Gear Guide 2016: Standout Down and Synthetic Insulating Jackets

No matter what the season, your insulation layer can make or break a backpacking trip, and in some cases might even save your life. There are innumerable “puffy” options to choose from out there—synthetic to down, treated to untreated, ultra-light to ultra-durable. It’s a tough choice, so we’ve done the ground work and sifted through the squishy masses to bring you our favorite insulated coats for 2016. Some you’ve seen before, some are brand new. All coats have been tested and reviewed by Appalachian’s Trials’ gear-obsessed thru-hikers who have the same lofty standards as you, so read on and stay warm out there. —Editors

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket (Men’s)
MSRP: $320
Weight: 7.7 ounces

mountain hardwear ghost whisperer hooded
Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket is 7.7 ounces. That much warmth at less than a half pound seems like science fiction, but really it’s just science, or more accurately science plus birds. Utilizing 800 fill power down with Mountain Hardwear’s proprietary Q.Shield hydrophobic (waterproof) treatment, this jacket packs down to the size of a grapefruit while still retaining its loft after serving as both my camp insulating layer and pillow to my sweaty, stinky head. There are warmer and cheaper down jackets out there, but this is a great choice for the shoulder seasons as it’s ample warmth at a much lighter load. —Zach Davis

Durability: 4/5
Weight: 5/5
Value: 4/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody (Women’s)
MSRP: $249
Weight: 11.6 ounces

Gear_Puffy_Arcteryx
As a broad-shouldered, petite female, I find it difficult to find jackets that fit me comfortably. Usually they’re just a little too tight in the shoulders. Or they’re way too big all around. The Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody does a phenomenal job of pairing fit with versatility. The side flaps are slightly stretchy, allowing a large radius of movement. At 11.6 ounces, this hoody weighs in well under a pound. For the amount of warmth that it promises, it is a great piece to add to your collection. It is meant to function as an insulation layer, trapping heat where it counts. But this jacket alone was enough to keep me comfortable during a tame February in Michigan. The pockets are relatively small, which is its biggest drawback. Overall it’s quite efficient and effective in a variety of environments. —Mary Beth Skylis

Durability: 5/5
Weight: 4/5
Value: 4/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 4/5

Rab Continuum Hoodie (Women’s)
MSRP: $350
Weight: 11 ounces

Gear_Puffy_Rab_Continuum
The Rab Continuum Down Hoody is an overstuffed, fully featured, down hoody that has its heart in the sport of mountaineering but presents versatility both casually and on trail. Although the Rab Continuum is not the lightest of all backpacking hoodies, it is stuffed full with 3.9 ounces of 850 fill hydrophobic down. In addition to the Continuum’s impressive fill weight, the hoody also boasts a full array of features, including a helmet compatible hood with three adjustable draw cords and a flexible polymer peak, a full zip with internal baffle, hem draw cord, two hand warmer pockets, and a chest pocket that doubles as a stuff sack. This combination of high fill weight and full features make for a very warm, very light jacket that kept me warm below freezing in the high peaks of Western North Carolina. Although the jacket is especially warm, my greatest concern lies in the continued quality of the piece, as the high quality down insulation often escapes through the sewn-through seams.—Caet Cash

Durability: 3/5
Weight: 5/5
Value: 3/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 4/5

Mountain Hardwear Stretch Down (Women’s)
MSRP: $250
Weight: 14.3 ounces

Gear_Puffy_MtnHard_StretchDownMSEach season, brands come up with innovative ways to stuff feathers into face fabrics. With the Stretch Down, Mountain Hardwear has innovated the face fabric itself, creating a four-way-stretch jacket that actually moves with you, instead of binding your shoulders and bunching under your armpits like other face fabrics on down coats. As promised, this jacket is exceptionally comfortable, and boasts a blown-out baffle system that doesn’t allow cold spots. I have it in light blue (pictured), which is a great color for people who manage to stay clean outdoors. I’m not one of them, so the cuffs and hem got icky really fast. It’s packed with 750-fill water-resistant Q.Shield® DOWN, which provides excellent warmth-to-weight ratio while giving peace of mind thanks to the treated down. I wore it as a layer a frigid winter hikes, and it was amazingly comfortable and warm. The stretch-knit face fabric adds weight, so this jacket wouldn’t be my first choice for a thru-hike, but for any other outdoors endeavor, it’s my go-to. *Note: This jacket is not currently on the market. It will be available Fall 2016. Maggie Slepian

Durability: 4/5 Stars
Weight: 3/5 Stars
Value: 5/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 4/5

Luke’s Ultralite Down Jacket (Men’s)
MSRP: $249
Weight: 6.7 ounces

Gear_Puffy-LukesArward
After scouring the market for a new down jacket, I finally landed on a gem that I couldn’t get out of my head: a down jacket from Luke’s Ultralite, custom fitted and made in the USA. This puffy put my comfort several steps above what it was before. Even during frigid temperatures, I no longer worry about warmth escaping through a poorly fitted torso—Luke’s Ultralite asks for specific measurements to ensure a comfortable, snug fit. I’m always on the hunt for lighter, more effective gear, and I can’t stress enough how great this jacket packs into my kit. Due to the UL nature of this piece, this jacket needs to be cared for like a small child. The 10-denier fabric is incredibly lightweight, but also very fragile. This should not come as surprise to anyone attempting to go ultra-light; it is simply the nature of UL products to be a bit more sensitive to damage than others. Additionally, the zipper on the jacket is a YKK #3, which for those not familiar, is a common UL zipper. They tend to be a bit finicky because of their lightweight and small size. I reckon keeping the zipper clean will be just as important as protecting the fabric. —Robert Peck

