Updated April 2017
With summer alpine climbing and hiking on the horizon, we've updated this review as of April 2017 to include all of the market's most recent updates. We've added charts and graphs to make your decision easier, and we've done further research to ensure that our award winners are still the top performers in their class.
Best Overall Down Jacket
Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's
Warm for its size and weight
Packs into its own pocket
No way to cinch the hood
Colors that you either love or hate
Incredibly lightweight and boasting 850 fill hydrophobic down, the Women's Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer
earns top honors as our Editors' Choice winner. Only 7.2 ounces, it is light and compressible enough for climbing and backpacking. With a stylish cut, it crosses over for use in town or while car camping. Our experts found it to be comfortable with a surprisingly high warmth-to-weight ratio. Plus, it stuffs into a hand pocket. With all of these benefits, the Ghost Whisperer snagged our top spot, and now updated with more colors and tonal arms, it's even more fashionable. If you're looking to ditch the hood, this hoody is also available in the Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket - Women's
Read full review: Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's
Top Pick for Poor Weather and Rough Use
Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket - Women's
Hood is not versatile
Narrower baffles compress down
The Women's Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket
is among the most durable pieces we've ever reviewed, and now with a few detail-oriented updates, it's even more comfortable than before. Now with a polymer (instead of wire) hood brim, the folks at Rab have also updated the piece's fit, expanding the chest box and tapering the sides. This makes the jacket a little less boxy, which helps it transition from mountain to town activities. This piece is a bit heavier, but it seals out weather so well we think it's worth the few extra ounces. Filled with 750 fill power hydrophobic down, and with a Pertex exterior, it withstands moisture longer than most of the other jackets reviewed. Updated to include a stuff sack, you can easily pack it. As a reliable all-around performer, the Rab jacket earns our Top Pick for weather resistance and durability. This jacket will withstand a lot of use and abuse and will last. 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 full review: Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket - Women's
Top Pick for Everyday Use
Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody - Women's
Great generalist jacket
Ethically harvested down
Fabric gets dirty easily
Truly excels in no category
Throughout testing, the Women's Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody
proved to be a comfortable, cozy jacket that earns its use of the term "sweater." It is a Jill-of-all-trades, master-of-none kind of jacket. It isn't the lightest, toughest, most compressible, or most water-resistant, but it is a solid contender in all of these categories. In all of our testing, we were consistently pleased with the performance, comfort, and usability of the Down Sweater Hoody. Slightly warmer than the super light Ghost Whisperer, it can be worn in more situations and feel more forgiving. It became one of our go-to pieces for jaunts around McMurdo, Antarctica, and in the rugged and remote mountains around Seattle. Patagonia also has you covered if you're looking for the Down Sweater without the hood. Take a look at the Women's Patagonia Down Sweater Jacket
Read full review: Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody - Women's
Best On a Tight Budget
Columbia Platinum 860 Turbodown Hooded Jacket - Women's
The Women's Columbia Platinum 860 Turbodown Hooded Jacket
has recently been discontinued, and the folks at Columbia recommend the slightly more expensive Platinum Plus 740 Turbodown Hooded Jacket
in its stead. However, some retailers will still have the Platinum 860, and you'll likely be able to pick it up at a huge markdown. Although it doesn't have the quality and versatility of the Arc'teryx Thorium AR hoody or our other award winners, it costs a lot less. It's the best jacket if you just want to be warm, look good, and stretch your dollar.
Read full review: Columbia Platinum 860 Turbodown Hooded 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 the 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 high desert or brisk mornings on foggy northern beaches. They may also serve as an insulating layer for light aerobic activities in extreme cold 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.
Wearing the Rab Microlight in Antarctica, testing the jacket in the extreme cold on the southernmost continent.
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.
This is a jacket insulated with man-made fibers. It is heaver for its weight than down and doesn't compress as well. However, unlike down, it retains its loft when wet. Synthetic jackets are more durable in the short-term because if you tear a hole in the outer material, the insulation doesn't leak out. But down is more durable over the long-term, and can handle more compressions and expansions. These jackets are usually less expensive.
Down is the ultimate in insulation: it has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio and is highly compressible, great for the weight-conscious outdoorsperson. Best of all, a good down jacket will last for years. However, the jackets often need some attention if you want them to last (careful washing and drying, dry and lofted storage), and you need to be careful not to rip them or the feathers can leak out and leave you with no insulation. Moisture is down's Achilles heel: when it collects water, the feathers clump together and lose their loft--and therefore their insulating capability. These jackets tend to be expensive, and get more so as the quality of the down improves.
Down industries continue to try to reinvent the feather--or, admitting defeat, layer on other supposed improvements and gimmicks to draw the consumer's wandering eye. This review aims to help you see through the nonsense and find the jacket that best suits your needs.
