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Down jackets have been a traveler’s staple since the first time an apparel-maker realized how well bird feathers can be used to insulate humans. And today’s down jackets run the gamut from pieces that can be worn as either a mid- or outer layer to bomber parkas suitable for the worst of a long, harsh winter. That said, in general, the jackets break out into two buckets based on the type of insulation used: natural down or synthetic.
Typically made of either duck or goose feathers, down has long inspired loyalty for its weight-to-warmth ratio; synthetic products are often less expensive but don’t insulate as well as down unless you increase the weight of the garment. Down garments also compress considerably more than synthetics, another huge benefit for travelers. And the main Achilles’ heel that had once plagued down — that it didn’t keep you warm if it got wet — was conquered a few years back once the outdoor industry applied waterproof technology to the individual down fibers. The other big (and encouraging trend) in down is using feathers that have been responsibly sourced, meaning that the harvesting happens in a humane way, and is done with minimal impact on the environment. There a handful of certifications out there, and providers Allied Feather and Down was one of the first to embrace this approach — so companies that use their down are always a safe bet if that’s a consideration (and…it should be).
Not to be outdone, synthetic down jackets have many practical applications for the traveler. They’re often less expensive than down — always a big factor — and insulate in any circumstance, even with doused with water. They also dry quickly and often provide the right degree of warmth for more aerobic activities, where down is overkill, especially in wet or humid conditions. There are legions of different kinds of synthetic down, but in general, they employ man-made fibers like polyester, weaving them together in different-sized filaments to create pockets that trap heat. They’re also hypoallergenic and have allowed designers to break away from using baffles, whose stitching construction often introduces cold spots.
We’ve included both natural down and synthetic down in our article, so read on to see our picks for the best down jackets for travelers.
Best Overall: Helly Hansen Dubliner Down Jacket
Unlike shiny jackets that almost look like your coat is nothing but a bunch of tightly-stitched baffles, the Dubliner utilizes wider pockets to house its insulation, lending the piece a much more urban-friendly aesthetic. This is the jacket for those who don’t want to look like they’re about to hike a mountain when all they need is to stay warm while museum-hopping. That said, it’ll perform admirably in all cold environments. It boasts windproof and water-repellent protection with fully seamed seals, elastic cuffs, a high collar to block out the elements, and an adjustable hem to seal in warmth. Insulation comes from 80/20 600-fill power down from Allied Feather and Down, so it’s responsibly sourced. You also get two travel-friendly hand pockets with zip closures and an inner zipped chest pocket, all at a price point that doesn’t break the bank.
Best Value: Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket
One of the pioneers of the recent wave of “puffy” coats, Patagonia makes some of the highest-quality down insulation on the market. Yet despite its low price, the Nano Puff Jacket (available for both men and women) doesn’t cheat on any of the essentials. It uses 60-gram PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco (made with 55 percent post-consumer recycled content) for ample insulation, wrapped in a 100 percent recycled poly shell and lining that’s both windproof and water-resistant. It dries quickly, retains 98 percent of its warmth when soaked, and comes with two zippered hand-warming pockets along with a zippered internal chest pocket that doubles as a stuff sack — a fantastic travel-friendly feature. It also looks more city than mountain, with a break-from-the-norm brick quilting pattern, which lets them use horizontal quilting lines on the side panels to stabilize the insulation.
Best for Women: Nau Imperial Poplin Down Jacket
Since its inception, Portland, OR-based Nau has perfected the artful (and often misunderstood) mixture of fashion and function. Their designers originated from the outdoor space, and it shows in the way the Imperial Poplin Jacket performs. It comes with 800-fill power goose down that’s been layered into a luxe matte exterior treated with DWR weather-proofing. The collar snaps up to cover the neck, and the concealed hand pockets come with zippers. But it also performs the seemingly impossible: It’s a heavy down jacket that flatters a woman’s figure thanks to the asymmetrical four-button front. And with Nau, the stylish, high-performing apparel is only half the story. The company also prides themselves on giving back. Their Partners for Change program donates two percent of every sale to a handful of eco, environmental and cultural NGOs (customers choose), while all fabrics originate from sustainable sources, included recycled polyester and down that’s repurposed from post-consumer duvets and pillows.
