By Michael Lanza
Whatever you need an insulated jacket for, there’s a down or synthetic puffy for your needs, within your budget. And whether you want a puffy jacket for outdoor activities like backpacking, camping, and climbing, or just to keep you warm around town or at outdoor sporting events, this review will help you figure out how to choose the right jacket for your needs, and it spotlights the best down and synthetic puffy jackets available today.
I selected the jackets covered in this review after extensive testing on backpacking, camping, backcountry skiing, climbing and other backcountry trips. I’ve field-tested dozens of insulated jackets over nearly three decades of testing and reviewing gear, formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog.
Technology has blurred the traditional lines between down and synthetics, with water-resistant down that traps heat even when wet—all but eliminating the weakness that had long been the Achilles heel of down—and synthetic insulation materials that approach the warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility of down.
If you’d prefer, scroll past my buying tips to dive immediately into the jacket reviews.
If you have a question for me or a comment on this review, please leave it in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
How to Choose a Synthetic or Down Jacket
Insulated jackets today differ not only in type and amount of insulation, but also in water resistance, breathability, and as always, design features like the hood and pockets. When choosing between down and synthetic models, consider the usual conditions and temperatures in which you’ll use it—in other words, how wet and cold you expect to get, and your body type (how easily you get cold)—as well as the seasonal and activity versatility you require. Some questions to consider:
• Do you want one jacket for four seasons?
• Do you want it primarily for one or two activities like backpacking, camping, climbing, or skiing?
• Does it need to be breathable because you’ll wear it while on the move at times, or will you only wear it while relatively inactive in camp, when breathability doesn’t really matter?
And perhaps the most-important question: How warm an insulated jacket do you need for how, where, and when you will use it?
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Some performance aspects of puffy jackets you should understand include:
• Standard down feathers lose their ability to trap heat once wet, rendering down less practical in wet environments.
• The primary advantage of synthetic-insulation jackets is the ability to still trap warmth when wet—although the wetter the jacket, the less warm it will feel.
• However, some jackets are now made with water-resistant, or hydrophobic down feathers that greatly improve their ability to repel water, continue to trap heat when damp, and dry faster. And even those jackets that contain standard down often have a water-resistant shell fabric that repels light precipitation (but isn’t designed to withstand a steady rain).
• The down fill-power rating is a measure of the volume, in cubic inches, that one ounce of that down fills; in other words, an ounce of 800-fill power down will occupy 800 cubic inches of volume. Down feathers are separated during processing according to this measure.
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• Higher fill-power ratings translate to more warmth per ounce of down, so if two jackets contain identical amounts of down by weight, the jacket with the higher fill-power rating will probably be warmer and more compressible (and more expensive). That said, of course, an ultralight 800-fill power jacket may not be as warm as a 700-fill power jacket that contains more down.
• Similarly, while synthetic insulation traditionally was not as lightweight and compressible as down, the best modern synthetics—including those reviewed below—have a warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility that compares with mid-grade (700-fill) or better down.
• Some modern synthetic insulations are also constructed in a way that makes them more durable, although, for the most part, down retains the edge there.
Insulated jackets are usually sewn in one of two ways:
• So-called “sewn through” construction stitches the outer, shell fabric to the inner, liner fabric, creating pockets of down, but also potential cold spots at seams where there’s effectively no insulation. This method reduces a jacket’s weight and often its cost, and is practical in ultralight jackets for moderate temperatures (think summer in the mountains).
• The more-expensive method of creating so-called box baffles eliminates cold spots and makes a jacket look puffier, but adds weight and usually cost.
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How Warm a Jacket Do You Need?
As I write in my blog post “How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is,” an insulated jacket’s total weight offers a rough idea of how warm it is. But that’s certainly not precise. Warmth (and weight) will vary with factors like type, quality, and amount of insulation, the jacket’s construction, and whether it has a hood.
Still, with down and synthetic jackets, I look at the garment’s total weight as a general guideline to its warmth. Although I encounter exceptions to the following weight categories, they provide a starting point. These guidelines and temperature ranges also apply to my body’s metabolism (my tolerance for cold is probably a little higher than average), and they presume I’m wearing one or two base layers underneath the puffy that are appropriate to the season and temperatures.
