Stio’s Hometown Down Hoody had the hardest time fitting into the group dynamic, as its 650-fill down and overall feature set met trouble keeping pace with the capabilities of others in the lineup, namely the Eddie Bauer, which seemed to include just about anything that can be sewn and welded into a piece of winter insulation. The Eddie Bauer was the second heaviest of the lot, but also the most likely to be found on a North Atlantic salmon fishing boat, given its shell-like exterior and element-hating characteristics. It scored high.
The test discovered some surprises, such as the Montbell, which packs serious warmth in a relatively streamlined jacket weighing under a pound. A medium sample had some fit issues on our testers who bordered in between medium and large, a not too uncommon problem for manufacturers and people needing to stay warm. The Big Agnes Fire Tower Belay defines “puffy” and comfort. This is the jacket your dog finds a way to sleep on when you take it off because it’s so cozy. Big Agnes integrated sleeping bag baffling technology into this jacket and that is exactly what you feel like you’re wearing.
Marmot provided a true a winter sports jacket that combined elements of a softshell with a puffy core of 3M’s Featherless synthetic. Like the Eddie Bauer, the Marmot is feature-rich, heavy, and wind-beating. But there are always compromises to be made.
The big difference maker for those in our latest round of testing is the extent of moisture protection. These are big coats that can be hard to wear under a hardshell. Conditions, then, apply greatly to one’s decision to buy a product in this category. And, testers need to decide how critical that kind of versatility is to a jacket’s performance. Water repellent down, after all, is not water-proof down.
The jackets run the gamut of fabrics and insulations, a few combining multiples to ensure improved weather resistance or exterior toughness. Even as synthetics reach near-down levels, they can’t pack as well as when sewn into bigger, more feature-rich coats. Big Agnes used its water-repellent DownTek at 700-fill power to puff-up its test entry, and the result was a sleeping-bag like experience while upright and active. The exterior proved its mettle, but didn’t manage to fight the wet like Eddie Bauer’s Weatheredge 30-denier with a 20k/30k breathable laminate. In essence, it’s a down jacket wrapped in rain shell, that’s also soft and bolstered by a DWR finish.
Montbell claims the down it chooses, “EX Down,” is of higher quality than most of the market due its selection of fowl from areas with extreme temperature swings. This is a tough claim for us to adequately follow-up on, but generally speaking, the jacket managed to fight off hours of “standing around” in the cold with minimal midlayers, and packed smaller than the others tested. Thus, our test didn’t reveal strong rationale to debunk the company’s promotional material. Marmot’s Featherless insulation, a 3M Thinsulate product, is plenty warm, but doesn’t standout among the category.
How well do these jackets fight off the elements? Can they stop rain, long enough at least, to add a layer that can? And if they happen to get soaked, how well does the down hold up? Testers aimed to answer these questions as well as they could given conditions, and most found that collectively, these jackets are solid weather deterrents, however, some are better than others, such as the Eddie Bauer and the Marmot.
Scores in this category come down to more than just clever fabrics. Features play a role, too. For example, a hem drawcord can prevent cold air and snow from entering along the waistline, and an adjustable hood can keep a firm, comfortable seal around a person’s head. However, when it comes to stopping wind, it is mainly about the fabrics and construction. If down moves around within the baffles, cold spots open up. The Marmot’s soft-shell exterior did well here, scoring well above average, as did the Eddie Bauer. As warm as the Big Agnes is, it just squeaked above average because its shell tended to wet-out quickly and was susceptible to wind.
This rating isn’t all that complicated: how warm can this jacket keep you? The only nuance to scoring here is evaluating how well that warmth can be controlled. Once toasty, what mechanisms are in place (fabrics and features) to allow the jacket to breathe a little? For example, the Fire Tower Belay Jacket is plenty insulating, so it’s helpful to have that two-way zipper to release the hot air building up in the core. The Eddie Bauer, Big Agnes, and Montbell managed to each tie. The Eddie Bauer has core zips from elbow to rib cage to help it breathe, but those features are negated by the fact that the other two proved slightly warmer to testers when subjected to static, straight-up cold.
It would be tough for a puffer jacket to be considered “uncomfortable.” However, the test entries that aim to be more technical, employing a number of adjustment points and maybe too many internal pockets, could end up leaving a buyer constantly aware of what they’re wearing, as opposed to the product functioning in unison with them.
Fit is about how a coat hangs on the body and how it works with other layers. Most of our jackets tested in this round, outside of the Montbell, weren’t terrific when paired with an exterior hardshell. In essence, they were too big. Yet, in terms of something that fundamentally feels good to put on, there was no beating the Big Agnes Fire Tower Belay jacket. Our tester mentioned he’d like a pair of down pants with the same materials to match it.
Manufacturers have many choices to make in this department. How important is it to the consumer to have a streamlined, “put on and go” puffer jacket? And, do more features put upward pressure on price? That seemed to be the case with the Eddie Bauer, which is $449. Yet, given its overall functionality, it would be hard to argue the features are superfluous.
Brands are doing all they can to make jackets “urban-functional” to attract the new wave of occasional campers and Instagram-only outdoorists. That might soon lead to reduced technical features, such as helmet-compatible hoods or wide, mitten-friendly cuffs. Still, common features include elasticized cuffs, hem drawcords, draft-guards behind zippers, and internal drop pockets. The Marmot, being essentially an insulated ski shell, had the test’s only powder skirt and removable hood. Two-way zippers are a valuable feature, and pocket placement was more important to some testers than we would have expected.
Jackets were put through the paces in the late fall and winter of 2017-18 in the northern Sierras, primarily around the town of Truckee. A few managed to be on heavy travel schedules with nordic and downhill ski coaches to the East Coast and the Rocky Mountains, helping score for packability and durability. The winter was fairly mild, relatively speaking, and the best testing conditions didn’t take place until March ‘18, when several storms roared through.
Testers were asked to use the jackets in as authentic as possible conditions, but to also take time considering surface-level reasons to buy the product. Does it look good? Would you buy it after the test? Why did you buy the other jackets you own?
In the end the jackets were used during days on the lift, running around town, as insulation during après tailgates, and snowshoe dayhikes.
What is a Puffer Jacket?
This the category you think of when you hear “down jacket.” Coats in this vertical are going to be more expensive (in most cases) than their three-season lighter weight counterparts, and brands tend to have a smaller lineup of them. These jackets will be seen at high-elevation mountaineering camps in the spring, and in huts and winter ski shelters.
Casual terminology varies, but the category’s movement into the mainstream has evolved the lexicon from puffy to puffer. Expect hoods, high fill-power counts, and to be warm. If there’s one thing that hasn’t suffered with the category’s growth, it’s the ability of these jackets to keep a person very warm. Down production methods, sewing tactics, moisture management characteristics, and evolving exterior shell fabrics have combined to provide the market with highly technical and in many cases, life-saving pieces of apparel.
The coats in this category, once considered too heavy for general day trips, can now be shoved into a pack without much hassle. Yes, some are more packable than others; but when it comes to winter protection from the elements, it’s hard to argue the value of today’s puffer jacket.