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Down Jacket vs Parka

I need suggestions. I'm planning some serious winter travel and can't decide if I should get a parka or a down jacket. It's been years since I've had to buy something for true winter. I'm probably going to stick with products from Columbia Sportswear as they make larger sizes. And, I will be layering underneath.

So, parka or down jacket?

Posted by
4267 posts

So, there are (at least) two things that you might be considering: length and material. A parka can be filled with down, just as a jacket can.

If the question is one of length, and I'm not skiing (and therefore won't be wearing ski/snow pants) then I want the longer length of a parka for the additional warmth, as well as for the additional ability to cover longer layers underneath, such as a flannel shirt.

Posted by
2693 posts

Our son lives in CO so we dress for winter often. I find a down jacket and a stocking cap pulled over my ears keeps me warmer than a parka. The hood on the parka catches wind unless its really cinched down.

Posted by
103 posts

If there’s any chance you’re going to take your jacket or parka off when traveling, I’d go with a down jacket. I have a Patagonia 800 fill jacket (that packs down to nothing for travel) that I wear in the winter here in Minnesota even if it’s 30 below. A good hat, mittens and maybe long underwear under my jeans is all I need to stay warm. Have fun in your travels.

Posted by
5828 posts

A "parka" is in my mind, generally longer in length than a "jacket". I also visulaize a "parka" as having an integral hood while a "jacket" usually doesn't have a hood unless its a "hooded Jacket". Jackets usually end somewhere between waist high to slightly below waist high.

Both parkas and jackets can be insulated with the same materials. I.e. both can be down insulated and both can be insulated with synthetic fiber (e.g. Thinsilate) or both could be uninsulated.

The above said, a down thigh length parka is heavier and bulkier than a down waist length jacket.

And with insulated parkas/jackets, especially down insulated, you need a wind/waterproof shell to keep the down dry. Now if price isn't an issue, go with waterproof down insualted wear.

In either case, have moisture wicking base layers top and bottom, and add cap and gloves and wool socks with waterproof (e.g. Goretex lined) boots. Low cut boots are fine for city and urban areas that shovel pavements. Add microspikes (shoe chains) for more rural setting that are slow in clearing snow and ice off of the pavements.

Posted by
1071 posts

I will be going on the Munich, Salzburg & Vienna tour starting Dec. 5th and the average daily high will be in the mid 30’s so what I will do is I have a Patagonia Ultra lite down coat and a waterproof rain shell. I do fine with just the ultra lite jacket but if it’s raining or windy I put the shell on over the down jacket and I’m good down to 20 degrees.

( I will also have fleece gloves and a ski hat with me)

I am able to get everything in my backpack even with the extra winter items.

Posted by
4132 posts

Frank, it depends on the conditions you expect to encounter and also what you expect to be doing outdoors. If those conditions are "serious" you also want to worry about head and feet.

I recently returned from Boulder., CO. The day I checked out of my air B&B it was in the teens and snowing. I was fine with layers that included a simple jacket and a down vest, but I was just moving from place to place ( a stop at the Denver Art Museum too, they have lockers.) I didn't even have to use all of the layers I had packed.

You need to consider both weather conditions and your own activities when making this decision.

Posted by
14148 posts

Thanks for all the info. I have a medium weight shell that, with a sweater, keeps me warm down to about 40 degrees. Perhaps all I need is a down vest underneath?

I guess the best thing would be to go to a store and try them out.

Posted by
8202 posts

Frank II, you said ". . . serious winter travel . . . " . That says more to me than just a shell and some layers. If you're going to be outside a lot, I'd look into their (Columbia) heavier ski-wear, gore-tex, and attention to long underwear.

Posted by
5828 posts


Wear the down vest over the sweater and under your wind/rain shell jacket/parka provided the jacket/parka is roomy enough to not compress the down.

I have an old Patagonia R3 (heavy) fleece jacket and Patagonia 2.5 layer Goretex "hard shell". I pack a down vest but would only need it if in overnight survival mode. The fleeze/hard shelll combination works well below 0C.

Posted by
884 posts

Roomy parka that allows me to add layers underneath as needed. If it isn't as cold but I want rain or wind protection it works well. I also like that mine has inside pockets that I can use instead of a money belt. Did an entire fall Rhine cruise (was cold and/or rainy most of the trip) using a Lands End set that had a matching fleece jacket as an extra layer. Never bothered with a bag or backpack for day touring.