• When I’m going ultralight on summer backcountry trips, and I expect temps no lower than around 40° F, I bring a down or puffy jacket weighing seven to 11 ounces. If the temp drops lower, I supplement with my other layers or get in my sleeping bag when necessary.
• For trips when the temp could dip below freezing, I want a jacket that’s 12 to 16 ounces.
• For colder trips and in winter in the backcountry, my insulated jacket weighs roughly 16 to 22 ounces.
Having a hood certainly keeps you warmer and is worth the additional weight and cost. You should consider whether other layers in your clothing system already have a hood, and make sure that any two hoods you’re wearing together pair up well.
I usually consider a hood mandatory in temperatures near and below freezing, but less important on milder trips, when I’ll pack a hoodless, ultralight puffy jacket to reduce pack weight and because I’m bringing a hat, anyway. However, I also consider the activities for which I’ll use the jacket; for high-speed activities in cold temps, I usually wear a lighter, hoodless insulated jacket.
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Which is Better, Down or Synthetic?
In my experience, if you compare a down and synthetic insulated jacket of the same weight and basic design—for example, assuming both have a hood—I still find that down feathers have the edge in pure warmth. I think that assessment bears out in the products listed below.
To simplify your choice between down and synthetic insulation, think of it this way: If you want a puffy jacket primarily for warmth when you’re inactive (say, in camp), and expect mostly dry conditions or to wear a rain shell over the puffy when needed, get a down jacket. Get water-resistant down if it may occasionally have to endure a light shower. But if you expect to often wear it in wet conditions, get a synthetic puffy. If you will wear it while active in wet conditions, get a synthetic puffy with breathable insulation.
I’ve ranked the following down and synthetic puffy jackets roughly in order from lightest to warmest in each of these two categories. Please share what you think of my review or any of the jackets covered here in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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The Best Down Jackets
When my goal is minimizing pack weight on summer trips with cool but not freezing nights, I bring this wispy jacket. The 800-fill goose down delivers beaucoup warmth for a puffy jacket that’s barely over a half-pound, and the hood boosts its versatility for nights dipping into the 30s Fahrenheit (for some people). It has been my go-to insulation for summer backpacking in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness, Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail, the 96-mile Wind River High Route, and other trips.
When stuffed into one of the two roomy, zippered hand pockets, the jacket packs down to slightly larger than a liter bottle—and lofts up almost instantly. Even better, the 10-denier shell fabric consists of 100 percent recycled nylon ripstop, and the feathers are RDS-certified down—so this newest iteration of the Ghost Whisperer series is as light on the Earth as it is in your pack.
Read my full review of the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 Down Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 Down Hoody at backcountry.com or Moosejaw.com; or other versions of the Ghost Whisperer down jackets at backcountry.com or Moosejaw.com.
Get warmth that stands up to winter temps, water-resistant insulation, and a fit aided by stretch materials in the Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Jacket ($250, 1 lb. 2 oz.). Hardwear’s 750-fill Q.Shield down repels moisture and retains loft when wet, and the unique, stretch-welded channel construction moves with you and traps heat more efficiently than jackets with standard stitching. You can support my blog, at no cost to you, but clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Jacket at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
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Wearing BD’s Approach Down Hoody on cool, very windy evenings and mornings down to the 40s Fahrenheit backpacking in the Grand Canyon, I stayed both perfectly warm and happy that I’d packed a very light puffy that didn’t compromise on warmth or features.
Barely more than an ounce heavier than Hardwear’s Ghost Whisperer/2, the Approach bests it with features found in heavier down jackets, like a chest pocket and a hood that adjusts with a one-hand drawcord and stays in place when turning your head side to side. Stuffed with 800-fill power, water-resistant goose down, it has high warmth for its weight and won’t lose loft when damp—expanding its usefulness from three-season backpacking to active insulation in cold temps. Plus, it boasts green cred with fluorocarbon-free, RDS-certified down and a PFC-free and water-free DWR that’s more durable than traditional DWRs.
Read my full review of the Black Diamond Approach Down Hoody.
