The complete guide to buying a down jacket

What are the pros and cons of down jackets? Are they waterproof? Is down an ethical material? And how much do down jackets cost?

Woman walking in snow wearing down jacket

Our guide looks at the positives and negatives of down jackets, including price, ethics, waterproofing and warmth.

Do I need a down jacket?

Down jackets offer a light layer of seriously warm insulation. They are ideal for low-intensity activities in cold weather – ambling, dog-walking, waiting for the bus, shopping in the market, or sitting in a chilly tractor cab.

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The moment you up the physical intensity of what you are doing, you may get too hot in a down jacket. Most serious hikers, for example, would probably prefer to wear multiple layers of fleece and other materials, as this is more versatile and easier to adapt to the conditions. If they carry a down jacket, it will be to keep warm when they take a break. Luckily they squish down nicely and take up little space in your pack.

Mammut Crea 20 Tour 20 rucksack

How warm are down jackets?

Some down jackets are much warmer than others. These are designed for seriously cold conditions in the Alps or Scandinavia. A bulkier jacket like Helly Hansen’s Vanir Icefall Down Jacket is a good example – but it’s ideal if you spend long periods idling outdoors on frosty days, for instance camping off-season, manning your stall in the farmers’ market, or watching the rugby. Generally speaking the puffier jackets with higher price tags are the warmer ones.

How can I tell how warm a jacket will be?

Precise measurements of insulating power are hard to find. Many companies quote the ‘fill power’ of their down jackets. This tells you what quality the down is – that is, how fluffy and therefore how good at trapping warm air. But it won’t tell you how warm the jacket is: that depends on how much down is in the filling. A jacket with a lower fill power of 600 or so maybe warmer that one with a fill power of 800 – simply because there’s more down stuffed into it. Many manufacturers give a list of technical specifications for their jackets, but omit the quantity of down.

Family Walking Dog Through Winter Woodland
Down jackets, perfect for dog walkers ©Getty

Can I wear a down jacket in the rain?

Wet down does not insulate effectively. Some manufacturers now treat their down with a moisture-repellent coating – HydroDown is an example – and others swear by the water-repellent fabrics they use; but even so I wouldn’t stay out in the rain for long in a down jacket, if I could help it.

In the wet British climate, down jackets often work best as a midlayer. This is another reason to go for a thinner jacket rather than a pig puffy one. Once you’ve pulled a rain jacket over the top, you’ll look less like the Michelin man.

How tough are down jackets?

Most down jackets are designed to be as light as possible and use superlight, superthin fabrics. These are often windproof, but can easily be torn on thorns. This is another reason to wear your down jacket as a midlayer, beneath a more robust rain-jacket. The other option is a thornproof insulated jacket – suppliers of these include Barbour; Fjallraven make down jackets using their tough G1000 fabric.

Jacket warmth ©getty
Jacket warmth ©Getty

Do I need a hood?

Down hoods are remarkably warm and comfortable – you won’t believe how cosy until you try one. They are well worth the few quid they will add to the price of your jacket. Frankly, they sometimes make you look a bit of a twit, but who cares?

How much do down jackets cost?

Down is expensive, so down jackets don’t come cheap compared to fleeces, though some ‘ultra light’ down jackets are on the market at less then £70 . Other manufacturers reduce the price by blending down with synthetic insulation; swapping down for cheaper fleece panels in less exposed parts of the jacket – under the arms, for example; or using inexpensive fabrics that aren’t so windproof.

Are down jackets ethical?

Many manufacturers promise to use what they say is humanely harvested down – for example, down and feathers gathered as a by-product of the food industry.

Nevertheless, controversy continues over animal welfare issues. Some suppliers in Asia were reportedly continuing to harvest down from live animals. Efforts are now being made to improve traceability. While some brands, such as Patagonia, have a long record of taking care over this issue, others may only now be changing their policy on down, so if this issue is important to you, it’s worth checking on the company policy before you buy. Most manufacturers put details on their websites – if you can’t find anything, your best option may be to ring them up and ask.

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So, which down jacket should I buy?

Shopping for a down jacket for wintery hikes or dog-walks this 2018/19? We review some of the best, plus some more advice on what to look out for while you make your choice. 2018/19 down jacket reviews.