Posted by
6403 posts

Some very basic stuff here: To survive outside in nasty weather, you need two things: to stay warm, and to stay dry. These are actually two different needs, though they are related.

To stay warm, you need insulation - something that keeps body warmth in. That insulation can be provided by many different materials, including (but not only) "down". I suggest you stop focusing on "down" because that's misleading. Down is just bird feathers. There's nothing magical about goose down, or feathers from any other bird. Historically, bird down has been used for insulation for a few reasons, some of which are no longer really important. In fact, the feathers don't keep you warm at all. What keeps you warm is air. Yep, air. The reason feathers have historically been used is because they're "fluffy" - under optimal conditions, feathers provide a lot of "space" for air to stick to, and that air insulates you (a second reason they have been used historically was probably that there was not another great use for them - I mean you can only make so many pens - so it was probably a good use for stuff that might otherwise be tossed in the village landfill). But feathers are only good for insulation as long as they stay dry. Get goose down wet, the feathers clump together, there's no fluffy spaces for air, no insulation, and you die (if it's cold enough and you can't get inside).

The second thing you need is to stay dry - to keep water out. Your expensive, fluffy goose down parka that makes you look and feel like the Michelin Man (or Michelin Woman) when it's nice and dry out will leave you cold and feeling like a wet rat if it gets rained on. That's why if you are going out and there's much chance of wet weather, a down parka is a terrible choice. If you have a down parka with a waterproof shell, that can be OK - but then you have to deal with moisture from your body warmth.

In any case, there are better insulation materials than bird feathers. Polartec, or other brands of synthetic "fleece" can insulate almost as well as dry goose down, but maintains its fluffiness - and thus also maintains its insulating properties - even when wet. Wool does, too (to a degree) which is why folks who live way up north have traditionally used wool garments in the winter. These days, to really weather-proof yourself, you want a garment (call it a parka if you want) that has a waterproof but breathable shell, with enough insulation provided by layers of good quality fleece.

The shell material? Ideally it should be waterproof (not just water-resistant) but it should also be breathable. You don't want some rubber or synthetic material that completely blocks all moisture - because your body will generate some of that (sweat); if you keep that moisture in, you get wet. The trick is to keep the rain out, and at the same time let the sweat escape, too...and that is a tall order. It's most important when you're doing active things - skiing, hiking, climbing up frozen waterfalls in the rain, etc. For that, god gave us GoreTex, a miracle fabric that keeps rain out but allows sweat to escape. It's wonderful stuff (and expensive - but so worth it).

If you're going to be out in serious weather, doing serious things, ideally you want GoreTex from head to toe, with good fleece for insulation, and layers. If all you're going to be doing is walking from your hotel to the bus, you can get away with an umbrella and yoga pants. For most casual travelers, something in between works.

My last trip this past July, we brought serious GoreTex jackets and pants, waterproof (GoreTex) hiking boots and wool socks. We didn't need that every day, but there were several days hiking in the Faroe Islands where that stuff may have saved my life. I was very glad to have brought it along. YMMV.

Hope that helps. I know, TLDR. Sorry.

Posted by
5828 posts

The second thing you need is to stay dry - to keep water out.

Staying dry is not just keeping water out. Staying dry also requires letting water (perspiration) out.

Staying dry is to minimizing perspiration by not over dressing. Staying is a base layer with material and structure that will wick perspiration away from the skin. Staying dry is to have an outer shell that while protecting against rain and wind, allow moisture vapor to vent. In addition to a porus membrane such as GoreTex, good shells have strategically placed vents.

You have three key considerations in choosing a base layer:

Material matters: Fabric is your most important decision. Whether you
go with a synthetic or a natural one, you need it to wick well (move
sweat off your skin).

Weighty decisions: It’s pretty much “lightweight,” “midweight” or
“heavyweight,” with thicker fabrics laying down a little extra warmth.

Fit factors: A wicking fabric has to be in direct contact with your
skin to do its job, so you want a snug fit.

Breathability in waterproof/breathable rainwear is the game changer.
No one wants to play outside in a wearable sauna. The key to avoiding
that fate is “moisture vapor transfer,” which, scientific purists will
tell you, is what we’re really talking about when we say

Because even the most breathable rainwear can get overwhelmed during
strenuous activity, almost all backcountry rainwear has pit zips
(underarm vents). Some jackets go a step further, having mesh liners
in torso pockets that can double as additional vents.

