The best lightweight down jackets can be crazy-effective and versatile outdoor gear. You can get a super warm down jacket that looks fantastic in town and out on the trail . . . but it can also weigh less than 10 ounces, making it packable for any backpacking trip or backcountry hike.
And for traveling? You can ball up lightweight down jackets and jam them into most any bag . . . and barely notice the weight.
The magic comes from goose or duck down, which is made up of the lightest and softest feathers. Down is compressible, and as an insulating layer, it’s better than any man-made synthetic fiber. The only trouble is that when it gets wet, its insulating capabilities drop to nearly nothing.
To combat this, manufacturers have created hydrophobic treatments that coat down feathers to make them more water and moisture-resistant. The jacket makers and down providers have invented their own names for their flavors of treated down, like Dri-Down or Q.shield, but they all tend to work under similar principles.
Do you need a moisture-resistant down jacket? If you expect to be very active during your outdoor sports — by sweating or nearly sweating — a down jacket with a hydrophobic treatment on the down itself is a smart choice. Similarly, if you regularly spend multiple days out in rainy weather, opt for a lightweight down jacket with treated fibers and a Durable Water Repellant (DWR) finish.
Is a Lightweight Down Jacket Worth the Money?
Lightweight down jackets all weigh less than a pound. Many come in under 12 ounces, and some get down to just 7 ounces. As a comparison, a reasonably light fleece shirt will typically weigh more than 20 ounces and be far less effective in keeping you warm.
When you pair a down jacket with a rain jacket — where you layer the rain jacket over the down jacket — you can create an incredibly warm system that can help you survive some cold backcountry storms . . . or just make you a lot more comfortable while camping or walking the streets of a mountain town.
For something even more robust, like skiing, you can layer a softshell jacket over your down jacket.
The bottom line is that a lightweight down jacket is an incredibly versatile layer — especially for hiking, backpacking, and winter sports. If you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip, a lightweight down jacket can help you shed a lot of weight. Better yet, you’ll be toasty warm on cold mornings and can even use it to sleep in on unexpectedly cold nights.
The crazy thing about down jackets are that they are comfortable. First, they are so light, it feels like they’re barely there . . . except they’re warm. Very warm. The effect makes you appreciate just how technically amazing this piece of gear really is. Oh, and it also makes you want to wear your down jacket every chance you get. Seriously. Just because.
How to Choose the Best Down Jacket in 2016
When it comes time to pick a down jacket, you can spend anywhere from $99 to $500-plus. The more expensive jackets usually have higher quality down with higher fill powers — like a fill power of 950. Less expensive jackets will have a fill power of 650 — but don’t let this throw you off. A decent down jacket with a fill-power rating of 650 is still a very good lightweight jacket, and some of the jackets in this price range give you some excellent price-to-value ratios.
For example, if you’re a backpacker looking to shed trail weight, should you buy an ultralight 7-ounce down jacket for $349 or get a 9.5-ounce jacket for $150 and use the savings in your budget to snag an ultralight sleeping pad, too?
The point is, don’t get caught up in which jacket is the absolute best — they’re all good, and while the better jackets have slight advantages, they’re only worth the extra cost if you can afford it, or if you plan to head out in the very worst weather, or if you simply appreciate the style more.
Check out these can’t-go-wrong down jackets, most of which come in hooded or traditional collar versions:
The Best Lightweight Down Jackets for the Money in 2016
Cabela’s North Port Down Jacket — This 650-fill-power puffy uses a 80/20 down/feather blend but the 20-denier nylon-taffeta shell does a great job of keeping the down/feather blend inside each baffle. (Basically, “leaking feathers” is a problem with most inexpensive down jackets, but the North Port is surprisingly good.) It’s not designed to stuff into its own pocket, but we’ve stuffed it into its own pocket anyway. The bottom drawcord is handy for keeping out drafts. Weight? An XL weighs just 11.6 ounces. Nothing is truly outstanding in this jacket, but everything is darn good — at a can’t-go-wrong price point for an entry-level down jacket.
Outdoor Research Transcendent Down Jacket — This 650-fill goose down jacket packs into its own pocket, has a timeless design, plus has one extra handy feature: a chest pocket.
Sierra Designs Elite DriDown Hoody and Sweater — Sierra Designs offers several different styles of down jackets, nearly all of which offer higher quality 800 or 850-fill duck DriDown. Better yet, Sierra Designs offers a handy thumb-hole feature in many of its sleeves, giving you a little extra coverage. The only trouble is that Sierra Designs seems to be having a hard time keeping its down jackets in stock, so if you find one you like in the right color and size, snap it up before it’s gone.
L.L.Bean Ultralight 850 Down Sweater — With 850-fill power water-resistant DownTek down and classic styling, this is a winner out of L.L.Bean, especially if you want a “tall” version for the longer sleeves. It weighs about 10 ounces, is slightly fitted, and has an adjustable drawcord to seal out drafts around your waist. There’s a hoody version, too. Oh, one last point here: Comes with L.L.Bean’s legendary customer satisfaction guarantee.
