An insulated jacket is a crucial piece of gear that should be a part of any girl's wardrobe. With improvements in technology, synthetic insulation is becoming warmer, and its properties allow for a variety of uses. Even though it's not traditionally as warm as down, it insulates when wet. As a result, it provides functionality in almost any type of weather. Insulated jackets are also an excellent option to layer underneath a hearty shell to add in additional weather protection.
Why Choose Synthetic Insulation?
When choosing a jacket, there are many decisions to make, but perhaps the first and most important to consider is whether to opt for synthetic or down insulation. In this review, all products are made with synthetic insulation with several notable benefits. While down insulation is traditionally loftier, more compressible, and warmer, it's not water resistant. In addition, down is a little more durable than synthetic. So which do you prefer?
While there are trade-offs for both down and synthetic insulation, the big glaring difference is the performance in wet weather. Synthetic insulation will keep you warm when it's wet but down will not (unless it has fancy hydrophobic down). Down on the other hand has traditionally featured a better warmth to compression ratio. That said, new technological advances in synthetic insulation technology are starting to close the gap. Synthetic jackets are proving to hone all the features of down with the performance of a synthetic jacket. The only downside is that the jackets that are doing this are expensive.
Other considerations to make this decision include the durability of the insulation. Synthetic jackets are easier to take care of but don't last as long as a well-cared for down product. Therefore, a well-cared for down product will probably keep you warmer in the long run then a synthetic product. All in all, consider what performance factors are most important to you before you choose whether to purchase down or synthetic insulation.
Types of Insulated Jackets
Throughout our testing process, it became clear that some of the products in this review were more alike and provided better performance than others. Based on these similarities, we have grouped them into three categories including; quilted, continuous shell, and soft-faced insulated options.
Based on the pros and cons outlined here, you can determine what you require to help you in your search. For example, if you seek a jacket that breathes exceptionally well, consider the models listed below it. If you prefer warmth to breathability, look at continuous shell jackets. If you prefer lightweight and compressive, take a gander at our quilted competitors.
These designs have varying types, and amounts of insulation stitched into baffle pods throughout the jacket. Here is a list of the pros and cons:
- DWR coating wicks away water
- High compression to warmth ratio
- Breathable and thin
- Great mid-layer in cold weather
- Wear alone layer in warmer weather
- Easy to clean
- Lightest and most compressible, typically have stow-away systems
- Typically not wind-resistant due to stitching between baffles
- The material is typically not very durable and can rip easily
These jackets feature a water-resistant material that does not have any stitching on the face and is continuous throughout the arms and face of the jacket. The shells are typically composed of 100% nylon or a hybrid between nylon and rip-stop material. In addition, this design typically features multiple layers.Pros
- Warmer (unless breathable entities are integrated)
- Loftier insulation as more air can collect between the insulation in this design.
- Durable construction
- Typically not very breathable (unless breathable features are built-in)
- Lower compression to warmth ration
- Typically is not compressible without built-in stow-away systems.
Mobile Face Jackets
Some jackets have a more breathable face fabric that is softer and more porous. These are typically constructed with a continuous construction design with multiple layers in some cases.Pros
- Best breathability (porous face fabric)
- Great as a mid layer for aerobic activity in winter
- Excellent as a wear-alone aerobic piece in Fall or Spring
- Comfortable and soft face fabrics
- Some feature a wicking property if worn against the skin
- Wind resistance typically lacks as the fabric is porous; however, most incorporate some form of ripstop
- Textile absorbs water
- Lacks compression systems
- Not lofty
Deciding how much warmth you might need is important to consider as well. Choosing the weight for yourself depends entirely on what you need your jacket for. If you are looking for a warm layer to wear belaying, around the campfire, or around town, a heavyweight option might be better. If you want something to wear under a shell when climbing or skiing, a thinner piece would be best. There are three different jacket weights to consider when purchasing an insulated jacket. Here we outline key differences between the three; lightweight, midweight, heavyweight.