Posted by
77 posts

FWIW, I have a down coat from Eddie Bauer and a synthetic insulation parka from Columbia. The Columbia is warmer, IMO, and less fussy when it comes to laundering.

I also have one of their jackets with the Omni-Heat lining that is very lightweight, thin, and quite warm.....too warm over 45°F temps.

Posted by
5828 posts

Omni-Heat lining
Columbia proprietary lining:

...breathable warming technology helps regulate your temperature with
little silver dots that reflect and retain the warmth your body

I'm not sure how effective it is but it adds virtually no weight or bulk.

Posted by
3972 posts

Growing up, a parka like a down ski parka is short so for me, down jacket and down parka are synonymous. Juxtapose that with my down coat which is long and goes to my ankles; I'm 5'8".

Posted by
18941 posts

I agree with Continental, I've bought a few "down parkas" in my time (I was on ski patrol for several decades) and none of them ever had hoods. And, they were also waist length (try skiing in a long coat), so you need to better define what you want and why. Or are you asking about a down jacket vs a non-down parka?

Posted by
279 posts

These days I would forego down for quality fleece. Unlike down, fleece will still provide insulation when wet.

Posted by
14148 posts

My plan is to do some winter sightseeing in very cold areas--Iceland, Norway, Greenland, etc. Mostly just in town wandering but also going out for extended periods in the evening.

I'm leaning towards a longer coat than just waist length. I already have a wool hat, gloves and a scarf.

I think it's time to hit a few stores to try some on. I'm in Manchester (UK) through the end of the year so they must have stores here that have a decent collection. I will buy it, however, when I return to the U.S.

Posted by
16583 posts

When I was in Moscow one winter it got to -10F. I appreciated the down parka. Haven't worn it since; not even for the worst Budapest winter trip. I've got a down filled jacket that is almost too warm most of the time. Best of all I can put it in one of those roll up vacuum bags and it packs down to almost nothing.

Posted by
1194 posts

I have always gone with the Primaloft puff and waterproof rain coat combo. This has served me well from 45 deg F to -20 deg F.

The layers under these two bits of clothing are what makes it matter.

Also - I bring a pair of waterproof rain pants if I know I’ll be doing outdoors activities. They provide protection from rain and wind. I have a set of Versalite rain pants from Montbell that weigh ounces and are smaller than a soda can.

Another big consideration is footwear. True winter requires good boots. Hiking boots work if they are loose enough for 2 pairs of socks. And the waterproof rain pants over them will keep the snow from coming into the tops of the boots. You could bring gaiters too.

Posted by
1194 posts

Frank- wind is a big issue in Greenland and Iceland. You want some sort of wind/rain protection under those conditions. Many people don’t realize you can get hurricane force winds in the winter. Wind chill goes up dramatically under these conditions. You may even want a light balaclava and glasses to protect your face from exposure.

Also, sweating in your gear is a big no-no. Once you’re damp it’s game over. Make sure things are breathable.

Posted by
4 posts

I agree with posters that staying both warm and dry is necessary in winter conditions. I've been a year round bicycle commuter in Seattle for years and here are my recommendations:

  • Never wear cotton. If you sweat in it you'll be wet all day. I like Colombia Silver Ridge Pants and their travel shirts because they're synthetic, absorb all kinds of abuse without ripping or staining, and dry overnight when you wash them in the sink.
  • If it's going to be cold I bring a down sweater with a hood AND a goretex rain shell. Down packs a lot smaller than synthetic fleece and it's a little lighter. Just don't get it wet. You can wear a goretex shell with underarm zips in all kind of conditions, even when it's warmer and raining, and since it breathes you never get TOO sweaty. The combination of these two gives you maximum flexibility and warmth.
  • And finally, if you'll be traveling in extremely cold or wet or windy conditions consider goretex pants. They'll keep you warm, and when it's really raining hard or rain and wind they'll keep you happy. Just make sure you have enough room and weight allowance available. Goretex socks are also great when it's really cold or wet too.
Posted by
1 posts

I think a down jacket is better. I never wore parks. I can say Columbia Alpine Action Insulated Jacket
I bought last year. Great jacket. It is very light and yet light. Absolutely does not constrain movement. It also protects against wind and moisture. The price of this jacket is about 120-130 dollars (although I bought at a discount of 30 percent through the service) I am pleased with my choice, therefore I recommend this jacket. Good luck, I hope my reply helps you)