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.

Fit, Fit, Fit

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.

Down Versus Synthetic

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.

Breathability

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.

Value

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.

Selection Criteria

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.

Puffy Jackets

  • Arc'teryx LEAF Cold WX Jacket LT

    Make & Model - Arc'teryx LEAF Cold WX Jacket LT
    MSRP - $329
    Colors - Black, Crocodile, Ranger Green, Wolf
    Insulation - Coreloft
    Fit - Relaxed athletic
    Pockets - 2 hand, 2 bicep, 1 internal
    Intended Use - High-speed, low-drag operations
    URL - http://www.leaf.arcteryx.com

    This is a jacket with a mission. Despite its list of features, there's nothing extraneous when it comes to keeping you warm, organized, and mobile.

  • Black Diamond Cold Forge

    Make & Model - Black Diamond Cold Forge
    MSRP - $299
    Colors - Black, Captain, Cargo, Rust
    Insulation - PrimaLoft Down Blend
    Fit - Generous
    Pockets - 2 hand, 2 internal drop
    Intended Use - Winter climbing
    URL - http://www.blackdiamondequipment.com

    Built for extreme cold, the Cold Forge's hybrid  Insulation maintains the packability of goose down, but will insulate even when wet due to the PrimaLoft fibers.

  • Columbia Crested Butte

    Make & Model - Columbia Crested Butte
    MSRP - $110
    Colors - Graphite, Everblue, Rocket
    Insulation - Columbia OmniHeat
    Fit - Casual
    Pockets - 2 hand, 1 internal Napoleon
    Intended Use - Casual
    URL - http://www.columbia.com

    This budget alternative proved to be quite effective.

  • Cotopaxi Kusa

    Make & Model - Cotopaxi Kusa
    MSRP - $200
    Colors - Racing Red/Cream, Mist/Morrocan Blue, Copper/Moon, Phantom/Raven
    Insulation - Llama Wool
    Fit - Casual
    Pockets - 2 hand, 1 inner chest zipped, 2 inner hand
    Intended Use - All-around
    URL - http://www.cotopaxi.com

    At first glance, the Kusa jacket seems like an utter lightweight compared to some of the burlier puffy coats on this list. However, the llama wool used for Insulation is a natural hollow fiber that traps air better than merino.

  • La Sportiva Asteroid

    Make & Model - La Sportiva Asteroid
    MSRP - $249
    Colors - Black, Dark Sea, Flame/Dark Sea
    Insulation - PrimaLoft Silver Active
    Fit - Relaxed athletic
    Pockets - 2 hand, 2 Napoleon, 2 inner mesh, 1 inner media
    Intended Use - Backcountry skiing, winter hiking
    URL - http://www.sportiva.com

    The first thing you'll notice about the Asteroid are the Pockets — there's enough of them to stash all your essentials for a short hike or side country ski run.

  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Jacket

    Make & - Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Jacket
    MSRP - $320
    Colors - Black, Cloudburst, Dark Compass, Eggplant, Orange Copper, Peatmoss, Serpent Green, Thunderhead Grey
    Insulation - 800-fill goose down
    Fit - Athletic
    Pockets - 2 hand
    Intended Use - Casual
    URL - http://www.mountainhardwear.com

    Warmth to weight, nothing beats goose down, and Mountain Hardwear's 800-fill, hydrophobic treated down is some of the best.

  • Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hoody

    Make & Model - Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hoody
    MSRP - $249
    Colors - Black, Campfire Orange, Viking Blue
    Insulation - Patagonia FullRange
    Fit - Very athletic
    Pockets - 1 Napoleon
    Intended Use - Alpine climbing
    URL - http://www.patagonia.com

    The Nano-Air Light expands on Patagonia's FullRange Insulation line as a dedicated ultralight layering system for alpine climbers and winter mountaineering adventures.

  • Rab Alpha Direct

    Make & Model - Rab Alpha Direct
    MSRP - $265
    Colors - Black, Cayenne, Merlin
    Insulation - Polartec Alpha Direct
    Fit - Athletic
    Pockets - 2 hand, 1 Napoleon
    Intended Use - High output activity
    URL - http://www.rab.equipment

    Polartec's brand-new Alpha Direct Insulation first comes to market with Rab's jacket.


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