If you want to get the most insulation bang (warmth) for your buck (grams) a down vest may be the answer. This article rounds up all the ultralight down vests on the market today. This article was last updated 28th January 2017.
Considering downgrading a nice warm jacket to a vest can be intimidating. It just doesn’t seem like a full solution the way a traditional jacket does. And indeed vests are often worn as genuine mid-layers, perhaps over a fleece or under an outer jacket.
But consider this: around a third of a down jacket’s insulation and weight (and packed bulk) is in the arms alone but the importance of warming your arms is disproportionately less than insulating your torso that contains all your important organs including the one that keeps warm blood pumping to your extremities. So is that extra third worth spending on down jacket arms? You can still spend the, say, 100g somewhere else after all, such as beefier gloves or warm socks for night-time comfort, and perhaps get even more benefit.
A vest may in fact have more flexibility than a jacket in mild temperatures and you may get more hours of use from a vest in, say, the 5c-15c range than a puffy jacket, both during the day, at camp and at night to supplement your sleep system.
For three-season backpacking there is no need to wear a down garment when hiking. The sweat will soon start to build up and the down loft will be compromised making it less effective when you stop and really do need to stay warm. The article focuses on vests using down rather than synthetic fill as the intention is to have the maximum warmth for the minimum weight and it is expected that the prospective buyer will keep the product protected from water, though several feature hydrophobic (water resistant) down to help with this vulnerability.
So this round up looks at down vests below 185g (6.5oz) for a men’s medium size and calculates the insulation (amount of down fill) to total weight ratio to let you know exactly how much of that weight is actually keeping you warm versus, say, being a zip. Why a 185g limit? Because after that the range opens up into the mass market with heavy fabrics, big zippers and low quality fill (thus needing more of it). There are hundreds of those products around. And also because after 200g you overlap with the light end of the jacket market (the Arcteryx Cerium LT in jacket form is only (a weighed) 235g with 100-110g of insulation so buying a 200g vest doesn’t stack up so well.
The table notes which products are available in a women’s specific version. Not many exist in the cottage industry where some of the best products are made but the somewhat simple and boxy cuts available may still work, at least functionally, depending on your figure. It’s always worth dropping an email to a cottage manufacturer to ask what they can do with your measurements, they do sometimes hide their lights under a bushel, or whatever the phrase is.
Talking of the cottage industry (a contradiction in terms): if you’re worried about ordering from a brand you haven’t heard of, all the companies listed here have been producing down vests for multiple years (this ongoing review article was first started in 2015) and can be trusted to deliver what they promise.
The Price column shows the Recommended Retail Price added to the cheapest available delivery to the mainland US when it would be necessary (i.e. you won’t find it in the shops). e.g. Luke’s Argon vest is $149 plus $5 delivery so I show it as $154. Obviously international delivery and expedited delivery (if available) will cost more while ordering more items at the same time may reduce the cost per item.
Pockets are zipped unless otherwise stated.
Denier (Outer / Inner)
Down Rating (US)
Total Weight (g)
|Arcteryx Cerium LT||Yes||Full||Yes||20 / 10||850||61*||165||37%||235|
|Arcteryx Cerium SL||Yes||Full||No||7 / 10||850||41*||115||36%||219|
|Borah Gear||No||Half||No||10 / 10||850||47||77||61%||106|
|Luke's Ultralite Robic7||No||Either||Option||7 / 10||900||62||119||52%||169|
|Luke's Ultralite Argon||No||Either||No||10 / 10||900||56||119||47%||154|
|Montbell Superior Down||Yes||Full||Yes||10 / ?||800||45||156||29%||109|
|Montbell UL||Yes||Full||Yes||15 / ?||800||40||145||31%||119|
|Montbell Plasma 1000||Yes||Full||No||7 / ?||1000||31||89||35%||199|
|Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer||Yes||Full||Yes||10 / 10||800||48||142||41%||245|
|Nunatak Skaha||No||Half||No||10 / 10||800||76||159||48%||240|
|Patagonia Ultralight||Yes||Full||Yes||10 / 10||800||Unknown||161||?||249|
|PhD Wafer||No||Full||Yes||10 / 10||1000+||45||130||35%||267|
|PhD Ultra||No||Half||Yes (1)||15 / 10||1000+||65||150||43%||279|
|Western Mountaineering Flash||Yes||Full||No||? / ?||850||Unknown||146||?||215|
|Yeti Cavoc||Yes||Full||Yes||7 / 7||900||34||115||30%||322|
|Cumulus MiniLite GL||Yes||Full||Yes||10 / 10||850||53||140||38%||134*|
* = estimated
Arcteryx Cerium LT Vest: This boasts 100gsm synthetic fill around the shoulder area and 40gsm around the collar in addition to the down fill. Arcteryx confirmed there is 51g of down fill in a Men’s Medium and then estimated the effect of the synthetic insulation on top as being the equivalent of 10g of down. The production quality is first class and the cut is slim and efficient.
