Nothing beats a great down jacket, whether it’s for causal use or tearing around the backcountry. Below we break down the best down jackets of 2016-2017, including the top down sweaters, ultralights, and winter down jackets. You’ll find a healthy range of options from budget picks to specialized alpine pieces for the most discerning outdoorspeople. For further guidance, our down jacket buying advice offers helpful information on the features that matter: warmth, weight, shell fabrics, and more. We’ve also created a handy comparison table to bring it all together. The images of the jackets are for the men’s versions, but we’ve included a link to the women’s version in the specs.
Weight: 10.2 oz.
Fill: 3.3 oz. of 850-fill down.
What we like: Effective insulation design and premium feel.
What we don’t: No waist cinch and fit is very slim.
Women’s: Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody
Oh the beauty of Arc’teryx products. They generally cost the most, look the best (Patagonia is a close competitor), and perform well enough for seasoned guides to put them through the wringer on a consistent basis. The Cerium LT Hoody is the company’s leading lightweight down jacket and one sleek piece of gear. With a total weight of 10.2 ounces, a nearly complete feature set, and a silky interior and exterior, the Cerium LT plays and looks the part. The most direct competitor is the Patagonia Ultralight, which has similar specs and quality.
An interesting feature on the Cerium LT is the use of down composite mapping: Arc’teryx added a limited amount of Coreloft synthetic insulation in the areas most prone to getting wet: the shoulders, underarms, cuffs and collar. The rest of the jacket is premium down in areas that need maximum heating efficiency: the core, hood and upper arms. While the other jackets on this list are strictly down, Arc’teryx has created a nice balance of lightweight warmth and functionality. Keep in mind that like most Arc’teryx products, the Cerium LT runs very slim... Read in-depth review
See the Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody
Weight: 21.4 oz.
Fill: 7.9 oz. of 800-fill down.
What we like: The highest fill weight on this list.
What we don’t: Heavy and the left-hand zip takes some getting used to.
Women’s: Rab Neutrino Endurance
UK-based Rab is on our shortlist of favorite outdoor clothing brands, and the Neutrino Endurance is their beloved down jacket for cold weather climbing and mountaineering. Most importantly, this jacket packs in a ton of down—7.9 ounces of 800-fill hydrophobic down to be exact—at roughly the same price as less warm options from Arc’teryx, Patagonia, and Mountain Hardwear. It also has a tough 30D Pertex shell, which has a quality feel and good weather resistance. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.
What are the downsides of the Neutrino Endurance? First is the total weight of over 21 ounces, which is good for serious winter weather but heavy and too warm for mild conditions. And Americans may have problems with the European-style left-hand zipper, which can take a while to get used to. These issues aside, it’s an exceptionally warm and comfortable winter piece.
See the Rab Neutrino Endurance
Weight: 10.1 oz.
Fill: 3.5 oz. of 800-fill down.
What we like: Comfortable, warm, and multi-sport ready.
What we don’t: Fit is a bit boxy for our tastes.
Women’s: Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody
Building on the success of the popular Down Sweater, Patagonia created a more athletic and lighter version for serious outdoor pursuits. At around 10 ounces for the hooded version, this down jacket is stiff competition to both the Arc’teryx Cerium LT and Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. All three are excellent down jackets at the top of the ultralight heap.
Versatility is what we like most about the Patagonia Ultralight. It’s terrific for backpacking and climbing, and makes a solid midlayer for resort and backcountry skiing. And unlike some of the true ultralight down jackets we tested, it even looks the part for everyday use (we frequently see it around Seattle). Keep in mind that the thin and slightly crinkly 15D shell means that you will want to be careful to avoid tears. And $349 is a pretty penny to pay for a down jacket that isn’t warm enough for the dead of winter. But this is telling: with a dozen or so down jackets to choose from for testing, the Patagonia Ultralight is one that we battle over frequently... Read in-depth review
See the Patagonia Ultralight Hoody
Weight: 12.8 oz.
Fill: 3 oz. of 800-fill down.
What we like: The highest quality build of any down sweater.
What we don’t: Boxy fit.
