What is a Winter Jacket?
This is a garment that can help you withstand the cold, wind, and snow or rain. It should contain thick insulation so that your body stays warm even when not in motion, unlike some of the lighter weight insulated jackets that we tested in our Down Jacket and Insulated Jacket reviews. Those thinner insulated layers are often part of an integrated system of layers, to give the user ultimate discretion in warmth and perspiration management when used during winter activities. The jackets featured in this review, however, are intended to be used as an overcoat, with few or no warm layers needed underneath.
A good winter jacket needs to keep you and the insulation dry, and should have a waterproof/breathable outer shell. Besides being functional in a cold environment, these jackets also tend to have a longer cut and more attention to how they will look on casual or more formal occasions. In contrast to their lightweight counterparts used for cold weather sports, casual models often include many more features that add to their comfort and livability, since weight is not a primary consideration.
You can check out our Full Review to see how the 14 models that we tested compared against each other in our side-by-side comparison testing process. If you're in the market for a women's model, you can head over to our Best Winter Jacket for Women for more good looking parkas to weather the cold in.
There are many different types on the market, from stylish insulated trenches to technical "puffy" ones meant for various winter sports. We'll break down the different types below and give you some key considerations to look for.
What makes a winter jacket "technical" isn't just a dayglow color that fits right in at Everest Base Camp. A technical garment usually features a more athletic, trim fit that allows for more athletic movement, and the associated features are designed to support this same athletic movement or activity. Features that a technical model might have that a casual one might not include interior water bottle pockets, helmet-compatible hoods, climbing harness-compatible zippers or length, and more durable materials placed in high-wear areas.
The Rab Neutrino Endurance best exemplifies this category and was our favorite to bring on backcountry ski tours and ice climbing missions. Can you wear a technical jacket in a casual setting? Sure! Most manufacturers even offer these garments in more subdued colors, so you don't have to look like a tennis ball if you don't want to. Note, however, that these models typically come with a high price tag since you are paying extra for high fill-power down, which won't really make a difference in performance if it's only worn on city streets.
Casual models tend to focus less on weight and packable size, and put a lot more emphasis on warmth, weather protection, comfort and style. Since the insulation is built-in and the jacket is typically a heavier weight, these are the types we are more likely to wear during low-output activities like shoveling the driveway, going to the local outdoor ice skating rink, or commuting to work in the city. Our favorite casual jacket in this review was the Arc'teryx Camosun Parka, thanks to its trim fit and clean exterior.
Casual jackets also have their own unique features, which can include internal smartphone pockets with headphone access, fur (or faux) lined hoods, removable hoods and longer/roomier fits. Asking the previous question in reverse, we don't recommend wearing a casual parka in a technical setting. While you can get by on the ski hill with a casual model, since the lodge is usually close by, longer excursions in the winter need specific gear for safety and performance reasons. While an ultra-warm casual model, like the Canada Goose Expedition Parka, will keep you toasty warm (it's our Top Pick for Extreme Cold), it's hard to move your arms properly due to its bulky design, and is not the parka to bring on your next ice climb.
Elements of a Quality Winter Jacket
As with any piece of outdoor clothing or gear, there are certain factors that distinguish a bargain basement model from a top of the line piece. Here's what to look for in terms of quality when selecting your next one.
A shell is a thin waterproof barrier for your jacket. It can offer superior protection from rain, sleet and snow by using a weatherproof barrier material such as Gore-Tex, eVent or H2NO to block out the elements, but offers little to nothing in regards to insulation. Using a rain shell as a winter coat means that you need to have a good idea of how to layer your clothing system. Please check out our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article for more information on layering.
Using a shell during backcountry activities or on overnight winter camping trips offers the most versatility in layering choices, but on trips closer to home, or where weight and adaptability aren't as important, we can afford to choose a jacket which offers more features and comfort. If you are in the market for a new shell, check out our Hardshell Jacket review.
The models that we tested in this review featured either a two- or three-layer membrane material, or a DWR (durable water repellent) coating as the weather barrier, similar to what you find on a Rain Jacket. If you live in a climate where precipitation tends to fall as rain instead of snow in the winter, you'll want to look for a model with a high-tech breathable barrier, like the Gore-Tex found on the Arc'teryx Camosun and Koda Parkas. We also found the H2No fabric used on the Patagonia Tres 3-in-1 to be both durable and waterproof. On the flip side, models with a DWR coating only work fine in snowy conditions, but can saturate through in the rain and/or once the coating wears off a bit.
The three types of insulation used in insulated jackets are down feathers, synthetic fibers, and synthetic textile with a high nap fleecy side known as "pile". No matter the type of insulation, the effect is the same: the insulation traps your body heat from escaping, keeping you warm. The higher the loft (thickness) of the insulation, the warmer you stay at any given temperature range.
Down is the original insulator and is still the gold standard for most warm apparel. It compresses to a very small size, and with proper maintenance and care can keep its original loft volume for many years of use. Down's main downside, however, is its poor performance in wet environments. Down feathers ball and clump when wet, losing a lot of their insulation qualities, and typically require a drying machine to fully restore the loft. But since winter jacket manufacturers know that we still have to go outdoors when it might be wet, they add an additional weatherproofing layer in the form of either a DWR coating to the exterior of the garment, or a chemical treatment directly to the down feathers (hydrophobic down). This gives the down jacket more latitude in holding up to damp environments, but precautions should still be taken in truly wet locales.
