A version of this story appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Uncommon Path.
Mastering a true layering system takes work. But once you’ve done it, we think you’ll never go back. Layering systems are typically made up of a base layer, a mid layer, an outer layer and possibly a weatherproof shell, which allows you to adjust your level of warmth on the trail. A down jacket, typically worn as a warm outer layer or a mid layer, is a key element in this equation because it keeps your core warm by trapping precious body heat without adding bulk or weight.
“Down jackets offer the highest warmth-to-weight product ratio that we know of,” says Tim Brown, a senior product manager at REI.
To bring you the best down jackets of 2019, we first looked at online customer reviews to suss out the most popular jackets sold by REI this year. Then we spoke with several experts about the value of a good layering system and the qualities of a well-made down jacket. After our research was complete, we chose the eight most popular down jackets sold by REI and ordered each in women’s and men’s models for two testers, one petite woman and one tall man. Then we put the jackets through the paces during the Pacific Northwest winter months, wearing them in the city during work commutes and on the trail during winter hikes. We also took each jacket on several different snowshoe excursions in the mountains and carried the best of the bunch up to the slopes for a ski trip. After more than 20 hours of testing, we picked the following as the best down jackets you can buy at REI.
The Best Everyday Down Jacket
- MSRP: $229
- Fill power: 800-fill-power goose down certified to the Global Traceable Down Standard
- Weight: 12.2 ounces (women’s) and 13.1 ounces (men’s)
Patagonia’s Down Sweater (it also comes in a women’s and men’s hoodie) isn’t the lightest down jacket there is, nor is it the warmest. However, we think this jacket strikes the best balance of warmth-to-weight while still breathing well, making it a mid or outer layer for city folks or for anyone who needs a compressible down jacket for camping, hiking, backpacking or snowshoeing.
The Down Sweater comes in many different colors and patterns, in women’s and men’s profiles, with or without a hood. It fits true to size if you plan to layer, with a length that’s likely to go past your waist and sleeves that hit your wrists with comfortably lined elastic cuffs. The torso of the jacket is a bit bulky, but that makes it perfect for layering over a fleece. The jacket isn’t too big, though, which means you can wear a shell over it once the weather turns. (A note: The Down Sweater is covered with a ripstop polyester shell that has a durable water repellent finish, so you may not need that extra shell unless you plan to spend a lot of time in inclement weather.)
Patagonia’s Down Sweater is stuffed with Traceable Down, which means that the goose feathers come from a responsible source that respects animal welfare (no live plucking and no force feeding) and the feathers can be traced to their source. The 800 fill power of the jacket made it one of the warmest options we tested, and while the jacket does feel extra puffy because of all that insulation, it’s also warm and blocks the wind well. We also liked that it compressed into its own pocket; the down stayed in place during all this compression, too, because of well-constructed baffles.
Finally, we appreciated the pockets on this jacket, which, while on the smaller side, had strong zippers and kept our hands warm on extra-cold days. The waist drawcords for the Down Sweater can be found in the jacket’s pockets for easy adjustment without cold hands and the front zipper zips into a zipper garage at the chin, which prevents chafing.
Said one happy customer: “This is a great jacket. I bought it for hiking and camping, but I also wear it around in NYC. It's extremely light [and easy to store in my backpack] but warm, which is perfect for my hiking/camping purposes. Beyond just utility, this jacket looks great. I often find that many women's jackets are taken in too much in the mid section, causing a substantial flair towards the bottom of the jacket that always looks terrible on me. This jacket has the perfect fitted silhouette that's still feminine despite having the significant cinch in the mid section.”
The Best Down Jacket Under $100
- Fill power: 650-fill-power down
- Weight: 10.8 ounces (women’s), 11 ounces (men’s)
- MSRP: $99.95
REI Co-op’s 650 Down Jacket is a steal for its under-$100 price. The jacket is lightweight, attractive and warm enough, with a true-to-size fit that’s easy to layer base layers under. It also comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, including women’s plus sizes, men’s tall and a men’s hoodie. After weeks of testing, we found ourselves reaching for this jacket more often than not, especially while running errands around the city.
The REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket isn’t the warmest jacket we tested, but it does feel warmer than expected for its light weight and its 650 fill count. It blocks wind like a champ due to the nylon shell, and the down insulation fluffs up well after the jacket has been compressed into its own pocket. The baffles are well-placed and the seams are stitched up tight, too, plus the down in the jacket is certified to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS).
The REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket held up well during light rainstorms, due to the DWR finish on the jacket. It shed light snow well, although we started to feel a bit soggy after staying out in the snow for more than an hour. Both pockets are zipper-sealed and the front zipper on the jacket is durable. We do think you sacrifice a bit of durability for this jacket: Some reviewers noticed that the seams frayed over the course of a year and we did see a few stray feathers popping out after several uses. That said, we still think this jacket is a worthwhile buy for under $100.
“Through a very cold and snowy winter in Western North Carolina, this jacket kept me warm and dry, even when working as a ski patroller in under 20 degree conditions with this as my only elemental protection,” said one customer. “The little REI Co-op tag started to separate on the back side but I was pretty hard on the jacket this year. Other than the tag, there has been no issues. I also went climbing in this jacket and it held up great against the rocks. For the price I'm not scared to be active in this jacket like I would be in a jacket that is $200+.”
The Best Synthetic Alternative Down Jacket
- Weight: 10 ounces (women’s), 11.9 ounces (men’s)
- MSRP: $199
If you plan to spend a lot of time in a damp location or if you prefer materials other than down, you’ll want a synthetic jacket. That’s because synthetic materials keep you insulated even when you’re soaking wet. Down, on the other hand, clumps when it gets wet and loses its insulated value until it dries. Our favorite synthetic insulated jacket was the Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket, which also comes in a women’s and men’s hoodie. The Nano Puff is lightweight, warm, dries quickly, fits just right and compresses easily.
Patagonia’s Nano Puff Jacket is made with 60 grams of PrimaLoft Gold Insulation, which is 55 percent recycled. Even if you get soaked, Patagonia claims that the jacket will maintain 98 percent thermal efficiency—and while we didn’t take a percentage calculation out on the trail, we did stay really warm while wearing this jacket on a wet, snowy day. The jacket dried within the hour after we went indoors and our mid layers stayed dry under the jacket, too, despite the jacket’s slight outer dampness. We also found this jacket to be the most breathable one on the list: Our male tester, who is self-admittedly quite sweaty, loved how it wicked sweat and kept him from feeling clammy on the ski hill.
Like most Patagonia products, the Nano Puff is bluesign approved, which means that Patagonia took steps to keep harmful chemicals out of the manufacturing process while creating this jacket. It’s also DWR-sealed, which means it’ll stand up to a pretty hefty rainstorm for about 30 minutes or so. The Nano Puff is also an attractive jacket that looks like its down peers. It packs into a stuff pocket when you don’t need it and contains a quilted pattern (almost like baffles). The elasticized cuffs keep the wind out and the zippers work well. The liner along the chin prevents zipper chafing and the fit of the Nano Puff is slim but comfy, allowing for light layers underneath. It came down past the hips on both testers and had a cinch cord to seal off the jacket around the hips. Overall, we think that if you plan to hike, run, climb, ski, bike, camp or be otherwise engaged in the outdoors during a rainy, cold season, the Patagonia Nano Puff is the best choice for a puffy jacket.
“Used this jacket for 6 months during my 2017 AT thru hike,” said one customer. “During cold weather, it got used just about every day. It was surprisingly warm and insulated quite well even when it was wet. I wore my rain coat over it several times to block the wind. I used the jacket in 10 deg temps in the Smokey's and I stayed warm. I abused the jacket about every way possible and it's still in good shape. It got drug over rocks, thru trees and brush. It got rained on and it didn't always get washed per the instructions. There's not any rips or tears and while it doesn't look like a new jacket any more, I can't justify replacing it either.”
The Best Down Jacket for Stormy Weather
- Weight: 9.8 ounces (women’s); 10.9 ounces (men’s)
- Down: 850-fill-power down with synthetic insulation in key zones
If your adventures often take you outside in windy or very cold temperatures, the Arc’teryx Cerium LT Down Hoodie may be a solid option. It’s insulated mainly with 850-fill-power down but has synthetic insulation in key sweat areas, and provides a wind-resistant nylon shell with a water-repellent finish and a tightly fitted hood, all of which are helpful in cold climates.
The Cerium fits closely, ending right below your hips and sealing out cold air with a drawstring. Because the fit is slim, we recommend trying it on before you buy. One of the best parts of this jacket is its elastic-trimmed hood, which has a rear drawcord that helps create a cocoon for your head that you’ll be ever-so-grateful for on windy days. The Cerium’s nylon fabric is also very soft against the skin.
The Cerium was the warmest jacket we tested, with 850-fill-power down and a contoured baffling system that keeps the insulation in place during high-intensity activities. And because it’s super light, with a 9.8- to 10.9-ounce weight (depending on the version you order), it’s easy to tuck into your pack during shoulder-season adventures.
How does a layering system work?
