Last Updated January, 2018: We’ve updated our guide of the best synthetic down jackets with the 10 best picks for Winter 2018. Prices and links have also been updated.

Editor’s Choice: Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody

The Micro Puff the lightest jacket Patagonia has ever made. On the outside, it looks just like any other synthetic insulation jacket, if not with just a little extra sheen. The outer shell is constructed from a super lightweight, water-repellent ripstop nylon called Pertex Quantum. Instead of using horizontal baffles, as it does with many of its down jackets, or the quilted design exemplified in its Nano Puff, Patagonia applied a unique stitching pattern to create a mostly-continuous maze of channels that prevent the insulation from bunching. The real innovation is on the inside: Patagonia developed a new type of insulation called PlumaFill that’s made up of down-mimicking polyester fibers that are secured together in one continuous, fluffy line.

The result is a jacket super lightweight jacket that doesn’t quite feel like an “ultralight” jacket — it still has two zippered hand pockets and two interior mesh pouch pockets. Jackets that spare no detail when cutting back on weight don’t have these useful everyday features. The Micro Puff is slightly pricier than Patagonia’s other synthetic puffies, but if you’re looking jacket that’s exceptionally lightweight and warm at the same time, this is a great option.

For a more detailed description of the Micro Puff Hoody, read our in depth review. Tanner Bowden

Weight: 9.3 ounces
Fill Material: 65-g PlumaFill, 100% polyester
Shell Material: Nylon ripstop Pertex Quantum
Waterproofing: DWR finish

Table of Contents
Introduction
What to Know Before You Buy
The 10 Best Synthetic Jackets of 2018

How To Wash Your Synthetic Down Jacket


Introduction

Synthetic down has traditionally been regarded as a cheaper, less effective alternative to the real thing, but thanks to advances in technology, synthetics have come into their own, rivaling goose down in many areas and even surpassing it in durability and water resistance. Technologies like Polartec’s Alpha fiber, developed for military use, or Columbia’s proprietary TurboDown, a mix of synthetic materials and goose down, are finding their way into a wider range of products. The result of all this innovation is that consumers in 2018 have access to synthetic jackets that are warmer, better ventilated, lighter and more durable than ever. The fake stuff is here to stay, and that’s a good thing.

What to Know Before You Buy a Synthetic Down Jacket

Down vs. Synthetic

A great insulating piece, be it a jacket or a sleeping bag, is warm, lightweight and packable. Both down and synthetic-filled products offer these qualities, but each has its pros and cons.

Down is found in layers underneath the rougher exterior feathers of ducks and geese — it’s what keeps them warm while floating around all winter, so, naturally, it will keep us warm too. Despite that, moisture is the undoing of down, causing it to clump up and lose its heat-retaining qualities. It also should be noted that while large-scale efforts have been made by big brands such as Patagonia and The North Face, not all down is ethically sourced, and animal cruelty does happen.

Synthetic insulation is man’s attempt to copy down with polyester fibers arranged in different sizes that cluster and trap heat much like real feathers. The artificial version gets the job done and maintains packability and a low weight — plus it’s hypoallergenic. The polyester fibers that make up synthetic products have a higher weight-to-warmth ratio, so they tend to be a bit bulkier. Synthetic does have the benefit of being much more water resistant though; it doesn’t clump when wet like down and it dries much quicker.

As far as labeling is concerned, natural down will always be labeled “down.” You may encounter a fancy first prefix, which usually refers to proprietary waterproofing treatments applied to down, such as Q.Shield by Mountain Hardwear. It should be noted that while the industry is getting better at making down resistant to moisture, no feathers are truly waterproof. Synthetic insulation will also carry proprietary names such as PrimaLoft.

Not sure which to choose? Down is great for cold and dry environments but tends to be more expensive. Take synthetic if there’s a chance it’ll get wet, or if you’re just looking for a break on the price.

