I am a hot hiker. No, not a supermodel, y’all; I mean I get HOT when I hike. But I also find I get cold just as quickly. One of the hardest times to hike is the spring and fall when the weather fluctuates between hot and cold within a few hours. For that reason, layering is key and finding a jacket that packs down and is super light is so important. I’m a huge fan of down jackets because they can be worn as a top layer or under a rain jacket, and they provide amazing warmth for those fickle days.
A good down jacket is also a winner when you reach the top of a hike and the wind suddenly comes whipping over a ridge, turning your sweat to ice-cold moisture. They are also helpful as an extra layer when you go camping and you realize your sleeping bag isn’t quite warm enough.
TAKING THE DOWN CHALLENGE
Here’s the thing about down jackets, though, and really most jackets for women: They are hard to size, making shopping online for them a challenge. I decided to try out a handful of jackets with my friend, Arika Bauer, another Hike it Baby mom (AKA @zionadventurephotog on Instagram) so we could help you decide on your next packable down jacket pick.
Arika and I are about as opposite as they come in terms of our bodies. She’s tall and lanky, with little in the way of a chest and claims she has hips (although I don’t see them!). I definitely have hips, but am short and rocking some serious sisters in the front, as well as booty in the back, so I often feel I am an awkward fit with jackets, caught somewhere between a medium and large. I was surprised when Arika reported she also had the same issue with struggling between sizes, finding some jackets just weren’t long enough for her or didn’t work for her lesser-endowed area.
PHOTOS: Zion Adventure Photog / Arika Bauer
With two different body types, we thought we could better share how these jackets really fit, so you could decide which brands may work for your body type. We ordered them all in size large, so we could compare apples to apples. In some cases, the large was surprisingly big. In other cases, there was no way we could’ve gone any smaller. And some that fit true to size.
We tested for fit, mobility, durability, fabric feel, loft, style and, of course, overall comfort as we hit the trail.
Here’s what we discovered.
LIGHT AS A FEATHER
Pros: Super light, packs small, great pockets
Light is an understatement with the L.L.Bean Ultralight 850 Down Sweater (MSRP $199) weighing in at just ten ounces. It’s so light we had a hard time believing it would be warm. But we went out on a chilly morning to give it a whirl and sure enough, it felt great in spite of our doubts.
First off, it’s important to note the sizing runs big on this jacket. Bigger than any of the other we tried, so size down. Neither Arika nor I felt like we were a large and it shows in the pictures.
Sizing aside, there were so many details we liked in this jacket, with one of the most notable being the pockets. Of the jackets we tried, there was none other that put as much thought into the details of the pockets as this one. The standard hand pockets act as both stuff sacks, so you can compress the jacket down to about the size of half a Subway sandwich (yes, it gets that small). The left pocket has a small hole, which allows you to store an iPhone and pass a headphone cable up through your jacket to your ears. This is a great feature if you don’t want to risk your phone pocket opening and closing. Also, there are two “stow” pockets on the outside and inside of your jacket at your chest. The inside pocket is incredibly large and deep.
Another difference we found with this jacket was the thin stitching which the company says makes it more like a “sweater.” L.L.Bean has a similar jacket called the 850 Ultralight Down Jacket, which is more similar to the other downs we tried, but this one felt like a good fit for what we wanted — a light jacket that was easy to pack down.
Other selling points for this jacket were the rich color waves (really simple choices that seem like they would work for a wide range of people) and the fact they offer petite sizing for smaller people who have a hard time finding jackets that fit in length.
FILLED WITH FEATURES
Pros: Great fit for women with curves, plus-size options, keeps warmth in, warm pockets and lots of them
Like most of Columbia’s products, the Titan Ridge Down Jacket (MSRP $250 but on sale at time of review for 50% off!!!) is a fairly loose fit if you get size large. We find Columbia is a winner in the Hike it Baby community because they make stylish jackets in plus-size (we like to mention that up front for women who are feeling frustrated with the outdoor industry not sizing up past XL).
Both Arika and I could have worn either a medium or a large in this jacket. The large was comfortable and a little loose. The length was a great fit for Arika’s longer arms.
What I really love about this jacket is the shiny dotted surface on the inside that Columbia calls “Omni-Heat.” This is a patented warming layer that really works. I personally own other products from Columbia with this material on the inside and love it. If you’re looking for a puffy that is multi-seasonal and keeps the warmth in, this is a great pick. The color is also a nice, rich deep red, and the outer material is smooth.
The downside is if you want to pack this one down small, there’s a little more heft to it than some of the other jackets because of the technology on the inside of the jacket.