Best for Kids: Columbia Mount Joy Hooded Hybrid Jacket
For adults, down jackets are a seasons-long investment. For kids, the higher price tags can make a down piece feel like an indulgence since it’ll probably only fit for one or two winters. Columbia solves this by offering a smart jacket with synthetic insulation at a price that doesn’t break into the triple digits (and can often be found on sale). What you don’t get is sub-par performance. This isn’t the warmest jacket in Columbia’s kid’s line, but with 100 grams of Microtemp polyester, it performs admirably in most winter conditions, with a weather-resistant poly/nylon shell mixed with a touch of stretchy fleece. Inside, you get more nylon as well as the added comfort of 201T taffeta insulation. It comes in a variety of colors, styles and cuts for both boys and girls.
Best Synthetic Insulation: Eddie Bauer EverTherm Down Hooded Jacket
Rated to handle temps down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit, this new jacket represents a different way of providing down insulation. Rather than layering the down into quilted patterns like baffles or panels, which introduces cold spots at each stitch or seam, Eddie Bauer pairs their Thindown fabric with ultrathin down sheets that run the entire surface of the jacket to create a overall coat that will keep you warm — and dry, thanks to the DWR-treated exterior. In many ways, its sleek appearance makes the EverTherm the anti-puffy down jacket. At 29 inches long, it offers a bit more coverage than other coats that end at the waist. The insulated hood has elastic binding to modify the fit, with additional elastic binding at the cuffs, and an adjustable drawstring at the waist. Pocket configuration, however, is kept simple: two zippered hand pockets, as well as on the chest. Available for both men and women, and includes no-hood options.
Best for Active Travelers: Black Diamond Cold Forge Hoodie
Black Diamond’s love of the outdoors — specifically climbing, mountaineering and backcountry skiing — means the Cold Forge Hoodie will perform admirably when executing high-octane activities while traveling. It’s configured to be used solo or as a middle layer if your travels include really cold climates or nominal activity in the snow-covered wild, like belaying someone who’s ice climbing. It employs PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Down Blend that delivers serious warmth and packability as well as a weather-proof nylon shell that’s further strengthened by DWR. The lightweight stretch cuff feels plush as you slip your hands through the sleeves, and adds another touch of insulation between the jacket and gloves, with a single-adjust hem, underarm gussets for added maneuverability and an adjustable helmet-compatible hood. Twin zippered hand pockets partner with two internal drop pockets for ample storage.
Best for Surviving a Polar Vortex: Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero Parka
Mountain Hardware makes some of the best down-insulated products on the market (their Ghost Whisperer Jacket was one of the first that inspired the recent down jacket trend, and still ranks as one of the best), but if your travels included extended forays into the poles — or just long winters in locales punished by a polar vortex, go for the Absolute Zero Parka. This high-altitude climbing parka has been crafted to withstand the harshest conditions found on the world’s highest peaks, with 800-fill down layered in a watertight baffle construction with welded seams and waterproof 2L ripstop nylon. A low-profile, insulated hood has an easy-to-use one-handed drawstring, with another string at the hem to trap the heat against the body and soft, stretchy internal cuffs at both sleeves to really seal in the warmth. The Responsible Down Certified insulation has also been treated with Q.Shield, so it’ll keep you warm even if the down defies all reason and manages to get wet. Simply put, if you’re looking for a jacket that can shrug off temperatures well below the zero-degree mark, the Absolute Zero Parka can’t be beaten — unless you opt for Mountain Hardwear’s Absolute Zero Suit, which goes all the way from your anklet up to the hood.
Best for Wet Climates: Columbia OutDry Ex Eco Down Jacket
For places of the world that see winter’s worst weather — snow, rain, and sleet — this pick from Columbia will keep you dry, warm and comfortable no matter what. That assurance comes from their OutDry treatment, which subverted industry norms by placing a one-piece patented, super-durable, waterproof/breathable layer on the outside (rather than sandwiching it between a waterproof layer and a separate breathable membrane, which traditionally can’t handle wear and tear) along with an inner layer that’s engineered to wick any moisture away from your inner layers so it can evaporate — which is a lot of gear-speak to say that water won’t get in and (unlike other waterproof/breathable coats) you won’t feel clammy even when working hard. Warmth comes from Responsible Down Standard-Certified, recycled 700-fill power goose down that’s not DWR-treated, but thanks to the other tech, there’s no risk of saturation. Seams are heat-sealed, with 100 percent recycled poly textiles and other elements.