There can be a fair bit to consider when choosing a puffer jacket. It lives high on the decisions list titled “I didn’t know it would be complicated”. Particularly since it can be a significant investment among your outdoor clothing. Beyond the fit and style, you’ll want to consider the fill power, fill weight, durability and more. Ultimately, the jacket you choose depends on how and where you plan to wear it. A jacket designed for Mountaineering will be different from your everyday, casual use. In this blog, we cover the key features of a down jacket to help you determine what will be best for you.
What is Down Fill?
‘Down’ is the soft undercoat of a bird (typically a duck or goose) below their outer feathers. Down insulation in jackets work in tandem with your body’s heat by trapping in the warmth it creates. To keep things simple: the thicker the down insulating layer, the more warmth it can hold onto. To complicate things: down jackets are not all built the same and vary a fair bit in their warmth ratings. There are jackets perfect for 3 seasons or as a great insulating layer for cold weather activities. And there are those built to handle bitter cold winter days on their own.
Warmth and Weight: It's a range.
One of the biggest advantages to a down jacket is how lightweight and packable they can be. These types of jackets can range from lightweight to heavyweight. A Lightweight down jacket will usually be filled with 3 to 4 ounces of down fill while a Midweight jacket can have around 5 to 6 ounces. The burliest of the bunch: the Heavyweight down jackets, will have around 8 ounces of fill. Generally speaking, heavyweight down jackets will be used as a casual or daily jacket while those in the light to mid weight category are designed for technical uses such as Skiing or Climbing.
Fill Weight vs. Fill Power
Thus far, what we have covered is the ‘fill weight’. If you are getting into the fine details of a jacket’s specs to determine warmth, it’s helpful to be aware of ‘Fill Weight’ vs ‘Fill Power’. Fill weight is in reference to the amount of down fill while fill power refers to the quality of the down itself. We mentioned earlier that the thicker or more down fill a jacket will have, the warmer it can be. However, a lower fill power translates to less loft and therefore, less warmth. If you are trying to choose a jacket with the warmest insulation, you need to take both aspects into consideration to find a balance between the two that also meets your other needs.
'D' is for Durability
If you’ve been in the market for a down jacket - you’ve certainly seen the wide range in prices. There are many aspects that can affect the final cost of a jacket but one key piece will be its durability. As with the warmth and weight, durability and cost are a balancing act. If durability is important to you, then take note of the fabric thickness which is measured in denier, or “D”. The higher numbers will yield thicker shell fabrics. As an example, the Patagonia Down Sweater is 20Dx30D which falls in the middle range for durability. Thicker and more durable fabrics naturally add more weight. If you are in need of a lightweight jacket, it’s good to understand that some durability will be sacrificed.
The Packability of Down
A jacket’s overall weight and packability may be a significant factor in your decision process. If you plan to wear it on winter hikes in the backcountry, you are likely going to aim for a jacket that won’t add much bulk to your pack. This is a situation where you may aim for a higher fill power with less fill weight. This will help keep the jacket nice and packable. Some jackets come with their own stuff sacks which is a nice feature for any backcountry adventure. The weight of the jacket is affected by more than its fill. Crossing into the ultralight category, you’ll also be looking at lighter zippers and thinner materials.
Are Down Jackets Waterproof?
Down products do not have a great reputation for repelling water but new technologies are evolving this narrative. Primarily, Down Jackets are not waterproof - or even water resistant. This is why down jackets function best as mid layers and are often paired with a rain jacket or hardshell to protect from the elements. Some down jackets may have a DWR coating which will withstand light rain or snow. There are also some jackets where the down fill itself has been treated (known as hydrophobic down) to help it resist moisture, and allowing it to withstand wet conditions longer.
Does the design of matter?
The construction of the jacket is another factor that will impact its overall insulating power. There are a couple of main methods used: Sewn-through and Box Baffles.
Sewn-through baffles use less material and evenly distribute the insulation. Jackets made in this way are often more affordable, however it can also mean less warmth with heat loss around the stitching. Box Baffles resolve the heat loss issue by allowing the down to reach maximum loft. It is a more complicated process that utilizes more material which does mean they are also more expensive. Wide baffles will provide more warmth as well as being more bulky. Narrow baffles will compress down better and offer a slimmer fit. A jacket constructed with narrow baffles is ideal for active uses.
Additionally, there are a variety of different features you can consider before your final purchase. Take note of the pocket positions and drawcord locations as well as if a jacket comes with its own stuff sack or carabiner loop.
Finally, taking note of the materials used for the insulation is important. Down jackets are insulated with feathers from ducks and/or geese. While its history is dark (and still persistent), there are brands like Patagonia who adhere to standards and certifications that ensure transparency about how the animals are treated and how the down is sourced. The labels to look for are: Responsible Down Standard (RDS), Certified Responsibly Sourced Down (CRSD) and Traceable Down Standards (TDS). We definitely recommend opting for a brand that follows these standards when choosing any Down product. These standards have also meant an increase in the use of recycled materials.
What about Synthetic Fill?
There are excellent synthetic options and they are typically more affordable than the comparable Down option. Modern synthetic jackets perform well and handle wet conditions much better than down even though down will always outperform in terms of overall warmth and weight. The loft in down fill jackets have increased life spans by comparison to synthetic counterparts, with proper maintenance, as they withstand repeated compressions better.
How To Take Care of Your Down Jacket
Now that you’ve chosen your jacket, and had a little celebration for completing the decision making process - it’s time to take care of it. When not in use, it’s best to store it unstuffed so the fill doesn’t clump up. For cleaning, each jacket will have its own specific requirements so take note of your garment’s cleaning instructions. There are specific products for washing Down filled garments like this one from Grangers.
Thanks for reading!