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 2021, 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.
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)
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: 7.8 ounces
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 2021. 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 at only 7.8 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 Down Vest for Winter
Insulation type: Down (700-fill)
Weight: 17.1 oz.
What we like: One of the warmest vests on this list.
What we don’t: On the heavy side and rather puffy.
In many ways, The North Face Nuptse Vest is the polar opposite of the Patagonia Nano Puff below (at least in the context of vests). It’s big—the baffles are large and the vest almost defines the term “puffy.” It’s warm, with heaps of 700-fill goose down (the total weight is 17.1 ounces and The North Face does not provide a fill weight, but it feels like a lot). And the Nuptse is bulky for a vest, although its quality down compresses pretty well.
All of that being said, the Nuptse is one of the warmest and most substantial vests on the list and built to withstand cold conditions. For daily outings, cold-weather hiking, or use as a midlayer on frigid days, the Nuptse is a nice option. Moreover, we like the strong nylon face fabric, which helps in cutting wind and will withstand more rough use than many of the thinner shells included here. Keep in mind that like many products from The North Face, this vest has a tendency to run large.
See the Men's TNF Retro Nuptse See the Women's TNF Retro Nuptse
Best Vest for Cold-Weather Running
Insulation type: n/a
Weight: 3 oz.
What we like: Cuts wind and repels water, keeping your core warm as you move.
What we don’t: Not very versatile or warm outside of running.
Few outdoor activities generate as much heat as running, and even during the coldest months many runners will want to keep their layering to a minimum. A lightweight windbreaker or running jacket can get the job done, but a vest (often worn with baselayer and gloves) is the ideal high-output piece for its ability to keep your core warm and protected while allowing for airflow and mobility. Among the options, we like the Arc’teryx Incendo best, which features an incredibly lightweight 3-ounce build, wind and water-resistant fabric, mesh side panels for ventilation, and a compact design that stows in its own pocket. It’s a small but mighty vest that can keep you just warm enough in temperatures as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit (assuming you’re building heat) and carry easily in your hand when not in use.
The Incendo is ideal for sustained outings when you keep your heartrate high throughout, but with no insulation, it simply won’t cut it for those who plan to start and stop or take breaks along the way (the Atom LT above offers a great bump in warmth without much tradeoff in terms of breathability). In the end, the Incendo is a niche piece of gear, although many runners will find it indispensable for winter workouts. In comparison to other running vests, we love the Incendo’s zippered stow pocket with media port and elasticized hem that keeps it from riding up with each stride. And at a relatively low price point of $89, the Incendo is a fairly reasonable purchase despite its limited application.
See the Arc'teryx Incendo Vest See the Arc'teryx Cita 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.
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: 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.
See the Men's Patagonia Nano-Air See the Women's Patagonia Nano-Air
Insulation type: Synthetic (PrimaLoft ThermoBall)
Weight: 10.6 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 products as hyped up as ThermoBall was upon its release a few years ago, but there’s good reason behind it. This synthetic fill was designed with insulation expert PrimaLoft to mimic the fluffiness and warmth-to-weight ratio of down. Nothing is quite like premium down, including ThermoBall, but it sure does a nice job of keeping you cozy while feeling light and packing down small. And kudos to The North Face: with the latest “Eco” model, they’ve included a number of sustainable touches like recycled insulation and shell/lining materials.
Similar to vests like the Patagonia Nano Puff and Nano-Air, the synthetic ThermoBall Eco isn’t as warm as down but works well as a fall and spring piece or a midlayer for skiing. And when stuffed down into its own pocket, the vest is surprisingly compact and easy to throw in your pack (although it is on the heavy side for backcountry use at over 10 ounces considering its warmth). Synthetic insulation usually isn’t as compressible as down, but this is one area where ThermoBall truly shines.
See the Men's TNF ThermoBall Eco Vest See the Women's TNF ThermoBall Eco Vest
Insulation type: Merino wool
Weight: 16.2 oz.
What we like: Merino wool is great for active use.
What we don’t: Expensive and requires extra care.
If you’re not yet familiar with merino wool or Icebreaker, here is fair warning: it can be addicting. Merino is a super soft type of wool, regulates temperature well with the ability to both insulate and cool you down, and doesn’t soak up moisture. For active pursuits like hiking, biking, and skiing, it makes a fantastic outer, mid, or baselayer, and Icebreaker’s Helix vest delivers on all fronts. Designed as an active layer for cold, high-output days, the Helix combines MerinoLoft insulation with a wool lining for a really nice combination of performance and comfort.
There are a few notable shortcomings with the Icebreaker Helix. The first is price: $225 is steep for a vest, especially given than it doesn’t come close to matching the warmth of down-filled options on this list. Second, merino wool can be rather fragile. This vest should last longer than the thin merino t-shirts we’ve tested due to the polyester shell, but it does require care, including line drying to extend its lifespan. Finally, the Helix’s 100-percent polyester shell doesn’t have the performance chops of a design like the Atom LT above and will be less resistant against wind and precipitation. But for the benefits of merino wool in a layer built to move with you, the Helix is a nice choice.
See the Men's Icebreaker Helix See the Women's Icebreaker Helix
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 The North Face. 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 Classic Retro-X and Filson Down Cruiser vests below, it’s one of our favorite casual options of 2021. 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 (PlumaFill)
Weight: 5.7 oz.
What we like: Impressive warmth-to-weight ratio.
What we don’t: Not durable; doesn’t breathable as well as other synthetic layers.
