For getting outdoors on cool fall and spring days, it’s hard to beat a vest. This simple layering piece adds warmth to your core and is cozy, packable, less bulky, and cheaper than a full jacket. But the vest market is varied, ranging from casual to performance and including a number of possible insulation types. Below we break down the best vests of the 2022 season, with our favorite down, synthetic, merino wool, and fleece models. For more background information, see our vest comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Our Team's Vest Picks
- Best Overall Vest: Patagonia Down Sweater Vest
- Best Budget Vest: REI Co-op 650 Down Vest 2.0
- Best Vest for Active Use: Arc'teryx Atom LT Vest
- Best Casual Vest for Everyday Use: Patagonia Better Sweater Vest
- Best Down Vest for Winter: Outdoor Research Coldfront Down Vest
Insulation type: Down (800-fill)
Weight: 9.8 oz.
What we like: Warm, well-built, and looks great.
What we don’t: Pricey.
Popular for both casual and active use, Patagonia brings it all together with the Down Sweater Vest. In terms of warmth, the vest is filled with 2.4 ounces of premium 800-fill down that will keep your core nice and cozy (it also meets Patagonia’s Traceable Down standards). The recycled polyester shell fabric looks and feels great, repels light moisture, and comes in a wide variety of colorways from muted to bright. From wearing around the city to hiking and use as a midlayer for skiing, this vest pretty much does it all.
As with most Patagonia products, you will pay a premium for the Down Sweater Vest. But it’s hard to beat the build quality and versatility, which is why we have it at the top of our list. One thing we like in particular is the fit compared to other casual Patagonia products—the Down Sweater Jacket is boxy in the arms, but the vest doesn’t have that excess bulk and should work for a wide variety of people and uses. Combine that with the right amount of warmth and good looks and you have yourself a winner.
See the Men's Patagonia Down Sweater See the Women's Patagonia Down Sweater
Best Budget Vest
Insulation type: Down (650-fill)
Weight: 7.7 oz.
What we like: A great value for a warm and good-looking vest.
What we don’t: Not as warm or lightweight as the Down Sweater above.
REI Co-op’s in-house brand of outdoor clothing consistently churns out performance pieces at prices that are substantially lower than most big brands. The 650 Down Vest 2.0 is no exception, offering a legitimately warm layering piece for $80—less than half the cost of the Patagonia Down Sweater above. This vest isn’t teched-out and doesn’t have the high-end look and feel of the premium alternatives on this list, but it’s a fantastic value overall.
What do you compromise by going with the REI Co-op 650 2.0 Down Vest? It uses lower quality 650-fill-power down compared to the Down Sweater’s 800-fill-power, which means less warmth for the weight, but this isn’t hugely important unless you’re counting ounces or heading into the backcountry. In addition, it has square-shaped baffles and a boxier, roomier fit than the Patagonia, which results in a slightly less polished look. The good news is that the REI holds its own in terms of sustainability, with RDS-certified down (for humane treatment of birds) and recycled, bluesign (read: ethically sourced) materials. For the price, you’d be hard pressed to find a better vest.
See the Men's REI 650 Down Vest 2.0 See the Women's REI 650 Down Vest 2.0
Best Vest for Active Use
Insulation type: Synthetic (Coreloft)
Weight: 8.5 oz.
What we like: Wind-resistant, durable, and highly mobile.
What we don’t: Not a ton of insulation and doesn’t breathe as well as the Nano-Air.
When it comes to vest insulation, you have two main choices: down or synthetic. Down is known for its superior loft and warmth-to-weight ratio, while synthetic insulation is the best choice for breathability and weather resistance. If you’re looking for a vest to wear during high-output pursuits or when the weather report looks iffy, synthetic is the way to go and the Arc’teryx Atom LT is our top pick for 2022. The Coreloft synthetic insulation and stretchy side fleece panels are warm yet breathable, the DWR finish sheds a light rain or snow, and the vest’s athletic cut means it will stay close to your body whether you’re hiking, climbing, skiing, or snowshoeing.
In terms of downsides, the Atom LT is relatively thin and light on insulation at only 8.5 ounces total. Taking the synthetic insulation into account, it isn’t nearly as warm as a down vest like the Down Sweater above. And while we find the Arc’teryx to be far more durable and wind-resistant than Patagonia’s synthetic Nano-Air below, it doesn’t quite measure up in terms of breathability. But it’s hard to knock the versatility, protection, and premium look and feel that Arc’teryx offers, which are big selling points of this vest.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Atom LT See the Women's Arc'teryx Atom LT
Best Casual Vest for Everyday Use
Insulation type: Fleece
Weight: 13.9 oz.
What we like: Very cozy, classy looks, and versatile performance.
What we don’t: Not built for serious outdoor use.
The down and synthetic vests above are quality insulators, but fleece wins out in coziness and everyday appeal. And no design puts it all together better than Patagonia’s iconic Better Sweater Fleece Vest. For a very reasonable $99, the Better Sweater combines plush, moisture-wicking fleece insulation that provides solid warmth for most mild and spring days with a classy, knitted exterior that wears incredibly well around town. It’s not an active piece like the Arc’teryx Atom LT above, but breathability is surprisingly good for lower-output uses like hiking and downhill skiing. Added up, it’s a highly versatile and affordable design that looks great around town but can easily pull double duty for light outdoor pursuits.
