When the mercury plummets and the land turns white, nothing keeps you warm like a coat of down.
The North Face Summit Jacket
It really doesn’t matter when the mercury dives. Whether you’re under the full glare of a midwinter sun or shivering through a Fourth of July night high in the Rockies, one thing is on your mind: staying warm. Trouble is, your insulation must fit into a crowded pack. So how do you maximize warmth while minimizing the weight on your back? Enter the goose, whose feathers are more precious than gold in cold conditions.
Generations of savvy backcountry adventurers have relied on down jackets because they insulate superbly with little bulk and weight. High-quality goose down is so light and fluffy that a single ounce fills 600 or more cubic inches (about three gallon-size milk jugs) under laboratory conditions. Add a nylon shell, a few zippers, and several yards of stitching, and you have a jacket that insulates with incredible efficiency, but still compresses to half the size of a football.
Not all down jackets are created equal, however, and that’s why seven Backpacker testers spent a total of 604 fall and winter days testing seven coats in mountain ranges near Anchorage, Alaska; in Idaho’s Sawtooth range and in neighboring Montana; in the frozen high country outside Flagstaff, Arizona; in New York’s Catskills and other spots on the East Coast; and in various cold locales near Bellingham, Washington, and Hood River, Oregon. We steered clear of synthetic fill jackets, which we reviewed in recent years (“Synfully Warm Jackets,” September 1997). We also stopped short of super-fat, Himalaya-worthy parkas. Instead, we focused on high fill-power, lightweight jackets designed to be the primary year-round insulation piece for a backpacker this side of the Arctic.
Because we tested these jackets in winter, we tended to value warmth most highly, although fit, weight, hood configuration, shell material, pockets, and various other construction details also affected our evaluations. For instance, per-sonal ratings for each jacket were colored by how valuable we considered hook-and-loop closures on cuffs, drawstrings on hems, and several more serious design issues (see “Jacket Jargon” sidebar). If your primary use will be during chilly evenings in the spring, summer, or early fall, you might value a lighter weight above all, and take a slightly different approach to these jackets than we did.
The reviews follow in order of overall scores. See the scoreboard on the last page for the side-by-side low-“down.”
Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket – Men’s
This nearly ideal jacket not only insulates, but also protects you from the elements, while offering almost every feature we’d want in the chill of winter.
What made this jacket our favorite? In two words, nearly everything. Thanks to a highly water-resistant and completely windproof shell, this jacket easily shrugged off loads of wet snow and even light rain. Under the proprietary Conduit SL shell, the 650+ fill-power down is trapped in baffles, which provided more warmth and wind resistance than the standard sewn-through walls found on most lightweight down jackets. Testers generally found this either the warmest jacket in the test or close to it.
Features & Specs
WEIGHT: –9.2 OZ. / 261 G. –
REVIEWERS RATED THIS PRODUCT: –TRUE TO SIZE –
GOOD FOR: –BACKPACKING / HIKING –
At 30 ounces, this was one of the weightiest jackets in the test, but no one held that against it because the warmth and features were just too good. The Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket‘s five pockets are exactly where you’d want them, and are detailed to perfection. Best of all are the slanted, zippered, fleece-lined front pockets that are big enough to fit mittened hands and cozy enough to rewarm chilled digits between bare-fingered cooking duties. The inside mesh water bottle pocket accommodated a quart bottle with a cozy. We also appreciated the drawcord hem closure that helped with both heat retention and mobility. Plus the extra drawcord in the lumbar region further sealed out drafts, as did the insulated flaps inside and outside the main zipper. Complete this heat trapping picture with a high collar, hook-and-loop closed wrist cuffs, and generous length in both the arms and torso.
- Two front handwarmer pockets
- Dual hem drawcords for quick fit adjustments
- Low profile elastic cuffs for easy layering
- Jacket stows in pocket
- Fabric Body: 15D Ripstop
- Body Fabric Content: 100% nylon
- Insulation: 60 g Thermal.Q™
- Center Back Length: 28 ” / 71 cm
- Apparel Fit: Standard
- Weight: 9.2 oz. / 261 g.
The only thing we missed was a hood, preferably detachable. According to some testers, this addition would have made the jacket “more than perfect.”
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Rab Xenon X Hoodie
<h2>1/5 + 4/5</h2>
Rab Xenon X Jacket
USE FOR: Lightweight, packable outdoor insulation for static
Outdoors Magic: Light, water-resistant,packable, & proof & deceptively warm. Handy hood. Slightly more breathable than earlier versions in active use.
Simple, light, warm.
Rab Xenon X Hoodie: Test jacket gently tight under the arm-pits.
