What’s the best synthetic insulated jacket for you? The answer may lie in the Synthetic Insulated Jacket State of the Market Report and 16 associated reviews that were recently published by BackpackingLight.com. I worked on that project for two years. The reviews total around 30,000 words and are the best summary of synthetic insulated jackets on the internet. This post intends to serve as a “too long; didn’t read” synthesis of that work. I summarize the main takeaways, describe my favorite models, and share a few things I’ve learned since the articles were published.
3 Primary Points of Advice
1. Try several jackets before making a decision. You will not be able to make an informed decision about what is best for you until you have tried a wide range of jackets. After you decide what type of jacket is best for you (e.g. windproof, active insulation, synthetic insulated parka), I recommend buying three of the top models in that category to test out. For example, if you want an active insulation jacket, consider the three I recommend below. Experimenting with a wide range of warmth and air permeability–models on the far ends of those spectrums–will give you a sense for what is best for your body, activities, and climate. Research is not enough; you must try the outlying models for yourself.
Try them at home with the tags on and return some, or all, if you aren’t happy. Better yet, try them for a month outdoors, make a decision, and return the ones that didn’t work well for you. Patagonia lists “Did not like design” on their return form.
2. Consider an active insulation jacket. These offer the best blend of comfort and weather protection for active use in colder weather. I rarely use anything but active insulation jackets. Air permeable insulated jackets are not as warm for their weight as windproof models, but they are far more versatile, more comfortable, and perform better in wet conditions because they dry faster. (Nothing is warm when it’s wet!)
3. Synthetic insulated parkas are rarely worth purchasing. Combining an active insulation jacket with a windproof synthetic insulated jacket can achieve the same amount of warmth and also be more comfortable and more versatile. See the BPL State of the Market Report for a lengthy discussion on this topic including other reasons not to buy a synthetic insulated parka.
The Best Models Available Today
Patagonia Nano Air Light
|I have used the Nano Air Light for at least six weeks of multi-day ski mountaineering and alpine climbing trips. If I were to have one synthetic insulated jacket for everything, I’d choose this one. Chugach State Park, Alaska.
|If I were to have one synthetic insulated jacket, I’d choose the Patagonia Nano Air Light
. It has an ideal amount of warmth for active use in cold weather or when worn under a waterproof jacket in cold rain. Add a low to zero air permeable fabric on top, such as a windshell or hardshell, and it’s reasonably warm for stationary use. Add a windproof synthetic insulated jacket on top, such as the Nunatak Skaha described below, and you have a toasty warm winter layering setup.
The Nano Air Light is designed for alpinists. Consequently, the main drawback to this jacket is it doesn’t have handwarmer pockets or a full-length zipper. Consider one of the two models below if those features are important to you.
Patagonia Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody
|Enjoying the Patagonia Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody on a glorious day ski mountaineering in Chugach National Forest, Alaska.
|The Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody has become my go-to for all activities for the last four months. It could be the most versatile insulated jacket in existence today. I like it for these reasons:
1. It is incredibly comfortable. The majority of the jacket (the back, sides, and underarms) are made of a knit material that is stretchy, soft against the skin, and twice as breathable as the Nano Air Light jacket described above. I find that this jacket moves with my body like no other.
2. An excellent amount of warmth and weather protection for active use. Many manufacturers use claims like “put it on, leave it on” when advertising active insulation jackets. In variable conditions, those claims rarely hold true. Enter the Hybrid Hoody! Excess heat escapes out the back and side panels, the high-loft insulation and moderately air permeable fabrics on the front insulate your torso and resist strong wind, you can fully unzip the jacket for ventilation and keep moving, or you can put the hood up to keep warm when the wind is hammering or the sun disappears.
The only drawback to this jacket is snow sticks to the knit fabric more than it does to the active insulation fabric. For this reason, the standard Nano Air Light is a better choice for alpine climbing in snowy conditions, when you are likely to be pummeled with spindrift. Of course, you can always put a windshell or an Airshed over the top.
Patagonia Airshed Pullover
|The Airshed uses an active insulation fabric and is my favorite shirt I’ve ever used.
|The Patagonia Airshed jacket is not insulated, but it should be included in any discussion of active insulation jackets. The fabric is the same as that on the Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody.
