Mastering a 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 and an outer layer. An insulated 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.
But how do you choose the best one for you? First, read our How to Choose Insulated Outerwear article. Next, scan our staffers' and customer-reviewers' favorites below. They pinpointed down and synthetic options for casual wear, hiking, snowsports and more. Read on for our top picks of 2021.
For quick recommendations, check out our favorites here. Or scroll down for more in-depth reviews.
- Best Insulated Jacket for Everyday Wear: Patagonia Down Sweater (Women's, Men's)
- Best Insulated Jacket for Snowsports: Arc'teryx Atom LT Insulated Hoodie (Women's, Men's)
- Best Insulated Jacket for Really Cold Adventures: Cotopaxi Fuego Hooded Down Jacket (Women's, Men's)
- Best Insulated Jacket for Hiking: Patagonia Nano Puff (Women's, Men's)
- Best Insulated Jacket for Adventurers on a Budget: REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket 2.0 (Women's, Men's)
Best Insulated Jacket for Everyday Wear
There may be no better choice for cold-weather active pursuits or around-town jaunts than the Patagonia Down Sweater. It's well under a pound, packs down small and has a middle-of-the-road fit that accommodates most folks. Plus, it's made sustainably using recycled materials and down certified to the Global Traceable Down Standard. And it has well-thought-out extra features.
“It's an all-around generalist,” says REI merchant Katie Smyth. Customers report wearing the Down Sweater for everything from chilly walks to shoulder-season camping, hiking and backpacking trips. The jacket's versatility comes from its lightweight, 800-fill-power down and a horizontal baffling pattern that eliminates cold spots. Perhaps most importantly, customers say the fit is tailored without being too narrow. One downside, however, is that the Down Sweater doesn't come in extended sizes.
You'll find hem drawcords inside the Down Sweater's slightly undersized pockets for easy cinching without exposing your hands to the cold. The front zipper tucks into a garage at the chin, which helps to prevent chafing. There's also an interior chest pocket that doubles as a stuff sack. And because this version of the Down Sweater lacks a hood, it nestles neatly under a rain or ski jacket if you're looking for furnace-like warmth on the move. (It's also available in a hooded version for $50 more.)
“I used the Down Sweater when backpacking in 20°F, and it was warm,” says one customer. “I used it as a pillow, and I even put it on when lying in the shade in my hammock. I love this jacket and can't imagine life without it.” Buy here.
Best Insulated Jacket for Snowsports
If you're looking for a puffy jacket that will move with you, reach for the Arc'teryx Atom LT Insulated Hoodie. It's loaded with 60 grams of synthetic insulation, but stretchy side paneling and articulated arms help you feel nimble, whether on the slopes or other snowy adventures.
When worn beneath a shell like a mid layer, that same stretch paneling also allows for venting. Designers at Arc'teryx placed the insulation of the Atom LT on the front and back of the torso, leaving the underarm areas of the stuff so you can dump heat if you're working hard. The insulation itself is synthetic (called Coreloft Compact), making it more breathable and quicker-drying than down (like the Patagonia Nano Puff). If a particularly gruesome yard sale ends with snow down your shell, the Atom LT will still insulate when wet, too.
“Arc'teryx is a design company and they take every detail into account,” Fahlstrom says. The Atom LT has a low-profile hood that fits under a helmet and has a mini brim for some rain protection. The cuffs are buttery-soft, making for easy removal and layering, and the Atom LT's durable face fabric is tough enough to handle being worn as an outer layer. Plus, it provides light rain protection, thanks to a DWR coating.
“I am now on my third Atom LT,” one customer wrote. “The wrist cuffs and elastic hood are what make it so good. This is my go-to, three-season jacket for everything.” Note: The Arc'teryx Atom LT is also available in hoodless options (women's and men's). Buy here.
