March 10, 2022 | By Seiji Ishii
From winter climbing to hiking, skiing, and everyday cold-weather use, we put a variety of different layers through the wringer and found the best synthetic insulated jackets for every activity.
Synthetic insulation avoids the main weakness of down insulation by remaining functional and warm when wet. When caught unaware by stormy weather, synthetic insulation will not lose its loft, as opposed to down, which will clump up and lose a lot of its insulating properties. Synthetic fill will continue to insulate when wet, and will dry out quicker than down.
Additionally, synthetic insulation is significantly cheaper than down, is vegan-friendly, and tends to be more breathable. The benefits of synthetic insulation remain tempered by a few significant drawbacks, though — synthetic materials are often heavier and less warm than down, and they’re not quite as compressible.
However, as new insulation innovations hit the market with each passing season, the marginal differences between down and synthetic are quickly disintegrating. Many synthetic insulated jackets now rank among the best insulative clothing on the market.
The jackets on this list fall into two unique categories. The first of these, the synthetic midlayer category, stresses thermal efficiency for lower-output activities such as walking, belaying, fishing, and so on. Puffy synthetic midlayer jackets prioritize maximum warmth over breathability.
The second type, active-insulation jackets, offers more breathability for high-output pursuits such as backcountry skiing, jogging, and climbing. Synthetic jackets designed for active use are more breathable and better at regulating temperature.
We tested synthetic jackets while climbing, hiking, and running errands around town. We then evaluated each jacket based on fit, comfort, and durability. Breathability, pack size, and overall value were also important considerations in our testing process.
While there isn’t a single jacket for everyone, we’ve highlighted useful features of each of our recommendations to help you find the best jacket for your needs. At the end of our list, be sure to check out our comprehensive synthetic jacket buyer’s guide and frequently asked questions section.
Additionally, feel free to check out our review of the best down jackets, to get a broader perspective on the differences between the two types of insulation, and the variety of options that are out there.
We’ve broken the article into two main categories:
The Arc’teryx Atom AR Hoody ($299) has been a favorite of ours for higher-elevation rock climbing for many years. With every new mission, it proves to be a reliable synthetic middle and outer layer.
When the winter mountain forecast is just short of arctic, the one-pound (men’s medium) Atom AR (All Round) goes into the pack, and — surprisingly for Arc’teryx — the pricing is competitive. Given its stellar warmth-to-weight ratio, durability, and value, we’ve awarded this layer the best overall jacket for low-output activities.
While testing this jacket, we found the fit to be comfortably close, which makes it layer well under shells while still allowing layers underneath. The articulated sleeves, underarm gussets, and elastic-paneled cuffs keep our wrists covered in all arm positions and reaches. The torso length is on the shorter side, however, which makes the lower hem rise above our waist during reaches overhead.
The cuff dimensions are on the smaller side, which seals tiny wrists well, with just enough stretch to be pushed a few inches up the forearms. The front of the collar zips up to cover the mouth, and the single-adjust hood is just big enough for a climbing helmet. The Atom AR serves well as a belay jacket, but we would like at least one internal dump pocket to dry gloves.
The DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating has proven extremely durable over the seasons and continues to bead water long after some of its competitors’ coatings. The Atom AR compresses to about the size of a volleyball and is exceptionally warm given how breathable it is.
While it’s not the lightest nor the most breathable jacket we tested, if you’re looking for a great do-it-all layer to throw into the pack where functionality and warmth are a primary concern, look no further than the Arc’teryx Atom AR Hoody.
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The Outdoor Research Refuge Hooded Jacket ($220) is a fully featured, durable, and versatile insulating midlayer. It also works great as an outer layer for anything from moderate activities, to freezing romps in the snow. Despite its lower price point, this shell performed up there with the best of the jackets we tested, making it the best value of the low-output layers.
The Refuge uses Outdoor Research’s own VerticalX synthetic insulation. Though the insulation might have elastic properties, the 20×30-denier polyester ripstop shell is limited in its mechanical stretch.
