Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets of 2018
By Michael Lanza
There’s a certain irony in looking for an insulated jacket for outdoor activities these days. While many of us use the term “down jacket” generically, some of the best puffy jackets out there have synthetic insulation or combine synthetics with down feathers. And 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 rival the warmth-to-weight ratio and compressibility of down.
In this article, I’ll help you figure out what type of jacket you need, and then offer you my recommendations for the best down and synthetic puffy jackets on the market today.
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. Do you want one jacket for four seasons? 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?
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.
• 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.
• 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 competes with 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.
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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 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.
How Warm a Jacket Do You Need?
As I write in my blog post “Ask Me: How Can You 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 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 the upper 30s to 40s Fahrenheit, I bring a down or puffy jacket weighing seven to 11 ounces, and 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 18 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.
Which is Warmer, 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.
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, water-resistant, Q.Shield down delivers beaucoup warmth for such a svelte jacket, and quilted construction prevents the feathers from shifting around. The design is simple: A high collar seals out cold air and wind, and a drawcord hem keeps out drafts from below. When stuffed into one of the two roomy, zippered hand pockets, the jacket packs down to the size of a liter bottle—and lofts up almost instantly even after a couple days stuffed. The very light, seven-denier by 10-denier ripstop nylon shell hasn’t leaked feathers, but be gentle with it.
Read my full review of the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 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. Quite possibly toastier than any down jacket of the same weight that I’ve used, the Cerium 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.
From backcountry skiing in heavily falling snow at around 9,000 feet in Idaho’s Boise Mountains to sitting around a campsite in light rain, this fluffy puffy kept me warm despite getting wet, even in temperatures down into the teens Fahrenheit. That’s because it’s filled with water-resistant, 850-fill power DownTek feathers—which also make it very packable for its warmth: The jacket stuffs into a zippered inside pocket, compressing down to a nice camp-pillow size. Bean got all the details right, too, including a no-snag zipper; a collar with a soft lining that zips snugly around your neck to keep the wind out without strangling; and three zippered outside pockets. There’s also a men’s hooded version and a women’s hooded coat.
Read my full review of the L.L. Bean Ultralite 850 Down Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a men’s or women’s L.L. Bean Ultralite 850 Down Jacket or other model at llbean.com.
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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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Mountain Hardwear StretchDown Jacket or StretchDown Hooded Jacket at moosejaw.com, ems.com, or rei.com.
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The men’s and women’s Guides Down Hoody is a classic super-fat puffy for winter—think: belay ledges ice climbing, a winter campsite, or riding a snowmobile. And with the Boy’s and Girl’s Guides Down Hoody, Marmot created a puffy for kids of all sizes that mirrors the quality of its adult model—at a good price. In the adult and children’s models, 700-fill power down balances cost with keeping the jacket fairly packable and warm for its weight. Marmot’s Down Defender technology makes the down water resistant, and the jacket’s shell has a DWR (durable, water-repellant) treatment. They have an adjustable, generously insulated hood, a front zipper draft tube, elasticized cuffs, good sleeve length for reaching, two zippered front pockets that kept my son’s hands warm in freezing temps at our 12,000-foot camp below the East Face of Mount Whitney, and the length extends below the waist.
Read my full review of the Marmot Boy’s and Girl’s Guides Down Hoody.
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The Best Synthetic Jackets
Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody
$299, 9 oz.
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
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. Watch for my upcoming review of the Micro Puff Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody at rei.com.
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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.
Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody
$215, 12 oz.
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
Make insulation light, breathable, and water-resistant, and you have a jacket that comes out of the closet in all seasons and stays on your back in widely varying conditions. Polartec’s newest generation of breathable insulation, Alpha Direct, consists of low-density fibers packed between air-permeable woven fabric layers, that allow moisture to pass through the Ascendant Hoody. Very compressible, the jacket stuffs into one of its two zippered hand pockets, and has a close-fitting, helmet-compatible hood and thumbholes in the cuffs. And it’s impressively warm for 12 ounces. While most useful from fall through spring, this is a legitimate four-season insulation layer for backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, mountaineering, bike commuting, or throwing on after you finish a trail run.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody at moosejaw.com, ems.com, outdoorresearch.com, or rei.com.
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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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On cold winter days backcountry skiing, I wear the toasty Uberlayer going uphill and downhill: It breathes well enough that I don’t overheat on the climb, and moves moisture efficiently enough that my base layer, damp with sweat, dries out as I ski down. That makes a huge difference in preventing moments of feeling chilled in the winter mountains, and reduces the need for frequent layering changes. The secret sauce is the combination of water-resistant, breathable, and compressible Polartec Alpha Active insulation, a breathable, polyester stretch-mesh lining that wicks moisture, and a breathable and highly durable, weather-resistant, nylon stretch-woven shell. Warmer than OR’s Ascendant Hoody, it’s best for winter but pulls double duty as a puffy for three-season backpacking.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket at moosejaw.com, ems.com, outdoorresearch.com, or rei.com.
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