Women’s: Patagonia Down Sweater
The Patagonia Down Sweater is the biggest seller on this list and ubiquitous from ski resorts to city streets. Similar jackets from brands like Outdoor Research and REI may be less expensive, but none can match the Down Sweater’s clean design or high quality materials. If you’re in the market for one lightweight down jacket that does it all and looks good in the process, look no further.
Compared to the Patagonia Ultralight above, the Down Sweater is decidedly more casual. The down fill power is the same (800), but you get a more sturdy 20Dx30D shell along with less compressibility for backcountry pursuits like backpacking and climbing. It also has a more casual design and fit. If you need a down jacket for everyday wear and weekend skiing or hiking trips, the Down Sweater is an excellent choice. For the highest levels of performance for the weight, we prefer the Ultralight.... Read in-depth review
See the Patagonia Down Sweater
Weight: 7.7 oz.
Fill: 2.78 oz. of 800-fill down.
What we like: Incredible warmth for the weight and good feature set.
What we don’t: Ultralight zippers and loose cuffs.
Women’s: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded
Mountain Hardwear led the ultralight charge with the numbers defying Ghost Whisperer, and it still impresses us to this day. At 7.7 ounces total including 2.78 ounces of 800-fill down, this jacket is extremely impressive with its warmth and paperweight feel. You don’t have to sacrifice on features either: the Ghost Whisperer has an optional hood, two hand pockets, and a side hem cinch for honing in fit. Some daily usability is lost in making everything so light, but it remains a top choice for minimalist backpackers and climbers.
Shortcomings of the Ghost Whisperer are that the 7Dx10D shell fabric won’t stand up well to abuse, and the curious cuff design is somewhat loose around the wrist (we appreciate the top-of-hand coverage, but it does allow for more cold air to enter). In addition, the zipper is the most flimsy of the ultralights we tested and failed to align the teeth on occasion. There are real sacrifices for casual wearers, but the Ghost Whisperer is a standard among backcountry enthusiasts looking to shave ounces while staying warm... Read in-depth review
See the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer
Weight: 10.6 oz.
Fill: 3.7 oz. of 900-fill down.
What we like: Superb warmth-to-weight ratio.
What we don’t: Color selection, and sometimes limited availability.
Women's: Feathered Friends Eos
Down specialist Feathered Friends is held in high regard among the climbing community in Seattle and beyond (if you’re in town, it’s located one block down from REI’s flagship store and makes for a fun visit). This small company designs and builds down gear for serious outdoorspeople who depend on it, and most of the manufacturing is done in the United States. You won’t see a lot of national marketing campaigns, but we can tell you Feathered Friends is a standout in this category.
Our top down jacket pick from Feathered Friends is the Eos, which packs in an impressive 3.7 ounces of 900-fill down. Therefore it has more fill weight and fill power than any other lightweight down jacket on this list. Why isn’t it ranked higher? The Eos is built for performance and therefore has slightly less daily appeal. It only comes in two colors, for example, and the design isn’t quite as sleek as the options from Arc’teryx or Patagonia. Another consideration is availability: in peak season, there can be a 2 to 3-week delay before the jacket ships out. If you’re willing to wait, however, this is one of the best ultralight down jackets for backpacking and climbing on the market.
See the Feathered Friends Eos
Weight: 21.7 oz.
Fill: 5.3 oz. of 750-fill down.
What we like: Useable as an outer layer during the cold winter months.
What we don’t: Lower fill power than the Cerium.
Women's: Arc'teryx Thorium SV
For the same premium look as the Cerium LT above but more warmth and durability, the Arc’teryx Thorium SV is an excellent midweight option. With this down jacket you get 5.3 ounces of down fill instead of the 3.3 ounces with the Cerium, which represents a significant step up in insulation for the winter months. Its 40-denier shell is tough and does a better job of resisting moisture and wind than all other jackets on this list. The Thorium SV still isn’t your heavyweight parka for the absolute harshest of conditions, but it’s more than enough jacket for most people.