All that said, fleece isn’t the best option for serious performance use. In testing the jacket version of the Better Sweater, we found that drafts were easily able to seep through the fairly porous outer knit fabric—we needed to add a shell overtop on gusty days, even in otherwise mild conditions. In addition, you can get more warmth for less weight with options like Patagonia’s own Down Sweater or the Atom LT above. And a final knock is that fleece tends to pill and will require regular maintenance to maximize its lifespan. But for excellent comfort and everyday appeal at a low price point, the Better Sweater Vest is hard to beat. For a step up in performance, Arc’teryx’s Covert Vest is a little lighter at 12.3 ounces and has a slightly softer feel and better wind-blocking ability with an additional liner at the front but costs $40 more.
See the Men's Better Sweater Vest See the Women's Better Sweater Vest
Best Down Vest for Winter
Insulation type: Down (700-fill)
Weight: 13.2 oz.
What we like: Excellent warmth for the price.
What we don’t: Overkill for mild conditions.
Patagonia’s Down Sweater above is a great option for shoulder-season use, but those headed out in true winter temperatures will likely want a bump in warmth. Enter Outdoor Research’s aptly named Coldfront Down Vest, which packs in a whopping 5.3 ounces of 700-fill-power down (for reference, the Down Sweater boasts 2.4 oz.) that will keep you cozy on cold-weather adventures like snowshoeing, downhill skiing, and winter hiking. For added weather protection, OR also included a highly water-resistant Pertex Quantum shell and synthetic VerticalX ECO insulation at the shoulders for extra assurance in light rain or snow. At just $149, the Coldfront is an excellent value and a whole lot of vest for the price.
However, the Outdoor Research Coldfront falls short in one key area: versatility. In short, the Coldfront is one of the warmest and most substantial vests on the list and built to withstand cold temperatures, but it’s overkill for mild conditions and not as around-town friendly as picks like Patagonia’s Down Sweater or Better Sweater above. Alternatively, OR’s own Helium Down Vest weighs less at just 8.4 ounces, offers similar weather resistance, and has a much more streamlined and lower-profile (read: less bulky) look and feel. But for serious warmth at a reasonable price and weight, the Coldfront is an undeniably well-built and capable piece. Note: The Coldfront does run on the bigger side to allow room for layering underneath, so be sure to take that into account when deciding on size.
See the Men's OR Coldfront Down Vest See the Women's Coldfront Hooded Down Vest
Best of the Rest
Insulation type: Synthetic (PrimaLoft Gold Eco)
Weight: 8 oz.
What we like: Sleek design, low-profile, and cheaper than down.
What we don’t: Not as warm as down.
As we touched on above, down wins out in warmth and loft, but synthetic insulation breathes better, dries quicker, and is cheaper. One of our favorite synthetic-insulated vests on the market is the Nano Puff from Patagonia, which also comes in a very popular full jacket version (as do most other vests on this list). This Nano Puff Vest is sleek and versatile: It’s decently warm, light, packs down small, and looks the part for both casual and active use. It’s also less expensive than a comparable down vest and noticeably lower-profile.
What are the downsides of the Patagonia Nano Puff Vest? The PrimaLoft Gold Eco insulation is pretty darn warm but not to the same degree as down, so this vest isn’t built for frigid conditions (it’s ideal for fall, spring, and as a layering piece). And the current model is slimmer than past versions, so you may want to consider sizing up if you’re on the border or plan on wearing the vest over bulky layers. But for an active vest with tons of everyday appeal, you can’t beat the Nano Puff.
See the Men's Patagonia Nano Puff See the Women's Patagonia Nano Puff
Insulation type: Down (850-fill)
Weight: 6.5 oz.
What we like: Premium build quality and design.
What we don’t: Pricey and built with active use in mind.
If you’ve worn Arc’teryx products before, you know what the Cerium LT is all about. This vest is high-end in just about every way: You get 850-fill goose down for warmth (the Patagonia Down Sweater Vest above has slightly lower 800-fill), a super-soft face fabric and lining, and Coreloft synthetic insulation in areas prone to getting wet like the shoulders and collar. The result is just about all you can ask for in a vest, from weight and warmth to functionality and looks.
We have the Cerium LT Vest ranked below the Down Sweater for a couple of reasons. The first is cost—$250 is a lot to spend on a layering piece. Second, Arc’teryx’s athletic fit isn’t for everyone, not to mention a vest often is layered over a shirt or light jacket and therefore is best with a slightly looser cut. But if you love the Arc’teryx fit or plan on packing the Cerium LT along for active use, this vest will not disappoint.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Cerium LT See the Women's Arc'teryx Cerium LT
Insulation type: Down (600-fill)
Weight: 13.4 oz.
What we like: Great looking, well made, and warm.
What we don’t: Not versatile for performance use.
