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Your outdoor jacket is extremely important – it’s one of the only things (and at times the only thing) that will keep you separate from the elements. The clothing you choose doesn’t just make your adventure or trip worthwhile, but also possible.
Technical outdoor jackets are designed with a specific purpose in mind: to provide insulation that will keep you warm and stay dry while protecting you from the elements. They’re meant to perform for the specific activity you’ll be engaging in, which means that you’ll want to know what (and where, how and when) you’ll be doing in order to choose the right jacket or layering system.
The outwear you choose will provide comfort and shelter even if you’re in an incredibly remote place, and it’s going to be a big part of creating a home away from home. To start, think about the activities you’ll be engaging in, plus the location, season, time of day and duration of your trip. Then, you can start to consider the jacket features, type of jacket, insulation and fabric you’ll need.
In this article, we’re going to start by covering the features you’ll find in many outdoor jackets, including breathability, closures, durability, hoods, mobility, packability, ventilation and weight. Then, we’re going to talk about jacket types, first by comparing traditional winter jackets to insulated outdoor jackets. We’ll dive into the different types of outdoor jackets, fabrics and insulations, then end with a couple more must-follow tips for finding the perfect jacket system for your next outdoor adventure.
Outdoor jackets are designed with the best features for supporting your athletic activities. In this section, we’re going to cover some of the features you’ll want and/or need.
When shopping for the right jacket or jacket system, keep layering in mind. A good tactic is to use a three-layer system, which includes a base layer, a mid-layer and a top shell layer. You’ll be able to adjust what you’re wearing based on the conditions even if the weather changes mid-activity.
When it comes to outdoors sports, the more breathable your clothing, the better. Breathability is measured by how many grams of water are pulled through the material within 24 hours. Breathable materials help to reduce sweat that’s accumulated during activities, saving you from feeling wet and clammy, and keeping you comfortable even when you’re working hard. If a jacket doesn’t have a lot of breathability, moisture will build up, which can make you cold quickly (it’s especially important to avoid this in alpine conditions).
Closure systems on cuffs and front zippers will play a role in the warmth and weather resistance of the jacket. Pay special attention to the cuffs, because this will indicate what types of gloves you can wear with the jacket.
Even if the jacket fabric is waterproof, the zippers may not be. There may be storm flaps to keep moisture and wind out, but the flaps have to be easy to snap on and off even when wearing gloves. Two-way zippers are good for longer jackets, because you can sit down and unzip the bottom to be more comfortable instead of having the jacket bunch up.
If you plan to hike in inclement weather, you’ll need a jacket that has sealed seams. There are a few different ways that seams can be sealed:
Welded seams are the lightest as well as the most waterproof, but they’re also the most costly.
Durable outdoor jackets have reinforced materials smartly placed in high-wear areas, which improves durability without thickening the entire jacket. This is important if you’re going to be doing something like wearing a hiking pack or climbing a mountain. If you think it’s likely that your jacket could rip if you rub against a rock or go through thick woods, you’ll want to look for abrasion resistant fabric.
Note that durable materials could add weight and decrease both breathability and mobility. Make sure to choose a durable jacket that still prioritizes breathability, comfort and resistance to water and wind.
Hood can help keep in warmth and keep out water, and they’re also helpful if you want to get some sleep during transit to your next location. Here are a few features of hoods to consider:
There are a few drawbacks to consider, too. First, a hood can add weight (which is why it’s good to look for one that’s removable or that at least has removable fur). Second, it could be dangerous if it gets caught on something, so consider where you’ll be. Also, make sure the hood doesn’t limit visibility.
For mobility purposes, you don’t want there to be too much space between your body and the jacket, but you don’t want it to be tight and restrictive, either. Ideally, you’ll find a jacket with a trim fit that lets you carry out athletic movements. Consider both the cut of the jacket and what you may be wearing underneath. Outdoor jackets are usually made with stretchy materials that let you move freely. To test fit, lift your arms – you should be able to do this without exposing your back or stomach. Also, you don’t want to be inhibited from reaching far, especially if you’re going to rely on your upper body a lot (like during rock climbing).
If you’re going to be backpacking, you need a jacket that’s easy to pack and carry with you so that it saves space when it’s not being worn. The smaller you can get it to roll up and stay that way, the better.
Ventilation, like breathability, is important for staying dry and warm. If a jacket is well-ventilated, the body heat will be removed before it turns to sweat. Look for vents in the areas that will generate the most heat, like under the arms.