As with nearly all Arc’teryx products, the Thorium SV is pricey and has a fit and feature set designed for active outdoor use. Compared to the Cerium LT, you lose a decent amount of packability with the additional down fill and more substantial shell, but it’s one of the few down jackets we’d be willing to use as an alpine outer layer. And like the Cerium, Arc’teryx uses down composite mapping with some synthetic Coreloft insulation is areas most prone to collecting moisture.
See the Arc'teryx Thorium SV
Weight: 14.9 oz.
Fill: 3.5 oz. of 750-fill down
What we like: Innovative and an interesting option for climbers.
What we don’t: Stretch doesn’t merit the price in our opinion.
Women's: Mountain Hardwear StretchDown RS
Down jackets are known more for warmth than range of motion, but Mountain Hardwear is aiming for a game changer in this regard. New for 2016-2017, the StretchDown, StretchDown Plus, and StretchDown RS feature a flexible polyester shell material with welded seams for performance that is more reminiscent of a synthetic. We’ve seen similar stretchiness from Montbell’s high-end Downhugger sleeping bags, but not yet from a down jacket.
Of the three StrechDown versions, we like the RS best. You get improved weather resistance and a lightweight 15D shell that keeps the total weight under 15 ounces for the hooded version. The issue is that we’re not convinced that the stretchiness alone merits a major jump in our rankings. It’s a nice touch, but the jacket doesn’t surpass the competition in any other categories. The stretch will help for high-output activities like climbing, but for the backcountry we still prefer a lighter weight jacket made with premium down.
See the Mountain Hardwear StretchDown RS
Weight: 8.8 oz.
Fill: 1.8 oz. of 800-fill down.
What we like: Lightweight and comfortable.
What we don’t: Provides less warmth than other ultralight options.
Women’s: Outdoor Research Filament Jacket
When choosing among ultralight down jackets, many people go straight for heavyweight brands like Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear. The Filament Jacket from Outdoor Research is a sleeper: an unpretentious down jacket at an un-ultralight price. With a low weight just 8.8 ounces and compressing down extremely small, the Filament offers respectable warmth for sitting around the campfire at night or wearing under your winter shell.
The Filament has an attractive price tag and uses premium 800-fill down, but the sacrifice is the meager fill weight of 1.8 ounces (the fill weight of the competition generally is around 3 ounces). This jacket provides less warmth than the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer above, albeit at a lower price tag. But it makes a great midlayer for spring skiing and budget option for hiking and backpacking... Read in-depth review
See the Outdoor Research Filament Down Jacket
Weight: 13.4 oz.
Fill: 4 oz. of 800-fill down
What we like: Warm and comfortable.
What we don’t: No hooded version (but there is the Fitz Roy Parka).
Women’s: Patagonia Fitz Roy
For a step up in warmth from the Patagonia Down Sweater or Ultralight, the Fitz Roy is built for tougher winter conditions. You get approximately 4 ounces of 800-fill down with a DWR finish and a high-sheen fabric on the shoulders for added moisture protection. The large baffles and build look similar to the Down Sweater, and the 20D shell fabric is roughly the same strength. The Fitz Roy, however, is built for the winter months while the Down Sweater and Ultralight models are more for shoulder seasons and layering. It’s worth noting that 4 ounces of down fill still lags behind other midweight jackets like the Rab Neutrino Endurance (7.9 ounces) and Montbell Mirage Parka (5.3 ounces).
In many ways, the Fitz Roy is a hybrid casual/performance piece. It has some advanced features like gusseted underarms for improved range of motion, as well as elasticized cuffs that do a good job staying out of your way during physical activity. But the jacket still looks the part for city wear in the frigid months, making it a nice option for just about any type of winter use. For even more warmth, try the hooded Fitz Roy Down Parka. And we are still hoping Patagonia brings back the Encapsil Belay Parka some day….
See the Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Jacket
Weight: 12.8 oz.
Fill: 5.3 oz. of 900-fill down.
What we like: Impressive warmth for the weight.
What we don’t: Thin 7D shell is too fragile for our tastes.