When warmth-to-weight ratios matter, we’ll stick to names like Arc’teryx, Patagonia, and Outdoor Research. But for casual use around town, Fjallraven consistently catches our eye with outerwear that merges performance and fashion. The Greenland Down Liner Vest screams quality, pairing well-selected colorways with classic horizontal baffles and a stylish chest pocket with flap and button closure. And like many other vests here, Fjallraven is making efforts toward sustainability, using recycled polyester, organic cotton, a PFC-free water-resistant finish, and ethically sourced down.
With a hefty 13.4-ounce weight and limited breathability, the Greenland is not our first choice (or anything close to it) for active pursuits. But along with the Patagonia Better Sweater above and Classic Retro-X and Filson Down Cruiser vests below, it’s one of our favorite casual options of 2022. For cold-but-not-frigid shoulder-season weather, the Fjallraven Greenland is a classy, versatile layer that provides solid core warmth for around-town use and light adventuring.
See the Men's Fjallraven Greenland Down See the Women's Fjallraven Greenland Down
Insulation type: Synthetic (FullRange)
Weight: 7.4 oz.
What we like: Supreme comfort and breathability.
What we don’t: Pricey and not very warm.
Of all the factors we consider in ranking vests, the Patagonia Nano-Air wins outright in two of them: comfort and breathability. First, the Nano-Air has a super-soft lining and shell that are literally pillowy in nature. Second, Patagonia’s FullRange insulation is highly breathable and beats out Arc’teryx’s Coreloft and others in terms of regulating temperature on the go. This means that the Nano-Air Vest is an ideal midlayer for high-output activities like backcountry skiing or as an outer layer for running in cold weather.
We do have a few issues with the Nano-Air Vest. The first is price: $200 is a lot to spend for a synthetic vest that isn’t all that warm. This leads up to our next point: The 60-gram FullRange insulation does a decent job if you’re moving but won’t keep you cozy when standing still or in cold weather. Finally, the jacket doesn’t block the wind like the Atom LT or Nano Puff above. These downsides are all a result of the technologies that have gone into making it a high-performance piece, but they hurt the Nano-Air’s appeal for casual use. For an even more purpose-built option for high-exertion activities, check out Black Diamond’s First Light Hybrid Vest, which utilizes PrimaLoft Silver Active insulation with strategically placed nylon/merino wool panels for added breathability.
See the Men's Patagonia Nano-Air See the Women's Patagonia Nano-Air
Insulation type: Down (750-fill)
Weight: 9.8 oz.
What we like: A great-looking down vest with synthetic fill in moisture-prone areas.
What we don’t: Expensive and much heavier than the Cerium LT above.
Norway-based Norrøna isn’t a household name in the U.S. like Arc’teryx or Patagonia, but they offer a quality lineup of outerwear that’s purpose-built for demanding backcountry pursuits. True to form, the Falketind Down750 is a decidedly premium piece that works well for everything from cold-weather hiking to bundling up around town. Like the Cerium LT above, the Falketind is primarily insulated with down but substitutes synthetic at the neck, sides, shoulders, and lower back for better wet-weather assurance. Norrøna also added a hood—not common among vest designs— which adds a good dose of warmth and a nice, cozy look.
As a result of the added features, the Falketind isn’t particularly light for a down vest, clocking in more than 3 ounces heavier than the Cerium LT. Further, while 750-fill down is fairly high-quality, you can get more premium varieties that are warmer for the weight (and therefore less bulky) within Arc’teryx or Patagonia’s lineups. Combined with the very steep price tag, these downsides are enough to push the Falketind to a mid-pack finish. But we do love the look and feel of this Norrøna vest, and its thoughtful design touches make it versatile for both performance and casual use (which could help justify the cost).
See the Men's Norrøna Falketind Down750 See the Women's Norrøna Falketind Down750
Insulation type: Synthetic (PrimaLoft ThermoBall)
Weight: 13.3 oz.
What we like: Comfortable, lightweight, and easily compressible.
What we don’t: Heavier but not warmer than the Nano Puff above.
We haven’t seen many collections as hyped up as The North Face’s ThermoBall was at its release, but there was good reason for the fanfare. The namesake synthetic fill was designed with insulation expert PrimaLoft to mimic the fluffiness and warmth-to-weight ratio of down. Nothing is quite like premium duck or goose plumage, including ThermoBall, but it sure does a nice job of keeping you cozy while feeling light and packing down small (a 2021 update made the ThermoBall Eco Vest even more durable and compressible). And we appreciate that TNF also uses 100-percent-recycled materials, from the shell fabric down to the insulation.
In general, we've found the ThermoBall line to be best suited for casual uses such as day hiking, resort skiing, and running errands around town. True to its intentions, the vest gets high marks for durability and is fairly streamlined compared to down, making the ThermoBall a nice layering option under a rain jacket or ski shell. And when stuffed into its own pocket, the vest is surprisingly compact and easy to throw in your pack. ThermoBall has its fair share of competition (including Patagonia’s PlumaFill used in their popular Micro Puff line), but for a respectable impression of down at a reasonable price point, the TNF is worth a look.
See the Men's TNF ThermoBall Eco Vest See the Women's TNF ThermoBall Eco Vest
Insulation type: Down (800-fill)
Weight: 8 oz.
