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The best gilets: for keeping your core warm while walking in the colder months

Best gilets
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The best gilets are not just for walking, they’re for time travelling. Er… what? Well, for walkers of a certain generation, it was Marty McFly in Back to the Future rather than any climber or mountaineer, who brought the gilet – aka, body warmer or walking vest – to prominence. Time-traveling in a DeLorean while dressed in a body warmer may not have turned 1950s America onto the benefits of this essential piece of outdoor kit, but these days, gilets and walking vests are as common on hilltops as high streets.

By insulating the torso, the best gilets keep the body warm while leaving your arms free and unencumbered for walking with trekking poles, pitching a tent, brewing a coffee on a stove or even chopping wood, if you’ve really ventured into the outback.

This selection of the best hiking vests and and gilets for walkers assembles a variety of down, feather and synthetic insulation to keep your core warm while your arms can get on with the task at hand. They can all be worn as outerlayers, or slide under a waterproof jacket to provide full weather protection in the depths of winter (for more, see: hiking layers). 

The best hiking vests, gilets and body warmers with synthetic insulation

Best gilets: Patagonia Nano Puff Vest

(Image credit: Patagonia)

Patagonia Nano Puff Vest

The exceptional eco credentials of this gilet are matched by its performance

RRP: $149 (US) / £130 (UK) | Insulation: 60g PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco 100% (synthetic fill) | Gender availability: Men’s / Women’s | Sizes: XS / S / M / L / XL / XXL | Colors: Metric Orange / Black / Forge Grey / Classic Navy / Kelp Forest

Eco-friendly materials
Stuffs into its own sack
Lightweight and warm
Lots of sizes
Pricey

Enjoy the physical warmth of this light hiking vest alongside the mental “warmth” of knowing that the Nano Puff vest is a product that Patagonia has done everything possible to minimize its environmental impact. The Nano Puff’s shell and lining are both made from recycled polyester that was itself manufactured in a process designed to reduce emissions and shrink its carbon footprint. Even the production process is Fair Trade certified, so you know it hasn’t been sewn in a sweatshop by child or exploited labor (see also: the best eco-friendly outdoor brands).

Keeping you warm on your walks or around camp is 60g PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco 100% – admittedly not the catchiest of names, but an insulation that is both warm and highly compressible. The Nano Puff stuffs into its own chest pocket for easy stowing in your pack. A drawstring hem helps to trap more heat on days when there’s extra chill in the air.

Best gilets: Arc’teryx Atom LT Vest

(Image credit: Arc’teryx)

Arc’teryx Atom LT Vest

A slim-fitting gilet that offers first class insulation for walking or even mountain running

RRP: $175 (US) / £160 (UK) | Insulation: Coreloft Compact (synthetic fill) | Gender availability: Men’s / Women’s | Sizes: XS / S / M / L / XL / XXL / XXXL | Colors: Black / Komorebi / Kingfisher

Stays warm when wet
Stows in own pocket
Zipped hand pockets
Not as warm as heavier down vests
Expensive

One of the key benefits of the Coreloft Compact synthetic insulation used to fill the Atom LT becomes evident the moment this vest gets wet. Coreloft retains its heat-keeping quality even when damp, and dries quickly too, which makes it a more practical high mountain, lousy weather companion than untreated down feathers that lose all their loft and insulating properties the instant they get wet. This synthetic insulation is also particularly forgiving of the daily stuffing/unpacking process that afflicts a gilet in the field.

The Atom LT is sufficiently breathable that Arc’teryx suggests this vest might be worn for mountain running, and its slimmer profile slips easily under a waterproof shell to create a winter jacket. Two zipped hand pockets and stretch panels in the sides make the gilet even more practical when you’re walking or engaged in camp activities, and when the temperature rises the vest stuffs into its own pocket for easy carrying.

Best gilets: Columbia Powder Lite Vest

(Image credit: Columbia)

Columbia Powder Lite

Fabulous warmth and a great price make this vest a sure thing for your shortlist

RRP: $110 (US) / £75 (UK) | Insulation: Synthetic fill + Omni-Heat thermal-reflective lining | Gender availability: Men’s / Women’s | Sizes: XS / S / M / L / XL / XXL | Colors: Harvester / Collegiate Navy / Stone Green & Collegiate Navy / Red Jasper/ Shark

Super warm 
Water-resistant outer
Good pockets
Excellent value
Bulkier than some others

The combination of generous synthetic insulation and Columbia’s brilliant Omni-Heat thermal-reflective lining (we’ve admired this technology in other Columbia products, such as the Columbia Alpine Crux women’s down jacket and the Columbia Grand Trek down jacket) help to make the Columbia Powder Lite a super-warm gilet, with a zipped hem trapping as much heat as you want. The thick baffles make the Powder Lite look as if it’s down-filled, but it’s a practical, fast-drying synthetic filling that keeps you warm. Don’t expect this gilet to stuff into a pouch or pocket as small as some of its rivals, but it scores in other areas – the polyester outer is water resistant and there are two decent-sized zipped pockets either for your valuables or, more likely, your hands. It’s also likely that your wallet will appreciate the Powder Lite, too; shop smartly and there are savings to be had in the already competitive price of the Powder Lite.

