Looking for the right jacket for your outdoor activities can be a daunting process. A down jacket is a significant purchase, and you don’t want to realize a week in that it isn’t what you need! That’s why we’re breaking down everything you need to know when it comes to purchasing a down jacket so you can stay warm and happy on the trails.
Down is one of the most effective insulators on the market, and it uses duck and goose feathers. Every duck and goose has a soft layer of down located under their main flight feathers that help insulate them in cold and wet conditions. In a jacket, these down clusters create millions of tiny air pockets, trapping more warm air around yourself.
When choosing a down jacket, it’s important to remember that geese and ducks are casualties of the trade. Look for jackets that have an RDS (Responsible Down Standard) label. To get an RDS label, a brand must prove that their down feathers came from animals that were treated well. An RDS certification requires that the ducks and geese in question were free of hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and distress.
A synthetic jacket might be right for you if you plan to be outdoors in a wet place or if you’re undertaking a sweaty activity like running. Typically made of polyester, synthetic fill is quick-drying and insulates even if wet. Down on the other hand, when wet, takes a long time to dry and loses its ability to insulate. Here’s a quick breakdown of the pros and cons of down vs. synthetic insulation.
Higher warmth-to-weight ratio than synthetic insulation.
Durable. With proper care, a down jacket can last for decades.
Loses insulating power when it gets wet.
Water-resistant and continues to insulate even when wet.
Less expensive than down.
Heavier and bulkier than down.
Offers less warmth.
Less durable than down.
To conclude, your insulation choice should depend on your activity! For example, if you’re going to be camping in the off season, down is the right choice. If you’re going to be hiking during the summer rain, synthetic insulation is the right choice for you. Odds are if you become an outdoor enthusiast, you’ll end up with one of each in your closet.
Two of the most common, and easily confused specs, when it comes to down insulation are fill power and fill weight. Fill power measures the down’s quality or amount of loft, with more expensive jackets usually hitting the 800-fill mark or higher. Fill weight, on the other hand, is the total amount of down in the jacket. For example, 5.6 oz. of 800-fill power will provide more warmth than 3.4 oz. of 800-fill power. It can be confusing when it comes to some of these details, so just know that less ounces of fill weight of down means less warmth, and the higher the fill power the higher the quality of down.
If you’re looking for a backpacking jacket, weight and packability are things to take into consideration. On the ultralight end is a jacket like Montbell’s wild Plasma 1000, which weighs a total 4.8 ounces. One the heavier end of things is the Rab Neutrino Pro that comes in at 1 pound 5.3 ounces. Remember that the fewer the ounces a jacket has, the fewer features and fill weight it has. We recommend finding something in the 8-15 ounce range.
You may see a down jacket labeled as DWR, or durable water repellent. To counteract down’s achilles heel - wet weather - some companies have started to use this treatment on the shell to help moisture bead up and run off instead of soaking in. If your jacket has this, you can get away with light rain (but not a downpour).
A hood on a down jacket adds extra warmth around your head and neck, but also it bumps up the weight and cost of the jacket. For daily wear or backpacking, a hood is a nice feature. But if you’re going to be using your jacket as a midlayer for activities like skiing, opt for no hood, as it will interfere with your helmet, or make sure you have a helmet compatible version.
What you’ll be using your down jacket for will impact what size to get. If you’re planning to use it as a midlayer or under a rain jacket, opt for a tighter fit. If you want to throw it over what you already have on, like when belaying, opt for a looser fit.
Now that you know what to look for when purchasing a down jacket, let’s chat about some of the best ones on the market!
REI Co-Op 650 Down Jacket 2.0: Best Budget Jacket
Down is expensive. For those just getting into outdoor activities, consider REI’s 650 Down Jacket. At $100, it’s one of the cheaper down jackets on the market that still offers warmth. This jacket won’t be as warm and durable as others, but is an excellent starting place for new hikers.
Weight: 11 oz
Fill: 4.2 oz. of 650-fill-power down
Patagonia Down Sweater: Best All-Around
The Patagonia Down Sweater is one of the most versatile down jackets on the market. It’s light and packable enough for backpacking yet offers enough warmth to use as a midlayer for skiing. It also works well for everyday wear, meaning you’ll likely get a lot of use for it. If you’re looking for a jacket to use in all aspects of your life, this is the one for you. If you’re looking for a techy, top-performing jacket, this isn’t it.
Weight: 13.1 oz
Fill: 3.4 oz. of 800-fill-power down
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer: Best for Technical Adventures
The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer has impressive warmth for how light it is, making it a great jacket for the fast-and-light missions in the mountains. Other features include zippered hand pockets, a hem adjustment, and wind and water resistance.
Weight: 8.8 oz.
Fill: 3 oz. of 800-fill-power down
Rab Neutrino Pro: Best for Cold Weather
Designed for cold, alpine expeditions, this jacket is heavy and warm. Helmet-compatible and water resistant, this is the jacket for tackling 4,000m peaks and alpine summits.
Weight: 1 lb. 5.3 oz.
Fill: 8 oz. of 800-fill-power down
There you have it: how to choose a down jacket. Make sure to check out some of our other gear breakdowns such as The Kids Hiking Gear You’ll Need for Family Adventures and What to Consider When Buying Hiking Boots.
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