How to Choose a Winter Jacket

(Clint Eastwood on the set of The Eiger Sanction, wearing one of the very first Marmot jackets, the Golden Mantle)

How to Choose a Winter Jacket

Summer is gone, the temperature is dropping, and you now realize a light fleece isn’t going to cut it.  When you look at what’s available, you’re paralyzed.  Where do you begin with the myriad of options flooding the market these days?  Let’s break it down for you.

“How warm is this jacket?”

This is a question we frequently get, and the answer isn’t always a simple one.  You may have noticed that companies don’t put a temperature rating on jackets, and there is a reason for that.  There is such a multitude of factors such as activity level, humidity, wind level, and personal temperature (some people run hot, some run cold) that you can’t really put a number on it.  And if they did put a temperature on it, they would get a cascade of unfairly bad reviews from people who might not understand the information I’m about to give you.

Here’s the short answer:

Thickness is warmth.  Say it again…thickness is warmth.

Technology changes and every company is trying to push the limits of insulation.  However, the laws of physics still apply.  Insulation works by trapping a layer of warm air around your body to protect you from the cold.  Think of it as your own personal atmosphere.  The thicker this “atmosphere” is, the more effective it will be.  

Beyond that, we’ll ask you a few questions on what you are doing and where you are going.

How active will you be?

The more active you are, the more warmth you will generate.  If I am going to be hiking at a good pace or running, I will be overheated in a very thick jacket.  Conversely, if I am going to be sitting still in a stadium I will not be generating as much heat, and therefore need a thicker jacket to compensate.  

If you are going to be experiencing a variety of activity levels, you need to utilize the layering system.  For example, when I go backpacking in Winter I will be down to my baselayer or wearing a light fleece when I’m in peak activity, and pulling on a puffy midlayer jacket during hydration / meal breaks and when I stop hiking for the day to set up camp.  

What are you doing / where are you going?

Revisiting what I mentioned above, this question interfaces with what sort of activity you will be engaged in.  For active, technical pursuits you will need to use the layering system.  

  • Baselayer, for moisture management
  • Midlayer, for warmth retention
  • Shell layer, for protection against wind and rain

For more casual pursuits like sitting at the game, going out on the town, or walking to and from your car, you can opt for more of an all-in-one option.  If this is the case, you probably aren’t worried as much about the weight of the jacket either, compared to the backpacker who is concerned with ounces.

Will you be at elevation or out of the treeline?  You’ll be contending with wind, so bring a shell.

Will you be in the Pacific Northwest where it is wet most of the time?  Consider a synthetic jacket instead of down.  Synthetics retain most of their loft when wet and dry faster, but are heavier and less breathable.  

What else are you going to be wearing with it?

This is sort of a restatement of the question above.  Do you already have a rain jacket or wind jacket?  Then you can go with just a mid-layer instead of a shelled jacket.  Do you have a favorite fleece you like to wear?  Then you might not need as thick of a jacket to wear over it.  

Regardless of which jacket you’re looking at, it’s always a good idea to wear a quick-drying baselayer to wick moisture away from your skin.  Damp skin makes you chilled quickly.  For that reason avoid cotton when possible, in favor of synthetic or wool fabrics.  

What’s this “fill rating” on my jacket?

The “fill rating” is simply a metric of the quality of the feather.  An 800 fill jacket is NOT necessarily warmer than a 500 fill jacket.  This is best explained using sleeping bags as an example.  

If you have a 30 degree 800 fill down bag, it’s not any warmer than the 30 degree 500 fill down bag; they’re both 30 degrees.  It will be lighter, however.  

As I said, fill rating is a metric of quality.  Higher fill down has more loft, and therefore these companies are able to use fewer feathers to achieve the same amount of loft they need.  Therefore, it will be lighter and more compressible.  

Repeat the mantra:  Thickness is Warmth.

Which is warmer, down or synthetic?

Thickness is warmth.  That being said, down is more breathable and slightly more comfortable over a wider range of temperatures.  If synthetic gets soaked, it will keep you warmer than down, but these days with water-resistant down treatment, it’s getting increasingly difficult for down to get truly soaked.  

I don’t like the puffy Michelin man look.

That look is due to baffles; essentially they sew the jacket into a series of tubes that they blow the down feathers into.  They need to do it this way because otherwise the feathers would sift all the way to the bottom of the jacket, and you’d be cold.  Synthetic insulation is often in sheet form, so some companies make synthetic jackets by laminating the insulation to the interior nylon face of the jacket.  

Other than that, sometimes comfort supersedes fashion.  Repeat the mantra:  Thickness is warmth.

Hopefully, this helps you in your quest to find the right jacket for you.  Stop by the shop and we’ll help you pick one out from the crowd.