“Winter is coming” may have taken on an ominous tone thanks to Game of Thrones, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Winter hiking offers unique opportunities. Visit snow-filled landscapes, ice climb or listen to a fire crackle in a world of sounds softened by the snow.
Of course, as we all know, there is a fine line between enjoying the great outdoors and falling victim to the extremes of the natural environment - especially in winter. Heading into the Rockies or even the local hills ill-equipped in winter is a recipe for disaster.
Down jackets are one of the prerequisites for winter climbing. Stuffed with insulation, either down (from birds) or the synthetic equivalent, they are key to keeping out the cold.
Let’s take a look at the best down jackets for hiking.
Features to Look Out For
It’s tempting, when we decide we need something, to rush straight to the store and snap up the product that looks the best (or costs the least!). However, with a garment as crucial it pays to take a little more care.
There are a range of different features to look out for, factors like...
According to biologist Phil Schatz down feathers are “specialized (bird) feathers” that are “especially insulating, trapping air in spaces between each feather to decrease the rate of heat loss.” (1)
Ever seen a duck sailing merrily along the top of pond water so cold you wouldn’t even go in it for a bet? That’s testament to the power of down feathers and their ability to insulate and protect against the cold.
It’s a tribute to the ingenuity of nature that no man-made material has been able to match down’s low-weight, high-insulation performance, but synthetic alternatives to natural down are available and have enough upsides to make the two worth comparing.
Advantages of Natural Down
- Peerless insulation
- Can be compressed without damaging the down fluff and the performance of the jacket
- Longevity – Rei.com are among those who suggest that “with proper care, a down sleeping bag or jacket can last for decades.”
Disadvantages of Natural Down
- More expensive than the synthetic variety
- Loses its ability to insulate when wet
- Animal protection groups like PETA have raised concerns about down being plucked from living birds
Advantages of Synthetic Down
- Far better water resistance and insulation performance when wet than natural down
Disadvantages of Synthetic Down
- Not as warm
- It’s ability to insulate diminishes over time far more quickly – synthetic down insulates for years rather than decades
- Can’t be compressed as easily as natural down
In summary, then, natural down, providing that it has been sourced humanely, appears to perform better than synthetic down, except in the key area of water resistance.
Those looking for the ultimate down jacket may look to explore products made from a blend of natural and synthetic down to harness the best features of both.
Another option may be hydrophobic down, natural down coated in DWR water repellent, which some companies have marketed as a solution to down’s vulnerability to the wet.
Bear with us; this bit gets a little technical. Fill power is a measure of the volume an ounce of down occupies. Typical fill power numbers range from 600 to 900. A 600 fill power indicates that one ounce of down will have a volume of 600 cubic inches under normal circumstances. A 900 fill power indicates that one ounce of down will occupy 900 cubic inches.
Generally speaking, the higher the fill power the better. In the example above the 900 fill power gives you one-third extra volume for the same weight as the 600 fill power - a clear performance advantage that translates into extra heat.
However, please note that a higher fill power doesn’t always translate to a warmer jacket! A jacket with a lower fill power may be warmer than one with a higher fill power if it is substantially heavier.
Down isn’t the only consideration when purchasing one (despite the name). The lining of the jacket and its outer shell can be equally important – and often contribute more to the weight of the garment than the down itself when you include the weight of zips, collars, etc.
Since down loses performance when wet you’ll want to make sure your jacket has a tight-weave, to resist water, and/or is coated with a DWR water repellent. Equally, however, you are unlikely to want a jacket so bulletproof that it doesn’t allow any perspiration out. Moisture wicking and breathability are also important features to look for in the fabric.
Selecting the kind out of outer shell you want for your jacket often comes down to priorities. If you want a lighter, more manoeuvrable jacket you’re likely to favour lightweight shell fabrics, however be aware that these are vulnerable to abrasion and that if the shell is pierced down leaks out like blood from a wound, ruining the performance of the jacket.
Those seeking a jacket that will last would be better advised to invest in a jacket with a heavier, more robust shell lining that will survive the inevitable wear and tear of the trail.
There are two main types of down jacket construction: sewn through and box baffle.
Sewn through is the cheapest but least efficient of the two. In this type of construction the outer lining of the jacket is stitched directly into the inner lining to create a number of “baffles” - the puffy areas. This uses less material than box baffle construction but, as the stitching pinches the down at the seams, it reduces the loft of the down and, therefore, its ability to retain heat.
Box Baffle construction, as its name suggests, divides the baffles into independent boxes that have full loft and maximise down insulation. Box baffles aren't immune to issues - the down can be prone to "migrating" to one part of the box (bird feathers are used to migrating, after all) - but, generally speaking, they are warmer, thicker and heavier than sewn through jackets.