What we like: Premium materials and a little cheaper than the Down Sweater above.
What we don’t: Not everyone will love the colorful striped design.
There’s no shortage of down vests in 2022, but the Cotopaxi Fuego stands out to us for a few reasons. First is value: For $165 ($14 less than our top-ranked Down Sweater Vest), you get a really nice piece with premium 800-fill down and a water-resistant 20-denier shell. Second, it toes the line between our casual and performance categories better than most, balancing Cotopaxi’s trademark retro styling with a functional feature set that includes great storage (two handwarmer pockets and two interior pockets) and a drawcord at the hem. Clocking in at just 8 ounces and stuffing into its own pocket, it’s even lighter than the Down Sweater (9.8 oz.) and a worthy choice for hikers, skiers, and climbers alike.
It’s worth noting that Cotopaxi is one of just a few outdoor brands (including Stio, REI, and Ibex) that is climate neutral-certified, meaning that they continuously measure their footprint and work to offset (and then reduce) those emissions. This won’t be a selling point for everyone, but it’s become an increasingly important consideration for many consumers in recent years. We rank the Down Sweater higher for its more subdued and streamlined styling—the Cotopaxi’s vibrant stripes can be a bit polarizing—but this is largely a matter of personal preference. In the end, Cotopaxi has a ways to go in matching Patagonia’s longstanding reputation for quality and fit, but their Fuego is a well-priced Down Sweater alternative.
See the Men's Cotopaxi Fuego Vest See the Women's Cotopaxi Fuego Vest
Insulation type: Down (700-fill)
Weight: 1 lb. 3.2 oz.
What we like: One of the warmest vests on this list.
What we don’t: On the heavy side and rather puffy.
Like Outdoor Research’s Coldfront above, The North Face’s Nuptse Vest is a substantially built design with a cold-weather pedigree to back it up. This vest is nearly synonymous with the term “puffy” with thick, oversized baffles and heaps of lofty, 700-fill goose down (The North Face doesn’t provide a fill weight, but it feels like a lot). The Nuptse is bulky for a vest, although its quality down compresses pretty well. And many love the retro-inspired design, which looks the part in the city or on the trail. For daily outings, cold-weather hiking, or use as a midlayer on frigid days, the Nuptse is a nice option.
Why do we have it ranked here? Stacked up against the aforementioned Coldfront, The North Face Nuptse is heavier by about 6 ounces, pricier by around $70, lacks synthetic insulation for added weather resistance, and has a noticeably bulkier look and feel. On the flip side, the Nuptse wins out in durability with a thick and robust 40-denier shell (the OR’s is 30D) and tacks on a stowable hood for added warmth. In the end, we think the Coldfront is the more well-rounded cold-weather pick, but the Nuptse is a viable and more everyday-friendly alternative for those who don’t mind the weight and cost penalties. And like the OR, the Nuptse has a relaxed fit for layering underneath, so you may want to size down depending on your intended use.
See the Men's TNF Retro Nuptse See the Women's TNF Retro Nuptse
Insulation type: Down (650-fill)
Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz.
What we like: Premium everything. Both functional and stylish.
What we don’t: Expensive and heavy.
We’ll start by pointing out that the Down Cruiser is the most expensive vest on this list by a decent margin. But don’t knock Filson until you try it: This Seattle-based outdoor brand makes ultra-premium products that are extremely well-built, functional, and look the part. We were pleasantly surprised at just how nice our first Filson products were, and combined with the lifetime warranty the company offers on all of its gear, this could be your go-to vest for years to come.
Starting with warmth, the Down Cruiser Vest is packed with 650-fill goose down. The substantial shell is made the company’s “Shelter Cloth,” which is a durable yet surprisingly soft cotton blend with an oil finish to resist moisture. And all of the small features are there: The zipper is solid brass, the pockets and neck have a soft brushed fleece finish, and the branding is much less prominent than on other vests on this list (only on the inside tag). Yes, the Down Cruiser is expensive, but it certainly is a fine piece of clothing.
See the Men's Filson Down Cruiser Vest
Insulation type: Fleece
Weight: 1 lb. 1.9 oz.
What we like: Stylish, windproof, and warm.
What we don’t: Really pricey for a fleece.
Nobody does fleeces better than Patagonia, and their Classic Retro-X harkens back to some of the brand’s original designs. It’s hard to argue with the formula: The Retro-X is cozy, stylish, and adds a noticeable boost in warmth on those chilly fall and spring days. You’ll see this vest (and the full fleece jacket version) everywhere from your local trailhead to the watering hole later that evening, and nobody seems to be complaining.
As is the case with many Patagonia products, the Retro-X isn’t cheap at $149. You are getting nice extras like a windproof membrane sandwiched in between the sherpa fleece exterior and mesh lining, but the price puts it up against cozier and warmer down alternatives. It’s no doubt a great piece, but there are enough downsides to drop the Retro-X in our rankings. For a more buttoned-down look with a little less warmth, try the Patagonia Better Sweater Vest above.