Montbell is at the forefront of lightweight warmth, and you will have a hard time finding down jackets with a better ratio of fill weight to total weight (Western Mountaineering and Brooks Range are contenders). The Mirage Parka weighs less than 13 ounces yet packs an impressive 5.3 ounces of 900-fill goose down. Its name is slightly misleading—this isn’t your traditional down parka for the coldest of cold—but it’s warm enough for winter camping, mountaineering, and as a midlayer for the backcountry.
What makes the Mirage Parka undesirable for generalists is the 7D shell, the thinnest on the list. This means that you really have to be careful when wearing the jacket for everything from avoiding snags on protruding twigs to tearing the shell on a climbing harness. If you are wearing this Mirage Parka beneath a hardshell, it’s terrific. And if you are the careful type who babies their gear, go for it. But there is a sacrifice with this kind of warmth at this low of a weight, and that generally is a shortened lifespan for your jacket.
See the Montbell Mirage Parka
Weight: 10.2 oz.
Fill: 3 oz. of 650-fill down.
What we like: Lightweight and a great feel that is unexpected for the price.
What we don’t: No hem adjustment
Women’s: REI Co-Op Down Jacket
If you’re in the market for an inexpensive down jacket mostly for casual use, we’ve found your match. REI first released its budget Co-Op Down Jacket two years ago, and it flew off the shelves and was in short supply all winter. For good reason: the Co-Op jacket is a great value at around $100 and can go head-to-head with down sweaters that are double the cost from brands like Columbia and Marmot. We even wrote a full article about how this is the best cheap down jacket.
Keep in mind that the REI Co-Op isn’t designed as a performance piece, with 650-fill down and a standard nylon shell fabric that is not as durable as the more expensive jackets above. In addition, this jacket lacks a hem adjustment, which is limiting for dialing in fit. However, for daily use, travel, light adventuring, and as a midlayer for resort skiing, you just won’t find a better deal. As an added bonus, the Co-Op packs down into its left-hand pocket, making it easily stuffable in your backpack or suitcase.
See the REI Co-Op Down Jacket
Weight: 12.9 oz.
Fill: 3.5 oz. of 650-fill down.
What we like: Durable exterior, comfy hand pockets.
What we don’t: Materials lack a premium feel.
Women’s: Outdoor Research Aria
Outdoor Research products aren’t the absolute best on the market, but they are some of the best values. In many ways, the Transcendent Down Sweater is a cheaper version of the Patagonia Down Sweater above. It provides good warmth with 3.5 ounces of 650-fill down, comes in a number of attractive colorways, and we love the soft fleece-lined hand warmer pockets. Where the Transcendent lags behind are materials and construction: the next-to-skin comfort isn’t as high as the Patagonia Down Sweater, the baffles don’t sit as well on the arms, and the shell is more slippery than soft. The Transcendent is still a good buy; it’s just not in the same tier as its more expensive competition.
Pro tip: Outdoor Research is one of the few outdoor brands where the prices really can fluctuate, largely due to their availability from multiple sellers on Amazon. We love the Transcendent at $100, like it at around $150, but are less intrigued at the full list price of $199. We recommend looking for your size and preferred color(s) and snapping up a good deal when available... Read in-depth review
See the Outdoor Research Transcendent
|Jacket||Price||Weight||Fill Power||Fill Weight||Denier||Packable|
|Arc'teryx Cerium LT Hoody||$379||10.2 oz.||850 fill||3.35 oz.||20Dx10D||Stuff sack|
|Rab Neutrino Endurance||$375||21.4 oz.||800 fill||7.9 oz.||30D||Stuff sack|
|Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody||$349||10.1 oz.||800 fill||3.5 oz.||15D||Chest pocket|
|Patagonia Down Sweater||$229||12.8 oz.||800 fill||3 oz.||20Dx30D||Chest pocket|
|Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer||$350||7.7 oz.||800 fill||2.78 oz.||7Dx10D||Hand pocket|
|Feathered Friends Eos||$289||10.6 oz.||900 fill||3.7 oz.||12Dx20D||Stuff sack|
|Arc'teryx Thorium SV||$425||21.7 oz.||750 fill||5.3 oz.||40D||Stuff sack|
|Mountain Hardwear StretchDown RS||$320||14.9 oz.||750 fill||3.5 oz.||15D||Unavail.|
|Outdoor Research Filament Jacket||$265||8.8 oz.||800 fill||1.8 oz.||10D||Chest pocket|
|Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Jacket||$349||13.4 oz.||800 fill||4 oz.||20D||Stuff sack|
|Montbell Mirage Parka||$309||12.8 oz.||900 fill||5.3 oz.||7D||Stuff sack|
|REI Co-Op Down Jacket||$99.50||10.2 oz.||650 fill||3 oz.||Unavail.||Hand pocket|
|Outdoor Research Transcendent||$199||12.9 oz.||650 fill||3.5 oz.||20D||Hand pocket|
- Down Jacket Types
- Shell Fabric (Denier)
- Hydrophobic Down and DWR
- Hood or No Hood?