Active Insulation

Until Patagonia released its Nano Air Jacket in 2014, active insulation flew below the radar (the concept was first introduced by Polartec in late 2012). Now there are enough companies making apparel that’s both warm and breathable that active insulation can officially be considered as its own category.

Technically, active insulation is a type of synthetic insulation, (a water-resistant alternative to down), but because of some fundamental differences that make it unique, active should be considered on its own. The technology draws its name from its intended use — active insulation garments are insulating pieces that are meant to be worn during activity (unlike, for example, a down jacket one might throw on after activity, once the body starts to cool down).

Every active piece has one feature in common: they’re incredibly breathable. How this is achieved depends on the insulation used in the jacket, and every company uses a different version. Some are proprietary, like Patagonia’s FullRange insulation, and some, such as Polartec’s Alpha insulation, which was originally developed for the US Special Forces, are sourced by a range of companies.

As with other types of synthetic insulation, active insulation is highly water-resistant and compressible. In comparison to regular synthetic insulation, active is the most breathable form of synthetic insulation available today thanks to a construction that prevents the migration of fibers within the piece while allowing for extra stretch and superior moisture management. Many active pieces are designed with an exterior shell that’s also more breathable but is often softer and less water-repellent than what’s found in other synthetic apparel.

All active insulation, no matter the brand, is designed to prevent lots of layer swaps so that it can be worn throughout the entirety of an activity like hiking, climbing or skiing.

The 10 Best Synthetic Jackets of 2018


Table of Contents
The 10 Best Synthetic Jackets of 2018


Most Innovative: The North Face Ventrix Jacket


Active insulation has been around since 2014, with nearly every major outdoor apparel brand adopting breathable synthetics and adding at least one piece to their collections. But until late 2017, The North Face was notably (and strangely) lacking. The Ventrix fills that void in the brand’s lineup, and not without some unique innovation. Like other active jackets, the Ventrix is filled with a breathable polyester insulation, but unlike other fills, Ventrix insulation is outfitted with special perforations that open and close with motion. When you’re idle, the perforations remain closed, thereby trapping heat. When you’re active, the perforations stretch open to release heat.

The Ventrix looks and feels like many other active insulation jackets; it’s lightweight, and features a softer DWR-treated outer shell. It also behaves like one — I took it for a ski tour through a cold and windy blizzard and was able to wear it (without another shell layer on top) for the duration of the climb. The breathability isn’t perfect — I did sweat quite a bit — but that’s to be expected of any insulating piece during vigorous activity (especially when you’re wearing a backpack). I was more surprised at how much warmth the Ventrix provided, both during the climb and afterwards when making my descent. Temperatures were in the single digits, and my core was never cold. Tanner Bowden

Weight: 14.8 ounces
Fill Material: Ventrix (100% polyester)
Shell Material: Body: 92% nylon, 8% elastane ripstop Forearm: 75% nylon, 15% polyester, 10% elastane ripstop
Waterproofing: DWR finish

Most Durable Active Insulation: Black Diamond First Light Hoody


The First Light Hoody is Black Diamond’s take on active insulation. These jackets are typically characterized by soft outer shells and a lack of baffles, exemplified in Patagonia’s Nano Air Hoody and Outdoor Research’s Uberlayer. The First Light is notably different from these other jackets because it has a tougher feeling shell — it’s still soft though, with a distinctive lack of shine. Inside is PrimaLoft Silver, an insulation that provides warmth while maintaining a high level of breathability.