See the Men's Patagonia Classic Retro-X See the Women's Patagonia Classic Retro-X
Insulation type: Down (800-fill)
Weight: 5.6 oz.
What we like: Great warmth for the weight, down doesn’t pack out like synthetic fill.
What we don’t: Thin shell fabric, best in dry conditions.
If you’re looking to shave ounces from your kit, Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Whisperer collection is a great place to start. The Ghost Whisperer/2 Hoody has long been one of our favorite ultralight down jackets, and you can go even lighter (while still keeping your core warm) with the vest here. Combining hydrophobic 800-fill down and a 10x10-denier nylon shell, this piece is purpose-built for minimalism, but you still get two zippered handwarmer pockets, a drawcord hem adjustment, and a stowable design (including a carabiner loop inside the stuff pocket). All told, the Ghost Whisperer/2 is one of the lightest vests here and still offers a nice dose of insulation where you need it the most.
If you’re spending up for a vest like the Ghost Whisperer, you’d better have a pretty good reason for needing such a lightweight design. The 10-denier shell fabric will require much more babying than a vest like the Down Sweater above (20x30D), and with such a streamlined focus you also get a bit less warmth. In terms of the ultralight competition, the Arc’teryx Cerium LT above is the better option when precip is in the forecast thanks to the addition of synthetic insulation in moisture-prone areas, although it’s heavier by around an ounce and costs around $25 more. Finally, it’s worth considering Mountain Hardwear’s synthetic Ghost Shadow: At 7.3 ounces, it features a more performance-oriented design (internal dump pockets and stitch-free panels for comfort under a backpack or harness), slightly less boxy shape (a primary complaint about the Ghost Whisperer here), and cheaper price tag at $150.
See the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 Vest
Insulation type: Merino wool
Weight: 4 oz.
What we like: A high-performance wool option in a feathery 4-ounce package.
What we don’t: Merino is most effective when worn next-to-skin.
The majority of vests here use down or synthetic fill for warmth, but merino wool is another excellent insulator. Most often worn next-to-skin (it’s our favorite baselayer material), merino offers impressive temperature regulation, naturally resists odors, and has a very soft and comfortable feel. Playing off these strengths, Smartwool’s Merino Sport Ultra Light Vest pairs a water-resistant nylon shell with panels of thin merino mesh (blended with polyester for added durability), resulting in a trim-fitting design that offers a small dose of protection and just enough warmth for high-output activities like running and cross-country skiing. And at a crazy light weight of just 4 ounces, the Merino Sport even packs into its own pocket for compact storage while on the move.
However, while we love merino wool as a baselayer material, it loses some of its appeal when used in a midlayer. In other words, you don’t really feel the soft lining when wearing the vest over other layers, and the aforementioned odor-fighting and moisture-wicking abilities won’t shine through either. That said, the combination of wool insulation and weather-resistant nylon certainly is intriguing for performance use, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much difference just a little extra protection around the core can make. To reap the full benefits, we recommend pairing the vest with a merino baselayer (like Smartwool’s own Merino 150 Crew). For a step up in warmth, Smartwool also offers their Smartloft 60 Insulated Vest for $160, although it’s not a UL standout at 10.6 ounces.
See the Men's Smartwool Merino Sport See the Women's Smartwool Merino Sport
Insulation type: Down (900-fill)
Weight: 10 oz.
What we like: Super warm and well-built.
What we don’t: Overkill for most uses.
Most vests are worn casually or as a midlayer, but there’s still a time and place for a hardcore performance piece. Enter the Helios from down specialist Feathered Friends, which is extremely warm with 4.8 ounces of premium 900-fill down (and a total weight of only 10 ounces). For perspective, the full Helios jacket is in Feathered Friends’ midweight category, with the only warmer items being heavyweight pieces for full-on expeditions to the world’s highest mountains. An added bonus: The company manufactures their gear in the U.S. and is reasonably priced for the quality.
Realistically, the Helios has limited appeal. Most people don’t need the finest down in their vest or this much of it, and the relatively thin 20-denier Pertex shell cuts weight but is more fragile than alternatives like The North Face’s Nuptse (40D) or OR’s Coldfront (30D) above. Further, there’s an argument that folks hitting the backcountry in a serious way may want a full jacket instead of a vest. But if you run cold, live somewhere frigid, or spend a lot of time outdoors in the winter, the Helios is an expertly built and high-performance option from a well-loved down specialist.
See the Feathered Friends Helios Vest
Insulation type: Fleece
Weight: 8.8 oz.
What we like: Bargain-basement price.
What we don’t: Not very warm.
For those on a tight budget, the Steens Mountain from Columbia is just about the cheapest vest you’ll find. There are no frills here: It’s constructed of a very basic polyester fleece fabric, has two hand pockets, and some versions come in a two-color design with the shoulder/side panel varying from the torso. But Columbia is a respected company in the outdoor gear world, and the Steens Mountain Vest should help add some warmth to your core.
Who should steer clear of the Columbia? This fleece vest will add only a fraction of the warmth compared to a down or even a synthetic model. And although our Columbia products have lasted longer than anticipated, it’s good to have reasonable expectations with gear available at this price point. The fleece eventually will show wear, especially after a number of washings.
