The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose the Best Winter Jacket

When the weather is truly atrocious  something super-warm like the thick down insulation of The North Face McMurdo is in order.
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Tuesday September 25, 2018

What is a Winter Jacket?


A winter jacket is a garment that can help you withstand the cold, wind, and snow or rain. It should contain thick insulation so your body stays warm even when not in motion. It should also protect from wind and precipitation. A good winter jacket needs to keep you and its insulation dry and should have a waterproof/breathable outer shell.

It is these two points together that sets "Winter Jackets" apart from some of the lighter weight insulated jackets that we tested in our dedicated down jacket and synthetic insulation jacket reviews. Those thinner and less protective pieces are often part of an integrated system of layers, to give the user ultimate discretion in warmth and perspiration management during winter activities. The jackets featured in this review are intended to be used as an all-in-one overcoat, with few or no warm layers needed underneath.

Aside from being functional in a cold environment, winter jackets also tend to be longer and are styled to work for casual and more formal occasions. In contrast to their lightweight counterparts used for cold weather sports, around town winter jackets often include many more features that add to their comfort and livability, since weight is not a primary concern.

You can check out our Full Review to see how the models we tested compare to each other. If you're in the market for a women's model, you can head over to our Women's Winter Jacket Review for more winter weather parkas.

For cold weather outdoor activities  you need a warm jacket. If your outdoor time involves wet or windy weather at a reasonable temperature  something like the Arc'teryx Fission SV is especially well prepared.
For cold weather outdoor activities, you need a warm jacket. If your outdoor time involves wet or windy weather at a reasonable temperature, something like the Arc'teryx Fission SV is especially well prepared.

Types


There are many different types of winter jackets on the market, from stylish insulated trenches to technical puffy jackets meant for outdoor adventure. We'll break down the different types below and give you some key points to contemplate.

Technical


What makes a winter jacket technical isn't just a dayglow color that fits right in at Everest Base Camp. A technical garment often features a trim fit that allows for more athletic movement and features are designed to support this same athletic movement or activity. These include interior water bottle pockets, helmet-compatible hoods, climbing harness-compatible zippers or length, and more durable materials placed in high-wear areas.

Technical jackets have purpose-driven designs to help them perform in the winter environments for which they are meant.
Technical jackets have purpose-driven designs to help them perform in the winter environments for which they are meant.

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 make a difference in performance if it's only worn on city streets. We don't have any of these jackets in our selections at the moment. We're working on that.

Casual


Casual models tend to focus less on weight and packable size, and more on warmth, weather protection, comfort, and style. Since insulation is built-in and the jacket is typically a heavier weight, these work well for low-output activities like going to the local outdoor ice skating rink or commuting to work in the city. 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. Our favorite casual jacket in this review was the Arc'teryx Camosun Parka, thanks to its trim fit and clean exterior.

The hearty fur hood ruff and knit waist and cuffs of this jacket present a bit of a throwback look.
The hearty fur hood ruff and knit waist and cuffs of this jacket present a bit of a throwback look.

We don't recommend wearing a casual parka in a technical setting. While you can get by with a relaxed model on the ski hill, since the lodge is usually close by, longer winter excursions demand 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. This is not the parka to bring on your next ice climb.

The Arc'teryx Camosun Parka is a top-of-the-line option.
The Arc'teryx Camosun Parka is a top-of-the-line option.

Elements of a Quality Winter Jacket


As with any piece of outdoor clothing or gear, certain factors distinguish a bargain basement model from a top of the line piece. Here's what to look for regarding quality when selecting your next one.

Outer Shell


A shell is a thin waterproof barrier for your jacket. It can offer superior protection from rain, sleet, and snow using a weatherproof barrier material such as Gore-Tex, eVent or H2NO. But it 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 underneath it to keep yourself warm. Please check out our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article for more information.

Using an uninsulated shell during backcountry activities or on overnight winter camping trips offers the most versatility in layering choices. On trips closer to home, or where weight and adaptability aren't as important, you can afford to choose a jacket with more features and comforts. If you are in the market for a new uninsulated shell, check out our Hardshell Jacket review.

The shell of your jacket keeps the rain or snow away from your insulation. In the long term  models like the Arc'teryx Camosun Parka that have a waterproof membrane shell (like Gore-Tex) are more effective at keeping you dry than a DWR treatment.
The shell of your jacket keeps the rain or snow away from your insulation. In the long term, models like the Arc'teryx Camosun Parka that have a waterproof membrane shell (like Gore-Tex) are more effective at keeping you dry than a DWR treatment.

The models we tested for this review feature either a two- or three-layer membrane material, or a DWR (durable water repellent) coating as the weather barrier. If you live in a climate where winter precipitation tends to fall as rain instead of snow, look for a model with a high-tech barrier that is waterproof and breathable, like the Gore-Tex found on the Arc'teryx Camosun and Fission SV models.

We also found the HyVent fabric used on The North Face Arrowood to be both durable and waterproof. On the flip side, models with a DWR coating, like the Patagonia Jackson Glacier and Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber work best in dry, snowy conditions, but can saturate through in the rain and once the coating wears off a bit.