Further Read: HyVent vs GoreTex Explained and Compared
One of the reasons to carefully consider which features you need and which you can do without is weight. The more features a jacket has, including durability materials and insulation, the heavier it’s going to be. That said, it’s still possible to find a lightweight technical jacket, even one with features like insulation and waterproofing.
Here are a few more features to consider when shopping for an outdoor jacket:
There are a number of jackets out there and it’s important to understand what each one does and doesn’t do. It’s likely that you’re going to have two or more kinds of layers or jackets to combine based on what you expect from your trip.
Before we get into the specific type of outdoor jackets to choose from, we wanted to clarify the differences between traditional winter jackets and insulated outdoor jackets. This will help you determine which you need (and you’ll probably want an insulated outdoor jacket or jacket system if you do any type of winter sport). This is where knowing what you’ll be doing in the cold weather really comes into play – more casual outdoor activities, like short walks or easy hikes, are suited to a traditional winter jacket, while something like a technical hike or mountain climbing will require an insulated layering system that will move with you and have more breathability.
Let’s quickly cover the main differences between the winter jackets you’ve likely owned all your life and lighter weight jackets meant for the wintertime.
There are all sorts of winter jackets available, like insulated trench coats, puffy jackets and parkas. Winter jackets of all kinds usually help you withstand cold, rain, snow and wind. The insulation is generally thick enough to keep your body warm even when you’re not moving.
Winter jackets are typically longer and roomier than outdoor winter jackets, which reduces mobility. They’re also on the more casual side in terms of features, which are geared toward comfort and ease, making them best for generic winter activities rather than winter sports. They’re not nearly as concerned with things like packability and weight.
Overall, winter jackets are best for low output activities, like spending a couple of hours at the ice rink or skiing down a small hill that’s close to the lodge. Adventurous, athletic and longer winter activities call for a technical winter jacket that optimizes performance and safety.
Outdoor winter jackets tend to be thinner and less protective than traditional winter coats because they’re designed to be part of a larger, integrated system of layers. This allows the wearer to add or subtract outerwear in order to manage perspiration and warmth throughout the day. Insulated outdoor jackets are better for cold weather adventures because they have features that help you move while staying warm.
Understanding the types of outdoor jackets you’ll come across, as well as the fabrics that you’re likely to find in these outer layers, will help you pick and choose the ones that are best for you.
These outdoor jackets have warm layers that are made from either down or synthetic filling; alternatively, they may have a fleece lining. Insulated jackets are very warm, but they’re also bulky, so you may not be able to add layers underneath. Some insulated jackets come with inner layers that you can remove if they get too warm.
Pullovers have half the zipper weight because they have half the zipper (or no zipper at all, sometimes). This also means there’s a smaller area for wind or water to penetrate, and even if the zipper breaks, you’ll still be partially protected. However, the downside is that a pullover or half-zip can be a nuisance to take on and off.
The purpose of a rain jacket or waterproof outer shell is to offer protection against wet conditions, including rain, sleet and snow. Waterproofing may either be in the fabric’s membrane or via a coating that’s been applied to the fabric. The water resistance is measured in how many millimeters of water the fabric can hold before it starts to leak.
These jackets are lightweight and easy to pack, and they’re both breathable and waterproof so that perspiration can get out without letting moisture in. Plus, rain jackets are built to allow for a lot of movement and to be layered with other clothing. When it’s chilly, you’ll definitely want another layer – rain jackets don’t usually have an insulated lining.
Hardshell jackets are made of either two- or three-layer fabric. They aren’t as breathable, mobile or lightweight as softshell jackets (more on them below), but they do provide better rain, snow and wind protection. Plus, they’re better insulated and more durable. Since they’re bulkier and heavier than softshell jackets, with better construction and more protection, they’ll be more costly, too. These jackets are designed to be the outer layer only, so you’ll probably want to wear more layers underneath in cold weather.
When compared to hardshell jackets, softshell jackets are more breathable, comfortable, lighter and quieter. They’re also highly flexible, making them great for activities where you have to stretch a lot, like scrambling or rock climbing.
Their main function is to be warm and to wick moisture, and they’re not usually waterproof, with only minimal water resistance. If you’ll be in mildly wet conditions (not a downpour, for example) a softshell jacket is a decent alternative to a rain jacket. Mostly, though, softshell jackets are intended for dry climates.
