Comparing the Best Mid-Layers for Year-round Outdoor Fun: Down

With cold weather fast approaching–or already a daily reality–for most of Canada and the U.S., now is a great time to upgrade your outer layers.

But with so many options on the market today, how do you make the right choice? And with high-price tags on the highest quality gear, can you choose an outer layer that you’ll get use out of all year round? 

When it comes to outerwear, there are typically three different types of insulation you’ll need to choose from; wool, down, or fleece. There’s no single answer to which option is best for you. Instead, it’s a good idea to learn the benefits of each so that you can decide which best suits your lifestyle and the types of cold-weather adventures you plan to enjoy. 

This week we’re taking a look at a trendy, yet versatile material that’s perfect for bundling up on winter days or keeping your pack light on a summer adventure. Keep reading to learn the pros and cons of down, how to shop for a down jacket, and how to care for your investment.

A History of Down

While down jackets have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, this popular cold-weather staple has actually been around since the 1930s. After almost succumbing to hypothermia during a fishing trip, adventurer Eddie Bauer, who had established his namesake outdoor sporting goods company 20 years prior, decided to develop a better jacket. His quilted, down-filled solution was revealed in 1937. But it would take several decades for the trend to catch on, and even longer for them to go mainstream.

Today’s down jackets have come a long way since the oversized Sleeping Bag coat of the 1970s. Manufacturers are now making thinner and thinner jackets that offer the same warmth as heavier alternatives. Unless you plan on trekking through sub-zero degree weather, you can opt for a lightweight down jacket that’s perfect for layering all year long. Wear it in the winter as a mid-layer, or on chilly summer mornings with just a t-shirt underneath.

Pros of Down Jackets

  • Down jackets offer the best insulation of any jacket on the market. 
  • You can choose from heavier options or ultra-thin, lightweight jackets, depending on the type of weather you plan to wear it in.
  • When properly cared for, a down jacket can last decades, because natural down degrades much slower than synthetic materials.
  • Down jackets are available in a wide variety of styles of colors.
  • Modern down jackets, and especially those designed for outdoor use, easily compress down and are lightweight, making them easy to pack and carry with you.

Cons of Down Jackets

  • If you want a high-quality down jacket, you’ll be spending several hundred dollars, making them a more expensive option compared to other materials.
  • Down is made from duck and geese feathers, and not all options are ethically sourced. However, many manufacturers do source their feathers ethically, so with a little research, you can find a more environmentally-friendly option.
  • If you are allergic to down, you’ll need to choose a synthetic alternative, which may not be as warm.
  • Down jackets do not perform well when wet, and they are very slow to dry. If not dried properly, the feathers may mold or smell.
  • These jackets can be tough to clean. But they can be washed in a washing machine, just as long as you use soap designed to cleans down jackets.

How to Choose the Perfect Down Jacket

One big pro of down jackets is just how many varieties there are to choose from. But with a higher price tag than other materials, you’ll want to choose your jacket carefully to make the most of your investment.

Choose Synthetic or Natural Down

If you have a down allergy, the first thing you’ll want to do is narrow your options to those made with synthetic down. While it may not provide all of the same benefits as natural down, manufacturers have done a great job of recreating many of them, and you won’t have to worry about developing an itchy rash or other reactions during your next trip.

Picking Ethically Sourced Products

Next, consider shopping down jackets made by companies that are committed to ethically sourcing their down. Luckily, you won’t have to look very far; many major manufacturers have now made a commitment to source productions that have been certified to the Responsible Down Standard. can help you learn more about finding out whether a product and its materials have been ethically sourced.

A few major down jacket manufacturers who have made a public commitment to source their down ethically include:

  • Black Diamond
  • Columbia
  • Eddie Bauer
  • L.L. Bean
  • Marmot
  • Mammut
  • Mountain Hard Wear
  • Prana
  • REI Co-op
  • Sorel
  • Sea to Summit
  • North Face

These are just a few of the companies that have taken the pledge. Check out the Responsible Down Standard’s website to find other manufacturers.

Finding the Right Weight

Another important decision that you’ll need to make is what weight you’d like your jacket to be. The amount of down packed into each pocket, the weight of the fill, and the shell of your jacket will all affect how warm it is, and how much protection you’ll have from the elements. 

A heavy down jacket or coat can keep you warm in sub-zero temperatures but will be too much for much of spring, summer, and fall. If you want a layer that you can wear all year long, choose a light or medium-weight jacket instead. Look for jackets with less than 700-fill down or under 6 ounces of down. Don’t forget to consider the shell of your jacket as well. If the shell isn’t waterproof, you’ll want to wear a rainjacket or other water-resistant outer layer over top if the weather calls for rain.

Deciding Whether Down is the Right Material for You

If you’re looking to add warmth to your outfit without adding bulk, and want a variety of weight options to customize your outer layer, down is the right choice for you.

Check back to our blog soon to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of two other great mid-layer options; wool and fleece.