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Want a warm insulating layer without the cost and care of down? Over the last 13 years, we've bought, tested, and reviewed over 60 of the best synthetic insulated jackets. For this recent iteration, we purchased 10 of the most revered models and put them through extensive side-by-side testing. Synthetic insulated jackets insulate when wet, offer excellent breathability, and generally cost less than down competitors. Whether you are looking for the warmest jacket to keep you comfortable in the coldest of temperatures, a lightweight and stretchy active layer to wear while working up a sweat, or a jacket with optimal wind resistance, we have you covered with excellent and affordable recommendations.
Weight: 12.31 oz (M) | Number of pockets: 2 zippered hand, 1 zippered chest
REASONS TO BUY
Strong weather resistance
REASONS TO AVOID
Hard to stow
We put the Patagonia DAS Light Hoody to the test high above the talus in Rocky Mountain National Park. When the wind started blowing and the afternoon thunderstorms changed from rain to hail, we pulled on this jacket for instant warmth and weather protection. This lightweight jacket combines 65g of warm PlumaFill insulation with a 10D nylon ripstop Pertex Quantum outer with a DWR finish to protect us from the elements. Though difficult to stuff away, this jacket has the ability to stow into its own pocket, making it easy to carry on long hikes or up climbing routes. The fabric tends to be a bit crinkly, which some testers didn't like, but the fit was comfortable. The large and loose cut allowed for easy layering underneath, and there is ample room in the shoulders and back for unimpeded overhead movement. The longer hem kept the jacket from riding up, and the fabric itself felt smooth against the skin.
While it works great as an outer layer, this jacket performed better when protecting us from the elements than it did when we were performing high-output activities. Sweat built up quickly, and we needed to use the dual zippers to ventilate or simply take the jacket off altogether to avoid being cold and sweaty. While it's possible to use this as a mid-layer, it's better suited as an outer layer to protect against the elements on slightly rainy days. Our review selection includes similar jackets, but none hit the spot like the Patagonia DAS Light.
Weight: 12.56 oz (M) | Number of pockets: 2 zippered hand, 1 zippered internal chest
REASONS TO BUY
Lightweight and compact
Excellent wind resistance
Solid at repelling water
REASONS TO AVOID
Fit is large
Doesn't breathe well
Not an ideal mid-layer
The Rab Xenon 2.0 has long been one of the top performers in our comparative testing and one of our favorite synthetic insulated jackets. It shares many characteristics with the Patagonia DAS Light but is significantly more affordable, making it an optimal choice for the budget-conscious. It also features a very smooth and slick seamless face fabric that does a great job resisting the wind, which contributes positively to its overall warmth effect. It's lightweight, highly packable, and has a very effective DWR treatment in case you get stuck in a rain or snow squall. Overall, this is an excellent outer layer with an approachable price.
As with any product, there are a few downsides. With a highly wind-resistant shell, the trade-off is much poorer breathability than its stretchy counterparts. We also found the fit quite large and borderline baggy, so consider sizing down if you fall between sizes. It's easy to fit layers underneath this jacket, but the larger fit prevented us from wanting to use it as a mid-layer very often. It's also not quite warm enough for us to consider using as a daily winter jacket, and we think it's best suited specifically for outdoor missions. As a wind-resistant and insulating outer layer, this jacket cannot be beaten for almost any cold-weather activity like hiking, biking, climbing, or running.
Weight: 16.47 oz (M) | Number of pockets: 2 zippered hand, 1 zippered chest, 1 internal zip, 1 internal drop-in
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
Doesn't stuff into own pocket
Warm and designed for the mountains, the Mountain Hardwear Compressor Hoody provided the insulation and the function we needed for long days out in the snow and cold. Mountain Hardwear uses 100g of Thermal.Q Elite synthetic insulation in the body of the jacket and 80 grams in the sleeves, allowing for increased mobility and a ton of warmth compared to many of the other jackets with around 60g of insulation. The thickness of the jacket, the insulated hood, and the soft interior fabric, though a bit noisy, made this jacket feel comfortable and like we were wrapped inside a sleeping bag. We loved it for staying warm while belaying when out rock climbing or for throwing on in between attempts on boulder problems. It was also great for cruising around town when it was cold out.
As expected, this jacket performed poorly in terms of its breathability. While hiking or skinning uphill, our testers needed to remove the jacket. It's intended as more of a large layer to wear while stationary or to use as an outer layer. In these regards, the Compressor did great, but if you're looking for a jacket to wear trail running on cold winter mornings, it's best to check out other options.