See the Men's Columbia Steens Mountain See the Women's Columbia Benton Springs
Insulation type: Polyester
What we like: Durability and warmth at a low price point.
What we don’t: Not as warm or weather protective as the Filson above.
For winter workwear, it doesn’t get much more classic than the Carhartt Duck Vest. Built with a heavy canvas exterior and lined with quilted polyester, this vest delivers warmth and durability in an affordable package. Whether you’re working outside or looking for a casual piece to keep you cozy, the Carhartt is an excellent example of why we love vests—you can get a bombproof and cozy covering for your core while still maintaining excellent mobility and breathability (Carhartt also makes a Duck jacket, which we find heavier and more restrictive).
In terms of competitors, the Duck Vest can’t hold a candle to the Filson above in terms of warmth, and its polyester lining will pack out over time, but for a whopping $225 less, it’s a really nice value. Patagonia also makes their All Seasons Hemp Canvas Vest, which splits the difference at $129. Keep in mind that these vests are designed for work and casual environments and don’t offer the low weight or weather protection that you’ll want for outdoor activities like hiking or skiing. But for outdoor work and everyday use, the Carhartt Duck Vest is a capable layer at a price that’s hard to beat.
See the Men's Carhartt Duck Vest See the Women's Carhartt Duck Vest
|Patagonia Down Sweater||$179||Casual/performance||Down (800-fill)||9.8 oz.||Yes|
|REI Co-op 650 Down Vest 2.0||$80||Casual||Down (650-fill)||7.7 oz.||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Atom LT||$175||Performance||Synthetic||8.5 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Better Sweater Vest||$99||Casual||Fleece||13.9 oz.||No|
|Outdoor Research Coldfront||$149||Performance/casual||Down (700-fill)||13.2 oz.||Yes|
|Patagonia Nano Puff||$149||Casual/performance||Synthetic||8 oz.||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Cerium LT||$249||Performance/casual||Down (850-fill)||6.5 oz.||Yes|
|Fjallraven Greenland Down Liner||$180||Casual||Down (600-fill)||13.4 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Nano-Air||$199||Performance/casual||Synthetic||7.4 oz.||No|
|Norrøna Falketind Down750||$229||Performance||Down (750-fill)||9.8 oz.||No|
|The North Face ThermoBall Eco||$149||Casual/performance||Synthetic||13.3 oz.||Yes|
|Cotopaxi Fuego Down Vest||$165||Casual/performance||Down (800-fill)||8 oz.||Yes|
|The North Face 1996 Retro Nuptse||$220||Casual||Down (700-fill)||1 lb. 3.2 oz.||Yes|
|Filson Down Cruiser Vest||$295||Casual||Down (650-fill)||1 lb. 14 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Classic Retro-X||$149||Casual||Fleece||1 lb. 1.9 oz.||No|
|Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer||$225||Performance||Down (800-fill)||5.6 oz.||Yes|
|Smartwool Merino Sport Ultra Light||$100||Performance||Merino wool||4 oz.||Yes|
|Feathered Friends Helios Down||$289||Performance||Down (900-fill)||10 oz.||Yes|
|Columbia Steens Mountain Vest||$35||Casual||Fleece||8.8 oz.||No|
|Carhartt Duck Vest||$70||Casual||Polyester||Unavail.||No|
- Casual vs. Performance Use
- Insulation Types
- Weather Resistance
- Durability (Denier)
- Weight and Packability
- Stepping up to a Full Jacket
We’ll start by pointing out that the majority of vests are worn casually as everyday pieces. They’re great for layering over a flannel or light jacket to add warmth during the fall and spring, and a vest can make you much more comfortable without the need for a full-on jacket. This means that warmth is a top priority—it’s the main purpose of a vest aside from looking good in the process. For this reason, we generally favor down vests like the Patagonia Down Sweater over synthetics (more on why down is the warmest option below).
In addition to casual use, some people wear vests for aerobic activities like hiking, biking, and climbing, or as a midlayer for skiing (both resort and backcountry). For these types of uses, you’ll often see synthetic vests from performance brands like Patagonia and Arc’teryx, many of which breathe well, resist moisture, and continue insulating when wet. For serious forays into the backcountry, however, a jacket provides maximum coverage and warmth and therefore often makes the most sense. This is why most vests are casual first and performance second.
Without a doubt, down is the warmest insulation type. It’s simply unmatched in terms of warmth, weight, and compressibility—the plumage and feathers are extremely fluffy and do a great job at trapping heat close to your body and packing down small. However, down is less breathable than synthetic insulation and retains more moisture when wet, which can cause problems in rainy or snowy weather.
When evaluating the quality of down inside a particular vest, fill power is the most commonly provided specification. The higher the fill number, the warmer and fluffier the down will be at a given weight. The vests on this list peak at a whopping 900-fill power for the Feathered Friends Helios Down, while most high-end down layering pieces use 850- or 800-fill down. 750-fill power and below falls more into the mid-range category, but even premium brands like Filson use 650-fill down in their vests (it doesn’t matter as much for casual use). Fill weight, which is the actual amount of down inside the jacket and very helpful in determining warmth, unfortunately isn’t provided for most vests.
