Are down jackets good for hiking and backpacking? One of the most important equipment for outdoor adventures is clothing suitable for layering. The light down jacket is an insulating layer that has incredible warmth to weight ratio compared to other alternatives.
A high-quality light down jacket warms, packs down small, lasts year after year and is suitable for the forest as well as for travelling in the city. A light down jacket is perfect for spring and autumn, but a multipurpose down jacket is a must-have item for outdoors all year round.
Lightweight down jacket for winter hiking
A down jacket is at its best as a break jacket, but an ultralight down jacket is suitable even for hiking in winter frosts and freezing temperatures. It is essential to adjust the clothing so that you don't get cold or sweat.
When I left for the Pieni Karhunkierros Trail in February, the temperature showed a crisp -30.5 °C (-23 °F). I was wearing a thin merino wool shirt, a fleece shirt on top of that, and a light down jacket as the third layer.
It was a bit chilly in the beginning, but after just a couple of kilometers of hiking, the temperature felt OK. At Siilastupa open wilderness hut, I removed the middle layer (the fleece) for the rest of the trail, when the sun was shining and the air warmed up to about twenty degrees below zero (-4 °F).
The lightweight down jacket is also great for snowshoeing or backcountry pulk-sled skiing when it's windy in addition to severe frost. But, at temperatures warmer than ten degrees below zero (14 °F), even the thinnest light down jacket is probably too warm when you are on the move.
Everyone's experience of the cold and the body's temperature regulation is individual, so in the same way as when choosing a sleep system (a sleeping bag and sleeping pad), the insulation and thermal properties of outdoor clothes should also be chosen according to your own needs.
Lightweight down jacket for summer
You could easily think that a down jacket belongs only to winter adventures. However, summer in the North is unpredictable: In Lapland, the night can be freezing cold in the middle of the most beautiful July, and even in Helsinki you might get a hailstorm while spending the evening at a lean-to shelter in a forest in midsummer.
Karhunkierros Bear’s Trail in June is probably the only long distance hike I've done where I didn't bring a down jacket - it was also my first long distance hike. The forecast showed a hot temperature even at night, so I only had some summer clothes in my backpack. On the last day of the three-days’ hike, the weather turned windy and rainy and very cold. A light down jacket would have been necessary on the last streatch when I was shaking on a break at a lean-to shelter.
The lightweight down jacket packs small into a backpack and is perfect for lightweight ja ultralight backpacking. You can fold the lightweight down jacket into a pillow for the night while hiking. In cold weather, you can pull the jacket over your sleeping bag for extra warmth, and in very cold weather, you can pull it on before slipping into your sleeping bag.
What should you consider when buying a light down jacket? When you want to maximize the warmth of a lightweight down jacket and minimize the weight (for ultralight and lightweight backpacking), look at the jacket's FP/CUIN number and the amount of filling.
Down FP or Fill Power
The Fill Power (FP) or CUIN (cubic inches per ounce) number of the down describes the relative quality of the down in terms of its loft and filling power. The most common numbers are 650, 700, 800 and 850. The highest number of these describes the highest quality.
Down products have both the FP number and the weight of the filling (fill weight), which is usually stated in grams (or ounces). These numbers together tell how warm the down jacket is. The higher the FP, the less filler is needed to achieve the same warmth. Light down jackets (women’s) have under or over 100 grams (3.53 oz) of filling, more in winter jackets than in warmer season jackets.
The RDS marking on the down product is an abbreviation for Responsible Down Standard. It means responsibly produced down, stating that no animals have been harmed in the production process. Responsibly produced down jackets always have the RDS label.
Many high-quality light down jackets today also use recycled down. The GRS standard (Global Recycled Standard) has been established to promote the use of recycled materials. In a GRS-certified product, the manufacturing materials are at least 50% recycled. In addition, harmful chemicals are prohibited in production.
Can you wear a down jacket in the rain?
When the down product gets wet, it loses its airiness (loft) and thus its insulating or warming properties. Many down products today use hydrophobic, water-repellent down that has been treated with special chemicals. Hydrophobic down maintains its thermal insulation in moisture for longer.
However, down product fabrics are not waterproof, and even hydrophobic down gets soaked thoroughly relatively quickly if you hike the jacket on in humid weather without rain protection. The lightweight down jacket is at its best in dry weather or as an insulating layer under a shell jacket. When choosing a shell jacket, you should pay attention to the size so that a light down jacket can fit under it if necessary.
The features of a light down jacket
The fabric and lining of the down jacket affect both the weight of the jacket and its wind resistance. You should make sure that the light down jacket is sufficiently windproof.
In addition to the fabric, the technical features of the lightweight down jacket include its cut and details. In my opinion, the hood is absolutely essential, but especially in lightweight and ultralight backpacking, some prefer to shave weight when it comes to the hood.
The length of the jacket should be chosen according to the purpose of use. The slightly longer model in women's down jackets also warms the hip area.
Which lightweight down jacket is the best?
There are plenty of great different brands and price groups to find the best lightweight down jacket that suits your personal needs and preferences. I’m bit of a fan of Rab and Patagonia that both offer high-quality and sustainable light down jackets. The best products from these brands are often a bit pricey, though.
According to my own experience, Rab's women's down jackets are a bit narrow at the waist, while Patagonia jackets have roominess at the hip and hem.
When you get a light down jacket, you should also take advantage of the seasonal offers. As summer approaches, valuable down jackets can be found at significant discounts.
I have found my favorite lightweight down jackets from Mountain Equipment. Mountain Equipment has affordable and sustainable products, and their light down jackets are stylish enough to be used not only in a forest but when traveling and in the city as well.
From a trip to Norway, while adventuring in the Lyngen area, I bought an inexpensive ultralightweight down jacket from a local boutique, which has also proven to be quite functional. In other words, the price tag doesn’t always tell you which one is the best lightweight down jacket.
Outdoor adventures are great when your equipment works. The lightweight down jacket is a must-have item for every hiker, backpacker and adventure runner!