Elastic cuffs help you you seal the jacket around the gloves to keep out snow, & a waist drawcord does the same thing lower down. Rab designed the YKK front zipper to go up to the nose, so one can seal out the weather when things get nasty. Plus, the whole insulated jacket stuffs into its chest pocket for easy storage when the clouds clear and the wind dies down a bit. The Xenon X Hooded Jacket is there when you need it, and you won’t notice the weight when it’s just chilling in your pack.
The North Face Summit Jacket
Here’s a warm and full-featured jacket with a shell so water resistant and tough that it can be used as outerwear in just about any cold or damp situation.
At first blush, the North Face Summit seemed to have everything we crave in a down jacket. Still, a few quibbles with the detailing kept it from the top spot. The proprietary Realm laminate shell did a stellar job of repelling very wet snow and blocking the wind. But we couldn’t figure out why the nylon shoulder patches stop level with–not below–the elbows, a spot that could benefit from added reinforcement.
The pockets are plentiful, and there’s even an interior water bottle holder. The hand-warmers have zippers, as we like them, but they aren’t fleece-lined, tend to lose their contents when left open, and are a little tight for gloved hands. There is plenty of 700+ fill-power down in the jacket, but the shell and liner are stitched through rather than baffled, which cuts down on warmth. On the other hand, the unique reflective metallic lining helped noticeably with heat retention (The North Face calls it “Radiant” technology and claims it reflects 50 percent of body heat at no extra weight). The brushed neoprene cuffs snugged tight with hook-and-loop fasteners, but some testers found them a little stiff and difficult to slip over gloves. Though the front zipper is backed by an interior flap, strong winds still crept through. We welcomed the longish cut for full torso coverage and the drawcord at the hem.
Most of us were glad for the warm hood and loved how it stuffed into the high collar. We didn’t care for the hood’s tight, constricting neck closure, though, because it rubbed rather than snuggled our chins.
Contact: The North Face, (800) 719-6678; www.thenorthface.com.
Feathered Friends Volant Jacket
It’s plenty warm and lightweight, plus has a weather-resistant shell and optional hood, but some testers would trade a few extra ounces for zippered pockets, hook-and-loop cuffs, and a drawstring hem.
What’s the point of down? For most of us, it’s maximum warmth for little weight and bulk, and that’s precisely where the Feathered Friends Volant excelled. The jacket’s 700+ fill-power down is trapped by baffles, rather than being stitched through as with most lightweight down jackets. The result is “a single-minded heat trapping machine,” as Jon put it. The Volant is also outstandingly weatherproof, with two shell options to chose from: PTFE Lite, a proprietary microporous Teflon laminate, and the less expensive and less waterproof Epic by Nextec fabric, which uses a new encapsulating technology that coats each fiber in silicone. We were impressed by both, but Jon noticed that repeated brushes against the condensation-soaked walls of his tent pushed some moisture through the Epic fabric, something that never occurred with the PTFE.
The Volant has few distracting features. Cuffs are thin elastic bands (no hook-and-loop closure), but Melissa found them snug enough to keep out water when the big icicle she was climbing near Valdez, Alaska, started to melt. There are two zippered interior chest pockets, neither big enough to hold a water bottle. The unzippered hand-warmer pockets inspired fear of losing contents. Some testers found that the snug elastic hem grabbed inner layers of clothing, causing shifts in insulation while bending and stretching. That said, the differential cut (the pattern for the inside, or liner, fabric is smaller than the pattern for the shell) and articulation of the full-length sleeves allowed good arm movement without compressing the down. And then there was the hood, which did what we wished they all did: come off. Trouble is, this option also lifts an extra $45 from your pocketbook.
Contact: Feathered Friends, (206) 292-6292; www.featheredfriends.com.
Lowe Alpine Down Jacket
Tough enough for a mountain man, but heavier and less weather-resistant than the competition.
Mike F. dubbed the Lowe his favorite jacket. “I know, I know, it’s heavy, and it doesn’t have the features of some of the competition, but it’s warm, sheds amazing amounts of moisture and wind, and is highly durable with its heavier outer layer. Snowshoeing in Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, I poked it with aspen branches and slid across granite with no rips or tears. That’s what I need in the outdoors…a Jeremiah Johnson buffalo robe for the twenty-first century.”
Not all testers agreed that the tough shell (which wasn’t as waterproof as the membrane-based competition) was worth the jacket’s 31-ounce heft, though most of us felt the garment was stuffed with enough 600-fill-power down to make it one of the warmest in the test. Jon disagreed, pointing out a significant loss of loft in his jacket by winter’s end.
Everyone appreciated the longer cut of this jacket, which meant less cold air across lower backs, especially when bending for a tent stake or during a telemark turn. We liked the drawcord around the bottom. And the high collar did a fine job of sealing cold air out of another traditionally leaky zone. We also appreciated the zippered, fleece-lined hand pockets, though big Jon couldn’t easily fit his monster paws inside. We were less than thrilled with the nonadjustable elastic cuffs. The fact that the jacket is reversible evoked some style-conscious “oohs,” while the more practical minded wailed “what’s the point?”