As the name implies, windproof jackets provide protection from the wind. They’re breathable, made from synthetic materials and have some level of water resistance. If wind chill is a concern, consider adding a windproof jacket to your layering system.
The windproofing is found in the outer layer, but some jackets that have been treated with a wind resistant coating can lose the windproofing after a few washes. Many softshell jackets are windproof, too.
The durable, lightweight fabrics that most outdoor jackets are made from are meant to expel water and to be resistant to mildew, shrinking, stretching, UV rays and wrinkles. The fabrics used in outdoor gear are also easy to care for.
Nylon is strong and durable, and it’s easy to clean because dirt and debris have a hard time clinging to nylon. On the other hand, it’s noisy and doesn’t dry fast.
Polyester has a lot of benefits:
Tricot is usually used as a lining material and it can be made from natural or synthetic fiber; it’s usually derived from polyester. It’s soft, warm, sweat-wicking and more breathable than nylon or polyester. On the other hand, tricot is heavy and it’s not as resistant to water or wind as nylon or polyester. It’s best for casual or light athletic wear, not for extreme conditions.
While different insulations may work in slightly different ways, for the most part they all aim to trap body head in order to keep you warm. The more loft the insulation has, the thicker it will be and the warmer it will keep you.
Down is best for cold to freezing conditions, and it’s the top of the line when it comes warmth in outdoor gear. When properly cared for and maintained, down can maintain its volume for years, even with regular use, and it compresses to a very small size, making it easy to pack and carry with you.
However, down’s performance decreases when it gets wet. The down will ball up and clump when wet, which causes it to lose its insulation. In order to restore the loft, a mechanical clothes dryer is needed.
Down jackets often have an exterior fabric coating or some type of chemical treatment that goes down to the feathers in order to weatherproof it. This treatment will help the down to hold up even in damp conditions, but you still need to be cautious if you’re in very wet conditions.
Further Read: Goose vs Duck Down for Jackets
When shopping for down, pay attention to both fill power and fill weight.
Fill power will tell you the quality of the down – it measures the down’s volume. The number (like 850, for example) refers to the cubic inches that one ounce of down takes up (to measure this, it’s placed in a graduated cylinder and compressed). The higher the fill power, the loftier and warmer it will be.
Down fill weight should also be considered. The weight is the mass of the down that’s used in the jacket. If a jacket has eight ounces of 650-fill, it will be warmer than a jacket with two ounces of 800-fill, even though 800-fill is a better quality down.
Together, the down fill power and the fill weight will give you an idea of the warmth of the jacket.
Pile fabric and fleece are woven fabrics typically made from synthetic wool, often meant to replicate the appearance and feel of sheep’s wool. The fuzzy, thick fabric is inexpensive, low maintenance and long-lasting.
Fleece is an excellent, lightweight fabric for active, sweaty conditions. If there’s going to be a lot of physical exertion, you’ll want a highly breathable, moisture-wicking fabric to keep you from getting hot and clammy. Fleece is also very flexible, allowing for a full range of motion.
Note that pile fabric and fleece are not very thick, and therefore not very warm, but you can look for varying thicknesses if you don’t need maximum insulation. Overall, it’s the least insulating material in terms of winter gear. It also won’t protect you from rain or wind, but there are crossover designs if you want to combine fleece with water resistance.
Synthetic fabrics are best for cold, wet conditions. These plasticized fibers are spun to mimic down’s insulating properties, but they won’t clump up when wet. While synthetic fabrics will lose some insulation when wet, similar to down, it’s not nearly as severe a loss, and the fabric will also dry out faster. Plus, synthetic materials are naturally hypoallergenic.
There are a few drawbacks to synthetic materials. First, as the insulation is compressed and expanded over and over, it packs down more and loses its insulating abilities. Second, it’s heavier and bulkier than down, which means more weight and volume are needed to stay warm.
Wearing outdoor jackets in a casual setting is, of course, okay, but since technical jackets are more pricey than casual winter jackets, there’s no need to pay more if you won’t be doing anything technical. The extra you’re paying for a high fill power down, for example, won’t really be felt if you’re roaming around urban streets, and it’s only noticeable if you’re actually doing something outdoors for an extended period of time during the winter.
Also, always aim to choose quality over fashion. A vintage jacket may look great, but it won’t have the features or modern technology you need. Also, overly-styled jackets will have too many features that will add weight and could potentially get caught on branches.
The following is the full directory of our hands-on reviews and guides previously published. Use it to drill down to the jacket you need!