For getting outdoors on cool fall and spring days, it’s hard to beat a vest. This simple layering piece is cozy, adds warmth to your core, packable, and 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 2018, 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
Insulation type: Down (650 fill)
Weight: 7.5 oz.
What we like: A great value for a down vest.
What we don’t: Not as lofty or warm as the vests above, and no waist cinch.
REI Co-op’s in-house brand of outdoor clothing has been making waves of late, and particularly for prices that are substantially lower than most of the big brands. The Co-op Down Vest is very appealing, offering a legitimate down layering piece for about $80 (or even less if you can find past season’s colors on sale). This vest has a little less loft than others on this list and isn’t as teched-out or fancy, but it’s a great value overall.
What do you compromise by going with the REI Co-op Vest compared to the pricier Patagonia above? The fill power is lower at 650, which means less warmth for the weight, but this isn’t hugely important unless you’re counting ounces or heading into the backcountry. The Co-op can’t quite match the high-end look and feel of brands like Patagonia or Arc’teryx either, although the soft-touch fabric is no slouch. Finally, the vest lacks a waist cinch and fits a little boxier than we prefer. These issues aside, you won’t find a better deal for a quality down vest.
See the Men's REI Co-op Down Vest See the Women's REI Co-op Down Vest
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. Our favorite synthetic insulated vest 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 (700 fill)
Weight: 16.2 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 Novelty Nuptse Vest is the polar opposite of the Patagonia Nano Puff above (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 20.1 ounces and The North Face does not provide a fill weight, but it feels substantial). 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 use, 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 North Face Nuptse See the Women's North Face Nuptse
Insulation type: Synthetic (Polartec Alpha Direct)
Weight: 7.8 oz.
What we like: Extremely breathable, great for active pursuits.
What we don’t: The hand warmer pockets would be more functional with zippers.
Outdoor Research’s Ascendant layers have been getting a lot of attention recently, mainly for their use of Polartec Alpha Direct insulation. This synthetic knit fabric looks a lot more like fleece than the traditional polyester fill we’re used to seeing in vests like Patagonia's Nano Puff above, and is quickly proving itself to be a great insulator. Along with efficient warmth it offers superior breathability, making the Ascendant Vest one of our favorites for high-output activities. Plus, because Polartec Alpha has a standalone woven knit composition, no internal liner fabric is required, shaving off both weight and bulk.
What’s not to like with the Ascendant Vest? For such a technical piece, the omission of zippers on the hand pockets is confusing to us—and one OR promises to change in their next iteration of the Ascendant layers. Furthermore, the light face fabric and Polartec Alpha insulation will breathe and move with you, but when you stop you’ll notice that the vest doesn’t provide the same amount of warmth as a down piece. For this reason, we like the Ascendant best for shoulder season activities or under a shell in the winter. And it’s competitive with the Patagonia Nano-Air below, and will save you $25 too.
See the Men's Outdoor Research Ascendant See the Women's Outdoor Research Ascendant
Insulation type: Synthetic (Coreloft)
Weight: 7.8 ounces
What we like: Sleek look and feel.
What we don’t: Thin, even for a synthetic.
The Arc’teryx Atom LT tops our list of synthetic insulated jackets due to its outstanding combination of warmth, mobility, and build quality. The upsides of the vest version are a little less striking, which is why it’s ranked lower here, but it’s a very solid option nevertheless. Most notably, the Atom LT Vest is ideal for active outdoor use like hiking, mountain biking, and as a midlayer for skiing. The Coreloft synthetic insulation and stretchy side fleece panels are warm yet breathable, and the vest’s athletic cut means it will stay close to your body no matter the activity.
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. And purely from a performance perspective, Patagonia’s synthetic Nano-Air below wins out in breathability for high-output activities. But it’s hard to knock the versatility 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
Insulation type: Synthetic (PrimaLoft ThermoBall)
Weight: 9.2 oz.
What we like: Comfortable, lightweight, and easily compressible.
What we don’t: We don’t love the baffle design, but that’s just a matter of taste.
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.
Similar to vests like the Patagonia Nano Puff and Nano-Air, the synthetic ThermoBall 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 ThermoBall is surprisingly compact and easy to throw in your pack. Synthetic insulation usually isn’t as compressible as down, but this is one area where ThermoBall truly shines.
See the Men's North Face ThermoBall See the Women's North Face ThermoBall
Insulation type: Merino wool
Weight: 11.7 oz.
What we like: Merino wool is great for active use.
What we don’t: Athletic fit does not allow for much layering underneath.
