Insulated Jackets for One-Step Warmth

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

Insulated Jackets for One-Step Warmth

When you don't want to pile on the pile, down and synthetic-fill clothing still stands alone
By Glenn Randall

Once you've experienced the miracle of layering, it's easy to forget that there are times when one luxuriously warm insulated jacket can serve you better than the onion approach to winter apparel. Pile on the works under a shell when you're ski touring or hiking, but when you stop for lunch or a brief rest break, layering is simply inconvenient: During a ten-minute respite from any strenuous winter effort, your body's heat output can drop by as much as a factor of five. You need to throw on a single piece of clothing that all by itself is like a crackling fire. Walk the dog on a January dawn, and the same jacket is equally appropriate. An insulated jacket weighs less for the same warmth than multiple layers of fleece, and it gobbles up less room in your pack. The jackets I've chosen are insulated with either down or various synthetics. In the past, the down-versus-synthetic decision was simple: Down offered superior warmth for its weight, compacted well, but collapsed when wet and was considerably more expensive. Synthetics were cheaper, retained their insulating capacity better in wet conditions--but were a good deal bulkier and heavier for their warmth. You chose down, if you could afford it, to save weight and space in your pack, and then you took care to keep it dry. You chose a synthetic for drizzly conditions or to save money.

Today the fill decision is more of a dilemma, because the best synthetic insulations are nearly as warm for their weight as average-quality down, which lofts about 550 cubic inches per ounce. (Loft is a measure of the material's insulating efficiency based on the amount of space, in cubic inches, that an ounce of it will fill.) To beat the latest synthetics significantly, you have to upgrade to top-quality down, which lofts 650 or 700 cubic inches per ounce. Complicating the choice, synthetics have caught up to down in price as well as quality, so that the most sophisticated synthetic jackets cost more than average-quality down pieces. So you're left with only a few certainties: Down is still more compressible and retains its loft longer, but it has a longer drying time and doesn't insulate when wet, which necessitates either an arid climate or an almost waterproof membrane. Synthetics are more likely to survive the occasional soaking. Cost and coziness are comparable. Whatever your fill preference, the design features to consider in a jacket are constant. Your movement can pump warm air out of the collar, cuffs, and bottom hem of a poorly designed jacket, so look for cuffs that seal tightly around your wrists and collars that are conforming but comfortable. Elastic drawcords at the waist and bottom hem help reduce heat loss, but the best solution is a true powder skirt, a fabric flap inside the jacket that completely encircles your waist, sealing in warm air. An insulated jacket should fit slightly more snugly than a waterproof/breathable shell.

Expect to spend from $85 to $275 for solid, one-piece protection from the cold. Jackets on the less expensive end generally have nylon taffeta shells, and pricier nylon or polyester microfiber shells shed the drizzle better. For an additional outlay, the finest jackets have a membrane or coating for a higher degree of water-repellency or even waterproofness.

I tested 14 jackets during sunrise photo shoots in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park and then narrowed my selection down to eight favorites. All compress well enough to stow in a daypack, and all are street-smart enough for sporting around town if you don't mind your quilt lines showing. All have a full-length front zipper and a minimum of two exterior hand pockets plus at least one inside. They come in unisex sizes and lack hoods unless otherwise noted.

Down Jackets
The classic down sweater is waist length, lightweight, ultra-compressible, and ideal insulation for a mild winter meal break. EMS's Glacier Down Sweater (one pound, five ounces; $84.50) exemplifies the breed. This no-frills jacket made of nylon taffeta and 550-fill goose down has an attractive price and kept me comfortable stomping around at sunrise at 12,000 feet. The Sierra Designs Quilted Down Sweater (one pound, two ounces; available in men's and women's sizes; $120) uses the same 550-fill down in a polyester-taffeta shell treated with a durable water-repellent finish. It's even lighter and more compact than EMS's minimalist jacket but also less warm (because it has a lower fill weight, meaning there's less of the insulation in there) and more expensive. For the prices of these two, you don't get fancy waterproof finishes to keep your insulation dry, but you do get serviceable jackets that pack down to the size of small cantaloupes.