Combined with the narrower shoulder dimension, the Refuge Hooded Jacket feels a bit tight across the upper back when active, but the jacket fits most torsos extremely well. The arms are a little short for our 34.5-inch arms when reaching forward or overhead, and though the torso is on the longer side, the lower hem creates a gap when our arms are raised overhead.
VerticalX is one of the warmer synthetic materials on the market. With a light base layer, we could lounge comfortably in near-freezing temperatures.
The Refuge breathes well, which limits moisture accumulation when hiking around the freezing point, and the DWR coating fends off light precipitation admirably. All these attributes allow the Refuge to do double duty as an outer layer. The Refuge will stuff down to about the size of a cantaloupe, and it fits inside its own handwarmer pocket with a carabiner clip.
If you’re looking for a versatile, warm jacket that’s friendly on the wallet, but doesn’t sacrifice value, this might be just the pick for you.
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We had subdued impressions when we received the Bight Gear Swelter jacket ($329). It has understated looks, felt bulky, and was in the middle of the road as far as weight is concerned, coming in at a verified 1 pound 2 ounces for a men’s medium. However, after a few weeks, we found ourselves regularly reaching for this insulated layer for moderate-output activity with temperatures near freezing.
Originally, the Swelter felt almost overfilled, with 100% post-consumer recycled Polartec Power Fill. But it soon broke in, softened, and shrunk down considerably.
The fit is generous and allows plenty of layering room. And the articulated sleeves are just long enough to keep the wrists covered in all positions.
The Swelter Jacket has a long torso, which keeps the gap between pants and base layer covered. The front collar is high enough to cover the nose when fully zipped. Breathability is adequate for hiking near the freezing point, and the Swelter packs down to about the size of a volleyball.
The 20-denier ripstop nylon shell fabric’s DWR coating beaded light precipitation for the duration of the test, which included several wash cycles.
The most useful and impressive feature is the sleeve design at the wrists. A large patch of Polartec Power Stretch Pro at the openings keeps them sealed around wrists of all sizes. But a quick push gets the sleeves out of the way for stove operation and camp chores. The generous elasticity allows the sleeves to go all the way to the elbow if desired.
The Swelter’s feature list also includes an elastic drawcord hem, brushed tricot-lined handwarmer pockets in the low position, a mesh interior stash pocket, a zipped mesh chest pocket, an exterior zipped chest pocket, and an adjustable helmet-compatible hood.
If minimal pack size and lightweight pursuits are your main objective, this may not be the best layer for you, but if durability, warmth, and comfort are on your checklist, the Swelter definitely fits the bill.
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The Prima Lochi Jacket ($185) comes from a relatively lesser-known brand that seems poised to make a splash in the outdoor market: Beyond Clothing.
Beyond Clothing uses premium Polartec Alpha insulation, which is often found in active insulating pieces (which you’ll see more of below). We categorized this piece within synthetic jackets, however, because it’s just too warm for many high-aerobic activities in all but the coldest weather. That said, if you’re getting after it in weather around 10 degrees F and below, well, this could be an awesome choice.
If your activity level is a little more dialed back — say, slowly scaling mountains, snowshoeing, or walking home from work on a frigid winter day — listen up. The Prima Lochi is quite warm, especially for a layer that breathes well.
It’s also a reversible jacket, with a quilted and non-quilted side, giving you two looks for the price of one. It boasts a 70-denier micro-ripstop fabric with a DWR finish and an attached hood.
Alone, it should protect from moderate wind and rain. Put it under a shell in super-cold weather or heavy wind and precipitation, and you’ll stay warm and toasty.
We could see this as a versatile layer for downhill skiing (under a shell) or a variety of mountain pursuits. It’s likely a little on the warm side for backcountry skiing, and the reversible nature adds fabric and weight you’d probably not want to carry for mountaineering.
The brand also doesn’t make a women’s version of the coat at this time.
As a great standalone jacket that can handle cold weather as a layering piece, however, it’s a strong contender. With exceptional, fast-drying Polartec Alpha insulation, wonderfully smooth zippers, and large pockets, this is a layer worth considering if you spend a lot of time outdoors in cold or wet conditions.
