The Perfect Puffy Predicament: Choosing An Insulated Jacket

So many puffies... So many choices... How does one choose?

So many puffies… So many choices… How does one choose?

During the winter months one of the most valuable and likely to be used pieces of kit one can own is a good puffy jacket. But, with all of the different options out there how is one to choose? Should you go with down or synthetic? Lightweight and packable, or heavier and warmer? Hood or no hood? When you walk into your local outfitter you will be confronted with a myriad of choices. We’re here to help cut through all of the hyperbole, so you can make a decision and get back to what’s really important… Spending as much time outside as possible!

First, let’s go over a few of things you should be considering when choosing your next puffy… 

 

Down vs Synthetic

One of the first choices you’re going to have to make is what type of insulation to go with. Down insulation is generally more expensive, but offers more warmth for its weight. Down is also more durable and if well taken care of can remain usable for 15-20 years, compared to the lifespan of a typical synthetic piece which is only 5-7 years. 

On the other hand, synthetics tend to cost less, and will continue to offer some insulating value when wet. Synthetics also dry out faster and tend to be less puffy which makes them more comfortable when used as a mid-layer. Lastly, synthetic jackets are easier to take care of and don’t require any special witchcraft to wash. 

Personally, I used to be a big believer in down. I had a down sweater, down jacket, down vest, big down belay jacket… down, down, down, down, down! But over time I’ve slowly switched sides. It’s not that I’ve discovered something inherently wrong with down, I’m a sweaty dude, my jackets get dirty and damp and synthetics just do a better job of meeting my current needs. 

Bottom Line: Which type of insulation you choose will depend on the activities you’re participating in and your individual needs. In general, down is often the best choice unless lower cost, warmth while wet, or ease of care are priorities. 

 

Weight, Durability & Packability

Every year jackets get smaller, lighter and stronger! However, instead of going straight for the lightest, shiniest jacket out there, you might want to spend at least a little bit of time considering how important these three factors are to you.

The lightest weight jackets are typically the most packable and the most expensive. However, they also tend to be some of the least durable. Is this really what you need? Is this going to be the best fit for you? Might you be better served by a lower cost jacket that’s just as warm, slightly heavier, possibly less packable, but more durable? If you could spend less money for a product that would last you longer… Wouldn’t you want to do that? Will shaving a handful of grams off your pack weight really make a difference on your next outing? 

These are questions I can’t answer for you. Personally, I find that I don’t operate or perform at a level where having the lightest and most bestest jacket really makes a difference. I would rather spend less, get a product that’s more than adequate, and then use the money I saved to help pay for a cool trip or experience… Think about it.  

 

Hood Or No Hood

Hoods are awesome, but they aren’t for everyone. A hood is an easy way to add warmth without adding a lot of weight, but so is a hat. And, hoods can be bulky making layering with other pieces – especially other hooded pieces – especially difficult. But again, what you choose is going to depend on your particular needs and preferences. 

Personally, if I had only one jacket, I would definitely get one with a hood. They’re so handy and can really increase your level of comfort when engaged in crappy conditions. Usually, a hood is almost always worth it. 

 

Other Things To Consider

Fill type, weight, packability and whether a jacket has a hood or not aren’t the only things you are going to want to consider when looking for a puffy. You might also want to consider things like pocket placement, how the hood adjusts, and most importantly the fit. Fit is by far the most important thing to consider. It’s kind of hard not to consider fit. But, the thing to remember is that no matter how perfect a jacket is, if it doesn’t fit well you are going to hate it. Also keep in mind that if a jacket fits really well, you won’t want to give it up even if it’s stained, covered in patches, and has so little insulation that it’s basically just a windbreaker. 

 

Anyway… Now let’s take a look at some of our favorite jackets! Keep in mind that I am a 6’1″ male who weighs 155lbs and has relatively narrow shoulders. I typically wear medium shirts with the occasional small thrown in, and 32″ waisted pants.