It can be tough to maintain the right balance of warmth, comfort, breathability and dryness on the trail, especially when it’s cold out and you’re hiking or backpacking. That’s when layering comes into play: “The true benefit of a layering system is that it allows for adjustment in terms of your level of warmth on the trail,” says Brown. “If you get too hot, you sweat and then when you stop, the evaporative cooling can chill you, and this is a safety concern. It’s also just uncomfortable.”
To adjust for this problem, Brown suggests focusing on layering your clothes in a way that allows you to adjust your temperature based on your level of exertion and the conditions of the environment. During the shoulder seasons (late fall, winter or early spring), start with a moisture-managing midweight base layer top and bottom. Then, put a down jacket on top of that and throw a rain shell in your backpack, just in case the weather turns. If you’re a person who runs cold, throw a fleece into the mix between the base layer and the down jacket.
“Then, when you start to warm up, you’ll just need to take the down jacket off and put it in your pack,” Brown says. “This is your perfect kit.”
What makes for a good down jacket?
A good down jacket should contain lightweight, compressible insulation; in most cases, a down jacket will have the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any product you own (except for maybe your sleeping bag).
“Good insulated jackets are essential to anyone who experiences the outdoors. Whether in a city or on a mountain. Down jackets tend to be the best, but there are very good synthetic options as well,” says Jason Knode, an assistant category manager for men’s outerwear and base layers.
Brown says a good down jacket should fit close to your body but it shouldn’t be form-fitting, to allow you to comfortably wear one or two layers underneath. “You also want it fitted well enough so that if you put a rain shell over the top, you don’t feel like a sausage put into a casing,” Brown says, laughing.
Jeff Heller, a software engineer at REI and frequent backpacker, says he typically brings a down jacket to wear around camp after a day of hiking, where he finds the jacket’s warmth to be ideal. For him, a good down jacket has well-made baffles, and it should be lightweight, but warm. We also looked at jackets in this guide that were made with responsibly sourced down and offered in a range of sizes for every body type.
What is down fill power?
Fill power is a measurement that describes the amount of down contained in an ounce of space. “A higher fill count jacket will have more bulk, but the same weight,” Brown says. In other words, a higher fill count number means more loft (or fluff).
Down fill power matters because “loft” is an important indicator of a jacket’s insulation. Down insulates you well because of the formation of small air spaces within the down’s “plumules” (superfine featherlike plumage). The more loft you have, the more heat-trapping air space there will be in the jacket. (For more information, check out this down fill count guide.)
“Good fill counts are 650 to 850, with 850 being the warmest,” says Knode.
What is the Responsible Down Standard?
All of the jackets in this guide are certified by the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). 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. (For more details, visit Responsible Down Standard.)
You may also see terms like Global TDS on garments. The Global TDS label is similar to the RDS label but it also requires that parent farms, where birds are raised to produce eggs before their feathers are used, be audited. Global TDS is slightly stricter than RDS, but both are credible standards that tell you the materials were produced without causing undue distress to animals. There are eventual plans to merge the Global TDS and RDS standardizing processes in the near future.
Should I waterproof my down jacket?
Brown says that most down jackets will come with a DWR treatment that helps to repel water on wet days. That said, he recommends bringing a waterproof and/or windproof shell on the trail, as DWR can wear out over time. If your jacket doesn’t have a DWR finish, you can add one yourself. (For more information about maintaining and reviving DWR, visit our DWR guide.)
“A synthetic down jacket will insulate even when it’s wet, while wet down clumps and loses its insulated value until it dries out,” Brown says. Thus, a synthetic jacket might be right for you if you plan to be outdoors in a wet place, if you’re undertaking a sweaty activity (like running), or if down products don’t sit well with you ethically. Synthetic materials are also generally less expensive than down. Down, however, is usually warmer, more compressible and a bit lighter. The decision between the two is yours and will entirely depend on what kinds of adventures you’re planning to take. (For more on this decision, visit our down vs. synthetics insulation guide.)
Down jacket care and maintenance:
Down jackets can lose their insulating properties when they get wet or dirty, so you’ll want to clean your jacket every so often to keep it at its best. Most down jackets can be washed in a front-loading home washing machine, but make sure to read your jacket’s instruction label before tossing it in. If you do wash your jacket at home, use a gentle, detergent-free cleaner (Nikwax’s Down Wash is made just for this situation). Then, dry your jacket on low heat with a few clean tennis balls in the mix to break up clumps. (Down tends to clump when wet and it can take a while to dry, so be patient!) You should also store your down products on hangers rather than compressing them. (For more cleaning tips, visit our down jacket cleaning guide.)
If your jacket rips or tears, you can patch it with gear repair tape. Check out our guide on how to repair a down jacket at REI.