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So you’ve found yourself perusing the jacket section, gearing up for a cold weather adventure embark upon. To start the search informed, there are two types of jackets that will keep you warm and cozy when the conditions are leaning into the opposite of those feelings: down and synthetic. While both of them have their advantages, this guide will inform you of the best packable down jackets to keep your eyes on for the 2018 season.
First, let’s answer the question, “What is down, and why would it be chosen over a synthetic counterpart?”
Contrary to popular belief, down is not the actual feathers of waterfowl, but the fluffy mid layer that maintains the warmth by creating thousands of little air pockets that are heated up by the body of the person (or bird) wearing the plumage. It’s not the down itself keeping the body warm, it’s the down that’s keeping the warmth within the layer that your body has spread its heat too.
(This is why it is common to hear that sleeping with fewer clothes on in a down sleeping bag is more beneficial to stay warm, so the body can share its heat with the tiny pockets of air, creating a cocoon for sleeping bliss. On the flip side, this is why it’s actually not in best heating practice to squeeze two people into one sleeping bag for more warmth, as this extended the fabric to capacity and loses the magic space between and just releases all heat through the thin layer of squished down.)
Down garments are constructed through insulated filling from either duck, goose, or a combination of the two. Goose down is regarded as premium in terms of weight and heat retention, but duck or a combination can easily be found as well for a lighter price tag. With this information, it’s important to choose what’s going to work best under the conditions in which you are gearing up for and to synergistically work with the jacket that will sustain you through the cold.
Here are a few more things to understand and reference about down when shopping for which jacket is best suited for your expedition in question:
When exploring your options for a down jacket, the grade is something to gauge the capability of the down itself. The grade is the stuffing ratio of down to feathers. For example, a down article with a grade of 80% will contain 80% down and 20% of the other small miscellaneous feathers that were not separated during the manufacturing process. The higher the grade/percentage of down, the greater the degree of warmth you will be getting, which is directly proportional to the cost as well. The higher the grade, the steeper the price.
Fill power (loftiness) is indicative of the weight to warmth ratio and the quality of down under observation, as a measure of the volume in cubic inches that 1 oz of down will occupy. For the function of packability and retention of loft integrity, higher fill power is ideal under backpacking circumstances providing more warmth through less weight.
In a comparison of warmth to weight, down exceeds nearly any synthetic insulation. It is notoriously breathable which allows unwanted moisture to release. Down retains the structure and thickness of insulation (loft), making it ideal to stuff in a pack with the peace of mind that it will come back out with the degree of integrity it went in with. It is a seriously durable insulator, and can easily be one of the pieces of gear the stands out through the years as a reliable expedition companion. Relative to alternatives, it’s light weight and ability to compress make it the front runner of packable apparel.
While down takes the cake in warmth, weight, and compressibility, it loses all it’s stunning capability when we, which can be a real bummer when the down jacket that is keeping you insulted gets ultra sweaty or rained on. Down also takes a very long time to dry relative to their synthetic counterpart, which can render it essentially useless in times of need.
To broach the issue of down is useless when wet, a polymer coating that manufacturers can apply to the down has been developed to prevent the material from absorbing moisture and allows the garment to retain loft and thus its ability to keep the wearer feeling as delightful as possible in cold and damp conditions. This is called hydrophobic insulation.
Hydrophobic down is more expensive, so it’s something to consider when evaluating the conditions, region, and climate under which you will be utilizing the jacket. It does add a fractional amount of weight to the insulation, but barely enough to notice when the conditions call for your jacket to stay dry and functional. The weight of applying a hydrophobic solution is fractional when taken into consideration.
DWR stands for Durable Water Repellent and is another way that manufacturers can make standard down more durable under wet or sweaty conditions by coating the outer shell of the garment to make it water resistant.
