Insulated Jackets Buying Guide - Moosejaw.com

Insulated Jackets

Take a sit-down and really think about where your feet will take you. Are you walking city streets, or trudging into the backcountry with your backpack? Will there be a chill in the air or sub-zero temps? Is there going to be a lot of wind or rain? These are some of the key factors that will steer you towards the right jacket. Certain types of insulation will outperform others in specific conditions and for specific activities. Keep your answers to those questions in mind as you read through this guide.

The Arc'teryx Fission is insulted, waterproof and breathable.
The Arc'teryx Fission is insulated, waterproof and breathable.

Heat Retention

It's your heat. You should keep it.

Keep out the elements that want to kick your warm air out.

If you're reading this, you're most likely warm blooded. If you aren't sure if you're warm blooded or not, just ask yourself this question, "Do I maintain a constant body temperature by regulating metabolic processes?" If you answered "yes," well then you're warm blooded. Mammals radiate heat, it's just what we do. We radiate even more when we're active. Insulated jackets aim to trap this heat and hold it close to our bodies.

The enemies of heat retention (in terms of insulation) are cold, wind and rain. The colder the air is, the quicker the heat will dissipate into the colder air. Wind can blow away the trapped warm air, leaving cold air in its place. Rain can be damaging in numerous ways: rain water is typically cold, it pulls heat from your body as it evaporates, and it can impair the heat retaining properties of the insulating materials. That's why your insulation layer should be protected by a windproof/rainproof material if you're going out into harsh environments. Don't worry about memorizing that, I'll touch more on it a little later.

The Patagonia Down Sweater jacket.
"I use down insulation to offer the best warmth-to-weight ratio." - Patagonia Down Sweater
The North Face Thermoball jacket.
"I use synthetic insulation so I can perform better than down in wet conditions." - The North Face Thermoball
So many fleece options, so little time.
So many fleece options, so little time.
Wool naturally performs well in most conditions, but is also a bit heavier than going with a fleece.
Wool naturally performs well in most conditions, but is also a bit heavier than going with a fleece.

Type of Insulation

There's no need to pick sides, but I did. You're welcome geese.

Down is warmer, but synthetic insulations are better suited for wet conditions.

I'm about to go into detail about each type of insulation, but first I'll give you this chart in case you don't feel like combing through everything.

  Pros Cons
Down • Highest warmth-to-weight ratio
• Very compressible
• Retains loft well
• Not ideal in wet conditions*
• High price
Synthetic • Decently compressible
• Good in wet conditions
• Dries quickly
• Low price
• Heavier / bulkier than down
• Breaks down over time
Fleece • Soft to the touch
• Breathable
• Wicks moisture and dries quickly
• Low price
• Bulky
• Does not compress well
Wool • Odor resistant
• Breathable
• Good in wet conditions
• High price
* Water-resistant down increases performance in wet conditions.

• Highest warmth-to-weight ratio
• Very compressible
• Not ideal in wet conditions

Down insulation gives the most warmth for the least weight and bulk. It is composed of the soft, fluffy underside feathers of geese or ducks. That's how you know it works - ducks and geese are thriving species. If it were the soft feathers from dodos, then I'd be leery. The warming power of down is due to its loft and the related unit called "fill power." In simple terms, loft refers to how well the feather expands, and thus the amount of air it can retain. Fill power is a standardized measurement of the volume of one ounce of expanded down. For example, one ounce of 800 fill down will expand to 800 cubic inches. One ounce of 500 fill down will expand to 500 cubic inches. So if you have two down jackets of equal warmth, the one with the higher fill power will be lighter and more compressible. Due to its incredible heat retention, down is often too warm to wear during very physical activities like backpacking or skiing, but it's nice to have on hand for day hikes or relaxing around camp. Down loses almost all of it's heating powers when it gets wet, so if there's a chance it will get significantly soaked, make sure it's protected by a shell.

Water-Resistant Down - This is a new technology that has hit the scene in recent years. Down feathers are coated with a water-resistant material at the molecular level. If you don't know what a molecular level is, that's fine, just know that this procedure doesn't add significant weight or bulk to the down feathers, but allows them to resist moisture to a substantial degree.

• Decently compressible
• Good in wet conditions
• Dries quickly
• Cheaper than down

Synthetic insulation consists of polyester fibers that are designed to closely mimic the heat-trapping properties of down insulation. They weave together to form little pockets which hold warm air. As technology keeps progressing, synthetic insulation keeps getting better and better, but still can't match down's natural warmth and compressibility. However, it does have its advantages, namely due to its woven mixture of different size fibers. It can retain most of its insulating power after becoming wet. Plus it dries out faster than down and comes at a lower price point. All of this makes it an excellent choice for insulation if you know rain or snow will be in your future.

• Soft to the touch
• Wicks moisture and dries quickly
• A bit bulky

Fleece is soft to the touch, inexpensive, breathable, wicks moisture and dries quickly. This makes it a great option for more aerobic activities. Plus, it keeps performing after it gets wet. Fleece can be manufactured in different weights - the heavier the weight, the more it will insulate. However, fleece is bulky and will take up a good deal of pack space when not in use. Keep in mind, wind cuts through it, so a strong gust could wipe out all the warm air that it builds up (unless you go with special wind resistance fleece like Polartec Wind Pro®).

