Photos by Rob Curtis
Whether you're running errands around town, enjoying a little winter fly fishing at your favorite spot, or digging a neighbor's car out of a snowbank, there's no substitute for a warm body. It doesn't matter if you're walking out the door for 20 minutes or an all-day adventure, the right puffy jacket won't just make you warm — it'll keep you alive.
Of chief concern when picking mid-layers and outerwear is the fit of the apparel. If your fancy DWR-coated fabric is stretched in the wrong places, a little rain or snow will result in dampness and misery as long as you're out in the elements. Make sure your jacket fits well in the shoulders, chest, and arms. At a minimum, try it on at the store and walk around, moving your arms over your head and flapping back and forth. Pay attention to any awkward stretching that could signal you'll wear a thin spot in the insulation. The waist is important, but it's more of a comfort characteristic. You don't want it to bind or be constrictive, but beyond that, it's personal preference.
For the longest time, goose down was the absolute standard for cold-weather gear. It lofts well and has an incredible warmth-to-weight ratio. If you're shopping for down, be aware of the fill rating. This arbitrary number is essentially a measure of how much each individual feather lofts and traps heat. The higher the number — 600- versus 800-fill — the less amount of down it takes for equal warmth.
In recent years, synthetic insulations such as PrimaLoft and Polartec, as well a bevy of brand-proprietary solutions, have become real challengers to down. Your usage dictates what you should look for. Synthetics tend to breathe better than down, but they give up points for bulk and packability in return. A major differentiator for years has been the fact that synthetic insulation retains warmth when wet, while down doesn't insulate at all when saturated. But new hydrophobic treatments like those found in Mountain Hardwear's Q.Shield and Allied Feather and Down's HyperDry are fast becoming usable options for wet weather.
A side note here is the newcomer to the competition, wool loft. Rather than knitting or weaving a fleece-like material like your favorite merino base layer, some brands comb and loft wool to serve as internal insulation, much like synthetic fibers. Both merino and llama wool are good options, a nice middle ground in terms of weight versus warmth.
It used to be that when you got bundled up, you had to be very cognizant of overheating, because even a little sweat spelled doom when you were at out in the cold for long periods. That isn't the case with new technologies such as Polartec's Alpha and PrimaLoft's Silver Active. With these open-fiber materials, your puffy can push moisture out as well (and most often better) than your hardshell. The limiting factor is the face fabric and how air permeable it is.
The right combination of insulation, liner, and face can suck moisture away from you. Finding the right balance for breathability and windproofness can be somewhat tricky though. As with everything else, listen to your body. If you tend to run hot or sweat a lot, investing in some of these new fabrics will be your best option.
This one is hard to quantify. Is that 850-fill down jacket really worth it? If you're a weight-saving backcountry athlete, the answer is likely yes. Are you more of a casual adventurer and using your puffy more for urban use? That extra few ounces saved, and the latest high-tech face fabric, probably won't make a big difference for your typical daily use. In the end, value added really depends on how you'll use your jacket. If it's really important to have an insulating layer that wicks moisture, works as a layering piece, and can stand alone for casual use, that extra $100 will be well spent.
We scoured the market for the best options for every type of insulation — down, wool, and the major synthetic players. After testing out our options on some long winter hikes, backcountry ski tours, cold-weather farm work, and a whole lot of winter tailgating, we picked our favorites based on performance, fit, insulation, and breathability.