The right winter jacket is the key to staying cozy in cold weather. What makes a jacket right for you depends on your climate, your daily commute, and your favorite wintertime activities. A casual parka with thick down encased in non-waterproof nylon will keep you warm but not dry in a wet storm. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, it won't be the best option. A hardcore jacket built to keep you toasty when standing around in negative temperatures won't work for a technical ski tour or ice climbing outing.
Below, we break down the features and construction details to consider when choosing a winter jacket. In our women's winter jacket review, we focus on casual parkas and jackets made to keep you warm while walking, standing, or sitting in cold weather.
If you need technical layers for winter activities like running or cross-country skiing, check out our women's down, insulated synthetic and softshell jacket reviews. We also have a women's ski jacket review if you'll be hitting the slopes.
Where you live and how you spend your time outside determine how much insulation you need to stay warm. If you're out chopping wood, feeding livestock, or running from the car to the office, you can get away with something lighter. If you're standing around for the bus or counting birds at a field station, you'll want a much warmer jacket.
Most manufacturers don't temperature-rate their jackets like they do their sleeping bags. (Canada Goose is the exception.) Look to our warmth rating chart in the review to determine which jackets work in the coldest conditions.
If you experience less than frigid winters, don't shy away from options with lower warmth scores. Many offer plenty of insulation for more temperate conditions. You can always pull an extra layer on for the coldest days, but you can't take the extra stuffing out for milder temperatures. Less insulation often makes for a more versatile coat.
Down insulation is the fluffy plumage that grows beneath the outer feathers of ducks and geese. It's one of nature's great insulators. Unfortunately, harvesting it usually kills the bird. 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 way to trap your body heat in cold climates. Down's quality and loft are measured by how many cubic inches one ounce of down fills. That's known as its fill-power. One ounce of 600-fill-power down takes up 600 cubic inches, and 900-fill-power takes up 900 cubic inches.
Down traps air pockets around you, then your body heat warms them. The more space the down takes up, the more air it catches, and the warmer you stay. One ounce of 900-fill-power down will keep you warmer than one ounce of 600-fill-power down.
Higher fill-power numbers also mean that the down is more compressible. A 900-fill-power down jacket is very warm, packs down very compactly, and is very expensive. In other words, it's overkill for a casual winter coat. The jackets we test range from 500 to 800 fill-power.
Fill-power refers to the down's quality. Fill-weight refers to its quantity. If you have twice as much 600-fill-power down in one jacket as in a 900-fill version, the 600 coat will likely be warmer because there is more down overall. The math can get tricky, and when you add features like thicker shell fabric or fleece liners, it's hard to quantify warmth.
These numbers are just starting points to help you figure out how warm a jacket will be.
Down does not work well if it gets wet. Water makes the down stick together, collapsing all those lovely air pockets and leaving you damp and shivering.Pros: High warmth-to-weight ratio, compressible, lightweight, long-lasting with the proper care.
Cons: Loft and warmth jeopardized when wet, expensive, ethical concerns of animal cruelty.
Synthetic insulation is any human-made insulator. It's usually plastic-based, such as polyester threading and fibers that mimic the structure of down. The fibers trap warm air just like down, but they don't clump or lose loft when wet.
Synthetic insulation is usually less expensive than down and doesn't require harvesting of birds, but it's heavier and not as warm for its weight. It can also be bad for the environment.
The most significant benefit of synthetic insulation is maintaining warmth when wet and dry out quickly. It's an excellent option for wet climates, people on a budget, or warmer climates.Pros: Water-resistant, less expensive, still provides insulation when wet.
Cons: Heavier than down, less compressible, loses loft over time, often fossil fuel-based.
Features like fleece-lined pockets and insulated hoods can make a big difference in how warm a winter jacket keeps you. Cozy cuffs are a favorite example, particularly those with thumb holes. Cinched waists that block drafts are another.
Some jackets even have unique features like internal carrying straps. These functional features can be critical to making our wintertime outside more enjoyable. Here we break down which features are non-negotiable and which you can do without.
Any self-respecting winter jacket is going to have a hood. Not only does it protect your head in stormy weather, but it also provides warmth on frigid days. Many zip or snap off for mild days or shoulder seasons.
Insulation — An insulated hood makes a big difference in below freezing temps. Hoods lined with plush down or fleece, like the Outdoor Research Coze or the North Face Arctic Parka, are much warmer than those that aren't, like the Patagonia Tres 3-in-1 Down Parka. We also take note of how much extra room each hood has, in case you want to wear a beanie underneath.
Ruffs — A number of the models we tested have fur ruffs around the hood. Most are synthetic, though some Canada Goose hoods are lined with real coyote fur. The use of real fur can be controversial. You can read about Canada Goose's fur and down sourcing on their website. Both real and synthetic fur effectively trap heat around your face to protect you from the wind and cold, even from frostbite, which is why you see them on polar expedition parkas.
Many of the ruffs are 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.
The Outdoor Research Coze jacket has a unique down baffle ruff that extends beyond the normal range of a hood to provide better protection. It helps, but not as much as fur does.
We are on our cell phones more than we'd like to admit, and it's hard to use your phone with gloves. So we appreciate the winter jackets that feature pockets with soft fleece lining. They warm our hands up quickly, and we highly recommend making sure that your next jacket has them. Also, look at the amount of insulation between the pockets and the outside of the coat. The North Face Arctic Parka is warm, but the pockets aren't insulated. We noticed.