- What About Synthetic Jackets?
The down sweater is the most casual category of down jacket. Warmth and wearability are top priorities, and you won’t find technical features like helmet-compatible hoods and ultralight shells. But they perform well for everyday use, travel, light adventuring, and layering for winter sports. Leading models include the Patagonia Down Sweater and Outdoor Research Transcendent.
The temperature range for these jackets depends on factors like layering and exertion, but we find that down sweaters are suitable for approximately 35 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (2 to 15 degrees Celsius). For true winter conditions or if you won’t be active in the cold, consider a heavier down jacket or parka.
Ultralight Down Jackets
Ultralight down jackets are designed for backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, and other outdoor pursuits where every ounce matters. These down jackets generally have similar fill weights as down sweaters, but are ultralight due their use of premium down (fill power), thin shell fabrics (denier), and minimalist zippers and pockets.
Interestingly, we frequently see this category of down jacket worn as daily pieces around cities, particularly the Patagonia Ultralight and Arc’teryx Cerium LT. They are high quality jackets in general, and if you are willing to take a little extra care to avoid damaging the shell, we prefer ultralights over down sweaters due to their warmth-to-weight ratio and athletic fit. They still look great too, although the designs do have more of a performance fit.
Midweight/Heavyweight Jackets for Winter
Down jackets in this category represent a significant step up in warmth from down sweaters and ultralights, and are designed for serious winter conditions and uses like climbing and mountaineering. Most notably, you’ll see the fill weight go up from around 4 ounces (Patagonia Fitz Roy) to 8 ounces (Rab Neutrino Endurance) or more. They also are far puffier than the other categories with more down, and as a result take up quite a bit more space in your pack. Because of this, we only bring them along if the extra warmth is absolutely necessary. At the warmest end of the spectrum are heavyweight winter jackets and parkas.
It all starts with that lofty and premium warmth that can only be found in a down-filled product. Down insulation functions so effectively because the loose clusters of feathers are great at trapping body heat. But unlike down sleeping bags, which have an official EN rating system that tests and measures their warmth on a concrete scale, down jackets are more like the Wild West. Below is information that should help you fill in the gaps.
Fill power (600-fill, 700-fill, 800-fill, etc.) is how the quality of down is measured, and the higher the fill the better the down. The number is calculated based on how much space one ounce of down clusters takes up in a cylindrical tube. This is known as the amount of loft, and the more loft a jacket has, the more body heat it traps and the warmer you will be. Put another way, achieving the same amount of warmth with a lower fill power requires more down, adding weight and bulk to achieve the same comfort goals.
For jackets, 550 to 650-fill down is what you’ll find on most entry and mid-level models, which is perfectly respectable for daily wear but falls short for performance use. Premium down is 800-fill and above, which is what Arc’teryx, Patagonia, and Mountain Hardwear use for their high-end down jackets. At this level of quality, you reap the highly touted benefits of down insulation: lightweight and ultra-compressible warmth. Some high-end climbing brands like Feathered Friends and Montbell use 900-fill down, but that high of a number is a rarity and 800-fill is considered premium. In 2013, Patagonia experimented with a 1,000-fill down jacket, the Encapsil, but hasn’t yet brought it back to market. Montbell currently offers the 1,000-fill Plasma Down Jacket and Parka with thin 7D shells.
