Whether you're looking to just survive winter or to actually enjoy it, selecting the right winter jacket is the first step. Your climate, environment, and what you do when you're outside in the winter all play a significant role in choosing the best winter jacket for your needs. A casual knee-length parka with thick down and nylon fabric will keep you warm, but if you live in a wet climate like the Pacific NW, it's probably not the best option. Similarly, the coat that will keep you warm and dry when standing around in negative temperatures is probably not the best option for a technical ski touring or ice climbing outing.
In this article, we break down the different features and construction details to consider when purchasing a winter jacket. For our women's winter jacket review, we've focused on casual parkas and jackets manufactured by some of the leading outdoor apparel manufacturers. These models are designed to keep you warm in cold weather while stationary. If you are looking for technical layers to wear during active winter pursuits, have a look at our women's down, synthetic insulated and softshell jacket reviews. We also have a specific women's ski jacket review if you are looking for something for the slopes.
The climate and environment you live in is the number one factor to consider when buying a winter jacket. If you live in a wet climate, you'll want something waterproof. If you don't, you may get by with a jacket that is only water-resistant. The ability to partially or completely seal out water depends on the type of shell used and whether or not it is treated with a durable water-repellant (DWR) coating. The jackets we reviewed have either light nylon or polyester materials with DWR coatings, or a layered construction that includes a waterproof membrane and a face fabric, also treated with DWR.
DWR coatings are commonly used on fabrics as a finish to make them water-resistant. This is what makes water bead and roll off the surface of any jacket, but it doesn't make it waterproof. Nylon and polyester fabrics have a low absorbency rate, and when treated with a DWR, they do a good job of shedding water. While a DWR treatment can help extend your time out in the elements, they are not fully waterproof and will eventually saturate. DWR coatings also wear off over time. When that happens, you can buy aftermarket treatments to reapply at home, like ReviveX Durable Waterproofing or Nikwax.
All of the winter jackets we tested come with a DWR coating. They vary in quality. While you might like the look and style of a long puffy down parka, like the Marmot Montreaux and appreciate its DWR treatment, it's not the best choice for a wet winter climate. You should consider a jacket with a hard shell and waterproof membrane to make sure you stay dry.
A waterproof jacket consists of several layers, one of which is a working waterproof membrane. This layer keeps rainwater or snowmelt out while allowing some of your sweat to escape. These breathable membranes contain millions of pores per cubic inch to allow your water vapor to pass through the shell so they can breathe. The exterior, or face, layer also gets a DWR coating so that water beads and sheds. The membrane can't breathe as well if the face fabric is saturated with rain. Some fabrics also have an inner mesh or taffeta layer, and there are many variations in construction.
These highly technical fabrics, like Gore-Tex, The North Face's "HyVent," and Patagonia's "H2No," were designed with active mountain pursuits in mind and work well in any wet weather situation. When used on a casual winter jacket, they bring a fantastic layer of protection to your everyday use. An MM rating designates the waterproofness of the material. MM refers to how many millimeters of water a jacket can withstand in 24 hours before becoming saturated. A rating of 10,000 MM is perfect for light rain or snow. Our top pick for wet climates, the Patagonia Tres Down Parka, is rated to 20,000 MM.
Where you live and what you do outside also determines how much insulation you need in your jacket. If you're active, you can get away with something lighter. If you end up outside without generating much body heat on a regular basis, you'll want a much warmer jacket.
Down insulation comes from ducks and geese. It's the fluffy plumage that grows underneath their outer feathers and helps insulate them. Unfortunately, harvesting down usually kills the bird. In most situations, down comes from birds that are raised for their meat. You can see our Sourcing Ethics discussion below for more information on this topic.
Down insulation has a high warmth-to-weight ratio. It's lightweight, highly compressible, and is an excellent choice for cold climates. Down's quality and loft are measured by how many cubic inches one ounce of down fills, or the fill-power. So, one ounce of 600-fill-power down takes up 600 cubic inches when compressed by a set weight, and 900-fill-power takes up 900 cubic inches.