Insulation


The three types of winter jacket insulation are down feathers, synthetic fibers, and synthetic fleece. No matter the type of insulation, the effect is the same. The insulation traps your body heat, keeping you warm. The higher the insulation's loft (thickness), the warmer you stay.

Down

Down is a longtime favorite insulator and is still the gold standard for most warm apparel. With proper maintenance and care, down can keep its original loft volume for many years of use. And it compresses to a tiny size. Down's main downside is its poor performance in wet conditions. Down feathers ball and clump when wet, losing a lot of their insulating qualities. They also require a mechanical clothes dryer to restore the loft fully.

Since winter jacket manufacturers know we have to go outdoors when it might be wet, they add a weatherproofing layer. This takes the form of either an exterior fabric DWR coating or a chemical treatment directly to the down feathers (hydrophobic down). This helps the down hold up to damp environments, but you should still be cautious with down in genuinely wet locales.

Classic down baffling in the main body of the Camosun Parka
Classic down baffling in the main body of the Camosun Parka

Down Fill Power and Warmth

Throughout our reviews, you will see references to each 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 thorough 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 number 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.

Many factors collectively affect a parka's warmth. Fill power is only part of the story. Down fill weight is also critically important. The fill weight is the mass of down insulation used in the parka (often observed by how thick the jacket is.) Thus, a jacket with eight ounces of 650-fill is 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 together can give you a reasonable idea of how warm a particular product is.

Down parkas usually constructed with sewn-through or box baffles. 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

Synthetic insulation is made up of plasticized fibers that are spun to mimic the insulation properties of down. Companies such as PrimaLoft and Polarguard and individual manufacturers have made great leaps in synthetic material quality in recent years. The advantage of using synthetic insulation is that it does not clump up when wet. Although the insulative properties are also compromised by moisture, the effect is not as severe as it is with 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.

The synthetic insulated Arc'teryx Fission SV is a smooth and functional jacket for warm and wet climates.
The synthetic insulated Arc'teryx Fission SV is a smooth and functional jacket for warm and wet climates.

Pile Fabric

Pile or fleece is a fabric meant to replicate the hide and wool of a sheep. It is a woven fabric with a fuzzy, thick layer of fibers that looks quite like the wool of a sheep. Pile combines the inexpensive nature and water-readiness of synthetic insulation with the durability of down insulation. The main disadvantage of pile insulation is that it's not that thick, so it's not that warm. Over the years we have tested thick pile jackets like the Patagonia Isthmus and Fjallraven Greenland. We have also tested thinner fleece insulated jackets like the Top Pick Columbia Mission Air Interchange. All of these are among the least insulating winter jackets around. On the upside, contenders like this are low-maintenance and will last a long time.

The inner jacket of the Columbia Mission Air Interchange  modeled here on its own. It is a simple  reliable fleece jacket in this configuration.
The inner jacket of the Columbia Mission Air Interchange, modeled here on its own. It is a simple, reliable fleece jacket in this configuration.

Hybrid Insulation


Hybrid pieces maximize performance by matching the benefits of an insulation type to the needs of your body. In our review, almost half of the jackets now feature some hybrid insulation. The pile-insulated jackets, for instance, feature synthetic puff insulated sleeves to keep your arms warm.

The Arc'teryx Camosun features both down and synthetic insulation mapped to the user's body and to perspiration hot spots. The hybrid nature of these jackets doesn't seem to change their performance much. If we split hairs, we could probably find subtle differences. However, we didn't see any obvious pros or cons to hybrid designs.

We also tested the Bitter Chill Parka from Woolrich. This jacket uses a combination of synthetic fibers and natural sheep's wool for insulation. It works primarily like synthetic insulation.

Features


A good winter parka offers a variety of amenities to make winter living more comfortable. There are simple jackets like the REI Down Hoody 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 and what is not.

A Hood

At the top of our list of important features is a hood. A hood adds warmth and weather resistance. A removable hood is a nice touch, as this gives the wearer another option for style and for reducing 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 hoods, in our experience, are very adjustable with a 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.

Look at all those pockets! You can carry a whole day's supplies in the pockets of the Canada Goose Expedition Parka.
Look at all those pockets! You can carry a whole day's supplies in the pockets of the Canada Goose Expedition Parka.

Closures

The closure systems on cuffs and front zippers are also something to look closely at, as they will influence weather resistance and warmth. Rib-knit cuffs like those featured on the Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber are ideal but only allow for over the top, gauntlet style gloves if you don't want to stretch the fabric out. On the other hand, stylishly loose cuffs, like those on the Woolrich Bitter Chill, tend to let in cold drafts. Which gloves will work comfortably with each jacket depends on those cuffs. Also, look at our How to Choose the Best Ski Gloves article for more information on glove fit and style.

Zippers

Zippers deserve a careful look since the fabrics may be waterproof, but the zippers are often not. Specific models, like the Arc'teryx Fission SV, 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 and durability made. Two-way zippers are another great addition to a parka longer than waist length. It allows the wearer to sit down more comfortably without feeling like they're bunched up in a sleeping bag.

Pockets and Such

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 types 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.


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