Fill power gets the most press, but fill weight is perhaps the most important factor in determining a down jacket’s warmth. Fill weight is the actual amount of down stuffed into a jacket, measured in ounces. For example, if Jacket A has 6 ounces of 800-fill down and Jacket B has 3 ounces of 800-fill down, you can expect that Jacket A will be significantly warmer (we estimate that it would increase comfort levels in low output activities by approximately 10-20 degrees). Lower fill power down offers less warmth per ounce, so to compare apples to apples you should use similar fill powers.
We find it interesting that fill weight is much less publicized than fill power, which leads to a lot of confusion for shoppers who associate higher fill power as always meaning more warmth. Apparently the fill power numbers are far sexier, and as a result, we sometimes have to call the manufacturers to track down fill weight as it’s not always listed.
Our Estimated Temperature Scale
It’s tough to pinpoint an exact temperature range in which you will feel comfortable wearing a down jacket (there’s a reason no one has attempted to create a standardized rating system). Factors like fit, layering, your levels of exertion and circulation, and wind all play a role.
Generally, we think of down sweaters and ultralights—which usually have between 2 and 3.5 ounces of fill weight—as providing solid warmth in conditions ranging from around 35 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (2 to 15 degrees Celsius) with low levels of exertion, such as puttering around a campsite. More fill will help you move toward the bottom end of the range and less will push you toward the middle. A cozy baselayer can buy you an extra 5 to 15 degrees depending on its thickness and quality. These types of jackets are very popular for three-season alpine use and in cities for everything but the heart of winter.
When the mercury drops below freezing, you will be more comfortable wearing a true midweight or heavyweight down jacket for winter. The fill weight of these jackets should be 4 ounces at the absolute minimum (the Patagonia Fitz Roy) and often is in the range of 5 to 6 ounces or more (the Rab Neutrino Endruance and Montbell Mirage Parka). For bitter cold and climbing the highest peaks, an even heavier down parka may be in order.
For uses like backpacking, climbing, mountaineering, ski touring, or whenever you have to lug around your own gear, the total weight of your down jacket should play a significant role in your buying decision. Jackets like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer (7.7 oz.) and Patagonia Ultralight (10.1 oz.) weigh very little for the warmth they provide and compress down extremely small in your pack. As a result of all the fun tech, they also cost considerably more than your typical down sweater.
“Ultralight” is a buzzword of sorts that you will inevitably run into when shopping for a down jacket, and it’s worth noting there aren’t hard-and-fast rules as to what qualifies. We keep a close eye on the ratio of fill weight to total weight to see what lengths the manufacturer went to trim weight (the shell denier is a good hint too, and more on that below). Three of our ultralight picks have healthy amounts of premium down and are relatively light at around 10 ounces or less for the hooded versions. When gear companies really prioritize cutting weight, you’ll see changes to zippers, a trim fit, and a lack of pockets. Some even opt for a pullover style to cut out half of the zipper. No matter what the manufacturer names a jacket, keep a close eye on fill weight and total weight to make your own determination.
Denier (D) is the measurement of the weight of a thread, and the lower the number the lighter the weight. A lower denier rating means the material is less durable and more prone to abrasion. Much of the difference in weight of an ultralight jacket is trimmed by using a lower denier fabric for the shell. Other factors like premium down (it provides the most warmth for the least amount of weight) and ultralight zippers play a role as well, but the shell fabric is most important.
Almost every jacket on this list is made with reasonably lightweight shell fabrics. The thinnest jacket is the Montbell Mirage Parka, which has a very fragile 7D shell, and the thickest is the Rab Neutrino, which has a 30D shell. 10D is pretty standard for ultralights and a more substantial 20D is what you’ll often find in an average down sweater. Don’t underestimate the importance of denier: even the difference from 10D to 20D can play a significant role in the total weight and potential lifespan of your jacket. If ounces matter and you intend to use the jacket in the backcountry, treat yourself to an ultralight. If most of your use will be in the city, a down sweater is sturdier and should save you money in the process.