If fast romps or climbs in the mountains are on the agenda, this may be a little too cumbersome, but for those looking to maximize warmth and protection from the elements, the Prima Lochi jacket ticks all the boxes.
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Patagonia’s Micro Puff Hoodie ($299) has drawn accolades and awards from users and media since its release in September 2017. Though the price point is on the higher end, the Micro Puff Hoodie is the perfect just-in-case insulating layer that’s barely noticeable in the pack.
The 10-ounce Micro Puff Hoodie kept us warm during moderate-level activities down into the 30s with just a base layer, and it was surprisingly wind-resistant for such a light garment. Consequently, though, breathability is on the lower side.
The DWR treatment is exceptional and continues to bead water after a few wash cycles. The fit is snug, and the sleeves keep our wrists covered — except when our 34.5-inch arms are overhead.
The lack of stretch and the just-to-the waist torso length allows a little gapping during long reaches. The jacket is very compact, and the slick outer surface makes it ideal for layering underneath shells or heavier layers.
The Micro Puff Hoodie stuffs down to about the size of a cantaloupe, and fits into a handwarmer pocket with a clipping point. This ability, combined with the best-in-class warmth-to-weight ratio of Patagonia’s PlumaFill, makes it a great insulator we are always throwing in our packs.
The Pertex Quantum GL face fabric proved durable during the test period but does require care, as the wispy fabric is prone to tearing on sharp objects. This shell may not hold up well to brutal bushwhacking or scrambling over sharp rocks in the alpine compared to some of the others.
However, the lightweight, wind-resistant versatility of the Micro Puff makes it ideal for adventurers who need reliable warmth without sacrificing space or weight in their pack.
Check out our full Patagonia Micro Puff review.
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In this guide, we’ve delineated insulating midlayers into two categories. The low-output synthetic jacket category stresses protection from the elements, while the active insulation category incorporates more breathability.
Active insulation works best for stop-and-go pursuits where air permeability while moving, paired with adequate protection when stopped, can prevent the need to add and remove layers. We recommend the following layers for activities such as backcountry and nordic skiing, fat tire biking, jogging, climbing, and snowshoeing.
The Proton FL ($260) has a very trim fit with stretchy underarm gussets, articulated elbows, and high elasticity for excellent mobility with no gapping except for the front lower hem in extreme contortions.
This is one of the thinner active insulation jackets tested, which makes it fit well under heavier layers. The perforated inner liner has a smooth finish, which facilitates smooth gliding over a base layer.
Despite its slim profile, this layer delivers exceptional warmth and breathability during high-energy activities, making it the best overall jacket we tested in the active insulation category.
The Proton FL felt remarkably warm for its minimal bulk. Arc’teryx’s Fortius 20 shell and Octa Loft insulation struck a great balance between air permeability and protection. We stayed well vented when fast hiking at 40 degrees but were still warm during breaks.
The shell material is quite durable and held up well throughout our test. Our one complaint is that the front zipper will sometimes come unzipped on its own during active use.
The Proton FL has an uninsulated, under-the-helmet hood, fleece-lined handwarmer pockets, two chest pockets, and an adjustable lower hem (with a foam strip to keep it tucked under a harness).
If you’re looking for maximum warmth, without sacrificing breathability during high-intensity activities, the Proton FL may have just become your best friend.
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The Helly Hansen LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket ($220-280) is a surprising piece. While it looks like a standard insulator at first glance, it has proven itself incredibly quick-drying and highly breathable over 6 months of hard use and everyday wear.
Given the high level of performance of this jacket, the comparatively low price is a welcome sight, making this the best value layer of the active insulation shells we tested.
GearJunkie’s editor-in-chief, Sean McCoy, has worn this jacket downhill skiing, skinning in the backcountry, and as a daily wear jacket during Denver’s winter. He also used it as an insulating layer during strenuous elk hunts in the Rocky Mountains. His verdict? The LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket is a winner.
It isn’t the lightest layer, but is light enough to wear under a shell or in conjunction with other layers for a complement to a system made up of a base layer and maybe another light fleece or wool layer. It sits well directly under a shell. It also packs down fairly small (though not as small as down) to stow in a pack.
The LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket has two average-size zipper pockets above the hips and a Life Pocket zippered chest pocket. The Life Pocket features additional layers of thermal-resistant materials which helps to preserve the battery life of phones and electronics, and protect them from the elements. Two interior stow pockets and a fitted hood round out this versatile layer.
For high-intensity activities in the woods that require extra warmth, where weight isn’t the biggest concern, the LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket would be a perfect addition to the kit.
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Black Diamond has been churning out lots of high-quality jackets in the past few years. The stretchy, durable, and breathable First Light ($260) is no different. In the brand’s own words, this jacket is the ideal “start-stop” piece. While ski touring or multi-pitch climbing, the First Light provides warmth when you need it, and airy breathability when you don’t.
This jacket has a softshell outer material that is relatively snag-resistant and impressively hardy. Though the First Light isn’t the lightest, or warmest, option on this list, it comes with a few clutch features including plentiful mobility, a large chest pocket, and a performance-oriented hood.
If you’re looking for a jacket that offers the greatest weather resistance, and warmest insulation, this isn’t the one for you. For extended stop-and-go pursuits that require breathability while on the move, and comfort while resting, however, the First Light would be a perfect fit.
If you’re looking for even more breathability, be sure to check out the First Light Hybrid, which features merino insulation on its backside.
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The Rime Flex ($239) has a very snug fit when still, but class-leading elasticity allows free movement. The sleeves and lower hem are a tad short for overhead reaches, but the fit around the shoulders feels ample regardless of arm movements.
The Rime Flex is on the warmer and bulkier side of the active insulation category. The Pertex Quantum Air shell and OTI Stretch insulation provide breathability and warmth that works well for loaded hiking down to the upper 20s.
It keeps you warm during breaks, even in moderate winds. The jacket still performed well into the 30s as long as the main zip was vented. We found it excellent for lounging into the lower 50s.
The Rime Flex has two handwarmer pockets in the high position, an adjustable lower hem, dual-zipper pulls, and an insulated helmet-compatible hood.
For the space-conscious hiker focused on an ultralight setup, this may not be the best choice, but if you are looking for maximum warmth without sacrificing breathability, the Rime Flex would be a solid choice.
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The Ortles Hybrid Tirolwool Celliant Jacket ($200) has a contoured, body-hugging fit with a long torso and long sleeves for coverage in all body positions. Elastic underarm gussets and stretchy softshell sleeves enhance mobility. This jacket was one of the thinner and less-bulky active insulation pieces we tested, making it layer well under heavier garments.
The wool-and-polyester hybrid insulation provides warmth for the core during higher-output activities down to freezing, and the nylon front and back panels block wind. The softshell sleeves and sides vented well.
But this hybrid construction makes the arms and sides feel much colder than the rest of the body while not moving, or in windy conditions. The Ortles Hybrid Tirolwool Celliant Jacket was the most comfortable in shoulder season conditions for moderate-intensity pursuits when the core versus arms insulating contrast wasn’t as dramatic.
Maximum breathability does come with its downfalls. While this jacket is a great choice for those involved in high-intensity activities, it may have to be paired with another layer to give you the warmth you need in super-cold conditions or inclement weather.
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Chris Carter has spent way too much time obsessing over the minutiae of the gear he takes on adventures. As an ultralight thru-hiker and endurance backpacker, the functionality-to-weight ratio of each item he carries on his back is of utmost importance, and every element of the gear he packs is considered.
Aside from hiking, he is an avid rock climber and ultra-marathon runner. His gear closet looks about as diverse and unorganized as a second-hand consignment store, but he’s passionate about making informed, wise decisions about the gear that keeps him comfortable and safe in the mountains.
Synthetic insulation has become a popular alternative to down over the years, and the market now offers a wide range of high-quality synthetic-filled jackets. On this list, we’ve broken our recommendations into two major categories: puffy jackets that prioritize warmth and active-wear jackets that prioritize breathability.
Beyond these two broad categories, there are many other factors to consider as you narrow down your synthetic jacket search. In this buyer’s guide, we aim to prepare you to make an informed and confident purchase.
