Better than down – warm jackets that come cruelty-free

We had some fun testing jackets. Here’s the Nimbus by Rab – a good choice for warmth, if you can live with the annoying hood.

Down is warm and light, so makes a perfect insulator for autumn and winter jackets. The big downside, though, is that it comes from ducks and geese. Fortunately, there are now puffa and padded jacket alternatives that have all the benefits as well as being better than down in wet weather.

 

The cheaper your jacket, the more likely it is that cruelty was involved in its making. Even companies that claim their down is responsibly sourced can’t ever be certain feathers haven’t been painfully plucked. In the worst cases, feathers are ripped out, leaving birds bleeding and in agony.

Some of the very best companies say they use only down that has been naturally shed. It’s gathered and the birds are left with a synthetic replacement to line their nests. You can imagine how expensive that makes a jacket.

Very few of us absolutely need the light weight of real down, and there are now plenty of alternatives that offer similar insulation, pack down small and have the advantage of being easier to clean and dry. Down is a bit rubbish when wet and can even lose its qualities in damp or sweaty conditions.

Synthetic ‘down’ – easier to care for too

The most widely used materials are Thinsulate, FullRange, PolarTec Alpha and PrimaLoft. Of these, PrimaLoft is a great, water-resistant insulator developed for the US army. It comes in three levels of performance – black, silver and gold. You’ll find it in jackets made by companies such as Montane, Vaude, Patagonia, Helly Hansen, The North Face and many more.

Our top choices for down jacket alternatives

Most manufacturers make the same jacket in a men’s and a women’s fit. We didn’t try anything costing more than £150, and tried to get a good cross-section of price and brand. We didn’t find a completely waterproof version but all models are water-resistant and they dry much faster than down. Here’s what we found, with our favourites highlighted.

Also have a look at our article on down-free sleeping bag choices.


Columbia Powder Lite for women

Columbia

Top choice: The Powder Lite jackets for men and women are quite brilliant – very warm, a lovely fit and light to wear. Plus you can choose from hooded and hoodless versions and a longer length jackets. Lots of good colourways too. Only niggle – the zip is on the wrong side! Or am I going mad?

Powder Lite for men

The lining is both breathable and keeps heat in

Inside is a reflective lining that keeps body heat in without making you sweaty. Warm-lined pockets and a drawstring in the hem. Price from around £50.


Rab

Rab jackets tend to come up a bit small in the men’s sizes, so you might need a size up if you want to layer T-shirts and jumpers underneath. Women’s can be a bit loose.

Rab Nimbus

Rab Nimbus

Rab Nebula

Rab Nebula

Top choices: The Rab Nimbus is warm, has an elasticated hood (can’t be adjusted, sadly) and heat-retaining collar, good pockets and nice touches, such as the zip guard and the soft lining inside the zip. Its outer material is quite thin, which makes it lighter, but you’ll want to be cautious around thorns and the like. Some poele find the hood annoying as it stays where it is when you move your head!

The Rab Nebula is a bulkier, technical jacket that feels very warm. It has a nicely elongated back and an adjustable hood with a peak (a bonus over the Nimbus). The women’s version felt a bit too bulky for us – OK for walking, but you’d be better with the Nimbus if you need to move your arms around a lot.

  • Pertex Quantum® outer fabric (Nimbus) and Endurance®  (Nebula)
  • Cirrus™ by 3M Featherless insulation
  • Nimbus; Around 450g (M, size L ) and around £120
  • Nebula: Around 580g (M, Size L) and just under the £150 mark

The Rab Altus is  more or less the Nimbus without a hood. Around £95

Rab Altus

Rab Altus


Didriksons Reed

Didriksons Rory

Didriksons

Top class construction and a price tag to match, but the Didriksons Reed jacket for men is probably our favourite for style. The fit seems true to size and, though a bit bulkier than a down jacket would be, it’s very warm and light.

  • EVOdown and 100% polyamide outer
  • Fixed hood with peak
  • High collar
  • Extra reinforcement on the shoulders and under the sleeces
  • Water repellent
  • Around £140

The Rory is the equivalent for women. Just as warm and well-designed, but we found the fit a bit large and weren’t too keen on the colour details on the old rust and blue versions (white zip pull?). The black is very functional, windproof and gets our thumbs-up for style, however. Around £120.


North Face

North Face Thermoball

North Face Thermoball

Only one synthetic down option from North Face, as far as we can tell. Do let us know if you’ve found another option.

The Thermoball uses very lightweight insulation, making it more packable. Not a winter jacket, but warm enough for a cold autumn. It’s much thinner and so feels nice to move around in, plus we like the elongated back. If you like a square-shaped jacket that would work in town, this will suit you well. We didn’t like the ugly exposed metal zip on the women’s version, though.

  • Thermoball™ lightweight insulation
  • Ripstop nylon outer shell
  • Hooded versions and gilets available too
  • From £55 upwards

Montane Prism

Montane Prism

Montane Fireball

Montane

Some lovely looking jackets in Montane’s extensive synthetic down range and at pretty good prices too.

The Prism jacket (for men and women) and the Fireball (men only) don’t have the typical baffles of a puffa-style jacket, but it do have a layer of silver Primaloft inside to keep you warm. We liked their sleekness and the articulated arms for ease of movement, plus the long back. Water repellent too.

