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Weather Comfort: Down Jackets

See my general discussion of outwear.

Unless it’s well below freezing, I dislike bulky down vests; I feel like a sumo wrestler, they get in the way, and they get too darn hot if moving.

Any down vest gets too hot for me if I’m moving, unless it’s below 25°, in which case down can work for activity, so long as it’s not too vigorous.

Down quality is key. Don’t waste your money on anything less than 800 fill power down. I prefer the 850 or better down whenever I can find it. It’s warmth, it’s comfort, it’s worth it.

My picks

I spent some considerable time researching down jackets. What follows are my top picks.

Weights quoted are to the gram as weighed using a lab-grade scale.

Western Mountaineering Flash XR jacket √√√√√+

850+ fill power down, 374g / 13.2 oz (size large)

Western Mountaineering Flash XR jacket

I ordered the Flash XR jacket a few months after the Flash jacket. It is 2.3 ounces heavier than the Flash, because it uses a “highly water resistant” fabric (Proloft XR™), and it has zippered pockets and a hood adjustment strap.

The shell fabric is also down proof, which I take to mean that no down will escape as with most down jackets (including the Flash). After extensive use, that seems to be the case.

The pockets and hood are cozy and comfy. The overall feel is one of sheer luxury when it’s cold— put up the plush but featherweight hood, and away goes the rain and the cold.

I used the Flash XR in some heavy rain as a test, and at least for short outings in the rain, the water simply beads up and rolls off— shake yourself like a dog and the water flies off! This is a down jacket— wow!

It was amazing standing there feeling my pants soaking up rain, while I was warm and cozy in the luxurious Flash XR.

But don’t count on it for heavy wet snow or steady rain for more than half an hour as the water will slowly wet the fabric, and some of that will slowly seep in. Still, you have a safety margin of some hours. Steady precipitation requires a wind/water-proof rain shell.

In short, the Flash XR is an awesome jacket, more versatile than the Flash because of its water resistance, and at only 2.3 ounces heavier, it should be preferred over the Flash jacket except for those for whom every ounce counts. But remember that the extra 2.3 ounces won’t be noticed while wearing it, but the rain resistance is a big plus for versatility in the outdoors.

Pants: Western mountaineering also makes a Flash XR pant, shown below.

The Flash XR (XR variant specifically) can be hard to track down (try Amazon @AMAZON), so see the Western Mountaineering web site. I got mine at Bentgate Mountaineering. Note well that the 'Flash' jacket (more on it below) is also excellent, but it does not have the rain-repellant outer fabric.

Lloyd Chambers, November 2011, White Mountains of California, Patriarch Grove at 11,300' elevation
(Western Mountaineering Flash XR jacket + Western Mountaineering Flash pants + Ibex wool jacket )
f8 @ 1/500 sec, ISO 80; 2011-11-07 12:52:56
M9 Digital Camera + Super-Elmar-M 21 mm f/3.4 ASPH @ 21mm

[low-res image for bot]

From reader Jeffrey G:

Just returned from a difficult shoot two week shoot in rural France. The weather was cold, wet and windy. Based on your review, I purchased the Western Mountaineering Flash XR down jacket.

Your review couldn't have been more accurate. The Flash XR far exceeded expectations in very difficult conditions. It really helped me to work and remain creative in what would otherwise be stressful weather conditions.

Western Mountaineering Flash jacket (and Flash XR) √√√√√

850+ fill power down, 308g / 10.9 oz (size large)

Western Mountaineering Flash jacket

The Flash jacket is about the finest down you can find in a jacket. The jacket weighs next to nothing (but more than the claimed 9 oz!), having also a featherlight fabric. It’s incredibly warm. There is also the Flash XR jacket, which is slightly heavier, but with a breathable water resistant fabric, see notes further below.

The Flash jacket works exceedingly well under another layer, like an IbexWear wool jacket. Even though it weighs less than the Nitrous jacket, it seems to have significantly more down, and the full integral hood, quite amazing really.

I don’t think you can find a better jacket, the only real consideration is that the integral hood is still a hood, and not as simple as a hoodless design, perhaps less appealing for casual use where the warmth of the hood is not needed.

There is no zippered chest pocket as with the Nitrous jacket, but the hand pockets are very warm and comfortable.

The Flash or Flash XR is now my all time favorite down jacket for when I’m out in the cold and wind and need to stay warm (say, while waiting for long night-time exposures for example). The built-in hood closes snugly but comfortably around the face, and adds tremendous comfort when it’s cold and windy. Even in blustery wind at night at 10,000' in the mountains, this jacket and its integral hood are amazingly protective. If I am concerned about rain, I definitely prefer the Flash XR, which does an amazing job of shedding rain and snow.

The Flash jacket just feels great to wear. It feels like you’re getting something for nothing, because it’s so warm and light.

I often layer an IbexWear wool jacket over it, one of the heavier Loden versions. If it’s really cold, then I add the North Face Diad wind/rain shell on top of that. That’s easily good for below freezing temperatures, even standing still for a fair period and with some wind.