Pockets also need to protect your valuables. No one wants to lose their keys or a brand new smartphone in a snowbank, so we prefer pockets with zippers. And we like those zippers to be durable. The quality of the zippers and the size of the pull tabs make a difference when you're wearing gloves.
Two-way zippers are more or less mandatory on any knee-length parka. Long jackets are harder to move around in than a mid-thigh or hip-length coat. Unzipping the bottom a bit helps you want and sit comfortably. The knee-length models we tested have a two-way zipper, except for the removable down layer in the Patagonia Tres Down Parka. It can't have one since it's designed to zip into the outer shell.
We appreciate when jackets have a storm flap to snap over the zipper, providing extra protection from wind and water. A bonus is that the snaps can quickly close the jacket if it's not cold enough to zip it all the way up.
Wrist cuffs are excellent at trapping heat in and keeping precipitation out. The cuffs on the jackets we tested were fleece, knit, elastic, or nylon. Some are adjustable via a snap or Velcro closure. Some work better than others.
The fleece cuffs on the Marmot Montreaux are soft and warm but dry slowly and chilled our wrists in wet weather. Knitted cuffs are warmer and more durable than fleece. The Patagonia Down With It Parka and the Arc'teryx Seyla Parka lack cuffs, and we felt the difference.
If you live in a wet climate, or you clear mounds of snow off your car every day, you'll want a coat that has an adjustable cuff closure, like the velcro on the Nuuk parka. Tightening the cuffs down around your wrists or gloves provides an extra layer of protection against the elements.
Very cold places tend to be dry. Frigid air doesn't have the energy to carry much moisture and, if it does, that water is frozen. Warmer winters tend to be wetter. In a wet climate, you'll want something waterproof or at least water-resistant. Whether a jacket can resist or completely seal water out depends on its construction and whether it's treated with a durable water-repellant (DWR) coating.
The jackets we reviewed have either a simple nylon or polyester shell or a layered construction that includes a waterproof membrane covered by a face fabric. Most of those have a DWR treatment as well.
A DWR coating helps water bead up and roll off a jacket, but it doesn't make it waterproof. If it's not paired with a waterproof membrane, DWR treatments only extend your time in the elements briefly. Nylon and polyester fabrics have a low absorbency rate. When treated with a DWR finish, they can shed water well for a time.
DWR coatings wear off over time due to wear, tear, and washings. When that happens, you can buy aftermarket treatments to reapply at home, like ReviveX Durable Waterproofing or Nikwax.
The majority of the winter jackets we tested come with a DWR coating. They vary in quality. If you live in a wet winter climate, consider a jacket with a waterproof membrane to make sure you stay dry.
Waterproof jackets are made by layering fabrics, one of which is a working waterproof membrane. This layer blocks rainwater or snowmelt. If the membrane is also breathable, it will let some of the heat and sweat you generate escape through pores, millions of them per cubic inch.
Waterproof membranes are covered by exterior face fabrics. The membrane can't breathe as well if the face fabric is saturated with rain, so they almost always have a DWR coating as well. Some jackets will include a third layer, usually an inner mesh or taffeta layer that feels softer and drier against your skin.
These are highly-technical fabrics with familiar names like Gore-Tex, The North Face's "HyVent," and Patagonia's "H2No". They offer fantastic protection from the elements in your everyday life.
An MM rating refers to how many millimeters of water can stand on a jacket for 24 hours without saturating it. Since a taller collum of water exerts created pressure on a membrane, this designates how waterproof each jacket is. A 10,000 MM rating works well for light rain or snow. The Patagonia Tres Down Parka is rated to 20,000 MM.
We worry about the ethical and environmental impacts of the products we buy, and we know many of you do too. Animal products like down and fur raise particularly pressing concerns. The excellent functionality of a coyote fur ruff requires the death of a coyote. In most cases, down-filled products also require ducks and geese to die. (They are usually killed as food, the down is a secondary byproduct.)
Every time we buy a product that uses these materials, we support a down or fur sourcing practice. It's great to see companies pay more attention to where their animal products come from and how they are produced.
Patagonia has a traceable down program. A third party verifies that their down comes only from dead geese or ducks (live-plucking was once common) and comes from animals that are never force-fed (which is a practice that produces faux gras). Patagonia also recycles down from old products, which we love.
Canada Goose also avoids live-plucking geese. They partner with Feather Industries Canada Limited. All their down is harvested from animals raised for meat, so no birds are raised and killed for the sole purpose of down production. They use real coyote fur to line their hoods because it protects your face better than faux fur. They chose coyote fur because they are not endangered in North America.
Arc'teryx and Outdoor Research also use ethically-sourced down and disclose their down supplier, Allied Feather & Down. The feathers come from small European farms with the same standards as Patagonia — no-force feeding and no live-plucking.
The North Face, Outdoor Research, REI, and Eddie Bauer also use RDS (Responsible Down Standards) in partnership with Textile Exchange and don't believe in unnecessary harm, such as force-feeding or live-plucking.
It's great to see that so many manufacturers are considering the impact their products have and are working to produce them as responsibly as possible.
We hope this buying guide has you better prepared to find the best winter jacket for your needs. Head over to our women's winter jacket review to find it.