Best Insulated Jacket for Really Cold Adventures
The Cotopaxi Fuego Down Jacket feels like a veritable furnace because of it's 800-fill-power goose down, making it the best option for folks looking for a jacket that will keep them really, really warm. Oversize baffles around the torso trap heat where it matters most, but taper toward the hemline so insulation won't migrate. Other touches add to the insulation here to seal in all that warmth, like a drawstring-adjustable hem and elastic binding on the scuba-style hood, hem and cuffs. On a hike, one customer said they were "blown away" by how warm the Fuego kept them during every part of their trip: from hiking to relaxing at camp to sleeping to grabbing apres dinner in town
The Fuego may be the warmest jacket in this bunch, but Fahlstrom says its biggest sell isn't even the jacket itself—it's Cotopaxi's sustainable design process. “Cotopaxi clothes are made from recycled materials, just like Patagonia, but with brighter colors and designs,” she says. “If you don't want to look like everyone else, this is a good option to consider.”
To that end, Cotopaxi recently updated the Fuego's fit to be slightly wider around the hips and shoulders, so it should fit more folks than before. It also comes in hoodless varieties for women and men. Buy here.
Best Insulated Jacket for Hiking
The Patagonia Nano Puff is one of our favorite puffies for people who want a synthetic option—which can be ideal for folks who are looking for a more breathable layer or who live in wetter climates. The PrimaLoft Gold Insulation (used in lieu of down feathers) contains 55% post-consumer recycled fibers and, unlike down, dries quickly. Even if you do soak it, synthetic insulation like this will maintain its thermal efficiency.
“I love that the Nano Puff is not bulky,” says Dawn Fahlstrom, a retail sales specialist at REI. “It's the perfect thing to have in your car, packed down into your glove box, so you can layer as needed.”
Customer reviewers agree, noting that the Nano Puff is ideal for three-season backpacking trips. “It's very warm for what I need and leaves enough room for layering, which is great,“ one says. “But it traps heat surprisingly well for such a lightweight material.” Wear it as an outer layer on chillier hikes or as a mid layer beneath a shell on subfreezing excursions. Or tuck it in your pack and deploy it in just-in-case situations.
The Nano Puff is also more breathable than many other insulated jackets, which makes it ideal for temperature fluctuations. And the Nano Puff is made from responsibly sourced, bluesign® certified fabric. It also comes in a women's and men's hoodie as well as a kids version (girls, boys). Buy here.
Best Insulated Jacket for Adventurers on a Budget
Puffies aren't cheap, but you can still grab this one from REI Co-op for a C-note. And you won't be making any extreme sacrifices for the price, either. The 650 Down Jacket 2.0 is stuffed with 650-fill-power down that meets the Responsible Down Standard, packs down small and comes in loads of sizes (including women's plus, men's tall and a men's hoodie) and colors to satisfy everyone.
Fahlstrom says she reaches for the REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket 2.0 when she has room to only bring one coat. "The key question for picking a jacket is, how often are you going to use it?” she says. This one handles decently on active pursuits as an outer layer (the shell blocks wind and is treated with a DWR coating) or mid layer (the insulation fluffs up well, even after being compressed into its own pocket). Katie Smyth, an REI merchant, notes that the jacket's fit is relaxed, not technical, but it still layers well.
Some reviewers noticed frayed seams over a year's time, and a few feathers popped out. Still, the 650 Down Jacket 2.0 is a steal for the price. Buy here.
Consider these factors when buying a jacket to get you through winter adventures.
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). It should fit close to your body, but it shouldn't be so form-fitting that you can't comfortably wear one or two layers underneath.
What is down fill power?
Fill power is the number that indicates the relative quality of down, ranging from about 450 to 900. A higher fill count 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.)
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.
When should I buy a synthetic jacket instead of a down jacket?
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). 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.)
How should I care for and maintain my down jacket?
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.
To pick the best insulated jackets, we asked our REI retail staff for their favorite puffies sold at REI. We then read through dozens of customer reviews on REI.com and spoke with several outdoor experts to get a sense for what matters most in a good insulated jacket. Then, we narrowed our list down to the ones that performed best for a variety of activities, whether camping in the cold or running errands around town.
Article by Jenni Gritters. Jenni is a nomadic freelance journalist. You can find her bylines in the New York Times, the Guardian, Wirecutter, Outside magazine, 538, mindbodygreen and more. When Jenni isn’t working with words, she’s likely hiking, camping and snowshoeing with her husband, son and puppy. She’s been an REI member since 2017.