 

 

Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor Jacket (synthetic)

Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor Jacket (synthetic)

Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor Hooded Jacket

Fill: 40g + 60g Thermal.Q Elite (supposedly equivalent to traditional 130g insulation)
Body Fabric: 20D Ripstop Nylon
Weight: 17oz / 479g
Size: Medium
Fit: Very Large… small would have been much better fit. 
MSRP: $295

This is a new jacket for fall 2014. Instead of using a single weight of synthetic insulation, Mountain Hardwear has combined 40g and 60g Thermal.Q Elite to create something that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. MHW is claiming that by combining these two weights they have created a 100g insulation system that has the equivalent warmth of 130g insulation. Also, the inner and outer baffles are offset to eliminate any cold spots creating a jacket that should hold it’s own on the coldest days and still be light and packable enough take along just in case. 

Things I Like: I love the length of the sleeves and torso of this jacket. It’s long in the body and the sleeves and the extra coverage will be welcome when the temperatures drop. The sleeves are unique in that the insulation extends slightly past the elastic wrist closures helping to keep your wrists warm and providing some additional weather protection. We were also pleasantly surprised by the double separating zipper. This is a feature not mentioned in the literature, or shown in the marketing images on MHW’s website, but present on our sample… Sweet! I also like the hand warmer pockets that are raised slightly to make them easier to access when wearing a pack. The pockets have zip closures and a brushed lining. These are small details, but welcome on a jacket that is just as likely to be worn around town as it is in the backcountry.

Things That Kinda Suck: There are no internal mesh pockets. This jacket is very much a light belay jacket and a couple of internal stash pockets that you could use to dry out gloves or keep batteries warm would have been nice. Also, the hood is ok, but it would have been nice to have a rear adjustment. Without this feature it’s a little difficult to get the hood situated when not wearing a helmet. Lastly, the fit seemed significantly off. I ordered the medium size and it was much too large. If I had a do over I would exchange the medium for a small.

 

 

Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket (synthetic)

Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket (synthetic)

Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket

Fill: 60g Thermal.Q Elite
Body Fabric: 15D Ripstop Nylon
Weight: 9.2oz / 261g
Size: Medium
Fit: True to size… one of my favorite fitting jackets ever
MSRP: $200

I received the Thermostatic Jacket last fall as payment for doing some work for a local business. As soon as I tried it on I knew it was going to be my new goto jacket for winter backcountry sessions, paddling trips, and sessions in the mountains. The truth is there isn’t anything very special about this jacket. I just really like the way it fits and that trumps just about everything else.

What I Like: I really, really, really like the fit. When purchasing jackets I typically have to size up a little to get the length I need in the arms and torso. Unfortunately, this means that the body of the jacket has much too much room. With the Thermostatic Jacket the medium size fits perfectly. It’s the perfect length for my 6’1″ frame and has just the right amount of room underneath. It’s not restrictive in the slightest, yet it easily fits under other jackets when a bit of extra heat is needed. 

Things That Kinda Suck: Really… I can’t think of anything. The brightly colored accents get dirty easily… but that’s about it. Mountain Hardwear really did a swell job. It’s a simple jacket that they didn’t over-complicate with unnecessary features and they nailed the fit (for me at least). 

 

 

Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket (synthetic)

Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket (synthetic)

Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket

Fill: 60g Primaloft
Body Fabric: 15D Ripstop polyester
Weight: 11.8oz / 334g
Size: Medium
Fit: Boxy… too much room in the body, sleeve/torso length borderline short 
MSRP: $199 

The Patagonia Nano Puff is the original lightweight synthetic puffy. This is the jacket that started it all and it’s still an awesome piece of kit. It’s simple but effective. The elastic around the cuffs provides a good seal, but allows you to easily push your sleeves up. The shell is polyester rather than nylon. Polyester is more hydrophobic than nylon and should do a better job managing moisture and hold it color better. This jackets been around for a while, and it’s still going strong because it’s just a great piece of gear. 

What I Like: This jacket is simple, clean and effective… end of story. The only reason that this isn’t one of my favorite jackets is due to the way it fits. If you’re looking for a great, lightweight, synthetic puffy you should definitely check this piece out. It’s at least as nice as the Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic – and possibly better – if it provides the fit you’re looking for.