Initially, I was highly skeptical of this jacket. Now, however, it’s my second favorite Patagonia product! (The Grade VII Parka is my #1 favorite.) I use the Airshed almost everytime I play outside–for climbing, skiing, running, hiking, etc. It is incredibly versatile, only weighs 3.7 oz in men’s medium, and can be layered over or under other jackets. For example, I wear this as a baselayer and then put the Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody on top. If it’s especially windy and I’m getting cold, I will move the Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody against my skin and put the Airshed on top to block more wind. With these two layers, I am comfortable in a very wide range of conditions, year round. For a budget active insulation jacket, wear the Airshed on top of a traditional fleece jacket for increased weather protection.
I simply can’t say enough good things about this layer. Yes, it’s $120. I balked at that price initially, but I now know how well it works. Also, FYI, I was told the fabric costs twice as much as the insulation used in Patagonia’s active jackets and can be more expensive than three-layer waterproof fabrics. For my body, my activities, and my climate, the following saying applies to the Airshed: “You’ll pay a lot, but you’ll get more than you pay for.”
Arcteryx Proton LT Hoody
|I used the Proton LT Hoody more than any other jacket during the two-year BPL test period. Shown here in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
|All synthetic insulated jackets are relatively fragile compared to down insulated jackets. The Arcâ€™teryx Proton LT Hoody tackles that issue with its longer-lasting continuous filament insulation and a legitimately tough shell fabric. This is the most durable synthetic insulated jacket on the market. I recommend the Proton LT Hoody for cold weather alpine rock climbing because its fabric will last a lot longer than others for high abrasion activities. I also recommend it if you want a warmer synthetic insulated jacket that can be used for lower exertion and/or stationary applications. The Proton LT Hoody is likely the best choice for most consumers who do not come close to their aerobic threshold. Also, its fit and finishing details (e.g. hood, zipper, cuffs, pockets, etc.) are superb.
Nunatak Skaha Apex
|Nunatak Skaha Apex on a ski mountaineering-packrafting expedition in Denali National Park.
|I recommend the Nunatak Skaha Apex if you want the most amount of warmth for the lowest weight. It’s the obvious choice for stationary use or low exertion activities in cold weather. I much prefer this to the new Patagonia Micro Puff because it’s warmer for its weight and you can customize the fit and features to fit your body and your activities perfectly. Also, it’s made in Utah and costs less than $300! See the BPL review for my suggestions on custom features.
I found the abovementioned models to be the best synthetic insulated jackets on the market. If you are interested, head over to BackpackingLight to read the long-form reviews.
My Cold Weather Laying System
The following is arguably the best lightweight cold weather laying system on the market:
3. Patagonia Nano Air Light. Add this extra insulation when you’re stopped or if it’s really cold and you’re moving slower. Move the Airshed on top of the Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody and Nano Air Light for extra warmth! I can do this with size mediums in all layers, but a size large Airshed would be more comfortable. Since I rarely use the Airshed on top of both active insulation jackets, I am happiest with a size medium Airshed.
4. Optional: Arcteryx Squamish Hoody. Occasionally, when the wind is nuking, it can be useful to have a windshell to put on top of those layers. The Squamish Hoody is my favorite because it has a large, adjustable hood, adjustable wrist cuffs, a chest pocket, an excellent full-length zipper, and a darn tough fabric. It is highly functional and durable. If you’re counting grams for an ultralight mission and don’t desire something as longlasting or comfortable, you can save 3.5 oz. by purchasing an ultralight/ultra fragile model from a company like ZPacks or Montbell.
5. For multi-day trips in cold conditions, add a down parka on top of those layers.
|My favorite cold weather laying system: Patagonia Airshed, Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody, Nano Air Light, and Fitz Roy Parka.
|Dan Sandberg wearing the Patagonia Nano Air Light and Nano Air Hoody jackets underneath the Arcteryx Squamish Hoody. I took this photo at 16,000 ft. during an attempt to traverse Mt. Logan, Yukon, Canada. Dan later sold his Nano Air Hoody because it was too warm. He prefers the Nano Air Light because it is more versatile. But he hasn’t used the Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody yet!