• Odor resistant
• Breathable
• Performs well when wet

When you think of wool, don't think of that old fashion stuff that made up itchy socks and sweaters. Nowadays, companies are using wool from Merino sheep (the softest sheep) and knitting it so finely that it becomes incredibly soft to the touch. Wool shares a lot of the same benefits and drawbacks of fleece. It is soft, very breathable, and performs well even when wet. In addition to that, it is naturally antimicrobial and odor resistant. Have you ever smelled a sheep? They smell delightful (don't quote me on that). However, wool usually comes at a higher price point than fleece and is a bit heavier.

HYBRID INSULATION - Some jackets use a mixture of these insulations to utilize the benefits of each. Since down insulation doesn't do well with moisture, it can be mapped around the torso for core warmth, and then partnered with synthetic insulation in moisture-prone areas, like the sleeves and collar. Or you might find a jacket with stretchy fleece in underarm gussets for added mobility, coupled with a higher pile fleece everywhere else. Strategically mapped insulation is a way to further specialize a jacket to a specific activity.

3-in-1 jackets make sure you're prepared for a wide range of conditions.
3-in-1 jackets make sure you're prepared for a wide range of conditions.
Softshells are great for highly aerobic outdoor activities in colder temps.
Softshells are great for highly aerobic outdoor activities in colder temps.

How is the insulation protected?

Sometimes shell fabrics. Sometimes layers. Sometimes more layers.

Your insulation cannot fight the cold alone.

As I mentioned above, in windy, rainy or extremely cold conditions, your insulation might need a little extra protection from the elements. Here are the best ways to further guard against the cold.

INTEGRATED INSULATION - Jackets with integrated insulation have the insulation protected by a shell material. It's a single no-nonsense jacket that just wants to keep you dry and warm. Your body heat will build up a warm layer of air beneath the outer waterproof material. Wind and rain will be powerless against it. These jackets often utilize pit-zips to dump any excess heat and breathable shell fabrics so you don't get too warm. Too much heat can lead to sweat, which will sap heat from your body as it evaporates, so it's imperative that you monitor your activity level and your jacket venting to stay at a comfortable temperature. Jackets with integrated insulation are good for most activity levels, from casual everyday wear to fast-paced snowsports.

LAYERING SYSTEMS - This is the ideal system for many active outdoor activities in colder weather, especially backpacking, climbing and mountaineering. As conditions, temperatures, and activity levels fluctuate, your body temperature will fluctuate as well. To stay comfortable and healthy, your layers have to be ready to adapt. Overheating can be dangerous. So can underheating. You need just the right amount of heat, which is easier to maintain by removing or adding protective layers as the conditions demand.

3-in-1 JACKETS - These guys knock a couple of layers out in one shot. They are comprised of an insulating layer and an outer shell. The insulating layer can be any of the insulation types that I mentioned above, or a softshell. The outer layer is always a waterproof layer that protects the inner layer. They zip or button together to form a versatile, adaptable system. The mid layer can be worn on its own in cool conditions or zipped into the shell to fend off colder temps and biting wind and rain. Or you can go solo with the shell in warmer temperatures. It's pretty much the same as buying each layer separately, except you have the guarantee that the layers will work well together and you don't have to worry about relative sizing for each layer.

SOFTSHELLS - Lemme explain softshells really quick. They're a mix between an insulating layer and a hard shell. Now lemme explain it a little slower. They are better at shedding the elements than fleece and wool, while being more breathable and offering more mobility than hard shells. This makes softshells great for highly aerobic outdoor activities in colder temps where the weather might get crummy. But keep in mind, even though they usually have a DWR coating, they are not waterproof and shouldn't be used as your only line of defense against a downpour or prolonged exposure to rain. Just think of how mobile turtles might be if their shells were softshells. They'd be skipping and jumping all over the place.

A hood = a hat you cannot lose. Hopefully.
A hood = a hat you cannot lose. Hopefully.

Hooded vs Hoodless

When someone asks me what's under my hood, I always answer, "my head."

A well designed hood will do the work of both a hat, and neck gaiter or scarf.

Has anybody ever told you, "You'd lose your head if it wasn't attached to your body?" First of all, I don't think that's how bodies work. I mean, your head is part of your body, it's not some thing that's attached or fixed to it. Secondly, if you have been told that, you should probably be looking for a jacket with a hood, because a hood is a hat that you can't lose. It is an extra measure of protection against the cold that will always be there for you. So if you have trouble keeping track of a hat, go the hood route. Keep in mind, the hood will add a little bit of extra weight, but then again, so will a hat. An attached hood will keep your neck warmer than most hats, but you have to shed the hood if you shed your jacket (obviously).

If you have arms like this guy, just go with a vest. All the time.
If you have arms like this guy, just go with a vest. All the time.

Jacket or Vest?

I'm still waiting for a jacket with mix-and-match sleeves. I can't be the only one.

Vests can provide the perfect amount of warmth for high output activities.

To sleeve or not to sleeve, that is the question. Vests can be practical during highly aerobic activities where you're already generating ample body heat to keep you warm. They also offer extra mobility due to their lighter weight and unrestricted arm movement capabilities. Vests heat your core very efficiently, like a big hug.

Now Stay Warm Out There Already

Thin, thick, light, heavy, down or synthetic. Life is full of options and you'll have to buckle down and make a decision eventually. Just make sure the insulated jacket you go with suits your adventure and keeps you warm along the way. As you expand your jacket arsenal, you'll eventually have all the pieces you'll need to keep you cozy no matter what you're getting into.

The North Face Jackets Moosejaw Jackets Arc'teryx Jackets Marmot Jackets Fjallraven Jackets
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