Things That Kinda Suck: The fit. This jacket does not fit well. The medium size is much too large in the body and quite short in the sleeves and torso… a terrible combination. If this jacket fits you well… pull the trigger. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Outdoor Research Havoc Jacket (synthetic)

Outdoor Research Havoc Jacket (synthetic)

Outdoor Research Havoc 

Fill: 60g Primaloft
Body Fabric: Gore Windstopper 2L (denier?? But, it’s heavy & durable)
Weight: 18.3oz / 518g
Size: Medium
Fit: True to size
MSRP: $235

I picked up the Havoc Jacket from Outdoor Research as an around town piece. I am far from being a fancy jacket type of guy and I wanted something a little more subdued that I could wear with nice jeans or slacks and not feel too childish. The Havoc uses Gore’s windstopper fabric in the torso. This makes the jacket a it heavier, but it also provides some additional weather protection. Also, the added weight makes the jacket drape well… so in many ways it’s not really a bad thing. 

What I Like: The fit is pretty good on this jacket when used as an around town jacket. There isn’t a lot of extra room and the length of the sleeves and torso is pretty good. I also appreciate the double separating zipper. This is a feature that is often left off other jackets. Not only is it helpful if using as a belay jacket, but it’s works well to vent extra heat. Also, the added weather protection provided by the Gore Windstopper fabric is very welcome… wet snow… light rain… no problem.

Things That Kinda Suck: Well… the Havoc is heavy, the trim fit makes it hard to layer over things and the hood is too small to fit over a helmet, but too bulky to wear underneath. Other than these few things it’s actually a really good jacket, and as an around-town piece it’s great! 

 

 

Arc'teryx Atom LT Jacket (synthetic)

Arc’teryx Atom LT Jacket (synthetic)

Arc’teryx Atom LT Jacket

Fill: 60g Coreloft
Body Fabric: 20D Stretch Ripstop Nylon, Powerstretch under the arms
Weight: 11.1oz / 315g
Size: Medium
Fit: Trim, narrow at at waist
MSRP: $199

The Atom LT from Arc’teryx is another great entry into the lightweight puffy market with a few twists. It has some unique features that set it apart from other jackets in this category and uses a proprietary insulation called Coreloft. 

What I Like: The Atom LT is one of the best puffy jackets for use during higher output activities. The breathable powerstretch underarm panels and shell fabric regulate your temperature while the trim fit slides well under other layers. The cuffs are also very nice in some ways. They are very comfortable and fit quite snugly. The tight fit helps keep the jacket in place and reduces the bunching that can happen when layering over the top. 

Things That Kinda Suck: Those tight cuffs… Well, they’re really tight and make it impossible to push up your sleeves. Pushing up the sleeves is one of the best ways to dump heat without removing the jacket, and you can’t do that with this jacket. That breathable fabric and those underarm panels… well they don’t offer as much wind protection reducing the overall warmth, and the powerstretch panels add weight and increase this jacket’s size when compressed.

The Atom LT is a strange combination of features that just doesn’t work for me. It’s increased breathability combined with deceased warmth creates a jacket that asks to be worn during higher output activities. However, once you get going the tight cuffs hinder your ability to dump heat creating a situation where I would need to remove this jacket earlier than other jackets in this category. When not working as hard, I would get cold more quickly in the Atom requiring the addition of a shell or other layer. In the end I found that the Atom LT had a very narrow comfort range and I often found myself reaching for other jackets. 

Note: My wife has the hooded version of this jacket and loves it. So much so that it’s one of her most utilized pieces of outdoor clothing. That said… My wife tends to get cold easily and can often be found wearing her Atom LT Hoody in temps where I find a puffy unnecessary. In warmer temps the additional breathability of the Atom would be a welcome benefit. Also, the women’s Atom fits her very well, and we all know that a good fit can often make you forget about other features you might not be too keen on. 

 

 

Outdoor Research Maestro Jacket (down)

Outdoor Research Maestro Jacket (down)

Outdoor Research Maestro Jacket

Fill: 800+ Down 
Body Fabric: Pertex Quantum, 22D Nylon micro ripstop
Weight: 23.6oz / 669g
Size: Small
Fit: Slightly large… purchased small size, long sleeves & torso, fits well over base+mid+shell  
MSRP: $395

The Outdoor Research Maestro is a jacket made for situations when you want the maximum warmth, but still need a jacket that doesn’t take up a lot of space. It’s by far the warmest jacket I own and though it doesn’t come out of the closet very often… When I do reach for it, it’s magical.