If you’re not yet familiar with merino wool or Icebreaker, here is fair warning: it can be addicting. Merino is warm, super soft for wool, regulates temperature well, and doesn’t soak up moisture. For active pursuits like hiking, biking, and skiing, it makes a fantastic outer layer or midlayer. And for wearing around town, it dresses up fairly well, too. And Icebreaker’s Mt Elliot Vest delivers on all accounts. Made with RealFLEECE, Icebreaker’s proprietary ultra fine merino blend, the Mt Elliot is soft and cozy but decently durable with its nylon core.
There are a few notable shortcomings of the Mt Elliot. The first is price: $150 isn’t outlandish, but this is a relatively thin vest designed for active use or daily wear in cool (but not cold) weather. Second, merino wool can be rather fragile. This vest should last longer than the thin merino t-shirts we’ve tested, but it does require care including line drying (even if Icebreaker says machine dryable, line drying will prolong its lifespan). And keep in mind that the Mt. Elliot vest has an athletic cut and is form fitting.
See the Men's Icebreaker Mt Elliot
Insulation type: Synthetic (3M Thinsulate)
Weight: 5.2 oz.
What we like: 3M Thinsulate is a packable and efficient insulator.
What we don’t: Once you stop moving, you’ll probably want more vest.
Offering just enough insulation to keep you comfortable when working hard, the Marmot Featherless Trail Vest is a versatile lightweight layer. It’s constructed with a thin stretchy nylon ripstop that breathes decently and allows for great range of movement. On the shoulders and upper torso, Marmot has added 3M Thinsulate Featherless synthetic, an imitation down that has impressed us with its puffy feel, wet-weather performance, and warmth for its weight.
The tradeoff for the Featherless Trail's performance is the stylish look and coziness of a standard down or fleece vest. Furthermore, its trim cut will only fit over a snug baselayer, so you’ll likely need to throw on another jacket when you stop moving. And while the Trail Vest is light—as light as the impressive Patagonia Micro Puff below—its insulation covers only half of the vest, providing noticeably less warmth. Keep in mind though, for high output and shoulder season activities, it might be all you need.
See the Men's Marmot Featherless Trail See the Women's Marmot Featherless Trail
Insulation type: Synthetic (FullRange)
Weight: 8 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 a cheaper synthetic option with similar characteristics, try the REI Co-op Activator SI Vest.
See the Men's Patagonia Nano-Air See the Women's Patagonia Nano-Air
Insulation type: Down (800 fill)
Weight: 5 oz.
What we like: One of the lightest vests on this list.
What we don’t: Thin shell fabric and fragile zippers.
The Ghost Whisperer from Mountain Hardwear is a classic. The jacket version was one of the first ultralight down pieces to really push the envelope in terms of warmth-to-weight ratio, and the vest follows this successful blueprint. At just 5 ounces in the men’s version, it will provide you with a surprising amount of warmth while barely putting a dent in the weight of your pack. And because the vest stuffs down into its own pocket for storage, it’s truly minimalist in nature.
The compromises with ultralight gear like the Ghost Whisperer are durability and features. To start, the vest has a very thin 7D x 10D shell (for comparison, the Patagonia Down Sweater Vest is 20D x 30D). This means that you have to take great care when hiking, playing with your dog, or sitting by the campfire. In terms of features, the vest does have two hand pockets but the zippers are rather fragile. This can be an annoyance over time, and particularly with casual use when the weight savings aren’t a huge factor.
See the Men's Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer See the Women's MH Ghost Whisperer
Insulation type: Fleece
Weight: 10.3 oz.
What we like: Stylish and fun.
What we don’t: A basic vest and the collar sits a bit high.
The Synchilla Snap-T was one of Patagonia’s original fleece designs, and last year they brought things full circle by reintroducing the line in a wide range of colorways. It’s hard to argue with the formula: the Snap-T is cozy, stylish, and adds some 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 Synchilla Snap T isn’t cheap. In reality, although the vest is well built and looks good, it only consists of a simply midweight polyester fleece with a few pockets (two hand plus the famous “snap” chest pocket). Moreover, some people have complained that the collar is large and sits a bit high for such a casual piece, although we don’t mind the design. For a more buttoned down look with a little less warmth, try the Patagonia Better Sweater Vest.
See the Men's Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T
Insulation type: Down (550 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 550-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 pushing $400, but it certainly is a fine piece of clothing.
