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?
Picture this - it's cold, rainy, and your less-than-perfect poor shell has become saturated from a constant downpour that you've been caught in among the mountains. You are about a mile from the trailhead, and your insulated jacket is soaked. What would happen in a down versus an insulated jacket?
Possibility One: You bought a down jacket before this trip.
Before being in the rain, this jacket provided ample warmth in the cold. However, now it is saturated. The loft is super soaked, and there are no longer air pockets to lock in warmth. You feel cold. When the rain stops, you learn that your down jacket takes time to dry.
Possibility Two: You bought an insulated jacket before this trip.
Before being in the rain, this jacket provided a little less warmth than the down jacket. However, now that it's saturated, you learn that you are warmer then you would be in the down jacket. The insulation provides warmth when wet. When the rains stop, the jacket dries relatively quickly.
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 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, consider the models listed below it. If you prefer warmth to breathability, look at the continuous shell jackets. If you prefer lightweight and compressive, take a gander at our quilted competitors.
Quilted Jackets have varying types and amounts of insulation stitched into baffle pods throughout the jacket. The shells are typically made out of a nylon textile with a:
- DWR coating
- Most lightweight and compressible
- Average weather protection (poor wind resistance)
- Breathable and thin
- Great mid-layer in cold weather
- Wear alone layer in warmer weather
- Includes: Patagonia Nano Puff, The North Face ThermoBall, Patagonia Micro Puff
Continuous Shell 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.
- Typically constructed of a nylon-based textile with a rip-stop material.
- Warmest constructs
- Best weather protection
- Loftier insulation
Includes: Rab Xenon X (Editors' Choice), Arc'teryx Proton AR (Top Pick for Warmth), Columbia Mighty Lite Hooded Plush (Best Buy award winner), Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody (Top Pick for Alpine Adventures)
Soft Face Shell jackets have a more breathable face fabric that is softer and more porous. While it might have a DWR finish or ripstop material, it is not as weather resistant as other types of jackets.
- Best breathability (porous face fabric)
- Not as warm or weatherproof as other categories
- Great for aerobic activities or recreation that requires movement.
- Includes: Patagonia Nano Air (Top Pick for Breathability), Outdoor Research Ascendant, Black Diamond First Light Hoody
Insulation Thickness & Warmth
Deciding how thick of a layer to get is entirely dependent on what kind of weather you expect to wear it in and if you need it as a mid-layer or an outer layer. If you are looking for a warm layer to wear belaying, around the campfire, or around town, then thicker is better. If you want something to wear under a shell when climbing or skiing, then a thinner piece would be best. Usually the thinner the jacket, the less it weighs. So if you are bringing a jacket with you on long backpacking adventures or multi-day climbing escapades, lighter is better.
The thickest and warmest product in this review is the Columbia Mighty Light Hooded Plus, which uses 80 grams of Omni-Heat insulation, while the thinnest and lightest is the Patagonia Micro Puff, which employs 65 g/m2 of new PlumaFill insulation. Even though most of the models in this review used the same amount of insulation, the type of insulation used can make a significant difference in thickness and overall warmth. Additionally, the thickness of insulation can contribute to the overall coziness of a particular product. We found that the loftier insulation of the Rab Xenon X, for example, made it feel a bit like a sleeping bag and it doesn't get much cozier than that.
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. So 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.
Found in: Patagonia Nano Puff (features recycled PrimaLoft Gold), Rab Xenon X, our Editor's Choice winner (PrimaLoft Gold Active).
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.
Found in: Black Diamond First Light Hoody
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.
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 a 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, we learned that while soft-shelled face fabrics will bead on a light rain, they 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. So if you want the ultimate level of water resistance, look for these fabrics and design.
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 proved to be the most durable in our testing period.
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. This 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: Patagonia Micro Puff, Our Top Pick for Lightweight Adventures, Patagonia Nano Puff, 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 of our testers preferred 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. In addition, it's important to wash your coat. While dirty 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 possibly be.