Are you a pocket person or not? This might seem like a strange person but pockets can add a lot of weight to a jacket. If you prefer to travel lightweight and are content to store things in your rucksack you’ll probably prefer a jacket without lots of extra trappings. On the other hand, pockets can allow quick access to crucial gear like compasses and keep vital items (eg water bottles) from freezing thanks to proximity to your body heat.
Last but not least, how will you look? Some of them are pretty puffy. You might not be worried about looking like the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters out on the trail but if you intend to use your down jacket on civvie street it might be worth investing in a slimmed down version.
Lets look at some of the best options
Now we know the kind of features we’re looking for it’s time for the fun bit: hitting the store (or a variety of internet links) to scope out the best down jackets for hiking. Which jacket will come out on top?
Could the Patagonia Down Sweater be the one? The jacket has strong ethical credentials. The goose down is “fully traceable,” according to Patagonia, eliminating the possibility of wearing down sourced through cruel practises, while the outer shell is made from recycled polyester. The shell is DWR treated, making the jacket wind and water-repellent, and the 800 fill power is on the high-end of the spectrum.
With a similar look to the Patagonia Down Sweater (but a smaller price), the Outdoor Research Men's Transcendent Sweater weighs in at a slightly heavier 12.87 oz but loses warmth through a lesser fill power of 650. It is, however, highly compressible so could be ideal for those looking to pack their down jacket away if the weather permits.
This jacket’s name is slightly misleading. The down is rated at 550 rather than 650, however 100 grams of thermal reflective insulation helps to trap body heat and gives the jacket its “turbodown” rating of 650. According to Columbia “it’s like a down jacket on steroids.” It has a hood! Is a jacket really a jacket without a hood?
The lightest of lightweight down jackets practically is a ghost when it comes to weight. At a mere 8.4 ounces (with a hood) it should be ideal for those hoping to stay light on their feet even while dealing with elemental extremes. The jacket’s 800 fill power down is coated with Q.Shield to repel moisture and maximise loft in wet conditions.
If its name is anything to go by this jacket means business. Nuptse is one of the highest mountains in the world and stares down Everest in the Himalayas. With a weight of 22 ounces, box baffle construction and 700 fill power design, the North Face Nupste Jacket takes a heavyweight approach to dealing with nature’s extremes and offers a high-level of warmth along with extra features like internal pockets, adjustable cuff tabs and a double-layer taffeta on the shoulders.
Weighing in at 23 ounces this is another heavyweight option. Box baffle construction and a 750 fill power guarantee warmth. The product should achieve the classic down jacket goal of making you feel like you’re wearing a sleeping bag, but could feel almost as bulky when you’re on the move!
This Arc’Teryx product couldn’t be much more different than its predecessor. At 6.5 ounces it’s almost four times as light as the Thorium SV Hoody and is designed to be worn as a “mid layer in cool, dry conditions.” Nonetheless, the jacket comes with a light DWR coating to repel moisture and makes use of synthetic insulation in areas vulnerable to moisture to maximise performance
This Mountain Hardware option weighs in at 17 pounds and, with 850 fill power down protected by a Q-Shield water-resistant coating, is designed to deal with all that the weather can throw at you. With a weight mid-way between the light and heavyweight options on this list and the potential for “easy packing,” this jacket could appeal to those seeking a bit of everything.
Those seeking a simple, unfussy design could be attracted to this offering from REI. With 650 fill power down and a weight of 10.5 oz it isn’t the warmest offering on the market, but has a straightforward design, competitive price and a DWR coating to repel moisture and protect against the wind.
This offering from Under Armour offers a blend of synthetic and natural down in a bid to access the best features of both. A thermo-conductive inner coating, designed to reflect and capture body heat, adds to its heat rating, while a pocket designed with a headphone escape is a neat feature that will appeal to those who like to tackle nature with tunes pumping in their ears.
It’s a close call but, on reflection, the best down jacket for hiking is the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket.
As the popularity of lightweight hiking continues to grow, Mountain Hardware’s offering manages to cram all the key features of a stellar down jacket - high fill power, moisture protection and a hood - into an easily packable package that weighs just 8.4 ounces. That’s enough to outweigh slight concerns about adjustability and a wayward waist cord.
Those expecting really tough conditions on the trail or long periods spent standing still in extreme cold - for instance, those intending to tackle the highest peaks in the Himalayas - might prefer to look at the North Face Nuptse Jacket or the Arcteryx Thorium SV Hoody. These more conventional down jackets feature the warmest box baffle construction and many added features, but have the bulk and weight to match.
Ultimately, the best down jacket for hiking is the one that works best for you. Where are you planning to trek this winter? Wherever it is, you’ll want to pack appropriate gear and stay safe. A well chosen down jacket will stand you in good stead.