What is the best mid- to lightweight down jacket available? To find out, we comprehensively evaluated 15 jackets in side-by-side tests. These tests took place in environments as diverse as the damp mid-altitudes of Washington state and New Zealand, and in the extreme cold and dry of Antarctica. Whether in the brutal cold of the southern extremity of the earth or the roaring mountain weather of the 43rd parallels we tested these jackets to their limits. The jackets we tested ranged from sub 7 oz. to just over a pound and have a variety of features and materials. Consequently they have different warmth limits and applications.
For an overall guide to selecting a down or synthetically insulated jacket, reference our Buying Advice or check our Best Insulated Jacket for Men review. For women’s mid- to lightweight down jackets, check out the Best Down Jacket for Women review. For extra warm and thick, everyday jackets read our Best Winter Jacket for Men review.
Top Ranked Down Jackets
1.Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer
2.Arc’teryx Thorium SV
3.MontBell Frost Smoke Parka
4.Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody
5.Western Mountaineering Flash XR
6.MontBell Mirage Parka
7.Western Mountaineering QuickFlash Jacket
8.Arc’teryx Cerium SL
9.MontBell EX Light
10.MontBell Plasma 1000
11.MontBell Alpine Light Down Parka
12.Outdoor Research Transcendent Sweater
13.Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody
14.Western Mountaineering Flight
15.North Face Nuptse
Selecting the Right Product
The farther you get from home, the more important the things you carry with you become (and how much those things weigh becomes increasingly important). Having the right gear in the mountains is imperative to having a good time in the mountains, and a good jacket can be the difference between the summit and surrender. Down is the most efficient insulator on the planet with a warmth-to-weight ratio yet to be surpassed by synthetic insulation technology. Down is also very resistant to the damage caused in compression, meaning you can stuff it in your pack without compromising its ability to keep you warm. In contrast, manufacturers have yet to produce a synthetic clothing insulation that is completely immune to compression. Every time you stuff synthetic insulation into a small space you are literally damaging its fibers, decreasing its warmth retention capacity. Synthetic insulation also tends to be heavier for the warmth.
After considering all this, the choice to go with down seems like a no brainer. Until you consider that down’s Achilles Heel, its Kryptonite, is literally the most pervasive substance on the surface of the earth, and is known to frequently fall out of the sky. When down becomes wet it almost completely loses its capacity to retain heat. New hydrophobic down technology has significantly improved down fill’s resistance to water. However, this technology is in its nascent stages and has yet to equal the heat retention metrics of synthetic insulation when wet. Additionally, when you tear the outer fabric of a synthetically insulated jacket, the inner insulating material typically doesn’t come out of the jacket. The opposite is true with down jackets, where tears can be critical issues in need of immediate repair. This makes choosing the right jacket for your particular needs that much harder.
Lightweight jackets these days are typically designed with a sewn-through baffle construction that helps produce a lighter and less expensive jacket. This design also contributes to ease of movement. However it does create thin places where there is no down and consequently less warmth. This is why expedition weight parkas are often designed with a box baffle construction that eliminates the thin cold spots produced by a sewn-through style construction. The box baffle style construction, though warmer, is much bulkier, less easy to move in, and often makes a jacket more expensive.
The fabrics used by most major manufacturers are typically very high quality. The primary difference in fabrics are their weight and thickness. The heavier the material is the stronger and more durable it will be, with lightweight materials being correspondingly less robust. The denier of fabric is a description of its weight, with a higher number being heavier and therefore typically stronger. So a 7 denier fabric is much finer and lighter than 30 denier fabric, but also less durable. Though there are exceptions. For example the Ghost Whisperer from Mountain Hardwear has a 7 denier fabric that in testing performed better than many heavier denier fabrics.
The biggest consideration is what you’ll be using your jacket for, which will dictate how warm it needs to be, how durable it needs to be, and what features it will need to work for you. Some very light jackets will keep you warm even in fairly cold temps if you’re working hard enough to generate sufficient body heat. So if you’re planning on doing some vigorous hiking in cold weather, going light might be a great option for you. If you’re into high altitude mountaineering or winter camping where there is a good chance you’ll be standing still for extended periods of time, looking at an expedition weight parka like one found in our Best Winter Jacket Review or perhaps the thicker Montbell Mirage Parka might be a good alternative. Whatever you’re into, a little forethought will go a long way in helping you find the right jacket for your purposes. To learn more about how to find the perfect jacket for you check out our Buying Advice article.
