The Best Insulated Jacket for Women Review
To find the best women's insulated jacket we wore 11 of the industry's top-rated jackets everywhere from the tops of 13,000 foot peaks to the tributaries of the Columbia River. During our testing period, we wore them around town, taking notice of what we liked and what we didn't and then we handed them off to friends to compare notes. To test the technical aspects, we stood in windy dust storms, soaked ourselves in the shower, and hung these jackets out to dry. We evaluated each contender based on six different metrics: warmth, weight & compression, comfort, weather resistance, breathability (new this year), and - of course - style. This year's insulated jacket review features interesting new competitors and surprising new competitors.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best for Specific Applications
Best for layering under tight shells: Patagonia Nano Puff
Best for warmth and breathability: OR Uberlayer Hoody
Best for backcountry skiing: Patagonia Nano Air Hoody
Best technical piece with attractive styling: Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody
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Analysis and Test Results
A good synthetic insulated jacket is an important part of your layering system that will keep you warm and cozy through cool and damp conditions. With new innovations in technology, technical insulated jackets today are light, fairly compressible, and breathable.
They are ideal insulating layers for anyone planning an adventure that might include unexpected downpours or sweaty winter aerobic activities. However, before you commit to buying one of these synthetic layers, let's ask an important question
Why Choose Synthetic Insulation?
When choosing a jacket, there are many decisions to make, but perhaps the first and most important to consider is whether to opt for synthetic or down insulation. All the products in this review are made with synthetic insulation, which has several notable benefits in comparison to down (Note, we use the terms "synthetic" and "insulated" interchangeably). We also have reviews of down jackets and down winter coats if you're looking for a down layer.
Most importantly, synthetic insulation will continue to keep you warm even if it becomes wet. Unlike down, which loses its loft when wet, synthetic fibers maintain their structure and continue to trap warmth even in heavy rain. To be clear, you won't be as warm as if your jacket were dry, but you'll be warmer than if you were wearing a down jacket in the rain. Additionally, synthetic materials generally dry quickly, making them an optimal choice for outdoor adventures that might involve wet weather. They do not serve as substitutes for rain shells; however, if you are going on an outdoor adventure and aren't planning to carry some sort of shell, it's better to be caught in wet weather with a synthetic rather than a down jacket.
The primary downside of synthetic insulation is that it typically does not provide as much warmth for the weight as down. Additionally, synthetic insulation doesn't normally hold up as long as a well-cared for down product. That said, insulated jackets also don't require as much special care (i.e. you can just throw them in the washing machine without a second thought). So when you go out to make your purchase, take into consideration why you are buying it, and if you would be best served by a down or synthetic model. For a more in-depth discussion on this topic, take a look at our Buying Advice article.
Types of Insulated Jackets
Throughout our testing process, it became clear that some of the products in this review were more similar and comparable than others. There were thin, quilted jackets like the Patagonia Nano Puff, The North Face ThermoBall (last year's Best Buy Award winner), and the Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic. These models are lightweight and packable, and they work well as mid-layers in cold weather. We really liked using these pieces as an extra outer layer on long rock climbs and beneath a shell while backcountry skiing.
We also closely compared those products that had continuous shells, like the Rab Xenon X (Editors' Choice) and the Arc'teryx Atom AR (Top Pick for Warmth). These products offer a little more water resistance and their insulation feels more lofty since it isn't stitched down into baffles.
Finally, we looked at models that offered increased breathability. Products like the Patagonia Nano Air, Arc'teryx Atom LT, Outdoor Research Cathode, Outdoor Research Uberlayer, and Rab Strata serve as insulating layers that are comfortable during heavy cardio activity. They help regulate body temperature by wicking sweat away from the body, and have some form of ventilation system like breathable panels or large venting pockets. They also have softer, more comfortable fabrics that move with your body.
Criteria for Evaluation
When considering our criteria for evaluation, we talked to many avid outdoor adventures, polled a few popular online adventure groups, and delved into deep philosophical discussions with our testers. In the end, we came to the conclusion that most consumers a jacket that is warm and light, balanced with comfortable fit and mobility. Breathability was important for many who enjoyed hiking and running, while weather resistance was key for those that might see bad conditions while hanging out on the side of a cliff. One thing that all our lady testers could agree on was that style was a definite consideration.