Best gilets: Montane Icarus Vest

(Image credit: Montane)

Montane Icarus Vest

A mid-weight gilet focused primarily on mountain walking

RRP: $145 (US) / £110 (UK) | Insulation: Recycled PrimaLoft Thermoplume (synthetic fill) | Gender availability: Men’s only | Sizes: S / M / L / XL / XXL / XXXL | Colors: Astro Blue / Black

Micro baffles keep insulation in place
Recycled insulation
Water resistant
Adjustable hem
Only two colors (both dark)
No women’s version

The multiple ‘micro’ baffles of the Montane Icarus keep the insulation in place and exactly where you want it to stay warm on mountain walks. This mid-weight vest performs as a mid-layer below a shell jacket or as an outer layer, with its DWR finish (see: What is DWR?) keeping light rain at bay and an internal storm flap behind its YKK front zip to fend off wind chill. The close-fit collar and adjustable hem drawcord trap heat inside the vest/gilet, allowing the 100% recycled PrimaLoft Thermoplume insulation to perform its heat-retaining duties, and if it does get wet it dries rapidly.

Best gilets: The North Face ThermoBall Eco Gilet

(Image credit: The North Face)

The North Face ThermoBall Eco Gilet

The insulation that fills this vest mimics the performance of down, with the advantage that it continues to work when wet

RRP: $149 (US) / £135 (UK) | Insulation: ThermoBall (synthetic fill) | Gender availability: Men’s / Women’s | Sizes: S / M / L / XL / XXL | Colors: Meld Grey / Monterey Blue / Taupe Green & Four-Leaf Clover / TNF Black

Packs into its own pocket
Useful hand and inside chest pocket
Made from recycled materials
Insulates even when wet
Only black available in UK

The North Face ThermoBall Eco Gilet provides a double-defence on damp days, with its durable water-repellent finish keeping off the rain while its filling retains a high proportion of its insulating properties even when wet. TNF’s ThermoBall represents a new approach to insulation, using small, round synthetic clusters of fiber to mimic down clusters; trapping heat in small air pockets to retain warmth.

This hiking vest is practical, too, with a handy inside zip-chest pocket as well as two zipped hand pockets, and it stuffs into its own hand pocket for easy carrying when not in use. From an eco-perspective it is completely and impressively made from recycled polyester. 

Best gilets: Berghaus Vaskye Insulation Gilet

(Image credit: Berghaus)

Berghaus Vaskye Insulation Gilet

High quality materials and useful features make this one of the best gilets for all-day warmth

RRP: £100 (UK) | Insulation: Hydroloft Polyball (synthetic fill) | Gender availability: Men’s only | Sizes: XS / S / M / L / XL / XXL / XXXL | Colors: Grey / Black / Dark Red / Dark Blue

Breathable
Internal zipped pocket
Water resistant outer
Dropped hem at back
Very packable
No drawcord hem
No women’s version

The tall collar and soft chin guard add to the warmth and comfort of the Berghaus Vaskye Insulated Gilet, while elasticated arm holes trap heat inside vest. The outer Pertex Quantum fabric is treated with a PFC-free Durable Water Repellent finish to fend off the rain, while the Hydroloft Polyball insulation keeps you as snug as the proverbial bug in a rug. Neat features include a dropped hem (it’s longer at the back than front so the small of your back doesn’t get exposed when you bend), two concealed zipped hand pockets as well as an internal zipped pocket designed to swallow a phone. And when you no longer need its breathable warmth, the Vaskye packs down small for easy stowage in your pack.

The best down-filled gilets, body warmers and hiking vests

Best gilets: Rab Microlight ECO Vest

(Image credit: Rab)

Rab Microlight ECO Vest

Packed with an exceptionally generous weight of recycled down, this gilet delivers warmth with a clear conscience, even when wet

RRP: $180 (US) / £130 (UK) | Insulation: Recycled 700FP down | Gender availability: Men’s / Women’s | Sizes: XS / S / M / L / XL / XXL | Colors: Beluga / Black

Warm, recycled down
Quality materials
YKK zips
Stuff sack
Only two colors

Made from recycled 700 fill-power down, treated with Nikwax hydrophobic (water-resistant) finish to retain its loft when damp, the Rab Microlight ECO Vest offers all the warmth and luxury of a down gilet without any of the potential guilt. The baffles are designed and shaped to avoid cold spots, and a drawcord hem traps or spills heat according to your wishes. The 30D Pertex Quantum ripstop nylon outer should ensure great longevity, and Rab operate an excellent repair facility, too, although with YKK zips for the hand pockets and large chest pocket this vest should last and last. The Microlight comes with a neat stuff sack to stow it in your pack when not in use.