Down quality is rated by a system that measures its fill power, which is the number of cubic inches displaced by an ounce of down, and is usually expressed with the word “Fill” preceded by a number ranging from 300 to 900, increasing in increments of 50. The higher the fill rating, i.e. 800 fill, the less down it requires to provide warmth. Typically 550+ fill is sufficiently warm and light enough to be used in jackets intended for activities like backpacking and climbing. At the higher end of the scale, 800 to 900 fill down is often used for extremely lightweight and warm clothing. Recently the high end of this spectrum has been pushed out a little farther by technologies that have increased the loft per weight of down to 1100 fill.
Pros: High warmth-to-weight ratio, resists compression, comfortable
Cons: Doesn’t function when wet (performance improved by new hydrophobic down technology), leaks when outer fabric torn
There are a number of manufacturer specific proprietorial synthetic insulating materials on the market today that are designed to mimic the warmth and loft of down. Though synthetic insulation has yet to achieve the same warmth-to-weight ratio as down, it is more than adequate for most applications and performance is not as diminished when it becomes wet. If you are interested in this style of jacket, reference The Best Insulated Jacket Review.
Pros:Doesn’t leak when outer material is torn, functions when wet
Cons:Lower warmth-to-weight ratio, damaged in compression
Down coated with a DWR finish, known also as hydrophobic down, resists moisture much better than regular down. This treatment does not transform down, so it still does not function as well as synthetic insulation when wet, but it does allow it to function over a wider range of conditions than non-treated down. Additionally some of the technologies used to treat the down actually increase the fill, or warmth-per-weight, of the down.
Pros:Resistant to water, Higher fill power possible
Cons:Does not perform as well as synthetic insulation when wet
Criteria for Evaluation
This review compares midweight and lightweight down jackets designed for technical applications where the wearer will be moving and working up body heat for at least part of the day.
Though thickness and loft has a lot to do with warmth, the warmth of a jacket can’t be assessed merely by reading the tag to find out how much down was used to fill it. The design of a jacket and what features it has, such as a hood, the thickness and quality of the outer material, how well the jackets fits, etc. all significantly contribute to how warm a jacket will keep you. How well a jacket holds the cold out is just as important as how well it keeps heat in.
With 5.3 ounces of 900 fill down, we found the lofty Montbell Mirage Parka to be the warmest in this review. Other thinner jackets, such as the Ghost Whisperer, surprised us by how warm they were even without a lot of thickness.
The higher, further, and steeper we take ourselves the more important the weight of what we take with us becomes. The true utility of an object comes in measuring how much use you get out of it for how much energy is expended on carrying it. The warmth-to-weight ratio of a jacket is a key measure of value, and down jackets in general have the highest warmth-to-weight ratio available. Additional ounces are added or subtracted to a jacket’s weight by the choice of fabric and design features. Frequently durability and critical features, such as a hood, are sacrificed on the altar of ultra-light design to the detriment of the final product. An ultra-light jacket that doesn’t keep you warm or that falls apart after limited use doesn’t really have a lot of value.
Though we had some incredibly light and warm jackets such as the Monttbell Mirage Parka, which weighs only 12.8 oz., the real contenders for the best weight-to-warmth to weight ratio weigh less than a cup of water. The Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer at 7.5 oz. is the best warmth for the weight since man discovered fire.
The Montbell Plasma 1000 is the lightest jacket in this review, weighing 4.7 ounces, though we still like the Ghost Whisperer better. The heaviest model in our review was the warm and durable Arc’teryx Thorium SV at 1 lb 3 ounces.
Most of the water resistance of a down jacket is derived from the treatment, quality, and weight of the outer fabric. The insulating capacity of untreated down is almost completely negated by water, so consequently jackets insulated with down have historically had a bad reputation in wet environments. New advancements in technology have resulted in a treatment for down that substantially increases its water resistance. Though a down jacket will never get you through a rainy day, the combination of good fabric and treated down will significantly improve a jacket’s performance in a wet environment. The Ghost Whisperer is the only jacket in this review that use hydrophobic down. Additionally, some jackets, like the Arc’teryx Cerium SL and Arc’teryx Thorium SV have used a composite of down with synthetic insulation in key areas that are prone to getting wet.
More than just how small a jacket can get when stuffed away, compressibility is a measure of how well a material resists damage and recovers from being compressed. Down is still superior to synthetic insulation in this regard. Every time you stuff a synthetic jacket away the insulation is literally breaking and its heat retention capacity is diminished. Down is also smaller when compressed and is significantly lighter than synthetic materials.