Arcteryx Cerium SL Vest: This boasts 100gsm synthetic fill around the shoulder area and 40gsm around the collar in addition to the down fill. Arcteryx confirmed there is 33g of down in the Large SL (versus 56 in the Large LT) so I have estimated 31g to be in the Medium and then estimated the effect of the synthetic insulation on top as being the equivalent of 10g of down. The cut is apparently even more slim than the LT.
Black Rock Gear Down Vest: Black Rock Gear are not making their vest currently. Definitely worth checking back for as it will likely be a leading contender when it re-appears.
Borah Gear Down Vest: Uses water resistant down. No raised collar, instead it has a flat round-neck. This makes it better for use an actual mid-layer and more comfortable at night when sleeping but could potentially leave you with a cold neck. If desired they can supplement the standard 1.7oz of fill for extra warmth (just $5 per half ounce extra) and make any other reasonable changes for a nominal charge to get just the vest you want. The weight listed is a real measured weight from an actual Small vest + 0.5oz (actually 11g) of extra down that I purchased with my own money.
Cumulus is a Polish company and shipping will vary widely so the price listed is for the item only. Examples include £5 to the UK and $45 to the US.
Feathered Friends offered both a male and female lightweight vest in 2015 but stopped producing them in 2016. Could be worth checking back if you are looking to make a purchase.
Luke’s Ultralite Argon: Uses water resistant down. Either half-zip (extra cost) or full-zip can be specified. Single interior ‘drop’ pocket can be specified for $25 and a little extra weight. This pocket is just for storage, not handwarming. They also sell a more weather resistant (presumably it is a little warmer but less breathable) version, the WPB Pertex Down Vest with the same design for 136g (17g more) and $169. Again, they are very flexible with regard to customization requests.
Montbell also offer a down Tee with 45g of 800-fill down, but a total weight of 184g (a ratio of 24.5%) means it is not a good warmth/weight offering.
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer: Uses water resistant down. It’s outer shell is actually a “7×10″ denier fabric meaning a combination of 7d and 10d threads.
Nunatak: Single interior ‘drop’ or ‘kangaroo’ pocket, a hood and extra down fill can be specified for an extra charge and some extra weight.
Patagonia: Unknown fill weight makes this vest difficult to judge and compare.
PhD products: A UK company, they may not practically be available in the US as they quote $150 for delivery a 130g vest which seems a bit odd to the point of being a mistake. Worth checking with them. Europe is quoted at £19.
PhD K Series Wafer Down Vest: The use of 1000 fill power (European rating) means that the actual amount of fill can be misleading – you need less of it to achieve the same warmth level of a vest with lower-rated fill down. In addition PhD do not ever publish the amount of down used in their products. I discussed the two products listed here with them in detail and am confident my listed weight are within 10% of the actual amount.
PhD K Series Ultra Down Vest: Recently changed to a water resistant and wind-proof outershell called, “Ultrashell”. Before, when it was a 10d outer I estimated the fill weight as 70-75g. Since the total weight hasn’t changed but it now has a heavier outer I have revised the estimated fill weight down to 60-65g though the warmth level will be comparable to 5-10g more of 800 down.
Western Mountaineering Flash Vest: Unknown fabric and fill weight so difficult to judge and compare. It features a unique V-neck design with no collar so is more suited to wearing under another layer or in warmer wind-less conditions. Available in the UK from ULOG.
Yeti Cavoc (Argon for women): A German manufacturer, available from ULOG in the UK. With only 34g of fill this is a very lightly-insulating garment suitable only for mild conditions for most people. They also offer a heavier product for both men and women but the hardwear (zips, etc) are obviously heavier, the down is lower quality and the fill weight is not given so they were not included in this review.
Best Ultralight Vest
Borah Gear Down Vest. Along with close-running Luke’s Argon vest, this is a true ultralighter’s garment. No pockets by default, half-zip, 10d fabric, market-leading fill weight to total weight ratio, high quality 850 down, a decent amount of fill and a price so good it makes you wonder what some of the other companies do with all that extra cash they take from you. Personally I asked to add a half-ounce of extra down ($5 extra) but you can do that kind of thing with Borah Gear. Weighed even less than advertised due to a smaller cord-lock at the waist so totalled 88g for a Small with 11g extra down fill, for a total of 58g or 61%.
If you find the lack of collar on the Borah a problem then definitely feel comfortable looking at Luke’s Ultralight Argon Down Vest, a very similar proposition to Borah Gear’s but with thinner baffles and a collar.
Best Vest from a Mainstream Manufacturer
Maybe you just feel more comfortable buying from a world-famous brand. Perhaps you prefer to try it on in the shop first and know exactly where to return it. Maybe black isn’t your favourite colour. Whatever the reason, you’re willing to sacrifice a few grams and dollars to go mainstream.
Arcteryx Cerium LT Vest. It is a few grams heavier than the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer but it provides more warmth as it has more, and better quality, down plus extra synthetic fill in the most vulnerable areas so it will be more consistent and reliable. Plus you get the legendary Arcteryx construction quality and flattering fit and avoid the shiny black bin bag look of the very lightest products. Having used the jacket version for 16 months now in all sort of conditions I can personally vouch for it’s lineage at least.