Best All-Around DWR Ultralight Down Jackets in 2016
Arc’teryx Thorium AR Down Jacket — Arc’teryx produces down jackets with a near perfect detail.
The Thorium AR uses 40D mini-ripstop nylon with a DWR finish and 750-fill goose down in the torso while using synthetic Coreloft insulation in the collar and shoulders. Why? Those areas tend to get wet first, and Coreloft resists moisture better and dries faster than down. The fit is a bit slimmer than most, athletic. Straightforward excellence here.
The North Face Quince Hooded Down Jacket — 800-fill power down, 15D nylon double ripstop fabric with a DWR finish. Sleeves end without separately sewn cuffs. Again, all-around excellence here.
Rab Microlight Down Jacket — Uses a Pertex Microlight fabric with a DWR coating and 750-fill Nikwax Hydrophobic European goose down insulation. Aside from the moisture resistance, the Microlight’s best feature is its slim and stylish design.
Eddie Bauer MicroTherm StormDown Jacket — Don’t let Eddie Bauer’s overly trademarked name for this jacket turn you off — it features 800-fill treated StormDown with a ripstop polyester StormRepel shell that has a DWR finish. The regular is 11.52 ounces, and it has plenty of pockets — a chest pocket, two zip hand pockets and two interior stash pockets. Better yet, it’s one of the few down jackets that are available in tall versions, too.
Patagonia Down Sweater — 800-fill goose down with 20 x 30D recycled polyester ripstop fabric with a DWR finish. Solid, lightweight and dependable, includes interior chest pocket, drawcord waist.
Best Lightweight Down Jackets for Backpacking in 2016
Arc’teryx Cerium LT Down Jacket — The Cerium is similar in design to the Thorium, but at 9.7 ounces, the Cerium is lighter and uses an 850-fill power down in the torso and arms instead of the Thorium’s 750. Plus, the shell is made of Airetica 10x20D ripstop nylon, which also includes a DWR finish. Coreloft synthetic insulation is in the shoulders and collar where your down jacket is most likely to get wet. Looks fantastic, very functional, impeccable design.
Patagonia Ultralight Down Jacket — This 800-fill goose down jacket includes a DWR water-resistant finish. The variegated channel construction keeps the down in place and the slim fit looks great around town. Self-fabric stuff sack included. 9.5 ounces.
Marmot Quasar Down Jacket — The 8.4-ounce Quasar starts with 850-fill goose down wrapped up in a lightweight Pertex Quantum fabric with a DWR water-resistant coating. Marmot’s “Angle-Wing Movement” offers a great fit around the arms and shoulders for active sports.
Drool-Worthy Down Jackets
Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer — The Ghost Whisperer set the bar for lightweight, high-performance down jackets years ago and today it remains a top-level performer. It uses 800-fill Q.shield down with smaller baffles that the 800-fill down puffs out easily. The ultralight Whisperer ripstop nylon helps get this jacket get down to a mind-blowing 7 ounces (8.75 ounces in XL). And is it warm? Surprisingly toasty. The Ghost Whisperer comes in many colors, usually with a glossy sheen. Any cons? The Ghost Whisperer fabric is thin, so if you plan to use it in rough environments with sharp branches, brush, or rock, pay attention and use a shell when the going gets tough. Size down for a trimmer fit — we find that it runs slightly big in the body (which is good for layering if you’re heading out into really cold places).
Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody — The Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Hoody is one of the most expensive jackets in this class, but oh boy, it’s a sweet jacket packed with features, starting with 800-fill goose down. You get two hand pockets, two chest pockets, and an internal mesh stretch pocket. It boasts a stretch Lycra hood edge and cuff binding with thumbholes, which provides great comfort and performance in active, cold conditions. The 10D outer fabric is thin and lets the down show through, but that’s part of its charm. At 9.6 ounces, it’s plenty light. If you can afford the price tag, grab a Hybridge Lite and don’t look back.
Montbell Plasma 1000 Down Jacket — Weighing in at 4.8 ounces, the Plasma 1000 is even lighter than the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer. To reach this level of lightness, Montbell uses the best down and then makes some sacrifices. What sacrifices? The Plasma 1000 does not have pockets, nor does it have a drawcord to seal out drafts. The exterior fabric is super thin, too, so much so that Montell warns that it requires special care. All that said, the Plasma has its fans, primarily those who know how to layer over it and also appreciate outdoor tech pushed to the ultra, ultralight edge.
Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket — Feathered Friends uses high-quality 900+ fill down, but Feathered Friends really gets the nod here for being an enthusiast craftsmanship-focused small business that manufactures in the U.S. If you want to support a high-quality U.S. manufactured down-filled jacket, bag, or quilt, check out Feathered Friends. If you’re in the Seattle area, check out their store to see their jackets in person.