Best gilets: Fjällräven Greenland Down Vest

(Image credit: Fjällräven)

Fjällräven Greenland Down Vest

Ethically-sourced down provides luxurious warmth in this gilet

RRP: $190 (US) / £180 (UK) | Insulation: Ethically-sourced goose down | Gender availability: Men’s / Women’s | Sizes: XS / S / M / L / XL / XXL | Colors: Night Sky / Autumn Leaf / Black / Dusk

Ethically-sourced down
Recycled polyester
Robust
Good pockets
Down’s performance is compromised when wet

Encasing ethically-sourced, traceable down feathers in a recycled polyester outer makes the Fjällräven Greenland Down Vest about as clear-conscience as any down jacket can be. It’s filled with 80% goose down, 20% feathers to a fill power of 600, which is close to as good as it gets for a down gilet. There are two deep, zipped hand pockets as well as a useful chest pocket for a jacket that will serve superbly as an outer layer over a shirt or fleece in spring and fall, or under a waterproof shell to create a fully-fledged winter hiking jacket. This is a robust vest with the warmth to extend its use later into winter and earlier into spring than many of its rivals, so long as the weather is dry.

The best breathable gilets, hiking vests and body warmers

Best gilets: Helly Hansen Paramount Softshell Vest

(Image credit: Helly Hansen)

Helly Hansen Paramount Softshell Vest

A fleece-lined softshell vest with breathable performance and wind protection at its heart

RRP: $110 (US) / £100 (UK) | Insulation: Fleece | Gender availability: Men’s / Women’s | Sizes: S / M / L / XL / XXL | Colors: Navy / Black

Breathable
Wind proof
Water-repellent
Good price
The tall collar is not to everyone’s liking
Only two colors available

The Helly Hansen Paramount offers a different approach to the gilet, using fleece for insulating warmth and soft-shell to keep out the wind and protect the torso from rain. The result is a performance garment, ideally suited to powering uphill with better breathability than you could expect from synthetic or down-filled vests and gilets. 

A chest pocket and hand pockets add practical features, while the water-repellent treatment is PFC-free, and the vest is made with bluesign-certified manufacturing processes. Its slim profile makes it ideal for slipping under a waterproof shell, and while it pains us to say it, the Paramount would also be a smart choice for playing golf – a good walk spoiled, as Mark Twain did or didn’t say.

What to look for when buying the best gilets

Sleeveless hiking jackets go by several different names, depending on where you are in the world, but whether you know them as gilets, hiking vests or simply body warmers, having a piece of kit that reliably keeps your torso warm is absolutely invaluable from fall through to spring. So long as your vital organs are at a happy temperature, your brain will allow blood to keep flowing to your limbs and extremities, so although these vests don’t cover your arms, they help to keep you warm all the way to your fingertips. 

Following are a few tips to think about when looking for the best hiking vests.

Best gilets

Make sure you can still reach the pockets of your best gilet when you’re wearing a backpack (Image credit: Getty)

Fabric

There’s no point pretending a sleeveless jacket is going to be waterproof, but a Durable Water-Repellent (DWR) finish can still fend off light rain. A number of brands are also making impressive strides towards recycled polyester for their outer layers and linings.

Insulation

The whole purpose of the best hiking vests is to keep your torso snugly warm, so the insulation is crucial. This typically boils down to making a choice between a vest with synthetic or down fill. Goose and duck down offer phenomenal warmth-to-weight performance. In a hierarchy of insulation, down outstrips feathers, so the ratio between the two does matter. The higher the down fill power figure (typically 600 to 700) the warmer the vest, but if down gets wet (from rain or sweat) the feathers lose their loft and with it their insulating properties. Hydrophobic treatments are improving down’s damp performance, but synthetic fillings hold the upperhand when wet.

There are also a rising number of ethical issues surrounding down, and particularly whether it has been plucked from a live or dead bird, or gathered from moulting birds. Top brands use traceable and even recycled down to assuage your conscience.

Synthetic fibres are light, warm and retain their heat-insulating properties better when wet. They also dry more quickly. And many are made from recycled polyesters. Synthetics are typically a little heavier than down, and don’t pack down as small.

Fit

The best walking vests need to be a close fit to trap air next to your body in order to keep you warm. A snug fit will also prove practical when wearing a gilet below a waterproof shell.

Look for elasticated arm openings, a drawcord hem and close-fitting collar to trap more heat and keep the breeze at bay.

Features

Zipped hand pockets are very useful in the best gilets, and an internal or external chest pocket is handy for a phone or wallet. It’s worth checking you can still access the pockets with a rucksack hip-belt fastened. 

Vests that stuff into their own pocket or stuff sack are great when you want to pack them in your best hiking backpack.

Jonathan Manning

After spending a decade as editor of Country Walking, the UK’s biggest-selling walking magazine, Jonathan moved to edit Outdoor Fitness magazine, adding adrenaline to his adventures and expeditions. He has hiked stages or completed all of the UK's national trails, but was once overtaken by three Smurfs, a cross-dressing Little Bo Peep, and a pair of Teletubbies on an ascent of Snowdon. (Turns out they were soldiers on a fundraising mission.)