It’s been a strange winter in Northern California. Very wet to start, cold with some early promising snows, then warm and sunny for long stretches with no snow at all. Not even winter, really. A lot of the season was like an early spring that lasted from December through February. If you wanted winter, you had to travel to find it. Mercifully though, recent weeks have been freezing, wet, and very snowy.
The shifting conditions have meant lots of down jackets in and out of the rotation. Sometimes all on the same trip. From punishing cold that requires bushels of down, to crisp mornings when you just need a thin outerlayer, these three puffies have been go-tos for this gear tester throughout the winter.
When it’s almost too cold to breathe, the Firetower Belay from Big Agnes has been the first jacket I’ve reached for. Stuffed with 700 fill power super-heating down, it’s a massively lofty puffy that makes you feel and look a bit like the Michelin Man, but it’s worth it. Huge hand warmer pockets swallow even mittened-up hands, and there are even two interior mesh pockets for storing extra goodies. The big, helmet-fitting hood cinches down nice and tight to seal in warmth too. For as big, billowy, and voluminous a jacket, it still packs down fairly small, though not small enough to be tossed in a pack as an afterthought. Movement is still free and easy for how bulky the piece is. The jack can unzip too from the bottom to allow for a bit more room to move, and fits high enough to accommodate belts and harnesses at the waist. Most importantly, I’ve never worn a warmer jacket, period.
COLD, BUT AN ENDURABLE COLD
Rab Electron ($244)
Rab isn’t exactly a household outdoor apparel name in the States, but the UK-based company probably should be. The Electron is a very high-quality, like most of their stuff, medium-weight down parka for most coldweather situations. 800-fill Nikwax hydrophobic down does the insulating, while a Pertex outer shell fends off light precipitation and feels terrific and plenty robust to the touch. Like the Firetower, this is a technical jacket made with climbers and backpackers in mind, so the hand pockets sit high on the torso, well above hipbelts and harnesses. The adjustable hood features a cool sort of peak/visor, stiffened by a wire—a nice touch. Elastic cuffs keep wrists warm. Best zippers I think I’ve ever used too, smooth and easily flowing, I rarely get any kind of binding there. This is an everyday wear in the winter when the mercury starts dipping below 40. Could be a tad lighter, weighing in at about 17 ounces, but it packs small and can be a one-jacket-fits-all performer for most winter use. Also, the jacket just drips quality.
CHILLY, CRISP, NOT FREEZING
The Ghost has been around for a few years now, but it still sets the bar for extremely light down insulation. The non-hooded version weighs only 7.2 ounces, and incredibly, something like half the weight comes from the zipper. It packs just enough Nikwax hydrophobic 800-fill down to be a serviceable outer layer in temps down to the low-40s, though I’ve worn it at and a little below freezing with just a synthetic baselayer below it and felt fine. It’s so dreamily light and easy to pack, it can be brought along for extra warmth in any situation. I typically stuff it in a pocket to throw on during a rest stop while nordic skiing, or I wear it as a near-weightless midlayer while winter camping, or below a rain shell and waders while fly fishing in chilly fall and winter rivers. Mine is three years old, and still hasn’t been ripped and almost never sheds a feather, both of which are rarities for my down products. It can replace a light duty outer layer or a midlayer while weighing less an packing easier than both. Rarely leave home without it.