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 jackets without feathers that have all the benefits as well as being better than down in wet weather.
Latest update: November 2019
Why not feathers and down?
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 £120, and tried to get a good cross-section of price and brand. We didn’t find a completely waterproof version but most 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.
For the cheapest option, Craghoppers has a BIG range, including the Compresslite jackets 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. From around £35.
An amazingly wide range of insulated jackets in lots of choices of weight and colour. Surprisingly, given how stylish some of these are, the prices are some of the lowest we’ve found.
Metallia jackets – women only
Not a technical jacket. More for short walks and festivals, but the Metallia is rather cool. Again, lots of colours and under £40 (at the time of writing).
Nevado heavyweight jackets – men and women
The emphasis here is on warmth. These are thick, boxy-styled jackets with a slightly longer length. Super-thick insulation and and between £30 and £60 across the range.
Halton jackets – men and women
Perhaps our favourites from Regatta, though they all have their qualities (not least price). This range features jackets of different weights and bodywarmers. Some also have wool or alpaca insulation.
Colombia insulated jackets
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?
Inside is a reflective lining that keeps body heat in without making you sweaty (I use mine to insulate my homemade yoghurt too!). Warm-lined pockets and a drawstring in the hem. Hooded and non-hooded options. Price from around £50.
Berghaus insulated jackets
Designed for movement, the Thermic™ stretch fleece panelling offers excellent flexibility and improved breathability.
Rip-stop outer and lining fabric, which sheds water and is fast drying. The left pocket doubles as integrated stuff sack so it packs away neatly when you’re on the move.
Available with and without a hood. From around £95.
Rab Nimbus – men and women
Last year’s model but still available. It’s 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.
The outer material is quite thin, which makes it lighter, but you’ll want to be cautious around thorns and the like. Some people find the hood annoying as it stays where it is when you move your head!
Around £95 – £110.
The Prism jacket isn’t new, but they’re still easy to find and cheaper. They don’t have the typical baffles of a puffa-style jacket, but do have a layer of silver Primaloft inside to keep you warm.
We liked the sleekness and the articulated arms for ease of movement, plus the long back. Water repellent too. From around £50
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. Great colours.
From around £6o, but a lot more for the latest options.
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 alternatives, but you gain in warmth.
There are no women’s-fit versions – just smaller men’s – which means shape is a bit lacking.
The SJ series jackets each come with a different number – 3, 6, 9 or 12 – with 12 the warmest. Our tester liked the 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 all-round jacket.
From around £85.
If you have a favourite synthetic insulated 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.