In the end, we decided to rate each jacket on warmth (25%), weight & compression (20%), weather resistance (20%), comfort & coziness (15%),breathability (15%), and style (5%).
The number one reason to buy a jacket? To stay warm! As we discussed above, insulated jackets aren't as warm for their weight as their down cousins, but they do have some very specific advantages in wet weather. For the purposes of this review, we measured warmth of the products relative to each other, meaning that a 10 given to the warmest synthetic model will not be as warm as a 10 given to a down product in another review. This review encompasses products that are a bit thicker and warmer (like our Top Pick for Warmth), as well as thinner layers that are highly compressible and those that are more breathable. We tested products with hoods and those without in addition to pieces with longer cut torsos and pull cords to seal in warmth. After testing all the products in the field to determine how warm they really are, we noted the type and amount of insulation used.
After completing our testing process, we determined that the warmest model is the Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody - Women's, which contains 60 g/m2 more insulation than most of the other pieces we tested. Several other jackets tied for second place, including the Rab Xenon X Hoodie - Women's (our Editors' Choice winner) and the Outdoor Research Uberlayer, a new jacket with breathable insulation. On the other end of the spectrum, the least warm jackets were ultra lightweight and extremely breathable models like the Outdoor Research Cathode and Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic. We were really surprised to discover that one of the thinnest jackets, the Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket - Women's, was actually almost as warm as our Editors' Choice winner. Both of these products use 60 g/m2 of PrimaLoft GOLD insulation, one of the leading synthetic products on the market.
Another fascinating find was the warmth generated by The North Face ThermoBall Jacket - Women's. In fact, this model has one of the highest warmth-to-compression ratios of all the products we tested. The North Face claims that this technology is "better than down" because it is as warm as a 600 fill down jacket, but still manages to stay warm when wet. We can't say if it's as warm as 600 fill goose down, but we can say it was among the warmest of the insulated jackets we tested.
Weight & Compression
For many consumers, the primary function of a synthetic jacket is a "workhorse piece." These jackets are often stuffed into the bottom of backpacks or clipped to harnesses as "just in case" layers during backcountry adventures. For this reason, we decided that compressibility and weight should be one of the most important categories to consider. We really appreciated models that compressed down so small and were so lightweight that we barely noticed them in the bottom of our packs. We also really liked the jackets that had integrated stow systems to stuff and put away quickly.
The lightest, most compressible product that we tested was a close tie between the Patagonia Nano Puff and the Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket - Women's. Both pack down into a chest and hand pocket respectively and got to the size of a small grapefruit. On the other end of the spectrum, we had pieces like the Outdoor Research Uberlayer, Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody, and Columbia Kaleidaslope II that weren't very compressible and weighed a little more than the rest. We also had pieces like the Arc'teryx Atom LT, Rab Strata Hoody, and Patagonia Nano Air that were a couple of ounces heavier than our lightest pieces and didn't have the integrated stow systems. The Rab Xenon X, stood out from the rest during our tests. Even though it was not the lightest or most compressible product, we really appreciated how small it packed down given the extra warmth that it provides.
To assess this category, we designed tests that would measure each jacket's water resistance and its wind resistance.
As we mentioned before, an insulated jacket does not serve as a substitute for a rain jacket or a hardshell, but many of the products that we reviewed are treated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish. Thanks to the differences in fabric and stitching, each repelled water a little differently. To test this metric in a specific head-to-head test, we wore each jacket in the shower with a cotton shirt underneath. The cotton shirt was a telltale sign of whether or not our skin (or layers in the field) would get wet. After that, we looked at the amount of water each piece retained by squeezing each coat and observing if there were any areas that "pooched up" from water accumulation.
We were really impressed with the Rab Xenon X in this test. Its Pertex Quantum shell was able to continue beading throughout our five minute shower test and did not "wet out" like all the other competitors tested. We were equally impressed with the Outdoor Research Cathode and The North Face ThermoBall, though the fabric of these jackets wetted, they retained little to no water. As a result, these were also the fastest to dry out. On the other end of the spectrum, we were let down by the Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic; it did a good job of keeping us warm when wet and keeping the water away from our cotton shirt underneath, but it held the most water of any model tested. It also took the longest to dry out, even after being wrung out.