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At windblown mountain passes in Glacier National Park and cool evenings and mornings in camp from Glacier to Idaho’s Sawtooths and many other mountain ranges, the Eos proved itself one of the best puffy jackets on the market. Stuffed with 900+-fill goose down, its warmth-to-weight ratio beats most competitors. The Eos kept me completely warm over just a long-sleeve top in the high 30s Fahrenheit and strong wind—impressive for an 11-ounce puffy.
The well-fitted, elasticized hood stays put on your head even when the jacket’s front zipper is halfway down, and the water-resistant, Pertex Quantum shell with a DWR (durable, water-resistant treatment) sheds light rain. Feathered Friends has updated this bestseller with a new chest pocket that’s hidden behind a flap. With a great fit, superior warmth and packability, and low weight, it’s an excellent choice for three-season trips in the mountains—and worth every dollar.
Read my full review of the Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket at featheredfriends.com, or a women’s Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket at featheredfriends.com.
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Pulling on this hybrid down-synthetic jacket in a windblown campsite at around 10,500 feet in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, I instantly felt warmth infuse my torso and arms. While slightly edged out only by the Feathered Friends Eos and Helios and Mammut Meron in warmth-to-weight ratio, the Cerium adds another dimension of performance: It marries the stratospheric warmth-per-ounce of 850-fill power down in the hood, sleeves, and torso, with lightweight, breathable, and compressible Coreloft synthetic insulation in areas like the shoulders and armpits, to keep it trapping heat even when wet.
A close-fitting, under-the-helmet, adjustable hood amps up the warmth. It has two zippered hand pockets, and the shell’s DWR(durable, water-resistant treatment) fends off light precipitation. With a comfortable, athletic fit that allows layering a couple of warm base layers underneath, the Cerium LT Hoody is a good choice for three-season adventures, especially in damp climates.
Read my full review of the Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody.
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In chilling wind on damp, August and September evenings and mornings backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range and Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, the Meron IN Hooded Down Jacket immediately surrounded me with warmth as soon as I pulled it on. Fat but still reasonably light and packable, this puffy vaulted to the top of my list of insulated jackets for pushing the edge of three-season adventures.
Stuffed with 900-fill-power goose down, the Meron’s warmth-to-weight ratio is matched by very few down jackets. The adjustable, helmet-compatible hood shields your face from wind. The fitleaves room for a couple of base layers and/or a light insulation piece and the length exceeds most sub-one-pound puffy jackets. Two spacious, warm, zippered hand pockets sit higher than a backpack or climbing harness belt. The jacket stuffs into a zippered inside pocket, packing down to the size of a small bread loaf.
Read my full review of the Mammut Meron IN Hooded Down Jacket.
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Stay dry, happy, and safe.
See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking.”
When rain and chilly wind whipped through our campsites on evenings and mornings around 40° F in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, as well as on a late-September backpacking trip in Yosemite, the Microlight Alpine Down Jacket passed the test, thanks to features designed to fend off wet and raw conditions.
The hydrophobic, 700-fill goose down traps heat even when damp and dries faster than standard down, while the micro and nano stitch-through baffle construction helps reduce the jacket’s weight and cost. With a stiffened brim and close fit around your head, the adjustable hood boosts warmth substantially. The 30-denier Pertex Quantum ripstop nylon shell sheds light precipitation; paired with the hydrophobic down, it makes this a better (read: warmer) choice for wet weather than many down jackets. Green creds: The Microlight Alpine Jacket has a fully recycled shell, insulation, and lining. At this price, it’s a great value.
Read my full review of the Rab Microlight Alpine Down Jacket.
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On winter nights in the single digits outside a yurt in Idaho’s Boise Mountains, and raw, wet spring mornings camped in Idaho’s City of Rocks, this fat down jacket felt crazy warm—especially for its weight and surprising packability, spotlighting its versatility as an outstanding down jacket that’s light and packable enough for sub-freezing temps or people who just get cold more easily on three-season trips.
The Helios is stuffed generously with nearly eight ounces (men’s medium) of 900+-fill down, the highest-quality down you can find, which explains its stratospheric warmth-to-weight ratio. The comfortable, adjustable hood seals nicely around the face to trap heat and fits over a climbing helmet. The water-resistant, 20-denier Pertex Endurance LT shell fabric repels light rain, and the jacket has two hand pockets with overlapping stretch flaps in lieu of a zipper, plus one small, zippered inside pocket.