The First Light excels in many areas. For one, it’s waterproof — and dirt- and oil-proof — beyond the soft feel of its outer shell thanks to Schoeller’s NanoSphere finish. (Mine has gotten me through many New England Nor’easter downpours.) It also lives up to the promise of active insulation: to be warm when not in motion, and to breath during activity. The perforated interior lining has a lot to do with that. One of my only gripes with the First Light is the cuffs, which are sewn slightly back into the wrists and gave me that uncomfortable feeling of an underlayer getting bunched and pulled up my forearm. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of the slightly-longer zipper pulls on the jacket, which are easy to use when wearing gloves, and the selection of tastefully muted colors that the jacket is available in. Tanner Bowden

Weight: 1 pound 2 ounces
Fill Material: PrimaLoft Silver Insulation Active (100% polyester)
Shell Material: Schoeller stretch-woven nylon
Waterproofing: Schoeller NanoSphere finish

Best for a Classic Look: Haglöfs Essens Mimic Hood


Haglöfs’ Essens Mimic Hood looks and feels like a classic down jacket. Its exterior is constructed from a 30D Pertex shell that’s both water and wind-resistant. That shell is sewn into tight baffles that are stuffed with QuadFusion Mimic synthetic insulation, a warm and lofty material that, as its name states, mimics down. Even though the narrow baffles produce more breaks in the arrangement of the insulation, the jacket is incredibly warm — far warmer than I thought it would be.

At first glance, the Essens can come off as average, but it’s anything but basic. One of the smartest features contained in the jacket are two Polartec Powerstretch panels underneath the armpits that allow the jacket to provide a greater range of movement. It should also be noted that the Essens has a shorter cut that sits roughly at belt line, so the extra bit of stretch keeps it from riding up and revealing any skin to the air. The jacket also is equipped with two hand pockets, an exterior chest pocket and a drawstring hood. One feature I couldn’t quite get a grasp on is a cinch loop on the hood’s exterior, which I can only guess is meant to pull it away from the face and allow for a greater range of vision. Surprisingly, one of my favorite things about the jacket was the tactile puffy feel of the baffles, especially from the insides of the hand pockets.
Tanner Bowden


Weight: 6.5 ounces
Fill Material: QuadFusion Mimic
Shell Material: 30D Pertex Microlight
Waterproofing: DWR finish

Best for the Worst Weather, Ever: Fjällräven Bergtagen Insulation Parka


According to Fjällräven, its new Bergtagen collection is “engineered for a life above tree line where the trees don’t grow but your spirit does,” namely, for high mountain elevations. The entire line places particular emphasis on technical capabilities; it was developed in partnership with the Swedish Mountain Guides Association. As part of that line, the Bergtagen Insulated Parka is built to ward off the bitter cold.

The jacket is constructed with a 100% polyester shell and filled with a hearty amount of Fjällräven’s G-Loft Supreme insulation (also polyester). The jacket is fully-equipped for practical use: there are four large outer pockets on the chest and toward the hem and on the inside are two generous mesh pouches, which make it easy to stash extra gear. There’s also an inner drawcord that allows you to cinch the jacket tight around your waist.

An important thing to note with the Parka is its fit — this jacket is by no means svelte. It’s huge actually, constructed so that it can be thrown over other layers quickly if need be (if the wind is howling at 10,000 feet and there’s no time to fumble around with tight zippers). I usually wear a size medium but had plenty of room in the men’s small. I also rather enjoyed the size of the jacket. It kept me very warm, even on a cold December day when the wind chill brought the temperature into the single digits. Tanner Bowden

Weight: 2 pounds 8.2 ounces
Fill Material: G-Loft Supreme (100% polyester)
Shell Material: 100% Polyester
Waterproofing: N/A

Best Down/Sythetic Blend: BLACKYAK Hybrid Hoody


In the U.S., a handful of outdoor companies reign supreme: Patagonia, The North Face, Mountain Hardwear. In South Korea, however, one brand owns the market — BLACKYAK. The brand’s design philosophies are decidedly forward-thinking.