Have you ever been caught in a windstorm in just a single layer of clothing and suffered as the wind just cut through you to the core? Well, if you're wearing many of these synthetic insulated jackets, you won't have to worry about that. Wind resistance is an important metric to consider because you will likely run into windy situations while playing outside and you may or may not have a shell to save you. The next best thing? Owning a jacket with some level of wind-stop technology. When we tested wind resistance, we stood on top of mountains and in wind storms on the plains of Southeast Colorado. During these tests, we extended our arms to see how each product cut the frigid wind and whether or not we felt large gusts flow through.
The products that offered the best wind resistance were the ones with a continuous, less breathable shell. For example, the Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody, Columbia Kaleidaslope II, and Rab Xenon X Hoodie protected us from the wind better than any other insulated jacket. Unlike these continuous shell models, the quilted pieces have minimized wind protection because their inner and outer layers are tacked together to hold their insulation in place. (However, it is worth mentioning that some jackets, like the Patagonia Nano Puff, have a continuous inner liner that provides a bit of additional wind protection).
Finally, it's important to note the more breathable products we tested, which generally scored lower in our wind resistance sub-metric. The Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket - Women's and Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody - Women's both have breathable stretchy panels under the arms to allow more airflow than the traditional quilted jackets. This equates to less wind resistance. Products with a more breathable membrane and insulation like the Patagonia Nano Air (Top Pick for Breathability) and Outdoor Research Uberlayer also did not do well in these tests. Not a surprising conclusion to this long-winded test.
Comfort & Coziness
Although insulated jackets aren't nearly as cozy as, say, the ultra plush Patagonia Re-Tool Snap-T Pullover, we found that some had features that made them just a little more comfy and easy to use. Jackets with fleece-lined pockets and chin guards, as well as gusseted underarms for maximum mobility all earned extra points for comfort and coziness. We also considered how the fabrics felt against our skin and whether or not they stretched or remained static when moving around. The loft of the insulation was considered a key point as well, since fluffier insulation makes a layer feel like a nest that you could hunker down into on cold days.
Through the comfort tests, we developed a very serious relationship with the Patagonia Nano Air Hoody - Women's. Why? Simply because of its cozy, soft, and stretchy outer and inner fabrics; the presence of its hood; and how, if we wanted to, we could wear it comfortably against our skin. We also liked that it protected our chin and allowed for the best mobility of all the products tested in this review. The Outdoor Research Uberlayer - Women's was a top competitor with the Nano Air in many categories, including comfort. Its fabrics are also super soft and stretchy, and it has lots of extra storage and accessories. The Columbia Kaleidaslope II Jacket - Women's also stood out, as it features a fur-lined collar that zips up snugly against the neck. The Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody (Top Pick for Warmth) was also given a good grade for comfort because of its ample loft, adjustable hood feature, and AWESOME wrist gussets that keep everything cozy, mobile, and ultimately comfortable. On the other end of the spectrum, the ThermoBall received lower scores due to its simpler design.
We added our breathability metric this year after we heard from many consumers that they want to know if they can actually exercise in their jacket through cold winter activities. The more breathable jackets jackets we tested typically have softer face fabrics that allow ample airflow or they have "breathable panels" in high sweat areas like under the arms or on the back. These jackets tend to be a little more versatile for highly aerobic activities, but tend to sacrifice warmth and weather resistance as a result.
Of all the jackets tested, the Patagonia Nano Air Hoody was the most breathable, winning our Top Pick for Breathability Award. The 20D nylon ripstop fabrics have pores small enough to resist some of the elements, but large enough to allow water vapor to escape readily. A close second was the Uberlayer Hoody, which was a tad less breathable, but offers a whole lot of warm. Finally, the Rab Strata Hoody - Women's is a good choice if you are looking for a breathable jacket that provides a surprising amount of wind resistance and warmth.