Like many Columbia products, there are great features like fleece-lined pockets, nice plastic toggles that are easy to pull when you have gloves on and a great inner zip pocket that would be good for holding a full-sized phone or wallet.
The hip area feels roomy, but not so roomy that it looks baggy. There’s also a toggle at the bottom to cinch down if you need it a little tighter to keep cold weather out. This jacket is a great choice if you are chesty and like to have more warmth when you hike. There’s no need to layer much with this jacket; just throw it on and go with a thin layer or T-shirt underneath.
Pros: Stylish for on or off trail, super light, packs down small, great for gals who rock slimmer fits
Style, style, style. Cotopaxi’s Fuego Light Down Jacket (MSRP $229.95) definitely has the ’80s colors going for it and the fun color blocks make this jacket stand out from the pack. There’s also a great story behind these jackets. This company pays workers a fair living wage and creates grant programs to help areas they work in. Besides feeling good for purchasing a product from a brand that claims to “do good” and actually does, it’s also a very light, compactible jacket that’s easy to stow away in a pack when you don’t need it.
This jacket was one of the lighter jackets we tested with some nice features like a cool hidden pocket on the inside for stashing cash or a credit card. There’s also a soft Polartec liner along the side running up to the armpits for maximum venting.
Other great features we liked were the low-profile zipper pockets that are tucked away deep, so even if you leave pockets open, you most likely won’t lose things. This jacket also comes in a vest version if you’re more of a vest person.
As for fit, of all the jackets we tried, we would suggest buying a size up if you’re in between sizes. It’s cut slimmer in the hips and chest area, so if the fit is tighter, there would be no room for layering underneath if you’re better endowed. Arika is less ample in the “sisters” area, so she fits the medium (which she also owns), but commented on the tightness in her hips with that jacket. She’s a longer, lankier mama; so for someone like me, who is short and stocky, there’s no way I could roll with medium. If you’re traditionally between a medium and a large, opt for large to get a comfier fit that you can layer with. The bottom of the jacket has a little elastic give around the base versus a toggle system that many down jackets have.
Other style points we liked were the wide-tooth front zipper, the color options, the very urban feel and that it allows you to go from trail to pizza joint/brew pub post-hike and still feel cute. Lastly, it comes with an awesome little stuff sack, which makes throwing it in a pack really easy and is a nice added touch.
SOFT AND STYLISH
Pros: Great on and off the trail, thinner profile for gals who like it fitted in the body, feels loftier than some of the other jackets
The Helly Hansen Verglas Down Insulator (MSRP $230) is a clear winner as long as I have a size large for my body type. It also looked good on Arika’s body type. With a fairly fitted body, a toggle at the bottom of the jacket (although with my hips, there was no need to toggle) and elastic around the wrists, it’s comfortable and hikes well. The loft felt high and full, but is still compacted small when squeezed into a ball. I tried it out on a cold morning and it felt super snuggly. I especially liked the fabric, which was one of the softer ones of the jackets we tried.
Other great features of this jacket were the invisible pockets, which seem to zip right up and disappear into the side of the jacket. The cool metal pull tabs that open the pockets seem to blend and have a nice shape and feel like high quality. I’m a big fan of the wide-tooth zipper on the front for easier zipping.
Another thing I love about this jacket is the two tones; it’s blue on the outside and black on the inside closer to your face, making it more stylish when you have it zipped open. I love black jackets, but it’s nice to have color; and I would’ve personally loved if this jacket was reversible.
There’s not a lot of bells and whistles with this jacket. No hidden pockets or extra features, but nothing more is needed. It’s a warm jacket with nice lines. In terms of packing, it felt mid-range … not super bulky, but not paper thin like others. It feels like it would weather a storm well and keep you warm on a cold spring hike.
Pros: Lower price point, lightweight, super compact, soft to the touch
Fashion, function and a lower price tag is always a nice combo and REI’s Co-op Magma 850 Down (MSRP $189 but at publish date, select colors were on sale for $131.93) managed to hit the mark here. This lightweight down jacket looked good on both me and Arika, which wasn’t the case with all of the other jackets. We liked the silky, soft feel of the material and the cut was long enough for Arika’s height, but thanks to the lines in the jacket, it also felt like it hit me in the right place.
Some of the noticeable features in this jacket are easy-to-pull waist toggles, a great phone or cash/card stash pocket on the inside of the chest and an easy-to-find hanging loop (it’s bright blue) for putting your jacket on a hook in a dim room.