For high-output activities, synthetic insulation is more breathable than down and won’t soak up moisture as readily. It’s also cheaper yet still does a pretty good job of keeping you cozy. Not all synthetic insulation is created equal, however, and industry leader PrimaLoft is dependable and has been innovative of late. Arc’teryx does a nice job balancing weight, warmth, breathability, and packed size with their in-house Coreloft insulation, Patagonia’s Nano-Air vest uses an impressively breathable FullRange synthetic, and The North Face has spent a lot of energy on its proprietary ThermoBall (made in conjunction with PrimaLoft). All have their upsides, but at the end of the day none are quite as warm and packable as premium down (Patagonia’s PlumaFill is the closest we’ve tested). For a complete breakdown of the topic, see our article on down vs. synthetic insulation.
Along with down, merino wool is one of the premier natural forms of insulation. For a little background, merino sheep are a specific breed highly prized for soft and finely crimped wool. Merino wool gear is known for its next-to-skin comfort, warmth, temperature regulation, and ability to wick moisture and stay dry. For these reasons, it’s very popular in performance layering, and particularly for baselayers. Merino vests are popular too, with wool specialists like Smartwool and Icebreaker having a number of models. Keep in mind that most merino vests and products in general consist of simply the fabric itself instead of clusters of down or synthetic insulation, and therefore are less substantial and warm. But for a performance vest or baselayer for aerobic activities, merino is a very viable option.
Fleece is pretty much synonymous with coziness and has been for years. This simple polyester fabric is soft, decently warm depending on the thickness, and offers great next-to-skin comfort. Fleece is most commonly found on casual pieces like the ubiquitous Patagonia Better Sweater and Classic Retro-X Vest. You’ll occasionally see performance fleeces out on the hiking trails or in the bouldering fields, but they aren’t built for serious outdoor use in the same way as the other insulation types. Fleece doesn’t block wind very well in most cases, weighs quite a bit for the warmth it provides, doesn’t compress very small, and tends to pill up over time. But it is comfortable and inexpensive, which are two of the reasons it’s so popular for everyday wear.
As we covered above, down is the warmest type of insulation for the weight. Synthetic insulation comes in second, with merino wool and fleece tending to be the least warm of the bunch. In general, a vest should help keep you decently warm as a layering piece in most fall and spring conditions. If the temperatures get frigid or you are standing still for an extended period of time, you will want to consider layering up or wearing a full down or synthetic jacket instead. Partial coverage is great in mild weather or if you’re working up some body heat, but full coverage is best for the cold.
If you’re looking for concrete numbers to evaluate the warmth of a particular vest, there are a few helpful clues. For down, fill power is readily available (850-fill, 800-fill, etc.), which is the measure of the quality of the down. Fill weight (the amount of down) isn’t listed as frequently for vests as it is for full down jackets, but we’ve mentioned it as often as possible in the product write-ups above. Synthetic pieces often use grams (80g, 60g, etc.) to measure warmth, and merino and fleece use grams or other designations like heavyweight, midweight, and lightweight. All in all, a vest will add notable warmth but shouldn’t be thought of as a standalone piece for the cold.
The sleeveless design of vests means weather resistance isn’t a top consideration, but there are notable differences between models. The shell, including its material, thickness, and coating, largely determines the degree of weather protection. Most down and synthetic vests have a polyester or nylon shell that should do a decent job at repelling light to moderate wind and precipitation. Some high-end and mid-range vests like the Arc'teryx Atom LT and Patagonia Nano-Air add a DWR (durable water repellant) treatment, which helps water bead up and roll off your vest instead of soaking in. Merino does a good job of repelling moisture naturally but will soak through over time, and the same goes for fleece, which is hydrophobic but allows wind and water to penetrate the fabric.
If you have a down vest in particular, you’ll want to add layers when rain or snow really starts to fall. Down soaks up moisture and loses the ability to insulate, whereas synthetics are much better in this regard. From our experience, we’ve noticed that most jackets and vests are rather impressive at resisting moisture, and we tend not to fret too much unless we are out in the rain for extended periods or it really starts to pour.
Breathability can vary significantly from vest to vest, and synthetic insulation is superior to down in this regard. Of all of the synthetic vests we’ve tested, Patagonia’s Nano-Air vest (packed with FullRange insulation) is the most impressive at breathing and keeping you cool on the go, which makes it an exceptional midlayer for high-output activities like backcountry skiing or as an outer layer for cool-weather hiking, biking, or climbing. Arc’teryx’s Coreloft is good too, although not quite up to the standards of FullRange in terms of breathability. Merino wool also is a good breather for aerobic activities like running and cross-country skiing, although its utility is somewhat limited as these vests tend to be thinner and less warm than synthetics. Lightweight fleeces also can be decent ventilators, but most fleece vests are casual in nature and do not excel at regulating temperature.
