What are Winter Jackets?
Winter jackets are garments that are built to withstand cold, windy, and wet weather. They contain thick insulation so your body stays warm even when standing still. They are also constructed with fabrics that repel water and wind, creating weatherproof refuges for your upper body.
It is this combination of weather resistance and warmth that sets the jackets in this test apart from those which 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.
In addition to keeping you warm and dry, winter jackets are styled for more casual and sometimes formal occasions. In contrast to their lightweight counterparts used for cold weather sports, all-around winter jackets often include many more features that add to their comfort and livability, since weight is not a primary concern. They need to make life in winter more bearable, with plenty of room for storing gloves, hats, scarves, and accessories.
Check out our full best-in-class review to see how the models we tested compare to each other.
Types of Winter Jackets
There are several different types of winter coats on the market, from stylish insulated trenches to technical puffy jackets meant for outdoor adventures. We'll break down the different types below and present some key choices to make.
What makes a winter jacket technical isn't just a dayglow color that fits right in at Everest Base Camp. Technical garments are designed to keep the user warm, dry, or both, at a minimal weight. They often keep features to a minimum in order to save weight and to keep the garment streamlined for athletic performance. Often, technical jackets have a slim fit, both to enable athletic movement, and also to trim any unnecessary bulk. Common features include interior water bottle pockets, helmet-compatible hoods, climbing harness-compatible zippers or length, and more durable materials placed in high-wear areas. They usually place a premium on the warmth-to-weight ratio. Don't expect these jackets to have much style. While they may look right at home on the streets of an athletic mountain town, they might stick out awkwardly in an urban setting.
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 lightweight high fill power down, which won't make a difference in performance if it's only worn on city streets. However, some users in extreme climates need the performance of a technical winter jacket for everyday winter life. The Top Pick for Expeditions Feathered Friends Khumbu Parka will be appreciated by both those attempting to climb the world's tallest peaks and those living in the coldest cities in the world. And, if you don't care about fashion, and need a jacket for both commuting through the city and to keep you warm on your annual ski trip, a technical jacket might be the best option.
In contrast with technical jackets, casual models put a premium on style and comfort, in addition to accomplishing their basic tasks of providing warmth and weather resistance. They are also usually built with heavy-duty shell materials like canvas or nylon, which add weight, but are also much more durable than the razor-thin and delicate shell fabrics used in technical jackets. They might also include stylistic features like cargo pockets, button flaps that cover the front zipper, and fur accents around the neck and hood.
Since these jackets are made with affordability, durability, and comfort in mind, they don't always offer an athletic fit or light weight, making them less suitable for high-output activities. However, they work great for getting around the city or going sledding or ice skating. Casual jackets also offer convenient features like phone pockets, removable hoods, and thigh-length fits.
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 a mountaineering trip.
Elements of a Quality Winter Jacket
Most winter jackets are comprised of an insulating layer that provides warmth, and an outer shell that keeps the weather out. They also have useful components that make winter living easier. Here, we break down each component, and make note of what to look for.
A shell is a thin layer of fabric on the outside of a jacket that provides most of the weather resistance performance. Outer shells vary from super-waterproof, impermeable rubber layers to very breathable, minimally water-resistant softshell fabrics. They can offer superior protection from rain, sleet, and snow using a weatherproof barrier material such as Gore-Tex, eVent or H2NO. In general, shell layers offer no insulation value. As such, most winter jackets feature a shell layer on top of an insulating layer. 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 read our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article for more information.
For most high-output winter activities, like hiking, snowshoeing, fat biking, cross-country skiing, and backcountry skiing, an uninsulated shell is best, allowing the user to choose additional layers worn underneath, in an effort to custom-tailor the amount of warmth the clothing system provides. But in most low-output activities, like urban living, campus life, and commuting, an all-purpose jacket with a shell, plenty of insulation, and comfortable features is perfect. If you are in the market for a new uninsulated shell, check out our Hardshell Jacket review.
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, or the inexpensive Columbia Boundary Bay.
Models with only a DWR coating to provide water resistance, like the Patagonia Jackson Glacier, the Patagonia Maple Grove, and the Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber work best in dry, snowy conditions, as they can become saturated in the rain and once the DWR coating wears off a bit.
The three main types of jacket insulation are down feathers, synthetic fibers, and synthetic fleece. All three work by trapping air in a confined space, which then heats up from your body heat. In general, down and synthetic insulation capture more body heat than fleece insulation, and thus are more widely used when lots of insulation is needed. Such is the case with winter coats.Down
Down, made from bird feathers, has been used for insulation since ancient times 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. Another benefit of down is its ability to compress to a fraction of its lofted size, then puff right back up again when allowed to. Down also provides the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any insulation material, making the best choice for most technical jackets. Down's main drawback is its poor performance in wet conditions. Feathers ball and clump when wet, leaving no room for warm air in between. Birds keep their feathers oiled to repel water, but down jackets rely on an effective waterproof and breathable shell to prevent them from getting wet. They also typically require a mechanical clothes dryer to fully restore the loft after a soaking.