The Flash jacket uses outstanding down quality, so it’s super light, and packs small. Even so, I’ll go with the Mountain Hardware Nitrous jacket if I need to stay ultra-compact and don’t need as much warmth, yet still have the benefit of a wondrously warm layer.

The picture makes this jacket look shiny, but it’s not. I have one in blue, and it’s a very nice blue, not a boring or plain or obnoxious one. Western Mountaineering also makes the Flash pants, and these add tremendous warmth also.

OWC ROVER PRO wheels for Mac Pro

No tools or hassle… just place your Mac Pro’s factory feet into the Rover Pro’s polished stainless-steel housings and secure with a few hand twists.

When you’re done moving your Mac Pro around, the Rover Pro makes it just as quick and easy to convert back to the factory feet for stationary use.

Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer jacket √√√√+

850+ fill power down, 214g / 7.54 oz (as weighed, size large).

Mountain Hardware 'Ghost Whisperer' jacket

The Mountain Hardware 'Ghost Whisperer' down jacket does not have a hood, but at 214 grams it packs even smaller and lighter than its Nitrous sibling (below) .

This is the jacket I take when space is at a premium. It’s nearly as warm as the Nitrous, but signicantly lighter and more compact. For example, it can be stuffed into a cycling jersey pocket; it’s a tight fit but it works (wrap in 1-gallon ziploc bag to avoid moisture buildup from sweat.

With a full zipper, ventilation options expand. The two pockets are thin and unlined but that is expected in jacket this lightweight.

  • Body Fabric: Whisperer 7D x 10D Ripstop
    Body Fabric Content: 100% Nylon
    Insulation: Q.Shield™ Down 850-Fill. Q.Shield® DOWN resists heat-robbing moisture and retains maximum loft even when wet
  • Low profile quilt pattern to create heat trapping down channels for extra warmth
  • Lightweight warmth makes it incredible for layering
  • Single interior toggle hem for easy adjustment on the fly
  • Soft, “Butter Jersey” cuffs have elastic binding to seal off cold and moisture
  • Zips into its own pocket for compact storage
  • Built-in secure loop for carabiner attachment to harness when stuffed
    Stowable in pocket

Like it’s Nitrous sibling, it makes an excellent undergarment for under a jacket like the IbexWear Europa.

Mountain Hardware Nitrous jacket √√√√+

800 fill power down, 313g = 11.0 oz

Mountain Hardware 'Nitrous' jacket

This has to be the most versatile down jacket I’ve ever used. It’s not as warm as the Western Mountaineering Flash jacket, and it does not have a hood, but it weighs almost nothing, packs into a tiny ball, has comfy hand pockets, a chest pocket, a nice high collar, and it looks stylish, meeting the “wife test” so well that she wanted one for herself.

This is the jacket I take when I’m hiking and need something when I stop and start getting cold. I even use it around the house on cold mornings, on brief outings in the California winter, etc. It fits snugly, so it can be worn and hardly noticed at all, but it adds some serious comfort while being light as a feather.

I have one in orange, and I’ve gotten compliment after compliment. And hey, that’s saying something when I’m the guy wearing it!

In combination with the IbexWear Europa Jacket, it really feels just about perfect, not bulky, but warm and comfortable.

Mountain Hardware PHANTOM jacket √√√√

800 fill power down, 411g = 14.5 oz

Mountain Hardware Phantom jacket

This is a very warm jacket chock full of down, which means temperatures have to drop well below freezing to make it appropriate for strenuous activity. Hover, it’s super nice if you have to stand around taking photos.

Because of its greater insulation (more down), the Phantom is bulkier to pack than the two others above, so I find myself using it less often. I would turn to it in really cold weather with a wool jacket over it, but the lack of a built in hood as found on the Flash jacket means that those of use with minimal hair will be losing a lot of body heat, or wearing an warm hat.

The hand pockets are outstanding, very warm, and the chest pocket is handy. I have no regrets in owning it, but I find the other two jackets generally suit my needs better, mainly because most of the time I’m needing something for temperatures just above freezing to somewhat warmer.

Valandre Kiruna jacket

850+ fill power down, 665g (nominal)

Valandre Kiruna jacket

I don’t question the superb quality of the down in this jacket, but I sent it back for several reasons:

  • A good size panel right at the top of the pull-out hood was devoid of down. As I lack hair in that area, this made the hood pretty useless. I much prefer the hood on the Western Mountaineering Flash jacket.
  • The left-handed zipper bugs me. I don't like fumbling with cold hands; most zippers pull the zip on the right side. This is just weird, an irritation.
  • The stretchy waist of the jacket causes the jacket to work its way up my torso an inch or two; I kept having to pull the jacket lower to put it back where it should be. The other down jackets from Western Mountaineering and Mountain Hardware do not have this issue.

Warmth is very high, I can’t imagine exerting myself in this jacket in temperatures above 10°F.

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