The down used in the construction of the jackets we reviewed is very high quality and resisted degrade throughout the course of our testing. Consequently the stratifying characteristic of the these jackets tended to be how small they were when compressed. The jackets with few features, light fabric and high fill power down typically compressed down the smallest. The Montbell Mirage Parka, though well featured, got incredibly small when packed down into the included stuff, but the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer disappears into its own pocket and will clip into your harness!
Even if the existence of Facebook is not your sole motivation for getting outdoors, looking good is never a bad thing. Once the least sexy item of clothing in your pack, the oft maligned puffy jacket used to be the great equalizer, turning all who wore it into the same androgynous blob. With the introduction of lighter materials, the fearless use of some flashy colors, and a lemming like focus on fashion, the outdoor clothing industry has made some impressive forward bounds. Most of the jackets in these reviews feature athletic or trim cuts and narrow baffles that keep the “puff” in puffy jacket to a minimum. In fact, some of the jackets reviewed, such as the Arc’teryx Cerium SL seem to be designed with form in mind over function. The Montbell Frost Smoke comes in subtle but eye catching colors and is designed with a trim (but not too trim) cut that made it very appealing to the fashion minded among our testers.
Considering the financial investment involved in purchasing a high quality down jacket these days, we certainly want them to last. Whether you’re a commuter or a climber, or both, nobody wants feathers leaking out of their new ultra-light jacket. Paying attention to the quality and weight or denier of the outer fabric, looking at how well the jacket is sewn together, and doing a little research on what’s stuffed inside your prospective new jacket are just a few ways to make sure you get what you pay for.
Reviews such as this one are a great start and will help you when the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. For example, one of the lightest jacket we tested, the Arc’teryx Cerium SL, performed poorly in durability test, but the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer, only a mere one ounce more (and with a hood!) performed very well. These featherweights aside, the true contender for the belt was a little beefier, the Arc’teryx Thorium SV brushed aside weather and laughed of the serrated limestone edges with its heavier 40 denier fabric.
With so many companies producing high quality clothing, it often comes down to the little things that make all the difference when deciding on a jacket. This often means that a zipper that out performs another, pockets a few inches higher up, or a hem a few inches lower down might make or break your choice. We’ve tested plenty of jackets that got away with elastic instead of a drawcord in the hood, but none that had done away with the drawcord at the waist. There are a few things that you can do without but some features are absolutely essential.
One of our favorite jackets was very light on features. The Ghost Whisperer is ultra-light and ultra pared down, retaining only the features it needs to perform. Proof that an abundance of gimmicky features don’t make a jacket any better! The most well feature jackets were the Montbell Mirage Parka and the Montbell Frost Smoke, both well featured and adjustable jackets that still mange to be very light.
Properly caring for down jackets is very important. Over time the down will get covered in dirt and oils, causing it to lose its loft and therefore lose its warmth. To clean your jacket we recommend ReviveX Down Cleaner to safely clean the down and restore its loft.
Editors’ Choice Award: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer
In spite of some tough competition, the Editors’ Choice award goes to the Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer. The Ghost Whisperer is the most innovative jacket we tested. With Q Shield hydrophobic down and Mountain Hardwear proprietorial 7 denier Whisperer shell fabric, the Ghost Whisperer is in a class of its own in terms of ingenuity. At only 7.5 ounces, the Ghost Whisperer manages to be a complete, mountain ready jacket that won’t weigh you down. We wore it on rainy belay ledges and in freezing Antarctic sunshine, and it performed admirably in both situations. The Ghost Whisperer is only what you need and nothing more.
Top Pick Award for Durability and Weather Protection: Arc’Teryx Thorium SV
Our Top Pick award goes to the Arc’teryx Thorium SV for its outstanding durability and weather protection. When the wind is howling hard enough to propel shards of ice through the air, making any forward progress on foot is a triumph of will, and what you wear can mean the difference between making it home without injury and making it home at all. The Arc’teryx Thorium SV kept one of our testers warm and safe in these exact circumstances on the sea ice of Antarctica. After months of hard use climbing and working, the Thorium SV showed only minor wear on the outer surface of the fabric. The down combined with strategically placed patches of synthetic Coreloft insulation showed no signs of compaction and didn’t diminish in warmth at all. For these reasons the Thorium SV is worth its weight and the hefty price tag.
Best Buy Award: MontBell Frost Smoke
Our Best Buy award goes to the MontBell Frost Smoke Parka because it incorporates high quality 800 fill down and well thought out features into a unique shell construction that balances weight and durability – all for only $200. Harder use is anticipated in the design of this jacket, and we feel like no other jacket offers the balanced quality of the Frost Smoke at such an inexpensive price.
— Thomas Greene