Weight: 13.05 oz (M) | Number of pockets: 2 zippered hand, 1 zippered internal chest
REASONS TO BUY
Thin and very breathable
Excellent fit for active use
REASONS TO AVOID
Doesn't pack into its own pocket
Average weather resistance
Active insulated layers have come to dominate this genre of jackets, with the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody representing the cream of the crop. These jackets tend to be much lighter, with less insulation and excellent breathability, and are typically made of stretchy fabrics to allow for the largest range of motion. We love the Atom LT; its fit suits climbing, running, skiing, or performing any other cool-weather outdoor sport — a low hem, long arms, and not overly baggy, with excellent shoulder mobility so that we never feel constrained. The fit is far more athletically minded than the overly constrictive Patagonia Nano-Air, a jacket that has come to define this category. It also pairs lightweight and breathable stretch fleece panels along the side of the body with lightweight Coreloft insulation everywhere else to make it better than any other we've tested at regulating our temperature while working hard.
Active layers are designed to be worn when active, protecting from cold air or wind, but breathable enough that you don't get so hot and sweaty that you need to take them off. Naturally, they are pretty thin; if you expect to wear this jacket as a standalone in winter without moving your body to stay warm, you will likely end up feeling pretty cold. It is also an excellent mid-layer for added warmth beneath a thicker outer jacket or shell. We loved it as a winter running jacket, wearing while skinning uphill, winter bouldering, and even for high output nordic skiing. It also serves as a lightweight jacket for chilly mountain evenings and mornings during the summer or shoulder seasons (spring and fall), when a heavier jacket would be overkill.
Choosing which jackets to include in this review starts with lots of research by our reviewers and editors, ensuring we keep our finger on the pulse regarding the newest technologies and upgrades in the market. After buying every model you see here—a tactic that allows us to maintain our unbiased stance—we put these jackets to the test in the real world, using them the same way you do, or would like to. We wear them while backcountry skiing, backpacking, hiking, ice and alpine climbing, belaying, shoveling our driveways, walking our dog, nordic skiing, sitting around the campfire, and all the moments in between. We also devised more objective tests, eventually rating each product on several metrics, including warmth, weight and compressibility, comfort, weather resistance, breathability, and style. Our recommendations come from this hands-on testing.
Our insulated jacket tests are divided across five different metrics:
Warmth (25% of overall score weighting)
Weight and Compressibility (20% weighting)
Comfort (20% weighting)
Weather Resistance (20% weighting)
Breathability (15% weighting)
This review is a collaboration between four of our top reviewers:
James Lucas,Andy Wellman, Matt Bento, and Buck Yedor. James works as a freelance photographer and writer who has written a Yosemite Valley bouldering guidebook, worked as an editor for Climbing Magazine, and traveled the world exploring the outdoors and climbing. He's obsessed with getting outside in his home of Boulder, Colorado, whether that's running up the First Flatiron, climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park, or just hanging with friends on Pearl Street.
Andy is a former climbing guidebook publisher who has spent many years reviewing down jackets for OutdoorGearLab, before switching over to cover insulated jackets. As a lifelong and obsessive climber, backcountry skier, backpacker, and mountain town resident, Andy has spent pretty much his whole life wearing insulated jackets for comfort and out of absolute necessity.
Between his time on Yosemite Search and Rescue, and the last ten years spent climbing and living out of his vehicle, Matt has spent his fair share of time in cold weather. This way of life means that Matt is outside in the elements regularly, perpetually putting his gear to the test. With such a constant and varied need for quality gear, Matt has a unique foundation of knowledge to test and judge insulated jackets.
Buck was born in the Colorado Rockies and has spent much of his life in California's Eastern Sierra. Another alumnus of Yosemite Search and Rescue, Buck knows that having a high-quality insulating layer can make a world of difference in terms of your health and happiness when going out into the cold.
Analysis and Test Results
The jackets tested in this category all use a variety of synthetic insulation. In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the insulated jacket market; there are now two main kinds of jackets: Active insulating layers and insulated jackets for warmth. Active layers tend to be thinner, made with stretch fabrics, and are highly breathable. They are designed to be worn all the time, can be layered over, and thrive on winter days when you are working up a sweat.
Traditionally, insulated jackets have been designed to be warm and present a less expensive and more water-resistant option compared to down insulation. These jackets still exist, and we have tested both varieties in this review. While we grade each choice on the metrics described below, be sure to identify which type of jacket — active or warmth — is likely to serve you well and aid in determining the best jacket for your needs.
A good insulated jacket doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, but you should plan on spending a good chunk of change for excellent quality. Synthetic jackets have historically been less spendy than down competitors, but with their rise in popularity, the field (at least price-wise) has evened out.
