Synthetic down has traditionally been regarded as a cheaper, less effective alternative to the real thing. But thanks to advances in technology, synthetics have come into their own, rivaling goose down in many areas and even surpassing it in durability and water resistance.
Technologies like Polartec’s Alpha fiber, developed for military use, or Columbia’s proprietary TurboDown, a mix of synthetic materials and goose down, are finding their way into a wider range of products. The result of all this innovation is that present-day consumers have access to synthetic jackets that are warmer, better ventilated, lighter and more durable than ever. The fake stuff is here to stay, and that’s a good thing.
This definitive guide provides information on the 12 best synthetic insulation jackets available based on features like warmth, weight, durability, water resistance and price. In it, we offer suggestions on which jacket(s) to buy for different activities and needs. Keep reading beyond the 12 picks for more info on synthetic insulation and how to wash and care for a jacket that has it.
What to Know Before You Buy a Synthetic Down Jacket
Down vs. Synthetic
The best insulating piece, whether it’s a jacket or a sleeping bag, must be warm, light and easily packable. Down and synthetic-filled products both offer these qualities, but there are pros and cons to each.
Down comes from the layers under protective exterior feathers of geese and ducks — it works for them while they float and fly around every winter, so of course, it keeps us warm as well. But when natural down gets wet, it clumps and loses a lot of its heat-retaining ability. Also worth noting: although big efforts have been made by a lot of brands and outfitters such as Patagonia and The North Face, not all down is sourced ethically, and animal cruelty can become part of natural down insulation’s production chain.
Synthetic insulation is our attempt to mimic natural down’s insulation power with polyester fibers arranged in different sizes that cluster and trap heat much like the real thing. Synthetic down really does insulate well, without losing packability or the lightness of natural down — not to mention it’s hypoallergenic. One trade-off is that synthetic down weighs slightly more by volume (and insulating ability) than natural down, so synthetic-filled gear tends to be marginally heavier and bulkier. On the flip side of the coin, synthetic down is less prone to clumping when it gets wet, so in mixed weather conditions, it might be a safer bet.
In terms of labeling, if a jacket just says “down” it’s definitely natural down insulation. You might see fancy terms added in, like Mountain Hardwear’s proprietary Q.Shield waterproofing treatment, but if it’s “down,” it’s still the real deal. You should also know that although the industry is still improving and innovating ways to make down more water-resistant, no feathers are truly waterproof. Synthetic insulation goes by a lot of names, depending on the brands associated with it, but synthetic down insulation will never be labeled as down unless it’s a clearly labeled mixture of real and synthetic materials.
Not sure which is right for you? If you’re going somewhere cold but mostly dry, natural down is probably the way to go, but it will probably be more expensive. Go for synthetic if there’s a fair chance of getting wet or if your true first concern is getting a break on the price.
Until Patagonia released its Nano Air Jacket in 2014, active insulation flew below the radar (the concept was first introduced by Polartec in late 2012). Now there are enough companies making apparel that’s both warm and breathable that active insulation can officially be considered as its own category.
Technically, active insulation is a type of synthetic insulation (a water-resistant alternative to down), but because of some fundamental differences that make it unique, active should be considered on its own. The technology draws its name from its intended use — active insulation garments are insulating pieces that are meant to be worn during activity (unlike, for example, a down jacket one might throw on after activity once the body starts to cool down).
Every active piece has one feature in common: they’re incredibly breathable. How this is achieved depends on the insulation used in the jacket, and every company uses a different version. Some are proprietary, like Patagonia’s FullRange insulation, and some, such as Polartec’s Alpha insulation, which was originally developed for the US Special Forces, are sourced by a range of companies.
As with other types of synthetic insulation, active insulation is highly water-resistant and compressible. In comparison to regular synthetic insulation, active is the most breathable form of synthetic insulation available today thanks to a construction that prevents the migration of fibers within the piece while allowing for extra stretch and superior moisture management. Many active pieces are designed with an exterior shell that’s also more breathable but is often softer and less water-repellent than what’s found in other synthetic apparel.
All active insulation, no matter the brand, is designed to prevent lots of layer swaps so that it can be worn throughout the entirety of an activity like hiking, climbing or skiing.
How to Wash Your Synthetic Down Jacket
Most people take their synthetic down jacket for granted, expecting it to perform the same, year after year without any maintenance. Over time though, your jacket becomes compacted and dirty, which inhibits its loft and makes the jacket less warm. To clean your jacket, revitalize its warmth and get it ready for all your adventures, follow our simple guide.
