What are Winter Jackets?
Winter jackets are garments that can help you withstand the cold, wind, snow and rain of the harshest season. 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 comfortable, with plenty of room for storing gloves, hats, scarves, and accessories.
Check out our full review to see how the models we tested compare to each other.
There are many 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. A technical garment often features a trim fit that allows for more athletic movement and features that 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. They usually place a premium on the warmth-to-weight ratio.
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. 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 North America.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 comfort. 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.
Models with only a DWR coating to provide water resistance, like the Patagonia Jackson Glacier and Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber work best in dry, snowy conditions, but can become saturated in the rain and once the coating wears off a bit.
The three 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's main downside is its poor performance in wet conditions. Down feathers ball and clump when wet, losing their insulating qualities. Birds keep their feathers oiled to repel water, but down jackets require regular cleaning to perform well. They also require a mechanical clothes dryer to restore the loft fully after a soaking.
Down jackets must keep their feathers dry, and thus are usually constructed with a waterproof, breathable shell fabric, or a nylon fabric with a DWR treatment. Additionally, some manufacturers treat the feathers themselves with a chemical that repels water. Even the most protected down is still susceptible to getting wet, so if you live in a truly rainy winter climate, where temperatures hover in the 30s and 40s, a winter jacket with synthetic insulation might be a better choice.
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. 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 of plastic fibers that are spun to mimic the insulation 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 three synthetic jackets in this review and found that they were less warm overall.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 look for online reviews from people who fit your size and shape to see how different jackets will suit your needs.
A good winter parka offers a variety of amenities to make winter living more comfortable. There 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 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 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. 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.
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 tend to let in cold drafts. Which gloves will work comfortably with each jacket depends on those cuffs.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.