Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Jacket
$260, 1 lb. 2 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
From backcountry skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains in a below-zero wind chill, to resort skiing on a sunny but frosty day with temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit, this puffy jacket stood out for three reasons. First and foremost, it kept me warm whether as my only insulating layer over one base layer and under a shell (while resort skiing) or when I simply pulled it on over other layers in the backcountry. Second, it felt noticeably more comfortable than some bulky, stiff puffy jackets, because both the fabric and the down-filled chambers actually stretch. And third, after I got its lining wet with sweat or its shell damp from falling snow, it still kept me warm.
It did all of that because it’s stuffed generously with Hardwear’s 750-fill Q.Shield waterproof down feathers, which repel moisture and retain loft (read: continue trapping heat) even when wet. Plus, the unique, stretch-welded channel construction moves with you and traps heat more efficiently than jackets with standard stitching. Beyond that new technology, it employs some standard design features like a close-fitting, standup collar, elasticized cuffs, and adjustable hem to block cold air from creeping inside. Plus, the length extends halfway down the butt—better coverage than some lighter puffy jackets.
The two zippered hand pockets quickly warmed my cold fingers and held things like extra gloves securely. The zippered chest pocket is roomy, fitting more than just a map or hat; and two deep, inside stuff-it pockets are spacious enough to swallow big gloves or climbing skins when backcountry skiing.
It’s not breathable like some modern insulation, and admittedly, having a down jacket that stretches with you may seem a bit like a solution to a problem you don’t have. But sometimes tech breakthroughs anticipate what consumers want. (Think: iPhone, or in the outdoor industry, the advent of ultralight gear.) When you’re cold and you need to move, whether it’s skiing down a mountain, a chilly descent off a climbing route, or simply getting campsite chores done, you may appreciate a down jacket that’s more comfortable because it moves with you. Besides, it delivers enough warmth for a winter layering system, while weighing just over a pound and packing into a three-liter stuff sack, so it pulls double duty as a campsite puffy for summer-fall backcountry nights in the 30s and 40s Fahrenheit—all at a price competitive with other puffy jackets with a comparable warmth-to-weight ratio but no stretch. Some backcountry travelers may prefer the hooded version, which is $290. (I tested the hoodless version; in the above photos, I’m wearing the StretchDown Jacket over a soft-shell jacket with a hood.)
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.