Down keeps you warm by trapping air that you've warmed up against your skin. The more space that the down takes up, the more air it can trap, and the warmer you stay. So, one ounce of 900-fill-power down will keep you warmer than the same weight of a lower fill-power. That makes for an extremely light, packable, and expensive jacket. A 900-fill-power down jacket is very expensive and not necessarily needed for a casual winter coat.
You also want to consider the fill-weight or total amount of down in the jacket. If you have twice as much 600-fill-power down in one jacket as you do in a 900-fill jacket, the 600 coat will be warmer because there is more down overall. The down models in this review ranged from 550-fill-power to 800-fill-power.Pros: High warmth-to-weight ratio, compressible, lightweight, long lasting with the proper care.
Cons: Loft and warmth jeopardized when wet, hard to clean, expensive.
Synthetic insulation is made from man-made materials that are usually plastic based, like polyester threading and fibers that mimic the structure of down. The fibers trap your warm air just like down does, and won't clump up or lose loft when it gets wet, unlike down insulation. Synthetic insulation is typically less expensive than down, but also heavier and not as warm for its weight.
It's sometimes a better choice, depending on what you intend to use it for, because of its ability to help you maintain warmth (even when wet) and dry out quickly as well. If you've ever washed a down jacket or sleeping bag, you know there is no way to get the loft back without popping it into the drier with a couple of tennis balls for an hour. Synthetic insulation dries easier and faster (though the tennis ball trick can help, too). It's a great option for wet climates, people on a budget, or if you don't live in a particularly cold climate and only need a bit of extra warmth in your winter jacket.Pros: Water-resistant, less expensive, still provides some warmth if wet.
Cons: Heavier than down for same warmth, less compressible, loses loft over time.
Some features you can find on most winter jackets, like fleece-lined pockets and hoods. Nylon cuffs are a favorite feature, particularly those with thumb holes. Some jackets even unique features like internal carrying straps and an adjustable cinched waist. These functional features can be critical to making our time outside in winter more enjoyable. Here we break down what features we loved and what ones we found so-so.
An important part of a winter jacket is the hood. Not only does it help protect you in stormy weather, but it also provides extra warmth on frigid days. Not everyone likes or needs a hood, though, which is why it's great that some models have removable ones, like The North Face Metropolis Parka II. Some have hoods that don't come off at all.Hood Insulation
Insulation is a critical component of warmth. We could feel the difference in hoods that are lined with plush down or fleece, such as the Marmot Montreaux or the Canada Goose Kensington Parka, than those that aren't, like the Patagonia Tres 3-in-1 Down Parka. If you anticipate wearing your coat in stormy or very cold conditions, you'll want to make sure the hood is adequately insulated. In our review, we also took note of how much space each hood has, in case you want to be able to wear a beanie underneath it.
A lot of the models that we tested had fur ruffs around the hood, either faux or in the case of the Canada Goose jackets, real coyote fur. A fur ruff provides an extra level of protection in windy or stormy conditions. Real fur very effectively traps heat around your face to protect from frostbite, which is why you see them on polar expedition parkas. Synthetic versions do the same thing but are often less effective.
The ruffs are usually removable, so if you love a particular design but not the fur, you may be able to take it off. Note that not all faux fur ruffs are created equal. Some are loftier than others. If you are looking for soft fur ruff, the Marmot Montreaux and the Canada Goose jackets take the cake.
We are on our cell phones a good amount of the day, and it's hard to use your phone with gloves. Almost all of these winter jackets have fleece lining on at least one side of their pockets. We didn't realize how it important it was to have fleece-lined pockets until we were outside in freezing weather without gloves on. Small details like fleece-lined pockets made a big difference in warming our hands up quickly, so definitely look for this feature on your next coat. They are also more comfortable than unlined pockets.
Something else to consider is the amount of insulation between the front of the pockets and the outside of the coat. The North Face Arctic Parka II is warm, but when we had our hands in the pockets, the lack of insulation was noticeable.
Besides warmth and comfort, pockets protect your valuables. No one wants to lose their keys or brand new smartphone in a snowbank, so we prefer pockets with zippers. Another issue to consider is how durable those zippers are.
Be sure to check out the structure of the pockets and size of the zippers when buying your next coat, even assess whether you can manipulate the pull tabs with gloves on or not.