What I Like: It’s extremely warm, pretty light, packs up well, fits over layers easily and has everything you want and nothing you don’t. I’ve owned a few jackets in this category and this is by far my favorite. Part of the reason is the fit. Even in the small size the sleeves and torso are plenty long. It fit’s closely without restricting your motion too much… and just looks good. 

Things That Kinda Suck: My biggest worry with this jacket concerns the durability of the shell fabric. It doesn’t seem overly tough. I’ve only had this jacket for one season and the shoulder areas are already showing significant wear. The thing is… I can only think of a couple of instances when I wore a backpack over this jacket… not a great sign. My other complaint has to do with the collar height. It’s quite short for this type of jacket and I wish it offered some additional coverage. When it’s cold and blustery out, as it often is in the mountains, it would be nice to have a little more to hide behind. 

 

4 thoughts on “The Perfect Puffy Predicament: Choosing An Insulated Jacket

  1. Lynn Makela

    Tell me more about this down witchcraft you perform. I think I have a sweaty/stinky sleeping bag that down wash can’t fix. 🙂

    I have an older version of the Women’s Nitrous™ Hooded Down Jacket. It’s very lightweight and doesn’t give me too much trouble when layering. It’s a good piece for camping and backcountry winter activities.

    Jason has the nanopuff from last year in a peak-fall-color orange! Shocking, right? Although it’s a little roomie on his slender physique… he loves it. Patagonia really does need to stop sizing their jackets for boxed people or at least make a “climbing” style for everyone.

    Cheers friend!

  2. igmaino Post author

    Thanks Lynner! That down witchcraft I refer to really had to do with properly preparing your washing machine. Before you wash any down item you really should run the washer at least once without any soap in order to rinse any and all detergent residue out of the drum. I would typically run the washer twice just to make sure it’s as clean as possible.

    At this point you’re ready to actually wash your down item using a product designed specifically for down.

    After it’s done being washed you have to dry the thing out and this take a long time. Start on low heat and put a couple of tennis balls or dryer balls in with the item to help break apart the down clusters. Stop and check on the item every 15-20 minutes until the item feels reasonably lofty and most of the down clumps have been broken up. Next run the dryer on “air dry” or whatever the no heat option is. Do this for 45-60 minutes. Lastly, remove the item and place it somewhere safe to continue drying out. It may seem dry, but it’ll probably take another 24-48 hours before it’s really 100% dry.

    This may seem excessive, but this process has always done a great job at reviving older, soiled down items.

  3. mike

    Have you noticed a difference in longevity for synthetic and down? I have been reading and people are saying that within months their synthetic has collapsed and is not warm 🙁

    Thanks for any advice

  4. igmaino Post author

    Mike,
    There is definitely a difference in longevity. I have multiple synthetic jackets that when new were quite puffy and have now lost a significant amount of loft after just a season or two. With synthetic jackets you’ll notice a significant loss in loft after just a single season if you use the jacket often, especially if you are stuffing that jacket into a small bundle in your pack.

    Down on the other hand is considerably more durable. Usually, when you start to notice a loss in loft for a down piece it’s due to needing a wash. After washing down pieces typically perk back up in near new, if not new condition. Down fibers are much more durable and you should expect 7-10 years of use before the slow loss of feathers starts to significantly effect the loft.

    If you’re only going to have one jacket and you want to have it for a long time go with down. The increased lifespan makes it the best value in the long run. I personally have accumulated a fair number of puffy jackets and currently have a synthetic jacket w/no hood, a synthetic hooded jackets, and down jacket w/no hood, and a big down belay jacket. Currently, I always take the non-hooded synthetic jacket with me out when hiking or skiing. Then if I’m worried about it being cold I’ll take either the hooded synthetic jacket or down non-hooded jacket to layer over the first puffy. This way I keep the outer jackets free from my sweaty mess. If it’s super cold I’ll take the non-hooded synthetic and the big down puffy. The only thing I wish was different is the non-hooded down jacket… I wish it had a hood. Then I’d be all set.

    As noticeably as the loss in puffiness is for my synthetic jackets… They will work well enough, and I still wear them more often than the down pieces. They’re just easier to clean and maintain and now that the fibers have broken down a bit they are softer and really comfortable to wear.

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