Put your jacket into a washing machine without an agitator. It is easiest to do this at a laundromat, but if your home washer is of the large, front-loading variety, feel free to toss it in there. If you use a washing machine with an agitator, you run the risk of tearing open your jacket — so avoid agitators at all costs.
Wash with Nikwax Tech Wash. Though there are other good tech washes out there (namely Grangers), we recommend using Nikwax’s Tech Wash. Add the Tech Wash directly into the washing machine, using about three ounces. Follow the directions on the care label of your jacket for specific temperature and cycle settings.
Switch your jacket to the dryer and add tennis balls. Move your jacket over to the dryer, but before you turn it on, add in a package of new tennis balls. As the drier spins, the tennis balls will bounce around inside the drum, breaking up any clumps of insulation and helping dry the jacket completely. This also helps to restore the loft in the synthetic fibers. As for dryer settings, low heat for a long period of time is the name of the game.
Pause the dryer and manually break up any clumps. Every twenty minutes or so, pause the dryer and manually work out larger clumps of insulation. While the tennis balls work well to help break up clumps, you’ll need to put some extra effort in to break them up completely.
Tumble dry until the jacket is completely dry. Dry the jacket on low until it is dry the entire way through. While moist synthetic insulation still functions well, it’s prone to mold, which will lead to a stinky jacket.
The Best Synthetic Down Jackets
Patagonia Micro Puff
The Micro Puff is the lightest jacket Patagonia has ever made. On the outside, it looks just like any other synthetic insulation jacket, with just a little extra sheen. The outer shell is constructed from a super lightweight, water-repellent ripstop nylon called Pertex Quantum.
Instead of using horizontal baffles, as it does with many of its down jackets, or the quilted design exemplified in its Nano Puff, Patagonia applied a unique stitching pattern to create a mostly-continuous maze of channels that prevent the insulation from bunching. The real innovation is on the inside: Patagonia developed a new type of insulation called PlumaFill that’s made up of down-mimicking polyester fibers that are secured together in one continuous, fluffy line.
The result is a jacket super lightweight jacket that doesn’t quite feel like an “ultralight” jacket — it still has two zippered hand pockets and two interior mesh pouch pockets. Jackets that spare no detail when cutting back on weight don’t have these useful everyday features. The Micro Puff is slightly pricier than Patagonia’s other synthetic puffies, but if you’re looking jacket that’s exceptionally lightweight and warm at the same time, this is a great option.
Notes: For a more details, read our in-depth review. The Micro Puff is available without a hood for $249.
- Weight: 9.3 ounces
- Fill Material: 65-g PlumaFill, 100% polyester
- Shell Material: 10-D nylon ripstop Pertex Quantum
- Waterproofing: DWR finish
Arc’teryx Atom LT Jacket
The Atom LT is made with breathable Coreloft insulation, which functions better than down when placed under a shell. Combined with a hydrophobic finish, it does a lot to keep the wearer from getting damp from either weather or exertion. Stretch fleece side panels keep the LT flexible. Arc’teryx updated the design for winter 20/21 with a longer, more relaxed fit and more durable construction.
In design and function, the LT is about as simple as it gets, but that’s a good thing. It’s a no-frills insulating layer that’s there when you need it and doesn’t look half bad if when you move from outdoor adventure to local watering hole. The side panels breathe exceedingly well thanks to the aforementioned stretch panels. We’ve used this jacket for everything from travel, to rock climbing, to snowboarding, to hiking and it still looks the exact same as the day we bought it.
- Weight: 12.2 ounces
- Fill Material: Coreloft Compact 60
- Shell Material: 20D Tyono, stretch fleece (94% polyester, 6% elastane)
- Waterproofing: DWR finish
Rab Xenon 2.0 Insulated Jacket
UK-based Rab Equipment is a mountaineering brand to its core, but that doesn’t mean its innovative technical outerwear can’t be leveraged for use closer to sea level. The Xenon is the brand’s premier synthetic insulated jacket and it’s dead simple. It’s an insulated jacket with a water-resistant shell and that’s it.
