When you look through the major outerwear companies’ offerings, everything looks pretty much the same. Most companies sell down and synthetic down jackets for somewhere between $200 and $300, the shape and style of the jackets are incredibly similar, and aside from a tiny logo on the chest, you’d be hard-pressed to tell a lot of them apart. That’s not to say you should just pick whichever one’s on sale on Backcountry.com. I’m here to break down the minute–but important–differences between some of the most popular (and my favorite) jackets on the market.
Despite what I just said about not letting sales make your decisions for you, price is obviously relevant. Looking through seven major brands’ offerings– Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, and Eddie Bauer–the starting price point for an insulating layer is somewhere between $150-200. If that’s a little steep for you, head on over to REI. Their store-brand products (which include everything from tents and backpacks to outerwear) are reliable and functional, and they sell a solid, simple down jacket for $100.
Want a hood? It’ll typically run you about $20 more but that extra bit of warmth–whether tucked up under a helmet on a freezing bike ride or protecting your neck during a cold belay–is totally worth it. I’m a staunch hood supporter, but the hood/no-hood debate is a fiery one, and at the end of the day it all boils down to your preference and intended use. Most companies make two versions of their jackets to suit your fine tastes.
Beyond price point and hood preference, things get a little more complicated.
Packability depends on two factors: weight and compressibility. For instance, the super-popular Patagonia down sweater (without hood, women’s version) weighs 12.2 ounces (men’s version here). Arc’teryx’s most similar offering, the Cerium LT, weighs 8.3 (men’s here). While that difference might not matter for a resort skier, a thru-hiker or climber is always looking to shed a little weight.
The Cerium LT is a higher fill down (850 fill to Patagonia’s 800). So even though it’s a lighter jacket, it’ll offer comparable or more warmth. Fill can be a confusing number when choosing a down jacket. It doesn’t refer to overall warmth or amount of insulation, but rather the quality of the down. A higher-fill down is fluffier and takes up more space, meaning more warmth with less weight and greater compressibility. The highest quality down is 900-fill.
Compressibility can’t really be measured, but it can be tested. While both jackets can easily be stuffed into small corners of your pack, Arc’teryx’s offering comes with a tiny stuff-sack, and can be packed down easier than Patagonia’s.
A key feature of the Cerium LT is the combination of synthetic insulation and true down, which we’ll get more into in a minute. For now, know that synthetic insulation tends to compress more poorly than true down–so, as a rule, if you’re worried about packability, go for the goose feathers.
The style of a jacket is the biggest factor when it comes to warmth. A micro puff like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer (top, arguably the best performance at the lightest weight on the market) will obviously provide less insulation than something like Marmot’s Guides Down Hoody (a super-cozy jacket best suited for frigid high alpine conditions or Chicago winters)–but both are great options.
Beyond style, your decisions about warmth will come down to synthetic insulation vs. down. True down does a better job keeping you warm when it’s dry, so if you’re based in Colorado rather than, say, the Pacific Northwest (or if you’ve got a bullet-proof rain shell), an all-down jacket like the Down Sweater (also in men’s) or Eddie Bauer’s super-cosy Downlight Stormdown Jacket is your best bet.
The cons? Warmer, lighter true down is generally more expensive than synthetic options and doesn’t retain loft when wet. Plus, it has to be harvested from animals–something you might take issue with.
All of the brands we’re discussing here are certified by the Responsible Down Standard, guaranteeing that their down comes from happy, healthy animals in humane conditions. That also means that no bird can be live-plucked (a violent and painful process)–so, at the end of the day, your puffy jacket still isn’t all that animal-friendly. The only truly sustainable form of down is eiderdown, a rare and expensive form of down that falls naturally from wild birds. But, at the moment, nobody on the market sells it.
So for the vegans out there, let’s look at synthetic insulation. It does a better job keeping you warm in wet conditions (the Cerium LT uses synthetic insulation at the neck and cuffs–places likely to see more wetness than around your core), is usually cheaper, and won’t leak out holes in your jacket. On the flip-side, it does tend to be heavier.
One of my favorite synthetically insulated jackets is Black Diamond’s First Light Hoody, a super-breathable puffy rocking a newly popular and extra-breathable matte surface fabric (similar to Patagonia’s new Nano Air Jacket or Arc’teryx’s Atom LT) and a different means of sewing in insulation that avoids the waffle-stitch we all associate with a puffy jacket. For those of us who need a little insulation on the way up–skinning, hiking, mountain biking–these jackets are great alternatives. The breathability and consistent performance when damp makes them perfect, versatile work-horse jackets. Bonus? That new matte fabric is remarkably water-resistant.
So as you peruse your favorite retailers for the jacket that will keep you warm all winter, keep these features in mind. The most important advice I can give you is that I was totally satisfied with my electric-blue Patagonia Down Sweater–my first puffy, ever–until I got my hands on a Nano Puff. It’s the paradox of choice–once you have a lot to choose from, you start questioning what you’ve got. The best puffy is one that’s well-loved, patched-up, and still has years of trails ahead of it.