Warmth-wise, this felt like a great layer for lighter days and was super easy to pack down and tuck away. A big bonus for me was that the chest area didn’t feel tight, nor did the body, but it was still fitted and I could wear other layers underneath.
The big treat with this jacket that I feel makes it a big winner is that the left pocket acts as a stuff sack. You can pack the whole jacket into itself, leaving you with a small soft package that’s about the size of small loaf of french bread. There’s even a nifty blue loop on the outside, which allows you to clip the packed jacket to a daypack and not take up precious space when you’re hauling snacks, diapers, wipes, water and other essentials for hiking with babies.
This is a new jacket from REI and it seems they’ve worked hard to provide both style and a lower price point, making it a real contender against some of the higher-end brands in this arena. The only downside to this jacket is it appears to only go to size XL, so plus-sized ladies are out of luck here.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Pros: Affordable, comes in plus-size, long in arms and body, packs down well
You don’t have to break the bank when purchasing a down jacket, and REI proves this with their simple, straight-up REI Co-op Down (MSRP $99.50). The jacket runs big, so if you are in between sizes like me and Arika, you’ll want to go with the smaller size. And most women can purchase it without trying it on because the cut is made to fit a wide variety of bodies.
Unlike some of the fancier jackets, this is what I would call “a jacket of the people,” with a generous cut, ample room in the bust and hips and clean lines. It’s a utilitarian down jacket, which is really all you need when looking for a solid layer for your hiking arsenal.
The down fill is a little lighter on this one (650 fill) than the previously mentioned REI jacket and many of the others in this review which have 850 fill. But it still has plenty of warmth and heft, especially if it’s going to be worn under rain jackets or over layers. It’s a perfect lightweight spring piece. This jacket also offers the same cool pack-it-into-the-pocket feature as the more expensive REI jacket.
One of the big bonuses is that this jacket works well for women who have long arms and a long torso. Interestingly, however, the large didn’t fit Arika well, so going with a medium would be a perfect fit. (We promise the childbearing hips will fit in a medium on this one.) What we also love about this jacket is that it comes in plus-size and has ample chest room for nursing mamas who might be bigger in that region than usual.
If you’re in that transitional phase and think you might end up back in your original size clothing but it may not be happening for the next year, this is a good one to pick up while your body is in flux. The price tag is reasonable and it will make for an awesome giveaway or loaner to your girlfriend who’s pregnant or newly postpartum. We’ve seen this jacket on REI for as low as $68, so keep your eyes online for sales with this one!
Pros: Moves well, packs small, urban cool
When I first tried on The North Face Stretch Thermoball (MSRP $220), I didn’t quite get it. It wasn’t soft like the rest of the jackets and the inside felt almost unfinished. The jacket material felt crunchy and not at all like any down I had ever experienced. Then there was the fact that it felt thin, but as I walked around in the cold morning, I noticed it was surprisingly warm and because it didn’t have a lot of bulk, it could compact down fairly well.
Then it hit me, it was a stretchy down. I had heard about these jackets but never tried one on before, so this was a new beast.
Stretchy down is definitely a futuristic fabric and has only just entered the market in the last few years. The downside is that the warm cozy feeling of a puffy down jacket is lost with the stretch material. The upside is the jacket offers both stretch and down in the same coat. For climbers, or nursing mothers who are wrangling multiple kids running in different directions and dealing with a body that’s in total flux, this jacket is a blessing. Buy it true to size and it will grow with you and shrink back down. One jacket and you’re good to go.
For most of us mommies, you probably remember that phase when you couldn’t fit into any jackets and maybe grabbed your partner’s or your dad’s jacket to get outside. Well, this jacket just might be the answer to the expanding Mama Dilemma when wanting a new down coat to adjust to your changing sizes from pregnancy to post-partum.
It’s pretty well sized, so consider this to be true to size or on the more fitted side of jackets. The stretch leaves room for flexibility, so I wouldn’t plan on buying this super big. Also, the stretch material feels a lot more durable than most downs and perhaps is more wind-resistant, although I didn’t have the opportunity to try it out in wind. If you’re curious about stretch down, I suggest going to your local outdoors store and giving it a little feel, as it’s definitely a different kind of down than anything else you’ve ever tried.
Learn how to care for your down here
All of the photos for this piece were shot by Arika Bauer. Products were provided by the companies, free of fee, but in no way was the reporting altered based on the donation of these products. We were honest in all of our reporting and picked these brands purposefully because we felt they were excellent representations of a variety of sizes and price ranges. Missing from this piece are Outdoor Research and Patagonia, which we have an upcoming piece for you to check out: Down Alternatives for Spring Hiking.