Well, almost it — the Xenon does have two hand pockets and an interior chest pocket, into which it can stuff away. Still, it’s also one of the warmer jackets we tested thanks to a hefty serving of Rab’s Stratus insulation. The fit can be a bit boxy if wearing on its own, but if you tend to layer over a fleece or other bulky base and mid-layers, go true to size. Updated for 2021, the Xenon 2.0 features recycled insulation and fabrics, including 100 percent Primaloft Silver insulation, recycled Pertex Quantum ripstop outer, a fluorocarbon-free DWR treatment and a recycled Atmos fabric lining.
Note: Another great, budget-friendly jacket to consider is L.L.Bean’s PrimaLoft Packaway Jacket ($169), which has a more traditional quilted look than the Xenon.
- Weight: 13.6 ounces
- Fill Material: Primaloft Silver Insulation (recycled)
- Shell Material: Pertex Quantum ripstop
- Waterproofing: Fluorocarbon-free DWR finish
Bight Swelter Jacket
Bight Gear, formerly known as MtnLogic, takes a group approach to designing and building outdoor gear. That team consists of the 60-plus guides who work at Rainier Mountaineering Inc., the guide service that’s affiliated with the company. Many of these guides spend more than half the year on mountains, and their collective knowledge and preferences are reflected in each piece that Bight produces.
As a product of that process, the Swelter Jacket is designed as a super-warm insulating piece that can be used as a mid-layer during outings that involve lots of exposure to the elements or as an outer layer in more mild conditions. The guides’ input contributed to many of the features that make the jacket great (even when you’re not attached to a rope on a glacier).
One such feature is a slightly longer length that prevents cold spots between upper and lower layers, as well as the inclusion of stretch panels on the cuffs that let you throw the jacket in quickly without taking gloves off. The jacket is filled with Polartec Power Fill, which is made up of 80 percent post-consumer recycled materials and makes this jacket one of the warmest on this list.
- Weight: 18.7 ounces
- Fill Material: Polartec Power Fill
- Shell Material: 20d ripstop nylon
- Waterproofing: DWR finish
Houdini Add-In Jacket
The Add-in Jacket’s longer cut gives cold-weather warmth a stylish edge that makes it perfect for life in towns and cities. The jacket’s hem falls roughly at mid-thigh, so it isn’t as long as a trench coat but still provides a crucial extension of insulation below the belt line. But the best thing about the Add-In isn’t style; it’s versatility.
Houdini designed the Add-in as a layering piece that could handily accompany other jackets like its One Parka or awesomely weird Cloud. As such, the Add-In contains a Goldilocks-sized fill of Primaloft Gold Active+ insulation, which you might otherwise find in jackets for activities like skiing or hiking. It keeps the Add-In from becoming bulky and makes it perfect for cool to cold temperatures, which, for many, will make this jacket appropriate for all but winter’s worst days.
- Weight: 16.4 ounces
- Fill Material: PrimaLoft Gold Active+
- Shell Material: C9 Ripstop
- Waterproofing: DWR finish
The North Face Ventrix Hoodie
Inside the Ventrix Mid Layer is Ventrix, The North Face’s proprietary active insulation. We’ve been fans of Ventrix insulation since it came out in fall 2017, and it’s been a staple on this list since. Here’s how it works: Like other types of active insulation, Ventrix is highly breathable, but unlike those other fills, it has laser-cut perforations that open and close with motion. When you’re idle, the perforations remain closed, thereby trapping heat. When you’re active, the perforations stretch open to release heat.
The Mid Layer is one of The North Face’s newer implementations of Ventrix. It’s a crewneck pullover with a polyester shell that isn’t overly technical — it doesn’t have the sheen that many insulated jackets have, and it doesn’t have stitched baffles. That makes it great for wearing as a warm indoor layer, but thanks to Ventrix insulation, it’s perfect for things like ski touring and hiking.
- Weight: 11.3 ounces
- Fill Material: 100% polyester stretch Ventrix
- Shell Material: Nylon ripstop, recycled polyester, elastane
- Waterproofing: DWR finish
Norrøna’s Lofoten Primaloft80 Anorak
No other jacket on this list is as feature-packed as Norrøna’s Lofoten Primaloft80 Anorak. That’s because the Norwegian outerwear company imagined it both as a mid-layer and outer layer for skiing. As such, it gave the jacket a two-way central zipper so you can access things beneath it — like an avalanche beacon or a snack — without unzipping entirely, as well as extra-long side zips for ventilation, one interior and two exterior chest pockets, a hoodie-style torso pocket and adjustable hood and hem.