Read my full review of the Feathered Friends Helios Hooded Down Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase a men’s Feathered Friends Helios Hooded Down Jacket at featheredfriends.com.
Need ultimate warmth? If this list was expanded to include the warmest down jacket reviewed at this blog, the Black Diamond Vision Down Parka ($450, 1 lb. 4.5 oz.) would be on it. This poofy puffy jacket felt blessedly toasty on an early-March morning with the temperature at 17° F at a campsite on the edge of The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. Read my review.
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See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.
The Best Synthetic Jackets
In cool, strong wind from Idaho’s City of Rocks to the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, the Micro Puff Hoody delivered more warmth than expected, given that it weighs barely more than a half-pound. Patagonia’s water-resistant PlumaFill insulation matches the warmth-to-weight ratio of high-quality (800-fill power) down, while trapping heat when wet. That’s because it’s constructed as a continuous strand, which, combined with the jacket’s discontinuous quilting design, creates internal spaces that trap heat—imitating how down delivers so much warmth.
The water-resistant, windproof, 10-denier Pertex Quantum shell with a DWR shrugged off a couple of hours of very light rain in one camp. The non-adjustable, elasticized hood clings snugly around your face and fits under a helmet. Appealing to ultralighters and anyone seeking one of the lightest, most packable puffy jackets, the Micro Puff excels for three-season backpacking and camping in moderate temps.
Read my full review of the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody at backcountry.com, patagonia.com, or patagonia.ca in Canada.
Want a synthetic puffy that’s warmer than the Micro Puff Hoody? Made with 55 percent recycled polyester, the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody ($249, 13 oz.) features water-resistant PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco, which has a warmth-per-ounce ratio similar to mid-grade down, and the jacket zips into its inside chest pocket.
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Outdoor Research Helium Insulated Hoodie
$199, 11 oz.
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
On a late-September backpacking trip in Yosemite, this lightweight and packable puffy jacket kept me warm on evenings and mornings in the 40s Fahrenheit—including one morning when a steady, chilly breeze blew through our camp. The breathable and stretchy VerticalX ECO SR insulation packs a good warmth-to-weight ratio, traps heat when wet, and derives from Repreve recycled polyester and 37 percent plant-based Sorona textile. Beyond green creds, that combination of materials produces an insulation that lofts more than some synthetics.
The wind- and water-resistant, 15- by 30-denier Pertex Quantum shell fabric is made from 41 percent recycled materials and has Diamond Fuse technology, consisting of yarns with interlocking, diamond-shaped filaments that OR says makes the shell twice as durable as fabrics commonly used in lightweight insulated jackets. The adjustable hood is helmet-compatible and the jacket stuffs into one of the two spacious zippered pockets. And did you see that price?
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Helium Insulated Hoodie.
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For cold-weather activities like backcountry skiing and winter hiking, get warmth plus superior breathability with the Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody ($259, 12oz.). The Coreloft Compact synthetic insulation kept me warm while standing around evaluating avalanche hazard and lost none of its warmth when damp. It features stretch side panels that dump moisture, an adjustable helmet-compatible hood, and an athletic fit in six women’s sizes and seven men’s sizes. Read my review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody at rei.com, arcteryx.com, backcountry.com, or moosejaw.com.
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From cool summer evenings and mornings in camp on a six-day backpacking trip in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness to days of backcountry skiing in a full range of winter weather, The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix Hoodie demonstrated a versatility seen in only the best synthetic insulated jackets—light, warm, and breathable enough to function as the only puffy jacket you need year-round.
TNF’s “dynamic” 60g Ventrix polyester stretch insulation breathes well enough to allow damp base layers to dry out, thanks to perforated micro vents that open to release body heat with a wearer’s movement and close with decreased activity. The stretchy, adjustable hood fits under a helmet, the fabric easily shed lightly falling snow, and the jacket has four zippered pockets—a rarity. Consider this a quiver-of-one puffy jacket for bridging three-season backpacking and winter days in the mountains.
Read my full review of The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix Hoodie.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix Hoodie at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
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