Ultralight down jackets are crafted for precision when every ounce is weighed going into the backcountry, climbing excursions, backpacking trips, or wherever your boots may take you. Ultralight jackets are designed with premium quality down for a higher fill power, have a lighter shell fabric and minimize extraneous weight through minimal pockets and zippers.
Some features to consider when evaluating how your jacket is going to be most effective for the circumstances:
When looking for down to use in a layering system between a base and outer layer, a hood might not be necessary if it’s provided on another article of clothing. No hooded down sweaters save a bit of weight as well. For a more multifunctional all-around garment that can be used as the outer layer under more urban circumstance or when an outer shell is not required, it could definitely be more convenient to have a hood.
Sewn-through is the cheapest and most common way to construct a down jacket, as it is simpler and demands less material.
Box Baffle is a construction which maximizes loft by providing an individual section for the down to reside. This results in less clumping of the down in one specific place and minimizes cold spots. This process requires more material than the sewn through method, which makes the end result thicker and generally more expensive.
Denier is a measure of the fabric durability. A higher denier indicated thicker, sturdier, and more durable. Lower represents softer, lighter, and less durable. A higher denier also indicates more weight to the garment, and ultralight ultra functional apparel is a mix of finding a sturdy shell while keeping weight into consideration.
Down insulation is controversial in terms of sourcing and sustainability of usage of natural material that is meant to keep ducks and geese warm. When searching for the perfect down jacket, make sure to familiarize yourself with the companies practices (or lack thereof) in terms of sourcing. The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) is an independent, global standard that companies can certify their products to accolade a high emphasis on animal welfare.
|BRAND/STYLE||WEIGHT||FILL POWER||WATER RESISTANCE||PACKABILTY||MFG PRICE|
|MontBell Plasma 1000||4.8 oz||1000||standard DWR||3.9” x 5.5” |
|Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket||7.8 oz||800||Nikwax hydrophobic Down||$350.00 (Check out the latest price here!)|
|Patagonia Ultralight Down Jacket||9.5 oz||800||DWR finish||chest pocket||$149.00 (Check out the latest price here!)|
|Outdoor Research Illuminate Down Jacket||10 oz||800||light weather resistence||left pocket||$249.00 (Check out the latest price here!)|
|Arc’teryx SL Cerium Jacket||7.1 oz||850||DWR finish||stuff sack included||$329.00 (Check out the latest price here!)|
|Feathered Friend EOS Down Jacket||9 oz||900||DWR finish||stuff sack included||$309.00|
|Rab Continuum Jacket||12.5 0z||850||Nikwax hydrophobic Down||stuff sack||$350.00 (Check out the latest price here!)|
Montbell is a brand that prides itself in creating trusted tools built for adventure. The down used for their products is sourced from a variety of ethically responsible markets as a by-product of the demand from the food industry to keep costs low and quality consistently high.
At Mountain Hardwear is a brand that stands on a valued pillar of “ethical, sustainable manufacturing practices and are committed to assuring that the partners with whom we do business share these values.” Not only do they ask for standards within their own company, but ask the same of the spectrum of their influence.
Patagonia is a leader in promoting sustainable practicing, providing premium quality and function reflected in their mission: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
Outdoor Research is on a mission to “provide innovation and inspiration for the relentless adventurer”, which is perfectly aligned with the Illuminate Down Series.
Arc’teryx is a brand with one central mission: to build the finest products possible through obsessive, precise design.
Feathered Friends is a Seattle based company committed to ethical sourcing with RDS certification using down from humanely treated geese.
Rab has one simple mission: “To awaken the climber in everyone and equip them for the ascent”. This vision is strategically presented in the versatility of their apparel.
So there we have it, our top 7 picks for the best packable down jacket for the 2018 season and what to take into consideration when choosing the most appropriate garment. A down layer is typically used as a mid layer to keep the warmth in with an outer shell, but can often be used versatilely as the outer layer itself.
Use this guide to find what works for you under any condition, whether planning a summit or gearing up for cold weather camping or any range between.
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.