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  • Ultralight shopping-- Down Jackets

    Written by Guthook at <a href="http://guthook.blogspot.com/" target="_blank">Guthook Hikes!</a><font size="3"></font><br>
    At the same time that I'm looking at winter sleeping bags, I've been keeping my eye out for insulated down jackets to fill out my winter insulation system. A good down jacket is key to the cold weather of Northeast winters because it doubles as primary insulation while in camp or at breaks, and as added insulation inside a thick sleeping bag. Currently, I only have a very heavyweight down jacket that is plenty warm but not light at all, and a lightweight down jacket that is pleasantly light but not warm enough for what I'd like. Neither of them have hoods, which I would like for added warmth.
    For the past few months I've been keeping an interested eye on my options for very warm, very lightweight down jackets with hoods. And while I still haven't come to a definite conclusion on winter sleeping bags, I'm even further behind on the down jackets because of the massive variability I've found. It seems each company has between four and ten models of down jackets to choose from, and the pertinent information on them is even harder to find than it is with sleeping bags.

    Sleeping bags have temperature ratings to give you a general idea of their usefulness (even if the ratings are never exactly accurate) but jackets only have wild descriptions like "super warm and extremely light!" that mean exactly nothing. What to do?

    I'm starting out by eliminating most of the competition– for now I'll only choose jackets with hoods, at least 800-fill power down, and the possibility of being on sale or discount at my local retailer. After that, I sorted out the jackets by total weight and fill weight, like I did with the sleeping bags. The idea is that by looking at the total amount of down, I can get a general impression of how warm the jacket is compared to the others, and by comparing the total weight I can see how well it will pack.

    Here's what I've come up with so far: (numbers in parentheses are manufacturer claimed fill weight / total weight / down percent-- see below)

    Montbell UL Down Parka (2.5 / 9.5 / 26%)
    Western Mountaineering Hooded Flash (3 / 9 / 33%)
    Montbell Alpine Light Parka (4.3 / 15 / 29%)
    Marmot Ama Dablam (4.4 / 19 / 23%)
    Rab Microlite Alpine (5 / 14 / 36%)
    Golite Bitterroot (5.3 / 13 / 41%)
    Golite Roan Plateau (5.8 / 19 / 31%)
    Western Mountaineering Meltdown (6.5 / 17 / 38%)
    Rab Neutrino Endurance (8 / 22 / 36%)
    Rab Infinity (7 / 16 / 44%)

    And that's only scratching the surface of the pile of jackets I've found in my search. As you can see, the amount of down ranges widely, as does the total weight. The only steady rule I see so far is that as the amount of down increases, the price skyrockets, so basically you'll pay for extra warmth.

    Not counting the prices, here are a few things I've noticed.

    First, I can loosely group the jackets into three categories, based on the amount of down fill. There are the thinnest jackets (UL Down Parka and Hooded Flash) that are wonderfully light but seem to be meant more for cool weather and layering. There are the medium thickness jackets (Alpine Light Parka through Golite Bitterroot in the list above) that seem to be all-purpose jackets for colder weather. And there are the beefiest jackets (Roan Plateau through Infinity Endurance) that are packed with down and seem like they would be just fine if you planned to visit Santa's workshop. For deep winter use, I would probably want the really thick jackets, but if I wanted to combine layers and go with jackets that are more versatile, I'd probably want to take from the middle group.

    The second trend I saw was the variability within each group of the ratio of fill weight to total weight. Why look at that ratio? The part of the jacket that does the insulating is the down. The shell material is just there to hold the down in place (and to look cool, of course). Forget about how water repellent it is, or how windproof. Used correctly, you're not going to rely on the jacket's shell material for repelling water. That's what a rain jacket is for. So the ratio of down to shell material is important because you want as much down in the jacket as you can get while keeping the carried weight to a minimum.

    With that in mind, take a look at the percentages listed with the jackets up above. Most of the jackets fall around one third of the total weight being down, but there are three big standouts– the Bitterroot (41%), the Meltdown (38%), and the Infinity (44%). Go figure, those are the three most expensive, but like I said: you pay for the large amount of down and high-tech materials.

    I'm certainly not set on which one I'm going to try for, although if I see any of those three with the highest percentage of down weight on sale for cheap, I would probably jump at that. Chances are I won't go the route of putting two jackets together, since neither of my current down jackets is ideal for layering as I'd like, and buying two new light down jackets is probably going to be more expensive than one puffier one.

    As for other features on the jacket, fit is the most important. After that, the extra drawcords, fancy zippers, water repellent fabrics, and more pockets just mean more weight. All I want is a warm, light, and effective jacket.