A little knowledge will lead you to the right down parka

Arc’Teryx Nuri

You come into the store looking for warmth. You’ve been told that down is the way to go. It’s got great insulation value, it’s lightweight, it’s been a commercial mainstay for keeping us warm since the days of 10 cent gasoline.

Should be a simple decision, right? 

Well, maybe not “simple.” But armed with a little knowledge, you can be sure to come away with the down jacket right for your needs.

“When someone comes in looking for a down parka,” says Johanna Breed in our Chapel Hill shop, “I ask a number of qualifying questions.” Actually, she doesn’t start with questions, she starts with an explanation of down fill numbers.

“People come in under the assumption that the higher the down fill number, the warmer the coat,” says Johanna. “That’s not necessarily so.

“What the down fill number refers to is the quality of the down, that is, how many cubic inches of loft one ounce of the down once of down produces. A higher rating means it takes less down to capture the same amount of body heat. Down with a lower fill number, for instance, means it will take more to retain the heat your body generates [which is how down keeps you warm]. That’s because it often includes more than just the feather — the crunchy stuff, like the shaft, or barbs, which don’t contribute to insulation.”

Which leads to the second number you should look for, the one ending with a “g” — for grams — to indicate the weight of the down in the jacket.

Now, on to Johanna’s Qualifying Questions.

Question No. 1: How important is compressibility?

The NorthFace Metropolis

“My first question,” says Johanna, is, ‘Is it important that you be able to compress this jacket down into a small space?’ And often, that means do they plan to travel a lot with it. If they are, then the higher down fill number is important, because that means less down is required to fill the same space, and thus, the garment will be lighter and can pack into a smaller bundle. (But don’t store it that way. To work, down needs to have air between the fluff to make its insulation properties most effective.)

So if you travel and you’re looking for a parka (basically a down jacket that hangs mid-thigh or lower), a good bet is the Arc’Teryx Nuri parka. It comes with 750 fill European grey goose down, weighs just 415g (14.6 ounces) and compresses down to the size of a football (and could double as a comfy pillow on a long flight). It also has a hood and a water-repellant Teprine™ shell. It retails for $399. Learn more and reserve yours here.

Q2: How active will you be?

“Will you be wearing it and walking a long distance?” Again, weight is important here. If you plan to do considerable sightseeing, a coat that weights 14.6 ounces is certainly more desirable than one that weighs twice that. It’s also another reason to buy down, says Johanna. “Down breathes much better than a synthetic fill. You won’t overheat.”

If you don’t plan to cover great distances in your coat, and packing it down for travel isn’t a high priority — if you just want to stay warm watching a football game, for instance, then you can afford a lower fill number. 

The NorthFace Metropolis Parka III has a fill rating of 550 and weighs 780g (27.5 ounces). It has a detachable hood, is lined (good for stopping the wind on a blustery day), has a pair of outside, zippered hand pockets and an inside zippered chest pocket. “At $289,” says Johanna, “that’s a great price for a parka.” Learn more and reserve yours here.

Q3: Will it get wet?

Patagonia Tres 3

“How wet is it where you’ll be wearing the coat?” This is important because down does not perform well when wet. Thus, you’ll want a protective outer shell that repels rain.

One option Johanna is particularly keen on is the Patagonia Tres 3-in-1 Parka. This one covers all the bases. On a dry, cold day you’ll be good with just the zip-out, above-the-knee-length jacket. It’s 700 duck-and-goose-down fill, made from reclaimed down products, should do the trick on a dry, cold day. But if rain’s in the forecast, you’ll want to zip your insulation into the smart waterproof shell with removable snap-on hood. Both the shell and the down jacket have pockets. Wet and not-so-cold out? You can just wear the shell, which has a hip, trench coat feel. $599 (but you have three coat options). Learn more and reserve yours here.

Q4: Will it be windy?

Stio Hometown Down Parka

“Will it be windy where you are?” If so, advises Johanna, be sure to get a coat with a liner, which will keep out a cold wind that manages to penetrate the seams.

One strong candidate: the Stio Hometown Down Parka. It’s got 800 fill goose down, is mid-thigh length (with a two-direction zipper, especially helpful if you break out in a sprint and need more leg freedom), and a lightweight lining. 

“It’s also got HyperDry™ treated down, so it performs better in wet conditions,” Johanna adds. $349. Learn more here.

Answer the right questions and, says Johanna, you should wind up with a coat that will make you welcome the coming cold.

“You want to be able to embrace the cold,” says Johanna. “Not dread it.”