Don’t overlook the durability of the vest you’re considering—it can lead to an all-too-short lifespan for a rather pricey purchase. The thickness of a down or synthetic vest’s shell fabric is measured in denier (D), and the higher the number the thicker the shell. At the ultralight end of the spectrum, a vest like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 (10x10D) is built for true ounce counters. This means that the overall weight of the vest is surprisingly low, but it’s also quite easy to rip while brushing up against a branch or rock. If you take great care with an ultralight shell fabric, it can last, but it requires exactly that.
Most casual or all-around synthetic and down vests on this list are 20-denier and up, which allows you to think about your vest a lot less than with an ultralight piece. Our top pick, the Patagonia Down Sweater, is 20x30-denier, and the Arc’teryx Atom LT is 20-denier. A heavy-duty vest like The North Face Nuptse is even thicker at 40-denier, and Filson’s Down Cruiser fabric doesn’t have a denier measurement but is extremely thick and durable. Merino wool is the least durable vest type of the bunch, as it doesn’t have a shell protecting the material and is typically rather thin. Fleece is fairly tough but is prone to pilling after multiple washings or extended use.
Weight matters most to those who are heading out into the backcountry and carrying their belongings in a pack (backpacking and backcountry skiing are two prime examples). Because most vests are casual in nature and worn for everyday use, weight isn’t a huge factor in most people’s buying decisions. However, there are notable differences in weight between our picks above, starting with the Smartwool Merino Sport Ultra Light at an incredible 4 ounces total. Next up is the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 at 5.6 ounces, with the bulk of the vest pack sitting in the 6-to-11-ounce range. Burly vests like The North Face Retro Nuptse weigh around 1 pound, and thick shells like the Filson Down Cruiser are even heavier. For ultralighters, down is the clear favorite—it provides the most warmth for the weight and packs down the smallest.
For those who plan on carrying their vest along in a backpack, a number of our picks come with a stuff sack or pack down into one of their own pockets (this involves finding the correct two-sided zipper). This can make a vest a cinch to carry and it ends up taking very little space. Remember that it’s best to leave your vest unpacked while at home, which helps preserve the down or synthetic insulation. A handful of vests on this list are not packable (we list this in our comparison table), although many of those still will stuff down into the corner of a backpack reasonably small.
Vests don’t have a ton of variation in terms of pockets, but most designs boast at least two handwarmer pockets (even the basic fleece Columbia Steens Mountain has two hand pockets). Some vests have a chest pocket on the upper left, and some have an interior pocket that may double as a stuff sack for storage. We’ve found that the pockets on the vests we’ve tested are perfect for comfortably carrying the basics: small objects like keys, a wallet, and a phone. If you plan on bringing more than that along, you’ll want to consider using a daypack or other carrying device.
In terms of fit, vests are less complicated than full jackets, mainly because the arms don’t come into play. But different vests and brands do fit differently in the torso, and this is worth taking into account. Patagonia, for example, tends to have a medium to boxy fit that allows for a wide range of body types to wear their gear. The North Face tends to run large and boxy as it too is worn frequently for casual use. On the other hand, Arc’teryx's Cerium LT and Atom LT are designed with performance in mind and therefore have snug, athletic fits. Keep in mind that vests are layering pieces and therefore it matters what you intend to wear underneath. If you plan on layering over a bulky flannel or jacket, it definitely makes sense to size up if you’re on the fence.
The outdoor apparel market has seen a sizable push in sustainability practices of late, and vests are no exception. Key measures include the use of recycled fabrics, down insulation that’s traceable and certified to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), and materials that are bluesign-approved (safe for the environment, workers, and consumers) and Fair Trade Certified (produced in a factory where workers’ conditions and compensation are priorities). It’s important to note that no insulation type is totally eco-friendly, and both down and synthetics have their drawbacks, but the increase in RDS-certified down and recycled synthetic fill certainly are appealing from an environmental standpoint (for more on this topic, see our article on Down vs. Synthetic Insulation). It’s also becoming increasingly common to see PFC-free DWR coatings, which are free of perfluorocarbons that have been found to be harmful to the environment.
Brands like Patagonia and REI Co-op have been at the forefront of the sustainability push, but many other leading outdoor companies continue to make notable inroads year after year. For example, The North Face updated their ThermoBall collection recently to include 100-percent-recycled materials and a PFC-free DWR finish (the same goes for their Nuptse Vest). Cotopaxi is also worth calling out directly as one of just a few outdoor brands that’s climate neutral-certified (along with REI), which means they continuously monitor their footprint and work to reduce emissions. In the end, how a vest is made may not be the deciding factor for some consumers, but we certainly appreciate when brands are transparent about their practices and go the extra mile in creating more sustainably built products.
We really appreciate vests. They’re super cozy, terrific for casual use, and less bulky and expensive than a full jacket. But there are limitations: Vests don’t offer full coverage and leave your arms exposed, meaning you also have to think about what’s going to be worn underneath. Most serious adventurers depend on down jackets or synthetic jackets for warmth and protection while out in the backcountry, while vests are seen more frequently in town. Fortunately, the majority of the vests on this list are the trimmed-down siblings of the full jacket versions. This means that you may already have some familiarity with certain products and insulation types, and if you’re a fan, you can grab the jacket version of the vest or vice versa.
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