In the space of a few fast decades, we have made advances in the fabrics encasing the down feathers, but nothing has been able to improve upon the natural insulating properties of high quality down feathers. New technologies have been exploring the possibility of improving the water resistance of the down feathers themselves. After years of struggling to manufacture a synthetic fiber to rival natural down, materials scientists have also been looking at ways to improve upon down itself.
Several companies have started to address the wet-down problem from the inside-out by coating down feathers in a durable water repellent compound (think of the water repellent treatment on the exterior of your rain jacket). Patagonia has come up with a characteristically more environmentally friendly way to do so, which they also say increases the loft of their down. The technology is fascinating, and in our tests we are inclined to believe in its usefulness, at least in the short term. Critics, however, wonder how durable the treatment will be over time.
The technology does seem to be catching on, but not every company is on board, which prompts us to wonder, first, if the technology is cost effective, and second, if it added any noticeable benefit to consumers. In our experience, we found little to no noticeable benefit.
To check out more of our thoughts on waterproof down, read our Buying Advice Article
and check out our Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's
and Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket - Women's
We extracted a small sample of DownTek treated hydrophobic down from on of our test jackets. We evaluated the look and feel of the treated down and sprayed it with water to see what happened. This is before.
A sample of DownTek treated hydrophobic down after being sprayed with water. Notice how the water is beading up on the down rather than soaking into the fibers.
Criteria for Evaluation
After years and months of using these jackets, wearing them across continents and for many different applications, we have come up with a consensus on which jackets are best at what, and we have awarded some for outstanding performance. Check out the chart below to see where each down jacket in our review ranked in Overall Performance score.
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 Jacket - Women's
can be just as warm as an 800 fill jacket--it'll just be bulkier. But the most common misconception is that a higher number means warmer. A 550 fill jacket can, in fact, be warmer than a super thin 850 fill ultralight jacket.
The Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer ran away with our Editors' Choice award because it has the best loft, and provides very high warmth for the weight.
Most of the pieces in this review, like the Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody - Women's
are designed to be thin, lightweight technical insulating layers. They all have down in the 700-800 fill power range and provide excellent warmth and loft for the weight. These jackets are not the thick and warm pieces that would keep you warm while standing still at a sporting event or concert, but are lighter layers to take with you into the mountains. Some of the warmest models are the thick and puffy Arc'teryx Thorium AR Hoody
and the Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket.
This review's most innovative and intriguing technological addition was Columbia's Omni-Heat reflective lining found in the Columbia Platinum 860 Turbodown Hooded Jacket - Women's
. To make down jackets warmer, they decided to paint the inside of their jackets with a bunch of silver dots (think, in effect, something similar to an emergency blanket lining your jacket). This is a novel and intriguing idea; in practice, however, it proved disappointing. The liner would reflect heat back as advertised, but rather than simply maintaining the heat generated, like traditional down jackets, the Omni-Heat lining increases its heating power as you are producing it. This means that as you quicken your pace and warm-up, the liner reflects that warmth back to you, making you feel exponentially hotter. The result is the sweatiest, stuffiest jacket in our review. Overall, we prefer the standard down jackets as technical insulation pieces.
The Omni-Heat liner. No inner pockets. Bummer times two.
No synthetic fiber has matched down for 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 Hooded Ghost Whisperer - Women's
, weighing 7.2 ounces, is the obvious choice. The Arc'teryx Cerium SL - Women's is even lighter at 5.8
, but it is lacking in some features, like a hood, and therefore is limited in application. The bulky and classic Nuptse 2 - Women's weighs a hefty 25.04 ounces and is best used as an around camp and around town jacket rather than a mountain layer to be carried with you on overnights.
In a jacket or sleeping bag, is not the down itself that actually does the insulating, it is the tiny air pockets trapped by the down fibers. Unfortunately, once down gets wet all the fibers stick together, it loses its loft and thus its warmth. If you plan on being in extremely wet conditions, synthetic insulation is preferable because it does not have this same issue and retains some insulating properties when wet. However, if you do have a down jacket, or value the weight savings of down over synthetic, you want it to have some sort of water resistance so that in the event you do get a little damp, you don't freeze.
Arc'teryx has introduced their Down Composite Mapping, a technology where they integrate Coreloft synthetic insulation in high-risk areas such as cuffs, shoulders, and hoods. This technology is found in the Cerium and Thorium on our test. Our testing, however, revealed that these jackets stayed wetter longer because the synthetic insulation would absorb water which would then leak into the down and the shell fabric. This is okay for a fully synthetic jacket which insulates somewhat whether it is wet or dry, but not okay for the down.
All the jackets in this review are treated with some type of DWR (durable water repellent) coating on the exterior fabric to prevent water from soaking through the material and dampening the down, but these types of coatings do not last very long and do not withstand a heavy dousing.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this review was the opportunity to test out some jackets with treated hydrophobic down: The Ghost Whisperer and the Rab Microlight Alpine jacket.