Down Fill-Power and Warmth
Throughout our reviews you will see references to a jacket's fill-power. This is also a spec noted in our comparison table, allowing you to compare the fill-powers of all the parkas side-by-side. What is it? Fill-power is an indicator of down quality. Specifically, it is a measurement of volume. Think of plucking a duck and placing all the little feathers into a bucket. After a shaking, all the heavy feathers, with burrs and bits of fiber, will sink to the bottom, leaving the softest lightest feathers on top, which become the down that is rated higher. The number you see, 850 for example, is the amount of cubic inches one ounce of down occupies when placed in a graduated cylinder and compressed by a standardized weight. Simply put, higher fill-power down is loftier, and therefore warmer for its weight relative to a lower fill-power down. Six ounces of 850-fill down is warmer and more compressible than six ounces of 600-fill down.
There are many factors that collectively make up a parka's warmth; fill-power is only part of the story. Also critically important is down fill-weight. The fill-weight is the amount of down insulation used in the parka (often observed as how thick the jacket is.) So a jacket with eight ounces of 650-fill will be warmer than a jacket with two ounces of 800-fill, even though it uses lower quality down. These two numbers, the fill-power and fill-weight, can together give you a reasonable idea about how warm a particular product is.
Down parkas generally feature one of two primary methods of construction, sewn-through or box-baffled. Occasionally, a single product will be a combination of both. Refer to our Down Jacket Buying Advice article for more information on down jacket construction.
Synthetic insulation is made up of plasticized fibers that are spun and inserted into garments to mimic the insulation properties found in down. Companies such as PrimaLoft and Polarguard as well as individual manufacturers have made great leaps in synthetic material quality in recent years. The advantage to using synthetic insulation is that is does not clump up when wet, and although the insulative properties are also compromised, it is not nearly as severe as down, and it will dry out faster. The drawback to synthetic insulation is that as it is compressed and expanded over its lifetime, it will begin to pack down and lose its ability to keep you warm. We tested three synthetic jackets in this review, and found that they were less warm overall, but as in the case of the Arc'teryx Fission SV, provided a slimmer fit and adequate insulation for temperate climates.
Pile is a fabric constructed to replicate the hide and wool of a sheep. It is a woven fabric and attached to one side is a fuzzy, thick layer of fibers protruding in a way that looks quite like the wool of a sheep. Pile features the inexpensive nature and water-readiness of synthetic insulation with the durability of down insulation. The main disadvantage of pile insulation is that it is limited in thickness, and therefore is limited to use in the least insulating of garments. In our review, the two pile insulated jackets we tested, the Patagonia Isthmus and Fjallraven Greenland were among the least insulating, but featured "old school" barn jacket look. Jackets like this are low-maintenance and will last a long time.
Blending the attributes of the different options, hybrid insulated pieces match the function of one type to different parts of the user's torso for a jacket that is better tuned for performance. In our review, almost half of the jackets now feature some sort of hybrid insulation. The pile-insulated jackets, for instance, feature undefined synthetic puff insulation in the sleeves, behind smooth nylon linings.
The Arc'teryx Camosun features both down and synthetic insulation mapped to the user's body and likely wet spots. The REI Stratocloud Hoodie uses a synthetic/down blend that is reported to be "as warm as 650-fill-power down." Finally, the Columbia TurboDown contains 550 fill power down and 100 grams of synthetic insulation in an unclear orientation. The hybrid nature of these various jackets doesn't seem to change the performance all that much. If we split hairs we could probably find subtle differences. However, we didn't find any obvious pros or cons to hybrid designs.
A good winter parka has a variety of features to make winter living more comfortable. There are simple jackets like the Columbia Gold 650 TurboDown that offer few features in the name of simplicity and cost, and there are jackets that have so many extra features that it is tough to decide what is needed or not.
At the top of our list of important features is a hood, as they add warmth and weather resistance. A removable hood is a nice touch, as this gives the wearer another option for style and for reducing some bulk when the weather is nicer. Depending on what kind of activity you are using your winter jacket for, such as an occasional ski jacket for trips to the slopes, you may also find the spacious sizing of helmet-compatible hoods to be useful. The absolute best hood, in our experience, would have comprehensive adjustment measures, large volume, removable fur, and an integrated, optional face mask. We didn't test any hoods like this in our test, but some came close.
The closure systems on cuffs and front zippers on winter jackets are also something to look closely at, as they will have an influence on weather resistance and warmth. Rib knit cuffs like those featured on The North Face Gotham II Jacket are great but allow only for over the top gauntlet type gloves if you don't want to stretch the fabric out. On the other hand, stylishly loose cuffs, like those on the Mountain Hardwear Therminator, tend to let in cold drafts too easily. What kind of gloves you might be able to wear comfortably will depend on those cuffs, so read into each review to see how compatible we found each model was with different styles of glove. Also, look at our How to Choose the Best Ski Gloves article for more information on glove fit and style.
Zippers and other closures deserve a careful look as well, since the fabrics used may be waterproof, but the zippers are not. Certain models, like the Rab Neutrino Endurance, use waterproof zippers while others use storm flaps to keep rain and wind drafts out. Storm flaps are a nice touch, as long as they are easy to snap on and off with gloves on and made with durability in mind. Two-way zippers are another great addition to a parka that is longer than waist length, as it allows the wearer to sit down more comfortably without feeling bunched up inside it. Finally, there are some features, like a variety of pockets, fur trimmed hoods or headphones channels, that are important to some of us and irrelevant to others. With so many different makes and options of winter jackets out there, you're sure to find the one that has all the elements you need to survive the cold months in style.