perimeter, maximizing the loft of the down, and minimizing cold spots. Jackets constructed this way are usually thicker, warmer, and more uniformly puffy with smoother baffles. Due to the use of extra material, and complexity, box baffle construction is sometimes heavier and more expensive, but offers a more optimized down performance, in terms of pure warmth, than the sewn-through method. Generally speaking, parkas are more likely to feature box baffle construction than lighter weight down jackets.
Some jackets feature both methods of construction. Generally box baffles on the chest and back, and sewn-through baffles on the arms. The Arc'teryx Thorium SV is the only jacket in this review that uses this form of construction.
The main fabrics (the outer shell and the lining) have an affect on 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 Velcro and cinch cords for adjustability. Jackets with lighter materials are obviously more compressible and lighter.
Different fabrics have different durabilities. 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 phenomenal warmth-to-weight ratios. However if you are looking for a down jacket that you can use and abuse for years and years, considering shell fabric durability may be your primary concern considering that down is itself inherently durable if properly cared for. When researching a jacket you're considering purchasing, take the time to note the shell fabric material and it's relative weight compared to other similar jackets. 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 fabric to breathe a bit, allowing perspiration to escape. Otherwise the down would wet and lose its loft.
Finally, the shell fabric is what protects the down from the elements. Fabrics with a tighter weave are more water resistant. Although all of these jackets tested here have some sort of DWR (durable water repellant) coating, these wear off in varying degree of quickness.
If weight and pack-ability are your major concerns, consider one of the jackets here with super-light shell material like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. If durability is your major concern than consider some of the jackets with slightly burlier shell fabrics like the Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody.
Hood or No Hood?
Overall, hoods keep you warmer, especially in windy conditions. In order to be sure that we were comparing apples to apples, we chose only jackets with a hood for this year's review. Many of these models are also made without a hood for a few less dollars, and we made note of that in the specs column. If you're looking for a down layer to keep you as warm as possible, then get a hood. If you often wear your jacket as a mid-layer, consider a non-hooded jacket, which will layer a bit easier under your chosen outerwear, which probably has a hood. Keep in mind that not all hoods are designed the same. Some hoods are made to wear over a climbing helmet and are rather big if you don't happen to be wearing one at the time. Other hoods, like on the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer, are designed to be tighter fitting to the face and worn under a helmet. These hoods are good at keeping the cold out and offer a tighter, sleeker profile while climbing or hiking, but they look a little funny for around town.
Stuffable / Clip-able
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. Take a peek at the photo below to compare the sizes of several jackets stuffed into their stuff sacks or pockets.
Pockets / General Features
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 area often cut include draw cords 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. Many parkas, for example, feature interior mesh drop-in pockets to warm your frozen gloves and water bottles.
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 a top priority, 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. Both the Arc'teryx Thorium SV and the Marmot Guide Down Hoody are designed as outer layers to throw on over the top of everything else you are wearing, and add a great amount of insulation to keep you warm when you are in camp.
For backcountry skiers, a lightweight down jacket will serve primarily as a mid-layer to be thrown on to ward off chill on the down hills. 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 Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody, the Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody, or the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody.
For resort skiing, we like to wear a down mid-layer under our shell all of the time in the winter, as the temps are usually cold, and whether you are going up or down, you are likely being blasted by cold air. Warmth becomes a bigger priority than weight in these circumstances. All of the jackets we recommend for backcountry skiing would work great as a mid-layer here, but you could also add in The North Face Trevail Hoodie.
There are many different scenarios where you might be climbing and want a down jacket, broken down a bit more detailed below.
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 Marmot Guide Down Hoody, which is also ideally suited for this use.
Any time that we are alpine rock climbing, we prefer to be using a synthetic insulated jacket. Check out our Best Insulated Jacket for Men Review for some good ideas. Lightweight down jackets don't want to make direct contact with rock, as the thin outer layers will likely tear, and feathers and down will begin leaking out immediately, ruining the jacket. If a synthetic jacket tears, the insulation remains largely unaffected, and you can repair the hole after the climb.
For mixed alpine and alpine ice climbs, we love using a lightweight down jacket that has the option of either being worn as a mid layer under our shell, or as an outer layer at the belays that we can put on and remove again frequently. Typically the temperature of the air will dictate which tactic is most appropriate. The Ghost Whisperer and the Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody are the best down mid-layers in this review. For belay coat usage we would still recommend the Ghost Whisperer, and also think the OR Transcendent Hoody and the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody are good options. The main features you want for this kind of climbing is light weight, and very compressible, not to mention a fit that will go over other clothes.
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. We will always also have a large puffy belay jacket ready for times when we stop moving. For this kind of jacket we want the warmest we can get, with internal pockets for keeping extra clothing items warm and trying to dry gloves out a huge bonus. By far the best jacket in this review for this situation is the Marmot Guide Down Hoody, although the Arc'teryx Thorium SV will work well here also.
Some people work outside in the winter in very extreme environments, and need extra clothing in order to stay warm. Granted, most of these people seem to get by with layering various inexpensive Carhart-style solutions, but depending on your job, a high quality insulation layer could make you a lot happier. However, this is another circumstance where we would recommend synthetic insulation over down, because of the increased durability should you tear the jacket. If we were to wear a down jacket for work, we would be sure to have a far more protective shell jacket layered over the top of it to protect it from rips or scratches. Any of the lighter weight, mid-layer selection of jackets in this review would work well in these circumstances.
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 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 (or fat).
All of these jackets will keep you warm, but there is a wide range exhibited here. Your decision will certainly be different if you live in a town where the overnight low is 20, versus if you live in a town where the low is -20. If you just need insulation from 20, then any jacket in this review is fine in conjunction with your other clothes, and we recommend the ones that look the best. In our opinion these are the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody and the OR Transcendent Hoody. If your home is truly butt-a@@ cold, then please choose either the Marmot Guide Down Hoody or the Arc'teryx Thorium SV, and don't be fooled into thinking one of the super light jackets will keep you happy and toasty at -20.
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.