The Rab Xenon 2.0 offers an excellent value with its notable price point. The Rab Nebula Pro should also be considered for its low cost. The Columbia Pike Lake is noteworthy for its high warmth at one of the lowest prices in our test fleet. We also want to highlight top performers like the Patagonia DAS Light, Mountain Hardwear Compressor Hoody, and Arc'teryx Atom LT. While these models cost a bit more, they are some of the top performers in our fleet; as such, they represent excellent value for your money.
First and foremost, your jacket, combined with your other layers, needs to keep you warm in the weather you plan to use it in. We've weighted this metric most heavily — 25% of each model's score. Gram for gram, down insulates better than synthetic, but advances in synthetics materials are quickly catching up to the superior warmth-to-weight ratio of down. However, the scores awarded to the jackets in this review only compare their warmth relative to each other, not compared to down jackets. Since this review includes thick and thin jackets, ones designed as activewear, and those designed for maximum warmth, it's probably helpful to identify what type of jacket best suits your needs before giving too much importance to absolute warmth. After you know which kind you want, compare like types to like types.
The Columbia Pike Lake ranked as the warmest jacket in this review with its Thermarator polyester insulation and Omni-Heat Reflective liner. It also tipped the scales as the heaviest jacket in the review. The Mountain Hardwear Compressor Hoody also gets top marks for warmth with its solid features and strong insulation. Comparing warmth between lightly insulated models proved challenging as the jackets allow some wind to blow through them to help with breathability while others block wind. To pick a comparison point, we rated their warmth as an outer layer when worn over base layers with a light breeze.
Among the lighter-weight models tested, the Patagonia DAS Light Hoody, the Rab Xenon 2.0, and the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody ranked well in terms of warmth. Some very light jackets can still be impressively warm. For instance, the Micro Puff uses Patagonia's lightweight PlumaFill insulation, resulting in extraordinary warmth, despite being the lightest jacket in the review by several ounces. Unfortunately, its super lightweight shell makes it vulnerable to abrasion from rocks and sharp objects. Additionally, the PlumaFill tends to leak out in long strands once there is a tear in the shell. The Rab Xenon 2.0 also provides warmth at a light weight.
Weight & Compressibility
Since we pack our insulated jackets everywhere, we appreciate lightweight options. All else being equal, we'll choose the lighter, more compressible model almost every time for outdoor pursuits. The Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody weighs a mere 10.37 ounces for a size medium. The Patagonia DAS Light Hoody, our favorite overall jacket, tips the scales 12.31 ounces for a size medium. The Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody, Rab Xenon 2.0, and the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody also fell on the lighter side with their outstanding warmth-to-weight ratios when used as a mid-layer. If you are looking for the perfect balance between warmth and weight, it's hard to beat the Xenon. It's less expensive than many competitors and significantly more durable than the Micro Puff.
We appreciate a jacket that stows away in one of its pockets. Though we don't recommend keeping a jacket perpetually stuffed when not in use (which can compress the insulation), this is a great feature. It makes just-in-case storage in a backpack easy and keeps the outer fabric clean, protecting its DWR treatment. Many of the jackets tested stuff into a pocket or come with a stuff sack. The Xenon 2.0 compressed well as it is compact, has a clip loop, and regularly traveled on our testers' climbing harnesses. A few of the jackets proved difficult to stuff into their own pockets, negating some of the advantages of this feature.
While it is a top scorer, the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody doesn't include a stuff sack or a stuffable pocket option. The Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody and the Patagonia DAS Light stuff down into their pockets, except that it's so challenging to get the jacket to fit in the pocket that we didn't find this feature very useful. We assigned weight and compressibility 20% of a product's final score.
While synthetic insulation has become more compressible, long-term durability is still an issue. The fiber's ability to rebound to full loft decreases with repeated compression, and the more tightly compacted they are, the more wear the fiber matrices incur. Therefore, for storage purposes, we recommend keeping your jackets in their uncompressed state.
In this category, we assessed each piece's mobility as well as little details that increased comfort. We found that some moved better than others, and some had features, like fleece-lined chin guards or hand pockets, that delivered happiness for minimal weight. We also note the fit characteristics of each jacket; this gives you a better idea of which body types each jacket fits best and can help you choose the correct size.
A jacket's mobility, or how well it moves with the body, often determines its usefulness. When you reach overhead while climbing or digging in your pack, a model that stays put (without the waist hem being tugged upwards) is preferable. We also assessed how well we could move our arms and our heads in the hood. Finally, we considered the ease of use when comparing jackets. Nice zipper pulls, pockets in the right places, convenient hood adjustments, and other features contribute to higher comfort scores. The texture of interior fabrics and the presence of features such as soft chin guards add nice touches that also affect a jacket's comfort level.