The lightest jackets offering little to no insulation and performing more as a wind-shell to block out the wind. These are great to wear during the summer, fall, or spring when light weather is in the forecast. We didn't test any of these in this review.
This is the most popular category of a jacket. These typically feature insulation anywhere from 40 to 90 g/m^3. These are the most versatile jackets that can function through all seasons depending on their performance and type of insulation. In the winter, these are great jackets to add underneath a shell. Or, you can wear a base layer and insulative layer to add to its warmth. Alternatively, it's a magnificent option to wear as a stand-alone piece on warmer days. Most of the jackets tested in this review fall into this category with the exception of a few.
These bomber warmth options are stacked with multiple liner layers and ample insulation. Functioning best as a winter jacket or warm option for standing around in cold weather, they are not a great option for warmer weather. Buy one if you're seeking a winter coat or something to hunker down in for long stints.
Types of Synthetic Insulation
What kind of insulation should you consider purchasing? While so many options out there it's hard to say what's the best. Some insulation is lighter and more compressible while others might be warm and durable — but not as light. New advances today have also made synthetic insulation warmer than ever. Consider what you're most interested in with your insulation, then look for this in a jacket to determine what's best for you.
This is the most common type of insulation found in insulated jackets today. PrimaLoft is categorized on Gold, Silver, and Bronze ratings that differ in levels of warmth, weight, compression. This is related to the type of filamentous fiber used.
PrimaLoft Gold: This is the "creme de la creme" of the PrimaLoft family. It has the finest and highest quality fibers. It features the best water resistance, but its expensive.
PrimaLoft Silver: A step down from the Gold category, the Silver is a more versatile synthetic with thicker fibers. It is also water resistant, packable, and breathable, but not as warm as the Gold category.
PrimaLoft Bronze: Utilizing 60% post-consumer recycled materials, this category is not as water resistant, is not as lofty, or as warm as the previous categories.
Developed by The North Face and PrimaLoft, ThermoBall insulation offers a new spin on the typical long filaments that have dominated the synthetic insulation market. This technology uses small spheres of insulation instead of long fibers; instead of stacking on top of each other, they articulate together to create more air spaces, which provides more opportunity to pack in warmth. The North Face Thermoball Hoody features this super warm insulation.
Revolutionizing the insulated industry is the Patagonia Micro Puff that utilizes PlumaFill, a new type of insulation that features an amazing compression to warmth ratio. While it mimics the structure of down, it's still warmer than down when wet. The insulation is a combination of strands (not filaments) that are connected to lock in warmth. Because of its design, the jacket does not need traditional baffles and manages to stay warmer than other quilted contenders like the Patagonia Nano Puff. We are happy with this new insulation, and we're excited to see where this goes.
Other Proprietary Insulation Technologies
With so many different types of insulation out there, we could write a book about insulation. Though, the big message here is that there are many different types of insulation technology out there. For example, Arc'teryx uses Coreloft while Columbia uses Omni-Heat. All of are designed to keep you warm even when wet, but have different warmth-to-weight-to-compression ratios. That said, do refer to the warmth section in the comparison chart to see how different forms of insulation stack up. In some cases, many of the proprietary insulation technologies perform at a similar level.
Shell Fabrics & Weather Protection
When looking at a jacket, consider if you want weather protection "built-in" or if you prefer layering your coat under or over a shell. An insulated jacket with better weather protection will typically have a stiffer less breathable shell and are more expensive. It is our recommendation to buy a light shell when the weather turns for the worst. This is because no insulated jacket is "waterproof" and a shell provides a little more versatility for outdoor performance.Water
While none of the jackets in this review are "waterproof", many outdoors women look for an option that might stand up when unsuspected rain tears through the countryside. Many products in this review come with a durable water resistant (DWR) coating, which will repel water in light rain or drizzle. However, over time, the DWR coating needs to be maintained, and it will never keep you dry in a downpour.