On a dry, sparkling cold morning, I appreciated the step up in warmth of the 650-fill down Mountain Hardwear Sub Zero Jacket (one pound, ten ounces; $180). With a microfiber polyester ripstop shell that's supremely lightweight, water-repellent, breathable, and windproof, this durable, beautifully designed jacket delivers inside and out--and even has its own stuffsack.

For longer trips, when you might not be able to dry your gear adequately for days at a time and would prefer better weather-protection for the down, Moonstone's Dryloft HP Down Jacket (one pound, eight ounces; $229) earns a place in the pack. The shell fabric is a polyester laminated to Gore Dryloft, a membrane that's very breathable and just short of being truly waterproof. The 700-fill insulation is the highest-lofting down on the market. You'll probably want something thicker and longer than a down sweater for Himalayan expeditions, but this jacket would serve you well on multiday winter camping trips where frosty tents and drippy snow caves are the norm.

Synthetic Jackets
If you're a mushroom person with a fungal love of wet, cold climates, consider a Primaloft sweater from L.L. Bean or Marmot. Don't be deceived by Primaloft's thin, chilly look on the rack. Reigning king of the synthetics, it nearly equals 550-fill down in warmth and compressibility. It's also durable and has great resistance to the soggies, since each fiber carries a water-repellent treatment. L.L. Bean's Primaloft Ultralight Jacket (two pounds; available in men's and women's sizes; $140) has a feature I particularly like for serious cold: an attached hood you can pull into place easily, even with your gloves on. Other welcome flourishes include a comfy fleece-lined collar and an inside mesh pocket that lets you stash a water bottle or dry your gloves with body heat. Marmot's Alpinist Primaloft Sweater II (one pound, five ounces; $159) emphasizes ventilation, with elastic and hook-and-loop cuffs and a drawstring-closed collar that can be opened wide to vent warm air or snugged down when the wind blows. The Alpinist Sweater also has pit zips, a rare feature in an insulated jacket.

The North Face Lhotse Jacket (one pound, eight ounces; $150) is a sweater-light jacket insulated with Polarguard 3D, a soft, high-lofting filament fiber known for its durability. The Lhotse's microfiber shell is wind resistant, fairly breathable, and sheds water superbly. I liked the elastic drawcords at the waist, which can be tightened with one hand.

MontBell's PowderHop Parka (two pounds, eight ounces; available in men's and women's sizes; $229) aims for and achieves complete weather protection and city-bred good looks rather than minimalist weight and bulk. It's insulated with ExceLoft, MontBell's proprietary synthetic, which ranks right up there with Primaloft in warmth and compressibility. This parka-length jacket is the only garment in this review with a waterproof/breathable shell fabric and sealed seams--which let you venture into wet snow and rain without adding a shell on top. A powder skirt holds in heat perfectly for a frigid day of skiing or knocking around town when the wind howls and the sleet falls.

Patagonia's DAS Parka (one pound, 14 ounces; $275) is jacket enough for hard-core ice-climbers and mountaineers. It's insulated with Quallofil, a DuPont synthetic fill made up of short, loose fibers, which makes it a bit softer and more compressible than jackets filled with interlocked Polarguard fibers, but also a bit less durable for its looser construction. Both the inner and outer layers of the shell are ripstop nylon with a water-repellent treatment, so you can throw the DAS Parka over wet clothing without fear of soaking your insulation and freezing. It also has an attached hood, a great feature for sweat-and-freeze sports like waterfall ice climbing when you need a lot of insulation as soon as you stop to belay. The price may seem a little outrageous down in civilization--but you see things differently 300 feet up a subzero ascent of Polar Circus.

Glenn Randall is a frequent contributor to Outside's Review pages.

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