A two-way zipper should be mandatory on all knee-length parkas. By nature, long jackets are harder to move around in than a mid-thigh or hip-length coat. All of the knee-length models we tested came with a two-way zipper, except the down layer of the Patagonia Tres Down Parka. It can't have one since it is designed to zip into the outer shell.
We always come across a few finicky zippers while testing. Two-way zippers are great, but it's a shame when they are difficult to use.
Cuffs are great for trapping heat in and keeping precipitation out. The cuffs on the jackets we tested included fleece, knit, elastic and nylon and some had additional snap or Velcro closures. Each type of cuff has something to offer. The fleece cuffs on the Marmot Montreaux are soft and warm, but in wet conditions, their warmth and comfort are compromised. Knitted cuffs are warmer and more durable than fleece, and the ones on the Columbia Heavenly Long Hooded Jacket are great because their thumb holes and stay in place and don't allow any room for precipitation to enter or heat to escape. The Patagonia Down With It Parka lacked cuffs, and we noticed!
If you live in a climate that gets a lot of rain, or you need to clear mounds of snow away from your car every day, you'll want a coat that has adjustable exterior cuffs on the sleeves, like the snaps on the Canada Goose Kensington or Shelburne parkas. This feature lets you lock the cuffs down around your wrists or gloves, providing an extra layer of protection against the elements.
Warmth & Climate
A winter jacket's most vital function is to keep you warm, whether you're standing outside at the bus stop or shoveling the driveway in a snowstorm. While each parka did a good job at keeping us warm, it's important to look at the climate and the environment you live in, because some options make more sense than others. While it can be tempting to buy the latest, greatest, warmest model on the market, not everyone needs a coat that can withstand below 0 degrees Fahrenheit weather.
Moreover, most manufacturers don't even rate their jackets for temperature like they do a sleeping bag (except for Canada Goose which gives a temperature rating on all of their coats), so it can be hard even to know how warm a jacket will keep you. Check out our warmth rating chart in the review to find out which jackets are warmer than others, and don't shy away from some lower scoring jackets if you don't experience frigid winters. You can always throw an extra layer on underneath on freezing days, but you can't take extra down out on mild ones. Less insulation can often make for a more versatile coat.
Today's customers are concerned about the ethical and environmental impacts of the products they buy. There are a number of products on the market that reuse old, discarded items to make something new or use recycled materials in construction. So this brings to light the critical question: Where do all these materials come from? And what about the materials that come from animals?
Many consumers choose not to buy products that use real fur because they don't want an animal to die for them to have a jacket, but in most cases, down-filled products also require the death of an animal to produce it. It's great to see companies pay more attention to where their down comes from and how it is produced. Patagonia redesigned all of their down products to use traceable down, which they claim is third-party-verified, not live-plucked, and comes from animals that are never force-fed. This resulted in a quality reduction for all of the down used in their products, but we applaud the effort.
Canada Goose also avoids live-plucking geese. They partner with a supplier that shares this value: Feather Industries Canada Limited. Feather Industries was founded as a division of Canada Packers, a food distributor, and all their down is harvested from animals raised for meat. No birds are raised and then killed for the sole purpose of down production. Canada Goose also uses real coyote fur to line their hoods because it protects faces better than faux fur. They have chosen coyote fur specifically because these animals are not endangered and are plentiful in North America. The company states that it only purchases fur from certified Canadian trappers who comply with humane trapping methods.
Arc'teryx also values ethically sourcing down. They disclose their down supplier, Allied Feather, and Down, which gets the feathers from small European farms that have the same standards as Patagonia — no-force feeding and no live-plucking. The North Face also uses RDS (Responsible Down Standards) in partnership with Textile Exchange and doesn't believe in the unnecessary harm, such as force-feeding or live-plucking.
Eddie Bauer is RDS certified, which also prohibits live-plucking and force-feeding. RDS stands for Responsible Down Standard.
It's great to see that so many manufacturers are considering the impact they make with their products, and they are trying to do it right. Like it or not, times are changing, and it's our turn as consumers to follow suit with our purchases.