Synthetic insulation is having a moment right now, with fills like the Ascendant’s Polartec Alpha and The North Face's ThermoBall surpassing down in many respects. Last (but in our opinion, not least) is the impressive PlumaFill insulation of Patagonia’s Micro Puff. Mimicking the structure of down, PlumaFill is also packable—more so than other synthetic insulations—and maintains the same loft and warmth that we love about feathers, even when wet. At 5.7 ounces, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another vest with this amount of warmth and weather protection in such a small package.
Our main gripe with the Micro Puff—and depending on your activity of choice, it could be a large one—is the extremely thin, 10-denier face fabric. We’ve worn the jacket version and put too many holes in it to count, snagging it on the tiniest grains of granite and most innocuous of tree branches. Furthermore, if weight is not our main concern, the Patagonia Nano-Air and Arc’teryx Atom LT are both warmer and more breathable. But considering its minimal weight and bulk, not to mention windproof and water-repelling face fabric, the Micro Puff is a high-performance layer that excels in mountain environments.
See the Men's Patagonia Micro Puff See the Women's Patagonia Micro Puff
Insulation type: Down (650-fill)
Weight: 30 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: 17.9 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.
See the Men's Patagonia Classic Retro-X See the Women's Patagonia Classic Retro-X
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 Pertex shell cuts weight but is much more fragile than a vest like The North Face Nuptse 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 time outdoors in the winter, give the Helios a serious look.
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 (at time of publishing, the vest was selling for as low as $21 on Backcountry). 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: Down (1,000-fill)
Weight: 3.1 oz.
What we like: 1,000-fill power down? Seriously?
What we don’t: Ultra-thin shell fabric.
If the Patagonia Micro Puff above was just too heavy for you at a hefty 5.7 ounces, perhaps the 3.1-ounce Montbell Plasma 1000 will do the trick. This is not a misprint: the vest is made with 1,000-fill-power down, which is absolutely outrageous from a warmth-to-weight and fluffiness perspective. For serious alpine climbers or those who just want to brag about their down vest that weighs less than an average deck of cards, this is your ticket.
There are two major factors that may make you think twice about buying the Montbell Plasma 1000. The first is the ultra-thin 7-denier nylon shell, which realistically will tear far more easily than most people would like. The second is the fill weight—despite the 1,000-fill power down, you only get 1.1 ounces of it. This will add some warmth and particularly if you’re moving (Montbell is huge among the climbing community), but it’s not a whole lot of vest.
See the Men's Montbell Plasma 1000 See the Women's Montbell Plasma 1000
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 it’s polyester lining will pack out over time, but for almost $200 less, it’s a nice value. And for colder days, Carhartt also offers the same design with a warmer “Sherpa” insulation, which retails for $79. 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 and it’s hard to beat the price.
See the Men's Carhartt Duck Vest See the Women's Carhartt Duck Vest
Insulation type: Merino wool
Weight: 14 oz.
What we like: Unique, around-town-friendly merino build.
What we don’t: We still prefer wool as a next-to-skin layer.
Smartwool is synonymous with wool socks, but the company makes some pretty cool layering pieces, too. The SmartLoft 120 is a very unique vest: it combines low-profile nylon baffling with proprietary wool insulation and a thin merino-lined interior. For weather protection, the SmartLoft has a DWR finish to help repel light moisture, and the front and back of the shell are wind-resistant (the stretchy sides allow more air through, however). The result is a very comfortable piece that excels for casual use in the shoulder seasons.
We love merino wool as a next-to-skin layer, but it loses some of its appeal as a midlayer. The SmartLoft’s wool insulation doesn’t pack down like a down piece or lightweight synthetic, and you don’t really feel the soft lining when wearing the vest as a mid or outer layer. Tack on a steep $180 price tag and the fact that the merino interior will break down faster than the nylon and polyester competitors on this list, and you don’t have a great all-around value. For a lighter and more performance-oriented alternative, check out Smartwool’s SmartLoft-X 60 Vest.
See the Men's Smartwool SmartLoft 120 See the Women's Smartwool SmartLoft 150
|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)||Unavail.||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Atom LT||$175||Performance||Synthetic||7.8 oz.||No|
|The North Face 1996 Retro Nuptse||$179||Casual||Down (700-fill)||17.1 oz.||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Incendo Vest||$89||Performance||n/a||3 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|
|Patagonia Nano-Air||$199||Performance/casual||Synthetic||7.4 oz.||No|
|The North Face ThermoBall Eco||$149||Casual/performance||Synthetic||10.6 oz.||Yes|
|Icebreaker MerinoLoft Helix||$225||Performance||Merino wool||16.2 oz.||No|
|Fjallraven Greenland Down Liner||$180||Casual||Down (600-fill)||13.4 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Micro Puff||$199||Performance||Synthetic||5.7 oz.||Yes|
|Filson Down Cruiser Vest||$250||Casual||Down (650-fill)||30 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Classic Retro-X||$149||Casual||Fleece||17.9 oz.||No|
|Feathered Friends Helios Down||$269||Performance||Down (900-fill)||10 oz.||Yes|
|Columbia Steens Mountain Vest||$45||Casual||Fleece||8.8 oz.||No|
|Montbell Plasma 1000||$229||Performance||Down (1000-fill)||3.1 oz.||Yes|
|Carhartt Duck Vest||$69||Casual||Polyester||Unavail.||No|
|Smartwool SmartLoft 120||$180||Casual/performance||Merino wool||14 oz.||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 1,000-fill power for the Montbell Plasma (this is an anomaly), 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 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, vests like the Montbell Plasma 1000 (7D) and Patagonia Micro Puff (10D) are 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 much thicker at 50-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 Montbell Plasma 1000 at an incredible 3.1 ounces total. Next up is the Patagonia Micro Puff at 5.7 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. The ultralight Montbell Plasma 1000 is an exception with no hand pockets, but most vests have 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.
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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