The Lofoten Anorak’s less apparent features are impressive too. Its ripstop shell is reinforced on the shoulders, cuffs, seat and torso with Gore-Tex two-layer fabric for better wind and water resistance. There’s tons of PrimaLoft’s insulation tech inside, including Aerogel, a super-light and super-warm material initially developed for NASA, and Bio, which is biodegradable at the end of its life. All together, these features combine to create an exceptionally warm jacket that functions incredibly well beyond the mountains Norrøna made it for.
- Weight: 23.2 ounces
- Fill Material: PrimaLoft Gold Aerogel
- Shell Material: 30-denier Cordura ripstop, 60-denier 2-layer Gore-Tex
- Waterproofing: Water-repellant
Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Shadow Hoody
When it comes to synthetic materials, although they lessen our dependency on animal products, one major complaint is the fact that many synthetic substitutes are made from virgin materials, the production of which has a negative impact on this giant rock hurtling through space that we call home.
Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Shadow Hoody is an excellent example of a high-quality, high-performance outdoor option that not only holds its own among the best of them but does it in a more Earth-friendly way. That’s thanks to its use of recycled materials: the Ghost Shadow is made from 100 percent post-industrial recycled 10D x 10D ripstop, and 100 percent recycled nylon. Even the trimmings are all recycled — including the snaps, zipper, cord and toggle. It’s not waterproof, but Mountain Hardwear’s hard-working synthetic fleece is the ideal lightweight layering piece for colder winter months, and is well-suited to a variety of activities, including rock climbing, hiking, travel and camping. Stuff it in its righthand pocket when you’re not wearing it for easy packing.
- Weight: 11.9 ounces
- Insulation: Primaloft Silver Hi-Loft Ultra I-2040 80 grams
- Waterproofing: None
Topo Designs Insulated Shirt Jacket
Unlike the rest of the jackets on this list, Topo Designs went with more of a style angle on its Insulated Shirt Jacket. It closes with snap buttons and has snap cuffs and a collar that lies flat and away from the chin, like a button-up shirt. It even has two chest pockets and a material that’s more like twill than the ripstop polyester the other jackets on this list are made of.
But here’s where it gets interesting, and versatile: turn the Insulated Shirt Jacket inside out, and you’ll find that familiar DWR-coated, micro-ripstop fabric, plus a Napoleon pocket with a zipper. Between the two layers is 60 grams of PrimaLoft Black Eco synthetic insulation — enough to keep you warm in weird shoulder season temperatures and cooler days when you want some stealthy extra heat.
- Weight: Not specified
- Fill Material: PrimaLoft Black Eco
- Shell Material: 68% cotton, 32% nylon
- Waterproofing: DWR finish
Arc’teryx Therme Insulated Jacket
Arc’teryx never makes anything without intention, and the Therme is no exception. The jacket is equally waterproof and warm, making it perfectly suited to both urban environments and other climes with variable precipitation.
The soft, 2L Gore-Tex outer shell protect you from rain, snow and wind, while Coreloft Insulation provides lightweight warmth, augmented by an insulated hood and gaskets in the hood and cuffs to seal out the cold. The jacket also features laser cut vents at the underarms to keep you from getting too warm, plus an internal zippered chest pocket and hand pockets.
- Weight: 12.3 ounces
- Fill Material: Air permeable Coreloft Compact 120 insulation with 45% recycled polyester content
- Shell Material: 2L GORE-TEX – bluesign Approved Material
- Waterproofing: 2L Gore-Tex
Outdoor Research SuperStrand LT Insulated Hoodie
There have been multiple advancements in insulation construction in the last decade, but none as useful as the increased packability and compressibility of synthetic fibers. The SuperStrand LT Insulated Hoodie is as as super as the name suggests: it can pack down into the size of your palm when you’re not wearing it, making it an easy add to any packing list. The discontinuous quilting pattern helps to reduce stitching and increase warmth, and the synthetic insulation, paired with ultra-durable ripstop nylon shell fabric, help to increase its functionality in stormy and wet weather. If warmth-to-weight and packability are the biggest factors in your purchasing decisions, place this hoodie at the top of your list.
- Weight: 10.9 ounces
- Fill Material: VerticalX SuperStrand polyester
- Shell Material: 12-denier ripstop nylon
- Waterproofing: None