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 a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years, and many years for 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 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.
If you’d prefer, scroll past my buying tips to dive immediately into the jacket reviews.
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, 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 when relatively inactive in camp?
And perhaps the most-important question: How warm an insulated jacket do you need for how 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.
• However, today, some jackets are 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, compressible, and durable 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) 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.
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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.
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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, the Eos proved itself one of the best puffy jackets on the market—and an incredible value. Stuffed with 900+-fill goose down, 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. Its warmth-to-weight ratio is as good as any I’ve seen. 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.
Read my full review of the Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket.
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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. Matched only by the Feathered Friends Eos in warmth for its weight, 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.
Read my full review of the Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody.
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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 packability, spotlighting its versatility as an outstanding down jacket for winter and a puffy that’s light and packable enough for chilly, three-season trips. The Helios is stuffed generously with 900+-fill down, the highest-quality down produced, including in the comfortable, adjustable hood. 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.
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From backcountry skiing in a below-zero wind chill to resort skiing in sunshine with temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit, this puffy jacket stood out for three reasons. Most importantly, it kept me warm alone or under a shell. Second, it was noticeably more comfortable than some puffy jackets, because both the fabric and the down-filled chambers stretch. And third, after getting wet from sweat (inside) or falling snow (outside), it still kept me warm. Credit goes to Hardwear’s 750-fill Q.Shield waterproof down, which repels moisture and retains loft when wet; and the unique, stretch-welded channel construction, which moves with you and traps heat more efficiently than jackets with standard stitching. It also has five pockets, an adjustable hem, and more length than some competitors. It comes in hooded men’s and women’s versions, too.
Read my full review of the Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Jacket.
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For a more affordable, warm, winter-worthy down jacket (though heavier and bulkier), check out the Marmot Guides Down Hoody ($250, 1 lb. 7 oz.) and Marmot Boy’s and Girl’s Guides Down Hoody ($140, 1 lb. 6 oz.). Read my review.
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The Best Synthetic Jackets
The Micro Puff Hoody delivers more warmth than you expect, given that it weighs barely more than a half-pound. Patagonia’s proprietary, water-resistant PlumaFill insulation matches the warmth-to-weight ratio of high-quality down (850- to 900-fill power), while delivering the primary benefit of synthetic insulation—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 non-adjustable, elasticized hood clings snugly around your face and fits under a helmet, giving the jacket a serious warmth boost. Choose this puffy for three-season backpacking and camping, not deep cold.
Read my full review of the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody.
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The North Face ThermoBall Jacket
$199, 12 oz.
Sizes: men’s and women’s XS-XXL
Designed by PrimaLoft and The North Face, ThermoBall insulation has small, round fiber clusters—unlike typical continuous-filament synthetic insulation— that lends it the warmth and compressibility of 600-fill power down feathers, while retaining the ability of synthetic material to continue trapping heat when wet. A good value, the original ThermoBall Jacket packs into one of its two zippered hand pockets and performs as an outer layer for three-season backpacking or camping or a middle layer in sub-freezing temps. TNF has produced variants of this jacket, including the ThermoBall Active Jacket, which removes the insulation from the sleeves to make the jacket better for on-the-go activities in cold temps.
Read my review of The North Face ThermoBall Active Jacket.
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On backpacking trips from Idaho’s Sawtooths to the North Cascades, this packable, hooded puffy kept me warm down to around 40° F. Made with 55 percent recycled polyester, the PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco consists of fibers a fraction of the diameter of a human hair that create tiny air pockets to trap heat.
Softer and more compressible than thicker-diameter synthetic fibers, PrimaLoft Gold has a warmth-per-ounce ratio similar to down. Those water-resistant fibers also maintain their air pockets when wet: PrimaLoft claims that Gold Eco maintains 98 percent of its dry thermal efficiency when wet. The jacket zips into its inside chest pocket, and its shell fabric has a DWR (durable, water-resistant treatment) that repels light precipitation.
Read my full review of the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody.
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What touches your skin matters, too. See my picks for the best base layers for any season.
Outdoor Research Refuge Air Hooded Jacket
$229, 15 oz.
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
OR seems to have hired Goldilocks to find the perfect light, breathable, water-resistant, insulated jacket—one you can wear for everything from ski touring and climbing in full-on winter conditions to sitting in your campsite sipping your joe in the chilly morning air of the High Sierra or Tetons in August. The Refuge Air just may strike that delicate balance. For starters, the breathability of OR’s proprietary VerticalX synthetic insulation may be superior to any other synthetic puffy; but the jacket also has good stretch and warmth for its weight that rivals 700-fill-power down puffy jackets. The Pertex Quantum Air fabric sheds light precipitation like a soft shell and has better breathability than I’ve found in other synthetic-insulation jackets. A helmet-compatible hood and three zippered pockets complete this versatile package.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Refuge Air Hooded Jacket.
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See also my review of OR’s lighter, breathable insulated jacket, the Ascendant Hoody.
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Look at the Refuge as the older and bigger cousin of OR’s Refuge Air (above): This insulated jacket is the choice if your three-season campsites often see below-freezing temps and wet weather and your winter activities involve moderate exertion in frigid temps—or if you just get cold more easily than most people. It delivers versatility across activities—and activity levels—in all seasons, ably crossing over from snow sports to backpacking, climbing, and other mountain activities in spring, summer and fall, thanks to OR’s VerticalX synthetic insulation. It also features a fully adjustable hood, a trim, efficient fit that still allows for layering, and plenty of pockets. OR’s Refuge Hooded Jacket stands out for all those reasons, plus warmth that rivals pricier down jackets.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Refuge Hooded Jacket.
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 Outdoor Research Refuge Hooded Jacket at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, or outdoorresearch.com.
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