Instead of crafting another three-layer hardshell, or a standard cookie-cutter insulated puffy jacket, BLACKYAK takes a different approach. The brand’s jackets often use multiple material technologies in concert to create one unified piece. The perfect example is the Hybrid Jacket. It features a host of different materials and technologies, including traceable goose down, PrimaLoft Gold, Polartec Alpha, Cordura Ripstop, Cordura Four-Way Stretch and Polartec Grid. On paper, that sounds like a disaster, but in practice, each material works in concert to create the ultimate winter mid layer. It breathes in all of the right places, insulates where you need it and most importantly, stretches like Laffy Taffy that was left outside on a hot summer day. Regardless of what winter activity you’re partaking in (running, skiing, hiking, boozing), the Hybrid is a close to perfect as it gets. AJ Powell

Weight: 1lb 1oz
Fill Material: 750-fill down (body), Primaloft Gold (sleeves and waistline), Polartec Alpha (back panel)
Shell Material: Lightweight Cordura ripstop, 4-way stretch Cordura, Polartec Grid
Waterproofing: N/A

Best Do-It-All Jacket: Arc’teryx Atom LT


The Atom LT is made with breathable Coreloft insulation, which functions better than down when placed under a shell. Combined with a hydrophobic finish, it does a lot to keep the wearer from getting damp from either weather or exertion. Polartec stretch side panels keep the LT flexible. It’s lighter, snugger fitting, and less bulky than other jackets on this list, which makes the LT an ideal middle layer.

In design and function, the LT is about as simple as it gets, but that’s a good thing. It’s a no-frills insulating layer that’s there when you need it and doesn’t look half bad if when you move from outdoor adventure to local watering hole. The side panels breathe exceedingly well thanks to the aforementioned Polartec stretch panels. I’ve used this jacket for everything from travel, to rock climbing, to snowboarding, to hiking and it still looks the exact same as the day I bought it. AJ Powell

Weight: 13.4 oz
Fill Material: 60g Coreloft
Shell Material: 20D Tyono, Polartec Power Stretch with Hardface Technology (88% polyester, 12% elastane)
Waterproofing: DWR finish

Best Jacket for Ski Touring: Outdoor Research Ascendant Jacket


Unless you’ve done it, ski touring could seem like a practice in misery. And like most endurance activities, it is, to a certain extent — but in touring, the pain only increases the feeling of reward when your bindings are locked and the only direction left to go is down. You still have to get to the top before that reward can be reaped. There are no shortcuts. Elevation gained is elevation earned.

Outdoor Research’s Ascendant jacket lessens the price you pay on the way up. Even in the cold, ascents are fated to be sweaty endeavors, especially when you’re wearing a loaded pack. The Ascendants is a game changer when it comes to active insulation. It utilizes Polartec Alpha Direct insulation, which has no liner. The insulation sits directly on whatever you’re wearing underneath the jacket. The outer shell is constructed from breathable and stretchy Pertex that is also highly water resistant. The jacket insulates your body only where it needs it — so, less sweaty back — while also shedding wind. It’s incredibly packable and fits well underneath a shell while you take those deep blower turns you hiked up for in the first place.

Weight: 13oz
Fill Material: Polartec Alpha Direct
Shell Material: Pertex Microlight (20D nylon ripstop)
Waterproofing: DWR finish

Best Jacket for Climbing: Mountain Hardwear ATherm Jacket


Mountain Hardwear’s ATherm and Outdoor Research’s Ascendant are virtually carbon copies of each other. They the exact same insulating material paired with a lightweight breathable nylon shell. Where they differ is in the stretch. While neither provides a tremendous amount of stretch, the ATherm certainly has the Ascendant beat, which is why we recommend it for cold-weather rock climbing. It’s breathable enough to let sweat and heat escape while still providing enough warmth and wind protection when inclement weather blows in.

Pro Tip: If you can handle the itchiness, try rocking the ATherm as a next-to-skin layer. On ultra-cold days, it’s thin enough to rock under a puffy jacket where a shell can then be layered on top. AJ Powell

Weight: 1lb 10z
Fill Material: Polartec Alpha Direct
Shell Material: 50D matte stretch plainweave
Waterproofing: Weather-resistant shell repels water

Best No-Frills Jacket: Rab Xenon X


UK-based Rab Equipment is a mountaineering brand to its core, but that doesn’t mean its innovative technical outerwear can’t be leveraged for use closer to sea level. The Xenon X is the brand’s premier synthetic insulated jacket and it’s dead simple. It’s an insulated jacket with a water resistant shell and that’s it. But it’s also one of the warmest jackets we tested thanks to a hefty serving of Primaloft Gold. The fit can be a bit boxy if wearing on its own, but if you tend to layer over a fleece or other bulky base and midlayers, go true to size.