Durability: 3/5
Weight: 5/5
Value: 5/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket (Women’s)
MSRP: $320
Weight: 6.4 ounces

Gear_Puffy_MtnHard2Kaite
If you’re an ultralight connoisseur, Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket is a worthy addition to your collection. And even if you’re not, try it on and I dare you not to find a way to justify the cost for the comfort and warmth of this layer. This jacket is downright airy while providing a surprising amount of warmth. Most importantly, you need not be a paranoid wreck about exposing this jacket to damp conditions since the Q.Shield protects the loft of the down even when wet. This jacket packs down to an absurdly small size (think miniature travel pillow), serving as an excellent party trick and an incredible convenience when you’re on the trail. It keeps you warm over a short-sleeved layer on cool summer nights, and toasty in the winter when paired with a wind breaking layer. The thin material of the jacket always made me wary of its durability, after two years, a small rip appeared near one of the side pockets. The quilted design has kept the down fill well distributed, although it should be noted that the baffles nearest my hands, have flattened and lost their loft (it’s due for a NixWax Down Wash). Still, this jacket has survived several hundred miles on the trail and continues to be a go-to layer across all seasons. –Kate Waite
Durability: 4/5
Weight: 5/5
Value: 4/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Adidas W Light Down Hoodie
MSRP: $149
Weight: 10 ounces

GearPuffyAdidasAwardAdidas was one of the biggest surprises this season—they are busting out some seriously technical clothing and high-performance outerwear, much of it at affordable prices. The shell material feels almost papery, and kept me warm in a freezing mist. The medium fits true-to-size, with nice long sleeves and a slim profile that allows a rain shell layer over it. If I’m being picky, the zipper pulls are a bit small, and the zippers on the pockets felt a little rough, which might be an issue if you’re struggling with numb fingers, and made me wonder about their durability. Note that the down is not treated, which means you need to be careful not to let it get wet. The price tag on this coat is unreal. The 700-fill power brings this jacket in at 10 ounces, and it retails at $149. Other jackets like this will run you $300, this one is a total steal. —Maggie Slepian

Durability: 3/5
Weight: 4.5/5
Value: 5/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Brooks Range Mountaineering Hybrid Down Sweater (Men’s)
MSRP: $279
Weight: 12.9 ounces

Gear_Puffy_BrookesRange
Puffy jackets and sweaters have always been designed the cold weather backpacker in mind—they’re lightweight, hold heat in well, and look damn stylish. Brooks Range Mountaineering, however, has found a way to further satisfy the needs of backcountry explorers. The Hybrid Down Sweater is insulated with 800 Fill goose down, which has been treated with DownTek to help keep sweat and rain from sapping away the heat-retaining properties of the down. What really sets this sweater apart, however, is the design of the back and arms. Constructed from Polartec Power Shield, the fabric on the back and arms is tough-as-nails, warding off the abrasion that comes with a constantly-shifting backpack. This fabric also holds in heat even when compressed by a backpack—something down alone cannot claim. I tested this sweater for weeks in both everyday-use and backcountry settings, and it still looks like I just took it off the shelf. I did notice, however, that this jacket would have down poking out of the fabric more often than my other puffies—maybe it was just overstuffed, as this baby kept me warm even when the temperatures dropped into the teens. If you can justify the (admittedly-high) price, this is a puffy jacket that will last you for many, many years of winter hikes. —Jordan Bowman

Durability: 5/5
Weight: 4/5
Value: 3/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Outdoor Research’s Sonata Hoody (Women’s)
MSRP: $202.50
Weight: 11.7 ounces

outdoor research sonata hoody

This down-filled puffy is made for a woman’s body and is lightweight, soft, and very warm. It does a great job of keeping out the cold. It seriously is the coziest jacket. Although this does contribute to weight, the hood is a great touch and really aids in overall warmth. This jacket does seem to run a bit big but that could make it great for layering depending on your outdoor activity. The worst aspect about this jacket is its price tag but the cost has seemed to lower a bit since its release. – Madison Dragna

Durability: 5/5
Weight: 4/5
Value: 3/5
Comfort: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Disclosure: several of the products in this article were donated for the purpose of review.

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Comments 4

  • Christopher : Mar 24th

    Thanks for the timely review. I am going SOBO this year beginning in June and was shopping for a lightweight down jacket. Thanks to your link I was able to snag the Brooks Range jacket from CampSaver for $111.98 (its is clearance plus they are having an extra 20% off sale)!

    Reply
  • Dawn : Mar 24th

    Surprised not to see UNIQLO Ultra Light Down here. A super affordable yet quality option. My women’s M COAT (ordered wrong style online, it comes almost to knees) weighs just 10.8 oz. Got mine for $28 (try hitting a sale, buying lightly used, or abroad if you happen to go). Bonus of the longer length is I use it as a quilt in warmer weather.

    Reply
  • Dunjakker : May 18th

    Great review of the down jacket. Makes it easier when it comes to changing my Bailo Dixon jacket.

    Reply

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