In our testing, soft-shelled face fabrics that bead during a light rain are far less water resistant then continuous face-fabric or quilted contenders. The most water-resistant fabrics in this review are those with the Pertex Quantum, a continuous non-porous shell and those featuring any form of rip stop technology. If you want the ultimate level of water resistance, look for these fabrics and design.Wind
If caught in an unsuspected windstorm, a jacket that provides some form of wind resistance is key. Typically jackets with a continuous face fabric that is non-porous are the best for these situations. Breathable face fabrics provide some level of wind-resistance but are far less wind resistant than a continuous shell. Consider the Pertex Quantum shell or a polyester option if you want the best in wind resistance.
How Durable is an Insulated Jacket?
While synthetic insulation is easy to care for, it's not as durable as down. A well-cared-for down jacket will last you 10-20 years, while synthetic insulation breaks down more easily. That said, if the fabric tears on an insulated jacket, the filling remains intact. But, if a rip on a down jacket is not repaired, it could empty a baffle, meaning less warmth.
When looking at the type of jacket and its associated durability, we learned that models with a continuous face fabric design were less likely to snag while exploring in the wilderness. Also, jackets with a thicker face fabric are far more durable then jackets with a paper thin fabric like the Patagonia Micro Puff. Overall, quilted contenders proved to be a little less durable than other types of jackets out there, though the super bomber Arc'teryx shells are some of the most durable in our testing.
Is Compression Important?
For some people, the feature of having a jacket stuff into itself is convenient, while it's irrelevant for others. For long multi-pitch rock or ice climbs, it is ideal to stuff or clip a jacket to the harness for additional warmth at belays. If you are using your jacket for hiking or camping, the clip feature might not be important and the compressibility is more of a consideration. For example, if you head out on a backpacking trip, it's important to stuff your jacket into your pack without to much extra bulk. In addition, many jackets have their stow-away system. This nifty feature is one that many don't know about. In this case, a jacket will stuff into its hand or chest pocket, which is especially wonderful when you need to put the jacket away neatly into a backpack. Loftier and quilted competitors are the most lightweight and compressible options for this purpose.
The stowaway area may be either the breast or hand pockets. Most stow away systems have an additional accessory tag and a double-sided, or upside down zipper, so the first step would be to look for those features. If you find them in one of the pockets, then all you need to do is flip that pocket inside out, and begin stuffing the body inside. You might be able to stuff other jackets into their own pockets, but if the zipper pull isn't accessible from the outside, that's a tell a tale sign that it technically isn't designed to be stuffed.
Our top recommendation for excellent compression and stow-away systems include: the Patagonia Micro Puff, Our Top Pick for Lightweight Adventures, Patagonia Nano Puff, and Rab Xenon X.
Hood or No Hood?
While everybody has their own opinion, it's important to consider whether or not you want a jacket with a hood. There are many pros for either option. A jacket with a hood provides additional warmth in the presence of bad weather.
Most hoods in this review are helmet compatible, making them a decent option for sports that require them. That said, many people prefer not to have a hood because it adds extra bulk. A person that plans to use their jacket more as a mid-layer, for example, might want a jacket without a hood to eliminate this additional material. Overall, hoods are all about personal opinion and the needs of the user. Decide what you will use your jacket for, then consider which is best for you.
Caring for Your Insulated Jacket
Even though insulated jackets are the "workhorse" pieces that we tend to stash and thrash, they do require specific care. Most of the shell fabrics are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish that eventually will wear off. This will happen as you use it, wear it, and wash it. It's also important to wash your coat; while dirt accumulates in the insulation, this can decrease the amount of space for air pockets. As a result, a dirty jacket will be less lofty and warm; make sure you occasionally wash it so it's the warmest it can be.
When considering the purchase of your next insulated jacket, consider where you're going, what you're using it for, and what features you demand. There are many options out there, and there is one bound check all of your boxes.