Down enthusiasts love its compressibility and for good reason. An ultralight jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer can be stuffed into its own pocket and end up much smaller than a Nalgene bottle. The tiny packed size means you have little reason to leave it behind, and can fit it easily into either a daypack or overnight backpacking pack.
Keep in mind that the higher the fill power the more easily it will compress. This is noticeable when you get into premium levels of down (800-fill and above), which pack down to seemingly impossible sizes yet bounce back after only a few minutes out of the bag (as long as you don’t store it compressed too long). Fabric thickness also plays an important role, and thinner denier fabrics logically pack down smaller. Along with warmth for the weight, compressibility is an area where down absolutely dominates synthetic-insulated jackets.
Down feathers unfortunately lose much of their ability to insulate when wet, turning into a clumpy and soggy mess. This makes them a serious liability in wet conditions or if you’re sweating heavily, which is why some prefer a synthetic jacket that continues to insulate when wet.
Recently, gear manufacturers have started treating down to make it more water resistant. They do this by adding a polymer to the down before filling the jacket, and the result is that it resists water better and you don’t have to worry as much about light precipitation. Even though it still doesn’t match the wet weather performance of synthetics, we love the hydrophobic down movement. Yes, it adds a tiny bit of weight to the down, but it also adds a noticeable level of protection. If you’re headed out in a wet area like the Pacific Northwest or New Zealand, a jacket with hydrophobic down (and a waterproof shell) is a smart choice.
Another way that gear manufacturers fight moisture is a DWR (Durable Water Repellant) treatment on the outside on the jacket. This treatment helps prevent water droplets from forming and entering your jacket—essentially the water has a harder time staying on the fabric and beads up and rolls off instead. Neither a DWR finish nor hydrophobic down will keep your down completely dry, but they make nice lines of defense against light to moderate precipitation.
Fit is jacket-specific, but there are two main considerations here. First, down sweaters have a more casual fit than ultralight or performance jackets, including boxier torsos, arms, and hoods (when available). Fit also varies significantly by brand. From our experience, Arc’teryx jackets fit the slimmest of all, which we refer to simply as the “Arc’teryx fit.” Guides and ultra-athletic folks who frequently use the gear are a key contingent for Arc’teryx, which helps explain the fit. They prioritize reduced bulk and improved range of motion, and Arc’teryx designs accurately reflect those needs.
The Patagonia jackets on the list are surprisingly boxy given their quality and feature sets. Even the Patagonia Ultralight is boxier than expected in the torso and arms (it’s still one of our favorite down jackets overall so this wasn’t a huge deterrent for us). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of—a wide range of people wear Patagonia and a slightly boxier fit accommodates more of them. Outdoor Research and REI jackets are middle of the pack in terms of fit: not too slim and not too boxy. Rab, Mountain Hardwear, and Montbell apparel generally have an athletic cut but not to the extent of Arc’teryx.
Most down jackets on this list are offered in hooded and non-hooded versions. The non-hooded version is slightly cheaper and weighs less, but you don’t get the advantage of the extra warmth and comfort. For casual use or as a midlayer for skiing, many people opt to go without the hood and carry a separate beanie instead. For backpacking and climbing, many people get the hood and don’t regret it. You’ll notice that in our picks above, we listed down sweaters in the non-hooded versions, which are the most commonly purchased, and the ultralights with hoods, also the most common for that variety of jacket. For a deeper dive into the topic, see our article: Does Your Down Jacket Need a Hood?.
There is a lot to be said for synthetic-insulated jackets, which insulate better than down when wet, are more breathable, and cheaper. However, down sill has no replacement (at least for now). The warmth-to-weight ratio is unparalleled, as are compressibility and comfort. We’ve tested a number of synthetic jackets like the Patagonia Nano-Air and Arc’teryx Atom LT, both are which are very comfortable and great for high-output activities, but the warmth just isn’t the same. We often reach for synthetics for everyday use and light outdoor activities in the fall and spring, but they take up too much space in our packs for extended backcountry trips and most don’t provide quite enough warmth for truly cold days. Optimally you would have both, but if you’re only in the market for a single jacket, there’s simply no better insulator than down. For a more detailed explanation of this topic, see our article on down vs. synthetic insulation.