See the Men's Filson Down Cruiser Vest
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 Featherless Vest’s 3M Thinsulate surpassing down in many respects. Last (but in our opinion, not least) is the impressive PlumaFill insulation of Patagonia’s new 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, 10D face fabric. We’ve put too many holes to count in our jacket, and find that it snags on the tiniest grains of granite and most innocuous of tree braches. Furthermore, if weight is not our main concern, the Patagonia Nano-Air and OR Ascendant 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: Fleece
Weight: 8.8 oz.
What we like: The 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 $20 on Amazon). 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 (850 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 850-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 manufacturers 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: Down (1000 fill)
Weight: 3.1 oz.
What we like: 1,000-fill power down? Seriously?
What we don’t: Ultra-thin shell fabric.
If the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer above was just too heavy for you at a hefty 5 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 7D 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. 3.1 ounces of vest to be exact.
See the Men's Montbell Plasma 1000 See the Women's Montbell Plasma 1000
Insulation type: Merino wool
Weight: 10.9 oz.
What we like: Creative yet functional design for those on the go.
What we don’t: Very much a specialty vest for cold weather running and biking.
Smartwool is synonymous with wool socks, but the company makes some pretty cool layering pieces, too. The Corbet 120 is a very unique vest: it combines low-profile nylon baffling on the front filled with SmartLoft wool insulation, with a merino/polyester blend on the back. For weather protection, the Corbert 120 has a DWR finish to help repel light moisture. The result is a very comfortable and functional performance piece that is built for uses like cold weather running and biking when you’re really working up some body heat. Throw it over a lightweight or midweight baselayer and you have yourself a workable cold weather system.
Keep in mind that the Smartwool Corbert 120 is a specialty piece. Some people are surprised to unbox the vest and find that it only contains a thin panel of merino blend fabric on the back, offering little warmth to those standing still. And the casual appeal is there but still fairly limited due to the performance nature of the vest. It is, however, a solid vest option for hardcore runners and bikers who need to spice up their cold weather gear quiver.
See the Men's Smartwool Corbet 120 See the Women's Smartwool Corbet 120
|Patagonia Down Sweater||$179||Casual/performance||Down (800 fill)||9.8 oz.||Yes|
|REI Co-op Down Vest||$80||Casual/performance||Down (600 fill)||7.5 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|
|The North Face Novelty Nuptse||$179||Casual||Down (700 fill)||20.1 oz.||Yes|
|Outdoor Research Ascendant||$175||Performance/casual||Synthetic||7.8 oz.||No|
|Arc'teryx Atom LT||$175||Performance/casual||Synthetic||7.8 oz.||No|
|The North Face ThermoBall||$149||Casual/performance||Synthetic||9.2 oz.||Yes|
|Icebreaker Mt Elliot Vest||$150||Performance/casual||Merino wool||11.7 oz.||No|
|Marmot Featherless Trail||$125||Performance||Synthetic||5.2 oz.||Yes|
|Patagonia Nano-Air||$199||Performance/casual||Synthetic||8 oz.||No|
|Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer||$245||Performance/casual||Down (800 fill)||5 oz.||Yes|
|Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla||$99||Casual||Fleece||10.3 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Micro Puff||$199||Performance/casual||Synthetic||5.7 oz.||Yes|
|Filson Down Cruiser Vest||$375||Casual||Down (550 fill)||30 oz.||No|
|Columbia Steens Mountain Vest||$45||Casual||Fleece||8.8 oz.||No|
|Feathered Friends Helios||$209||Performance||Down (850 fill)||10 oz.||Yes|
|Montbell Plasma 1000||$229||Performance||Down (1000 fill)||3.1 oz.||Yes|
|Smartwool Corbet 120||$170||Performance||Merino wool||10.9 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 550-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 all 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 Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T. 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 Cerium LT 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 insulation we’ve tested, Patagonia’s Nano-Air and Outdoor Research’s Ascendant are the most impressive at breathing and keeping you cool when you’re on the go. Many people use the Nano-Air and Ascendant as a 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 but not quite up to their standards in terms of breathability. And merino wool often is used for aerobic activities like running and cross-country skiing. It breathes fairly well, although merino pieces tend to be thinner and less warm than synthetics. Lightweight fleeces are also very good 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 Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer (7D x 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 20D 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 20D x 30D, and both the Arc’teryx Cerium LT and Atom LT are 20D. A heavy-duty vest like The North Face Nuptse is much thicker at 50D, 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 Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer at 5 ounces, with the bulk of the vest pack sitting in the 6 to 11-ounce range. Burly vests like The North Face 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 hand warmer 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.
Back to Our Top Vest Picks Back to Our Vest Comparison Table