I once wrote an article a long time ago about the ultralight wind jacket and how I felt it was the single most important piece of gear for any backpacking regardless of your weight preferences. (Whether you enjoy ultralight or prefer being heavy and miserable.. ) I would like to propose that the second piece of essential gear for any backpacker would be an ultralight down jacket (synthetic works as well but usually heavier for the same warmth). For the last 3 years I have been using a lightweight down jacket that weighs at around 180grams for the XL size. (Haglöfs L.I.M essens down). I find this jacket much like the wind jacket allows me to leave a few extra layers at home. And the down jacket combined with a wind jacket is hard to beat in weight to warmth ratio.
When I talk about ul down jacket I mean any down jacket under 200grams for a large size.
My typical three season layer scheme looks something like this:
Wool or bamboo fiber Shirt 150grams – main layer always on
Windjacket with hood 80grams – Always with me and depending on weather usually always on (in the nordic regions of the world)
Down jacket 188grams – I usually put my down jacket on the minute I stop for the day. It’s very rare that I actually need this while hiking.
Total weight: 418grams or about 1 lbs.
That’s it. That’s my entire upper layering system for most three season hikes. If it’s raining I put my rain jacket on (so fourth layer). And depending on how long I am gone I usually don’t bother with a an extra shirt to sleep in, unless I will be hiking in wet and cold regions. Also, as you can see, I don’t bother with sweaters or thicker shirts or anything else that usually becomes redundant and heavy when you have a light down or synthetic jacket. Most sweaters, wool or otherwise, are going to be heavier than a down jacket and won’t be anywhere near as warm.
This setup will easily keep me warm to down around 30 degrees farenheit. So even on cold nights when the temperature will drop to 20 degrees, I can keep warm and snug at night in my three season gear (quilt, sleeping pad and down jacket).
As with any high quality UL product, lighter usually means more expensive, but there are always exceptions to this rule. However no-matter what, your never going to get into silly money prices that you could end up paying for when purchasing main stream products that weigh much more. If you inclined to do so, there are a few MYOG patterns and kits for synthetic and even down UL jackets. When my current jacket breaks down I will probably replace it with a synthetic jacket. Main reason being that I use this same setup even in the winter with the inclusion of a thick down puffy, which creates more moisture, and that breaks down my inner down. So, a synthetic would fix this problem.
Ultralight Down and Synthetic jackets:
Haglöfs L.I.M Essens down
Western Mountaineering Flash jacket
Yeti streto ultralight down
Crux turbo top
Mountain Hardware ghost whisperer
Mountain hardware Micro Thermostatic (synthetic)
OMM Rotor smock (synthetic)
These are just a few of the ul jackets currently available as of this writing.
If your interested in sewing your own:
The kinsman insulated pullover is the best design I’ve found
This system is similar to my own, but the problem with relying on down insulation in the rare case you do need the rain jacket and continue hiking is that the down will quickly wet out with sweat if you aren’t very careful. Admittedly it is a fairly rare case, because if it is raining it not that cold…but if it is snowing you can encounter problems with this set-up. It’s only happened to me once or twice so far, but when it did, it was a bad situation, because it was hard to get the down jacket dried out and ever time I stopped hiking I got very cold.
OR, perhaps you are using one of the newest rain jackets, such as one made of Dermizax or eVent? If so, I’d like to hear your take on that. But let me warn you that down insulation with a Goretex shell can be a nightmare in some situations…
Very true, I write about that a few times in the article. Synthetic is certainly prefered for wet climates and even in the winter. Most the time I never need to hike with my down jacket on as the combination of rain jacket and wind jacket keep me very warm – sometimes too warm. The only time I really need the down jack is when I stop for the evening. (three season hiking). In the winter I rarely need to hike with my down jacket on as well, but it has happened and in those conditions unless it’s snowing I don’t bother with an outer shell. But your absolutely correct, for winter synthetic is prefered.
Just a question because I am from a warm and humid country from Latin America and just moved to Europe.
– Do you wear the down jacket on top of your wind jacket ?
Hope you can answer.
I do from time to time wear the puffy on the outside of my wind shirt.. especially in camp when I want a little more warmth.