Contact: Lowe Alpine, (303) 465-3706; www.lowealpine.com.
Sierra Designs Down Flex Jacket
Moderate in weight and best used under a shell, this jacket traps plenty of heat. But consider going up a size to compensate for the short waist and arms.
Annette championed the Sierra Designs Down Flex Jacket, giving it a perfect overall score because of its combination of warmth, features, and weight. The rest of us found it warm enough, but we had a few gripes, especially with the fit. Many of the jacket’s horizontal seams are lightly elasticized for a snug-but-flexible contour. Nevertheless, most testers found the sleeves and hem came up short, exposing wrists and waists during routine activities like reaching to adjust a headlamp. Jon wondered why the horizontal seams stretched, while the most critical seam of all for lifting your arms–the one that runs vertically from the wrist through the armpit and down the jacket’s side–didn’t budge.
With no waterproofing besides a basic DWR (durable water repellent) treatment, the Flex needed to take cover during inclement weather. The deeply creased elasticized seams tended to collect falling snow, which sometimes melted and seeped into the down. When we wore the jacket without a shell, we appreciated the fleece-lined and zippered hand-warmer pockets, even though their shallowness prevented stuffing a fully mittened hand inside. The single, zippered interior pocket doubled as the jacket’s stuff sack, which is a nifty feature. Hook-and-loop combined with elastic to seal the cuffs. A thin nylon hood that unrolled from the collar didn’t insulate well but did trap warm air in windy conditions.
Two testers noticed some 650-fill-power down escaping through the seams, but none of the test jackets suffered significant loss of loft during the winter.
Contact: Sierra Designs, (800) 635-0461; www.sierradesigns.com.
Solstice Down Jacket
As a mid-layer garment, this “jacket” packs a lot of heat retention into very little space and weight, and is light on the wallet, to boot. As an outer layer, it has trouble standing up to serious cold, wet, or abuse.
Compared to other all-conditions jackets, the Solstice fell short in warmth, weather resistance, and fit. But as a layering sweater, it earned great respect for delivering plenty of warmth at such a low price and weight. Annette raved about how the Solstice’s 19 ounces stuffed to the size of a few bagels, yet trapped tons of BTUs when worn under a shell. By contrast, Mike L. moaned that the 600-fill-power down didn’t keep him warm enough as an outer layer when the mercury dipped to zero.
Everyone agreed this was one of the most delicate-feeling jackets in the test-that is, the construction and materials didn’t inspire a lot of confidence-though only Melissa ripped a hole in hers. Annette noted that the shell soaked through to the down after a half-hour’s exposure to falling wet snow.
As for fit, one tester said the jacket “usually rode up around my well-defined love handles, rather than down around my svelte waist.” Svelte in his dreams, maybe, but the same problem plagued Paul, who is skinny by anyone’s definition.
“Simple” and “basic” define the Solstice’s features, which include a single hook-and-loop inside pocket in addition to the unzippered hand-warmer pockets. The hem and cuffs are elastic, and the collar is short and loose. No one liked the drafty hem and collar in a shell, but we found them acceptable in a sweater.
Contact: Solstice, (800) 878-5733; www.solsticegear.com.
Moonstone Hooded Down Jacket
For maximum warmth at minimum weight, with an outstanding temperature range (thanks to innovative pit zips), Moonstone has you covered.
Besides getting all the basics right, the Moonstone Hooded Down Jacket offers two innovations that some testers loved: an insulated hood and–get this–pit zips! Count me as the most surprised and the most impressed by this brilliant feature that significantly extended the comfort range of a down jacket. Annette, too, “loved being able to vent when hiking uphill and then zip up the pits and stay warm on the walk down.” Testers who didn’t hike in windy or cold situations, where this feature is most useful, had less use for the extra zippers.
The hood drew mixed reviews. We felt it helped make the jacket significantly warmer than most of the competition, yet some testers felt that a hood should be optional; this one was permanently fixed, bulky, and couldn’t be rolled into a collar or otherwise stashed.
The Moonstone is loaded with features. We heaped the most praise on the big, zippered, fleece-lined hand-warmer pockets. Testers also gushed over the elastic, hook-and-loop cuffs, interior pockets (one zippered, one mesh for a water bottle or gloves), drawcord-closed bottom, and storm flap over the main zipper. The jacket is the best fitting of the shorter-waisted models. It’s so stuffed with 650-fill-power down that some testers found it the warmest in the bunch, despite its sewn-through construction. On top of all that, it crumpled into a tiny package-quite a feat, considering the bulky hood.
So what kept it from earning top honors? The shell had minimal water repellency. It was merely light, durable, highly breathable, and nicely reinforced at the elbows. And then there was that hood….
Contact: Moonstone Mountain Equipment, (800) 390-3312; www.moonstone.com.