  • Pertex Quantum® rip-stop fabric (Fireball), Microlight Mini (Prism)
  • PrimaLoft® silver eco insulation for lightweight packability
  • PEAQ synthetic lining
  • Hood (peaked in the Prism) and pull-over versions available.
  • From £70

Montane Hi-Q Luxe

Montane Hi-Q Luxe

Top choice: The Hi-Q Luxe jackets and Icarus/Phoenix (men/women) are slightly heavier and have the stitched baffles. Really stylish and the only let-down is the non-adjustable hood. Very toasty.

Montane Icarus

Montane Phoenix

Montane Flux

Top choice for something a bit different: The Flux jacket uses recycled fibres and is another baffle-free design, this time heavier weight for the coldest conditions. Men only.

  • Pertex Quantum® rip-stop fabric (showerproof)
  • PrimaLoft® silver eco insulation
  • PEAQ synthetic lining
  • Adjustable hood with peak
  • From around £120 (cheaper for the pull-on version)

Vaude Freney

Vaude Freney

Vaude

The shiny fabrics and rather serious cut of some of Vaude’s synthetic down jackets won’t suit everyone’s taste. Prices are good, though, and there’s nice moveability in these designs. And you’ve got to love Vaude for their eco credentials and their commitment to fair labour.

The Freney jacket range (men and women) is where you’ll find the shiny ones. Lightweight, warm, breathable and water repellent, though.

  • Pertex Quantum® rip-stop fabric (showerproof)
  • PrimaLoft® silver eco insulation
  • Non-adjustable hood
  • Weight: Around 250g to 350g depending on size
  • From £55 upwards

Vaude Sesvenna

Vaude Sesvenna

The Sesvenna jacket is a stretchy ski jacket that looks rather cool (and fairly warm). It has elasticated inserts, but is still water resistant. A thin and light option for those who want to wave their arms around.

  • Polyester and polyamide outer fabrics
  • PrimaLoft® silver eco insulation
  • Hood and thumb-holes
  • Weight: Around 380g to 500g depending on size
  • From around £125

Vaude Bormio

Vaude Bormio

Almost a down jacket, the Bormio has the minimum Polartec insulation, but what you lose in filling, you gain in breathability, stretchiness and great form-fitting moveability. From around £110. A top choice for runners and autumn walking.


Sprayway Selen

Sprayway Rador

Sprayway

Just two jackets from Sprayway. The Selen (women) and Rador (men). Both use micro-baffles filled with lightweight synthetic down.

  • Simple designs with a basic hood
  • High neck
  • Around 600g (men) and 400g (women)
  • Both around £90.

Our tester really liked the SJ6 jacket and thought it would be both warm enough and stylish enough.Snugpak

Snugpak

Snugpak uses its Softie® insulation in the jacket range. It’s the same insulation as you’ll find in their sleeping bags. It’s bulkier and heavier than some of the other down alternatives, but you gain in warmth. There are no women’s-fit versions – just smaller men’s, which means shape is a bit lacking.

Top choice: The SJ series jackets each come with a different number – 3, 6, 9 or 12 – with 12 the warmest. Our tester liked its  boxy shape and slightly longer back, and found the SJ6 very toasty indeed. Zip a bit tricky at first and a basic hood, but an excellent price for a good all-round jacket. The olive green was smart enough for town use too.

  • Paratex Micro outer and Paratex Light inner
  • Filled with Softie® Premier insulation
  • From around £80

The Snugpak Sasquatch  is, indeed, a beast of a coat.

Snugpak Sasquatch

  • Filled with Softie® Premier insulation
  • Adjustable hood
  • Warm down to -10
  • Around 1050g
  • Costs around £115

Patagonia Nano-Puff

Patagonia Nano-Puff

Top choice for warmth: Patagonia Hyper-Puff

Top choice for warmth: Patagonia Hyper-Puff

Patagonia

Either the Nano-Puff or Hyper-Puff, depending on your warmth v. bulk criteria. The Nano is a slim-fitting, lightweight jacket, while the Hyper is…puffier, but stretchy. Both are water-resistant.

  • Recycled polyester outer (Nano). Pertex Quantum® 100% nylon stretch (Hyper)
  • PrimaLoft® gold insulation (Nano). High-loft HyperDAS™ insulation (Hyper)
  • Hood and hoodless versions for the Nano, plus pull-over version.
  • Around 340g (Nano) and 525g (Hyper)
  • From around £70

Craghoppers Ascent

Craghoppers Compresslite II

Craghoppers

For the cheapest option, Craghoppers has a Compresslite range for men and women. They’re windproof and water resistant and pretty lightweight for non-down. There’s a wide range of different styles, including gilets, jackets with hoods and more coat-like options, for both men and women. They’re not the bee’s knees on the style front, but great for affordable, packable warmth.

  • Polyester outer
  • ClimaPlus insulation
  • From around £20

If you have a favourite synthetic down jacket that works well for you, do tell us a bit about it. If you really do need to have a down-filled jacket, then have a look at the welfare credentials of the company. If they stick to standards, they’ll trumpet it on their labels, but it’s worth just double-checking what the promises actually mean. Meanwhile, here’s more info on down production.


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