Style & Fit
As in many of the women's clothing reviews that we do here at OutdoorGearLab, style was a component of this review. We recognize that many women are looking for jackets that have a flattering and feminine fit. When considering style, we looked at the cut, baffle shapes, fun features (like fur!), stitching patterns, and fabric type. We then compared and contrasted each model to give you a tangible style rating.
Our testers think that the most stylish products in this review are the Columbia Kaleidaslope II, Patagonia Nano Air, and Arc'teryx Atom LT. The Columbia Kaleidaslope II doesn't have many technical advantages, but it is a stylish (and affordable!) piece that looks nice to wear out shopping or to work. We really liked its flirty front baffling, fur-lined collar, and color selection.
More technical pieces like the Patagonia Nano Air and Arc'teryx Atom LT frequently elicited reactions like, "Oooooooh! It's so cute." The Nano Air has soft fabrics and a lightweight feel with flattering side brick baffles that all make the piece more feminine. The Arc'teryx Atom LT sports a continuous shell with a darker shade on the side and a lighter shade through the main body of the fabric. It is perfect for those with longer arms and torso. On the other end of the spectrum, a few products, including the Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody, had very boxy, unflattering cuts. Throughout the review, we did our best to give you an idea of which pieces provide a balance of style and outdoor functionality, which ones are best solely for around town, and which ones are more suited solely to outdoor applications.
Caring for Your Insulated Jacket
Even though insulated jackets are the "workhorse" pieces that we tend to stash and thrash, they do require specific care. Most of the shell fabrics are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish that eventually will wear off. This will happen as you use it, wear it, and wash it. Eventually you will see the fabric wet out, which basically means that water droplets will not bead on the shell, but just saturate it completely. The insulation will still be fine, but you will feel a lot more soggy if you get caught in a rain storm.
Revive and Renew your DWR Finish
Test to see if you DWR has worn off
Take a few water droplets and gently sprinkle them onto the fabric. Do the water droplets bead up? If so, your DWR coating is OK. If your water droplets don't bead up but instead sit on the fabric and make their way into the fibers, then your DWR needs to be brought back from the dead.
A clean jacket is the first step to reviving your DWR. Follow the washing instructions on the label, making sure to avoid heavy duty laundry detergents.
When you expose your garment to just a little bit of heat, it can help coax your DWR back to life. Simply throw your jacket into the dryer for 10 to 15 minutes on low to medium heat.
Reapplying your DWR Finish
So you've taken all the step above and your jacket is still wetted when you apply water to it. Then it is time to reapply the DWR treatment. This will eventually happen as you expose your jacket to natural wear and tear in the outdoors and just around town. So what do you do? You need to go out any buy a DWR revival product such as Nikwax or Granger's. Follow the instructions, and you will be on your way to a new water resistant coating!
Patching your Synthetic Jacket
Patching is very simple. Unlike down, your won't lose loft components (i.e. feathers) when you bust a hole through the fabric when bushwhacking along the trail. So even if you were to just leave that hole, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. However, some folks like having a layer that is nice enough to wear around town as well.
You have two options. The first is to call the manufacturer and send it in for a repair (usually for a small fee). Usually, holes, rips, and tears from normal use are not covered under manufacturer warranties, so you will probably have to pay for this one yourself. The end result? A nicely patched insulated jacket that required spending money on shipping and waiting around for 6 to 8 weeks.
The second option: Do it yourself! You will save yourself time and money. Simply go out and buy some RipStop tape. There are likely many different brands to choose from at your local gear store. Next, cut a circle the size of your hole, peel off the back, and put the adhesive side onto the area where your patch needs to go. If you want a longer, more durable seal, use seam seal on the edges of the tape. Lick your finger to spread it evenly for a great seal that won't uproot for quite sometime. Not a perfect forever fix, but it looks nicer then just throwing on a wad of duct tape.
With the many models on the market today, choosing the right jacket for your needs can be hard. Not only must you choose between synthetic or down insulation, but it is also important to consider weight, warmth, and weather resistance while making your selection. We hope that our review will help to make your search easier. For even more information on purchasing the best jacket in this category, take a look at our Buying Advice article.
— Amber King and Amanda Fenn
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