We've found that Arc'teryx jackets, in particular, stand out when it comes to comfort due to a combination of unobstructed mobility, perfect fit, and soft, comfy fabrics. The Atom LT received high comfort scores; with low-bulk cuffs, well-shaped zipper pulls, very comfortable inner fabrics, and excellent mobility. Among the heavier, warmer options, we liked the Mountain Hardwear Compressor Hoody. Comfort accounts for 20% of a product's final score.
We've all found ourselves in torrential downpours and fierce winds despite a bluebird forecast. In these situations, the right insulated jacket can significantly reduce the suffer factor. Most of the products we tested are designed to be worn primarily as a mid-layer with a rain jacket or hardshell on top for foul weather. That said, many users employ these products as their outer layer in milder conditions. We've worn all of these jackets as outer layers in all sorts of weather while climbing, skiing, and simply hiking and have found some that provide significantly better protection than others.
Insulated jackets are usually not designed to be fully waterproof or windproof. If you're looking for a jacket that combines the warmth of an insulated jacket with the weather protection of a hardshell, consider a ski jacket.
Models with a continuous or nearly continuous outer fabric do a better job of stopping the wind. The Patagonia DAS Light Hoody and the Mountain Hardwear Compressor Hoody provide the most weather resistance of the insulated products tested. Both feature slippery nylon ripstop fabric with a durable water-repellent coating that works in light rain and snow, making them practically windproof, and have a design that minimizes seams where air can leak. These are the only lightweight models we'd purposefully wear without a shell during a short, light rain. However, the DAS Light also beads water and offers a high level of water resistance.
Hood or No Hood?
We enjoy having hoods since they provide a warmth upgrade for little weight. A hood is impossible to misplace, unlike a hat. We wore hoods under and over climbing helmets. Our favorite hood designs feature cinch cords that tighten the hood around the head and not the face, although more and more hoods are being designed with only elastic to secure the facial opening. While this design is lighter and simpler, it cannot adjust depending on your head shape or the weather. A hood can sometimes get in the way if you're planning to wear your layer primarily under a shell that has its own hood. Many hooded models tested are available in hoodless versions.
All of the models tested are meant to have a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment applied to the face fabric. This causes light rain to bead off the shell and keeps insulation dry, as long as it is effective (and not all are). The DWR treatments on some of the other lightweight jackets are far less effective. Weather resistance accounts for 20% of a product's final score.
Designed to regulate temperature by wicking away moisture during high-energy activities, breathable insulated jackets revolutionized the outerwear scene. The introduction of Polartec Alpha and, more recently, FullRange insulation from Patagonia allows a new approach to breathability. The insulation itself moves moisture and promotes better airflow. Perhaps the most popular and recognizable of these jackets, the Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody, pairs FullRange insulation with stretchy, breathable shell fabric and a moisture-wicking lining to create one of the most breathable models tested.
According to our testing, the Nano-Air Hoody and the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody ranked as the most breathable options. The Atom LT weighs more than the Nano-Air, but it's nearly as breathable and much more durable. Other companies have also begun imitating this style of jacket. These jackets changed the game for high-energy activities like backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, and winter running. Pair these with a lightweight windbreaker if you need some outer protection.
The long-standing approach to making a Primaloft or Coreloft product better suited to exertion is to incorporate low-bulk, breathable panels under the jacket's arms and on the sides. The Arc'teryx Atom LT takes this hybrid approach. Wind-resistant fabric protects your core, while stretchy side panels dump excess heat. This hybrid earned top breathability scores. The medium and heavy models tested were the least breathable, but they work the best as terminal layers, keeping you warm when you've stopped to take a break while hiking or waiting at a windy belay station. While breathability is a critical component of a synthetic jacket's performance, especially the active layers, it's also very hard to quantify. For that reason, we weighted it as 15% of a product's final score.
With the vast assortment of choices available, choosing the best jacket can be tough. We rank warmth and weight high on the list of essential attributes, yet other features, such as weather resistance and breathability, may prove significant depending on your use. Remember to ask yourself what you'll be doing in your insulated jacket. Will you be running or ski touring? Maybe you're backpacking and not expecting to use an insulating layer all that often? You may want to go for something light and breathable and choose an active mid-layer. Want a single jacket that will work nearly every day or activity you may need it for? Then look no further than the DAS Light Hoody or the Rab Xenon 2.0.
James Lucas, Buck Yedor, Matt Bento, & Andy Wellman
A solid base layer is at the core of keeping you warm...
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.