Dear Alpine Ascents: Demystifying Down Jackets

dear alpine ascents: demystifying down jackets

Hey Alpine,

Not gonna lie, I’m brand new to mountaineering and not super savvy when it comes to gear.   Between fill power, fill weight, and all the different baffle types, trying to shop for a down jacket for my upcoming Rainier climb has left me totally confused.  Help!

Sincerely,
Desperately Seeking Down

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Hi Down Seeker,

We feel your pain!  Selecting the right down jacket can be mystifying, especially if you aren’t familiar with all the terminology.   Below, we’ll break down the different types of down jackets you’ll see on our gear lists – lightweight, midweight, and expedition parkas.

Lightweight – You probably already have at least one lightweight down jacket in your quiver. This is the down puffy that you take summer backpacking, to the crag on a chilly spring morning, even to the office (if you live in the PNW, that is) – think super light, compressible, sub 1lb overall weight with approximately 80 -120 grams of down fill.

A lightweight down jacket also makes an excellent layering piece for climbs like Mont Blanc, where it is used in tandem with other, warmer layers. For low elevation summer trips like our Alpine Rock Course, a lightweight puffy can serve as your warmest layer.

Examples: Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer UL Hoody, Rab Microlight Alpine, Arcteryx Cerium LT

Midweight – You can think of a midweight down jacket as your summit parka for peaks between 4000-6000 meters. These jackets are designed to offer significant warmth and contain 2-3 times the amount of down as a jacket in the lightweight category.

How warm a jacket is depends on several factors, including down quality (also known as fill power), fill weight (how much down is inside the jacket), construction method, etc. This can make it difficult to know if a jacket will be warm enough for your chosen objective. A few things to look for are a down fill weight of 200-300 grams, at least 800 fill-power down, and an overall parka weight of between 1.5-2lbs.

A midweight down jacket is the perfect summit parka for Mount Rainier, the Cascades and southern hemisphere climbs such as Cotopaxi or Kilimanjaro. You’ll find yourself using this jacket during breaks, around camp, or when climbing in very cold conditions.

Examples: Mountain Hardware Phantom Parka, Rab Neutrino Pro Down Jacket. For those that run cold, The North Face Summit L6 Cloud Down Parka is one of the warmer jackets in this category.

Expedition Parka – An expedition parka is a highly specialized piece of equipment. If you are wondering if the down jacket you already have is warm enough, chances are it’s not. A proper expedition parka will be:

  • Rated for 8000 meters
  • Box Baffle construction (see more about down jacket construction here)
  • Filled with at least 500 grams of high-quality down
  • Keeping you warm and safe in -40 degree temps doesn’t come cheap!

Examples: Rab Expedition 8000, Mountain Hardware Absolute Zero, The North Face Himalaya Parka, Feathered Friends Rock & Ice Parka

If you are still confused, check out these other blog posts related to down jackets.

Down Fill-Weight vs. Down Fill-Power: Why the Latter Doesn’t Matter 

Down Insulation 101

Wash Down Gear When it Gets Dirty

See You in the Mountains,
Alpine

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