We tested all of our jackets for water resistance by wetting them in the shower and letting them soak for a while. It proved difficult to gauge how much water resistance was due to the DWR coating on the exterior fabric and how much we could attribute to the hydrophobic down itself. Overall, we found the hydrophobic down jackets to resist water better and dry out faster, but those jackets, the Ghost Whisperer and the Rab jacket, were just generally better designed. Time will tell as more hydrophobic down products become available and we start to see how it performs as it ages.
Wetting and drying our jackets for a side-by-side comparison.
The quality of the down factors largely into the compressibility of a jacket. Again, the higher the number of the down fill, the more compressible it will be.
The Arc'teryx Cerium SL - Women's
was the most compressible with its 850 fill down, followed by the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. Both of these jackets are thin and light to begin with, and the high quality down allows them to get super small. A small compressed size is ideal for climbing, backpacking, or even bike commuting where pack space is a huge commodity.
Our lineup of women's jackets compressed into stuff sacks and pockets for compressibility comparison. (L to R: Montbell Frost Smoke, Montbell Alpine Light, Arc'teryx Thorium, Arc'teryx Cerium, Ghost Whisperer, Rab Microlight.
A comparison shot of three of our jackets, clockwise from left: the Columbia Platinum 860 Turbodown hooded jacket, the Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody, and the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody.
Style and Fit
The jackets in this review use sewn-through baffle construction. This design is less expensive to produce, lighter weight, and makes for better ease of movement. Patagonia varied the sizes of its baffles in the Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody - Women's
to maximize mobility and insulation. We were very impressed by this solution. Under the arms, they placed smaller baffles which eases movement of the arms and torso. Smaller baffles, however, also means more stitches where the jacket is thin and, therefore, not as warm. Since these smaller baffles are only under the arms, the area is often protected from the wind and otherwise covered by the arms themselves. Patagonia also placed smaller baffles at the bottom of the jacket, which helps the jacket move with your body, contouring to your shape and, with the help of a drawcord hem, seal out the wind. Overall, thoughtful baffling can be a powerful tool.
Overall we felt that the fit and the design of the sewn baffles are the primary component of style. No matter what, puffy down jackets make a woman look, well… puffy. But some look better than others. We did not like the look of the curving quilted baffles on the Outdoor Research Aria - Women's
(though one tester disagreed and enjoyed the look) and we did like the more traditional quilted baffles of the Ghost Whisperer, the Patagonia Down Sweater, and the Rab Microlight. And the Arc'teryx Cerium SL had a flattering cut.
But style cannot trump function, in our reviewers' opinions. The Columbia Platinum 860 Turbodown Hooded Jacket - Women's
is a good example of where style was prioritized over usability and durability. At some point, jacket manufacturers figured out that if they reversed zippers, they could coat them with waterproofing material on the smooth side and eliminate the need for storm flaps. Increasingly, jackets are using the same concept but for style, not weatherproofing. Columbia uses this reversed zipper orientation, which looks sharp, but in our experience, these zippers wear out faster. This is likely because now you are pulling against the sharp points of the teeth. Like those knobbly mountain bike tires or protruding shoe treads, any avid biker or trail runner knows what happens when pounding the wrong surface: excessive wearing.
Post-climb lazy fall morning in Zion National park, perfect for the Arc'teryx Cerium SL.
The durability of a jacket's material is important when spending $200-300. Fabrics are, in general, very good these days, but there are a few things to pay attention to. Lower denier ratings typically roughly translate to lighter weight but less durability. But not all deniers are created equal. The Ghost Whisperer, for example, proved much more weatherproof, breathable, and durable than the Arc'teryx Cerium SL - Women's
, both made of 7D fabrics. Mountain Hardwear says that is because their fabric is the only true 7D by 10D fabric, woven by only one mill in the world, which uses single yarns rather than pairs of strands. But if you seek durability, the 40D Arc'teryx Thorium AR Hoody - Women's
or Rab's 30D Microlight Alpine jacket will fit the bill.
In our tests, the lightest fabrics ended up being the most fragile. The North Face Nuptse 2 Jacket - Women's has reinforced patches in high use areas
, which adds to the durability. If it is important to you to have a lightweight jacket, it might be worth sacrificing a little durability. The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer is an impressively durable jacket for the weight--the fabric resisted snagging and abrasion, but some of the stitching snagged. Alternatively, the Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket - Women's
performed very well and earned our Top Pick award for its durability and reliability in combination with weather resistance.
This jacket invites you to climb in it--it is super light and boasts excellent range of movement. However, the stitching on the arms snagged easily on rock when taking some warmup laps in chilly climbing temps.
This category is a catch-all for the little things we liked or didn't like about the jackets, from zippers to draw cords to well-placed soft fleece patches. In general, we like jackets 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; and a little fleece in the right place goes a long way, like in Rab's Microlight Alpine jacket.
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 ones that really count. It got high marks for careful selection of key features.
Our lineup of contenders to be reviewed.
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 if 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.