Visions of the Michelin Man might come to mind, but for untold thousands of winter lovers, horizontally-banded, ultra-insulated puffy down jackets have become the ubiquitous choice for the coldest of days.
I am one of these mini Michelin Men. In Minnesota, where temps regularly drop to 20-below, a down-stuffed puffy is often the only viable defense against the cold.
This winter, I've been testing two new puffys, including the Flex Jacket from Sierra Designs and the Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket. They are puffys of different types, though both equally cozy in the snow.
Made for alpine climbing, winter hiking, and "fast and light" pursuits, the Rab Microlight weighs less than a pound. For stowing in a backpack, it scrunches down and packs into its own chest pocket.
But on your back, with panels of goose down ensconcing the body, you'd never know the Microlight Alpine was made with the minimalist in mind. In my test, paired with just two layers underneath, the Rab jacket was warm to about zero degrees.
The Rab costs $150 to $200 on most retailer web sites (the official price is $215). It has an insulated hood, and there are two hand-warmer side pockets and a single zipped chest pocket. On the harshest days, the close-fitting Rab can be worn underneath a shell jacket for optimal warmth.
My gripes with the Rab jacket (us.rab.uk.com) are few. But watch out for its Pertex face fabric. It is not very durable and can rip. Another point: I often wished for more pockets on the Rab.
Internal pockets to store an extra hat and handwear were missed.
The second jacket I tested this year, Sierra Designs's Flex Down Jacket, is a different type of puffy beast. It is warmer than the Rab, but it is bulkier and cannot be easily employed as a layer underneath a shell jacket.
Indeed, I felt like a true Michelin Man in the Flex Down Jacket, which retails for $249. The company (sierradesigns.com) calls it "supremely warm," and I would not disagree.
Like the Rab, it is insulated with 750-weight goose down. Unlike the Rab, its face fabric, a recycled polyester, is durable and tear resistant.
Sierra Designs borrows sleeping-bag tricks to let the jacket "move with you while eliminating heat-robbing dead air space." It seemed to work outside and in the extreme cold for me.
The jacket has an insulated hood, two zippered hand pockets lined with fleece, and big internal pockets for gloves, hats, and other items. For transport, it packs down to about the size of a football if rolled tight.
Both the Rab and Sierra Designs jackets are solid performers. The Rab is more of a specialty item, with fewer features and a closer fit. The Sierra Designs jacket is versatile across a range of activities.
Each company makes its puffy available in men’s and women’s versions. This winter, to stay warm, embrace your inner Michelin Man. Pull on a down puffy. You might never go back to the slim fit again.
--Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.