Weight: 14oz
Fill Material: PrimaLoft Gold
Shell Material: Pertex Quantum
Waterproofing: DWR finish

Best Ultralight Jacket: Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody


The Micro Puff the lightest jacket Patagonia has ever made. On the outside, it looks just like any other synthetic insulation jacket, with just a little extra sheen. The outer shell is constructed from a super lightweight, water-repellent ripstop nylon called Pertex Quantum. Instead of using horizontal baffles, as it does with many of its down jackets, or the quilted design exemplified in its Nano Puff, Patagonia applied a unique stitching pattern to create a mostly-continuous maze of channels that prevent the insulation from bunching. The real innovation is on the inside: Patagonia developed a new type of insulation called PlumaFill that’s made up of down-mimicking polyester fibers that are secured together in one continuous, fluffy line.

The result is a jacket super lightweight jacket that doesn’t quite feel like an “ultralight” jacket — it still has two zippered hand pockets and two interior mesh pouch pockets. Jackets that spare no detail when cutting back on weight don’t have these useful everyday features. The Micro Puff is slightly pricier than Patagonia’s other synthetic puffies, but if you’re looking jacket that’s exceptionally lightweight and warm at the same time, this is a great option.

For a more detailed description of the Micro Puff Hoody, read our in depth review.
Tanner Bowden

Weight: 9.3 ounces
Fill Material: 65-g PlumaFill, 100% polyester
Shell Material: 10-D nylon ripstop Pertex Quantum
Waterproofing: DWR finish

How To Wash Your Synthetic Down Jacket

Most people take their synthetic down jacket for granted, expecting it to perform the same, year after year without any maintenance. Over time though, your jacket becomes compacted and dirty, which inhibits its loft and makes the jacket less warm. To clean your jacket, revitalize its warmth and get it ready for all your adventures, follow our simple guide.

Put your jacket into a washing machine without an agitator. It is easiest to do this at a laundromat, but if your home washer is of the large, front-loading variety, feel free to toss it in there. If you use a washing machine with an agitator, you run the risk of tearing open your jacket — so avoid agitators at all costs.

Wash with Nikwax Tech Wash. Though there are other good tech washes out there (namely Granger’s), we recommend using Nikwax’s Tech Wash. Add the Tech Wash directly into the washing machine, using about three ounces. Follow the directions on the care label of your jacket for specific temperature and cycle settings.

Switch your jacket to the dryer and add tennis balls. Move your jacket over to the dryer, but before you turn it on, add in a package of new tennis balls. As the drier spins, the tennis balls will bounce around inside the drum, breaking up any clumps of insulation and helping dry the jacket completely. This also helps to restore the loft in the synthetic fibers. As for dryer settings, low heat for a long period of time is the name of the game.

Pause the dryer and manually break up any clumps. Every twenty minutes or so, pause the dryer and manually work out larger clumps of insulation. While the tennis balls work well to help break up clumps, you’ll need to put some extra effort in to break them up completely.

Tumble dry until the jacket is completely dry. Dry the jacket until it is dry the entire way through. While moist synthetic insulation still functions well, it’s prone to mold, which will lead to a stinky jacket.

The Gear You Need
Nikwax Tech Wash $10
Tennis Balls $10

Table of Contents
Introduction
What You Should Know
The 10 Best Synthetic Jackets of 2018

How To Wash Your Synthetic Down Jacket


The 11 Best Down Jackets of Winter 2018

These top picks for lightweight, innovative down jackets will keep you warm from when the leaves fly until the snow melts next spring. Read the Story

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