Some manufacturers even treat feathers individually with a water-repellant chemical, which in our experience is nice, but not 100% effective. Even the most protected down is still susceptible to getting wet, so if you live in a truly rainy winter climate, where temperatures hover just above freezing, a winter jacket with synthetic insulation is a better choice.
Because these loose feathers will be pulled down with gravity over time, and would ultimately fall to the hem of the jacket if left alone, down insulation is packed into small compartments called baffles. Baffles are separated by stitching, where the fabrics on either side of the down insulation compartment are joined. At the stiching, there are no feathers between the inside of the jacket and the outer shell layer, which has no insulation value. This creates cold spots in the jacket. Manufacturers have discovered a way to prevent this with "box" baffling, which created three-dimensional baffles separated by a "floor" and "walls", eliminating any areas that lack insulation between the user and the outer shell. This technology is usually only included in the most expensive and technical down jackets.
Down Fill Power and Warmth
Throughout our reviews, you will see references to each jacket's fill power. This is also a specification noted in our comparison table, allowing you to compare the fill powers of all the parkas side-by-side. Fill power is an indicator of down quality. The number you see, 850 for example, is the number of cubic inches that one ounce of down occupies when placed in a graduated cylinder and compressed by a standardized weight. Simply put, higher fill power down is more naturally puffy, 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 measures the quantity of how much down insulation is used in the parka. Thus, a jacket with eight ounces of 650-fill down 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. Refer to our Down Jacket Buying Advice article for more information on down jacket construction.Synthetic
Synthetic insulation is made of plastic fibers that are spun to mimic the puffy properties of down. Companies such as PrimaLoft and Polarguard 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 warming properties of synthetic insulation are also compromised by moisture, the effect is not as severe as it is with down, and synthetic insulation will dry out faster, to boot.
The drawback to synthetic insulation is that over its lifetime, it will begin to pack down, losing its loft, and thus its ability to keep you warm. We tested four synthetic jackets in this review and found that they are less warm overall. For example, the synthetically insulated Columbia Boundary Bay weighs about three-quarters of a pound more than the Feathered Friends Khumbu Down Parka, but the Khumbu is much, much warmer. The upshot is that synthetic insulation does not settle with gravity, meaning that baffles are not needed to keep the insulation in place. As a result, fewer stitches are required through the insulation compartment, meaning there are fewer cold spots, compared to most down jackets. But even with more continuous insulation, synthetic is not as warm as down.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 and we have also tested thinner fleece insulated jackets. 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.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.
Fit and Comfort
Quality winter jackets pack lots of insulation underneath a weatherproof shell, and yet don't restrict motion or feel uncomfortable. This is a tall order, but the best winter jacket manufacturers achieve this balance by carefully tailoring the cut to allow freedom of movement. Jackets often feel constricting in the torso, shoulders, or neck. The best jackets offer a close fit that doesn't restrict movement. Of course, everyone has a different body type, so pay close attention to our hands-on reviews where we mention the cut of each jacket.
A good winter parka offers a variety of amenities to make winter living more comfortable. There are simple jackets 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. Quality is more important than quantity, and jackets that have well-designed and thoughtful features are more useful than jackets that merely pack as many features as possible into a garment.Hood
At the top of our list of important features is a hood. A hood adds critical 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 also prefer hoods that are insulated. This seems silly, but some insulated jackets skimp on insulation in the hood, leaving our heads cold when the rest of our bodies are warm.
One hood nuance that we've discovered over our years of testing is how far the hood protrudes from the face. If the sides and brim of the hood don't stick out far enough, wind and snow from driving winter storms will turn your cheeks raw. Look for a hood that has plenty of material to shield your face from a crosswind.Closures
The closure systems on cuffs and front zippers are also something to closely consider, as they will influence weather resistance and warmth. Stretchy wrist cuffs like those featured on the Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber and the Columbia Boundary Bay 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 tend to let in cold drafts. The button-closure cuffs on the Patagonia Maple Grove look great, but aren't very practical.Zippers
Zippers deserve a careful look since the fabrics may be waterproof, but the zippers are often not. Specific models use waterproof zippers, while others use storm flaps to keep rain and wind drafts out. Storm flaps are a nice touch, as they prevent precipitation from entering if you have your hands in your pockets. Two-way zippers are another great addition to parkas with longer hems. This allows the wearer to unzip the bottom of the front zipper for extra leg mobility and ease when sitting down.Pockets
Pockets are included in virtually every jacket on earth. In cold and blustery winter weather, we often keep our hands stuffed into the front pockets of the jacket that are located at waist level. These are referred to as handwarmer pockets. These can be fleece-lined for comfort, and may even include insulation on the outside of the pocket, maximizing hand warmth when waiting on the platform for a train or on the sidewalk for an Uber.
Other useful pockets include external chest pockets, which are great for cell phones and car keys. Internal chest pockets are perfect for small pieces of paper, cash, or business cards. Some jackets include large, open pockets on the interior of the jacket, called stash pockets, where you can quickly jam large items like gloves, scarves, or a newspaper.
We hope that this article helps you better understand the features and nuances of winter jackets and helps you find the best product for your needs and your budget.