Synthetic insulation is designed to replicate the qualities of down. It’s made from polyester fibers arranged into intertwined filaments that trap warm air in millions of tiny pockets.
Compared to down, synthetic insulation has both pros and cons. Importantly, synthetic insulation is able to retain its warmth when wet. This is a huge advantage over down and a key reason why synthetic insulation is often preferred in wet and cold environments.
Unfortunately, synthetic insulation cannot quite match the miraculous warmth-to-weight ratio of down. In other words, synthetic jackets need to be a little heavier to achieve the same level of warmth.
There are many different types of synthetic insulation on the market now, and various companies have their own proprietary types of insulation that they either fill their own jackets with or sell to other companies. A few of the most common types of insulation are PrimaLoft, Thinsulate, and PlumaFill.
PrimaLoft, one of the most widely used types of synthetic insulation, is made with 100% polyester microfiber that mimics the fluffiness of natural down, and comes in a few different categories. The most popular are PrimaLoft Gold, PrimaLoft Silver, and PrimaLoft Silver Eco (which is made of 70% recycled fibers).
PrimaLoft Gold is the most performative and sought-after insulation in their lineup, and is comparable to a 550-fill power down jacket. Each of the categories, to varying degrees, is highly breathable, water-resistant, and compressible.
Thinsulate insulation is considered to be one of the warmest thin apparel insulations on the market. Its incredibly thin fibers retain a surprising amount of warmth, and the nature of its tight construction makes it a prime material for ultralight insulating layers, or small clothing items such as gloves.
Though every type of synthetic material will lose at least some of its insulating properties when wet, Thinsulate boasts excellent moisture-wicking abilities, allowing it to dry quickly. Other types of fill, such as Polartec Alpha and FullRange insulation (used by Patagonia in the Nano-Air series of jackets), offer arguably the most breathable options out there.
Polartec Alpha, or Alpha Direct, was manufactured out of a military request to develop a synthetic and incredibly breathable alternative to down that could be used in high-intensity activities. The insulation eventually found its way into the outdoor industry and is used by many different brands today.
Take a few moments to envision how you’ll use your jacket. Do you need something for winter climbing or long-distance backpacking? Or will this be a jacket that does it all? There’s no right or wrong answer. But being clear about your intended use will help you prioritize certain factors such as breathability and durability.
In each of the product reviews above, we have highlighted a variety of different features that the jackets are known for, in addition to ways they could be improved. Take a look at both the pros and cons of the layers, and focus on what activity you will be using it for most.
If you are setting out on a 5-month thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, you will need a jacket that keeps you protected and warm in a vast range of ecosystems and climates.
If you want a layer that keeps you cozy while belaying at the crag, or walking the dog downtown, you may not want the most feature-packed, versatile shell on the market.
We’ve divided these synthetic jackets into two main categories, and the main difference between them is breathability. Generally, there’s a tradeoff between breathability and waterproofness. Fully waterproof jackets are less breathable than active-use softshell options.
If you’ll regularly wear your jacket as an outer layer, it’s worth investing in a bit more waterproofing. But if you’ll use it mainly for high-output activities, look for a jacket that maximizes breathability.
In general, synthetic insulation is more breathable than down, since it doesn’t trap the body’s heat as effectively as down does. The level of breathability of a jacket varies, though, and has to do with the type of insulation it uses, along with its shell material and design.
Jackets such as the Black Diamond First Light Stretch Hoody, or the Salewa Ortles Hybrid Tirolwool Celliant Jacket maximize breathability due to the nature and construction of the insulation used, but also the strategic placement of breathable material used in the shell.
Durability is particularly important if you plan to wear your jacket as an outer layer in rough and rugged environments. Most jackets on this list stand up great to the rigors of bushwacking or climbing on rough rock. But some need a bit more care than others.
The durability of synthetic insulation versus down insulation is somewhat of a debated topic, as there are a number of factors to consider. Synthetic insulation doesn’t have to be babied as much as down insulation, but also loses its form and breaks down faster over time, especially if you are compressing the jacket a lot. Down tends to leak from the jacket more, however, and therefore slowly loses its warmth.
Not all synthetic insulation is created equal, though, and the different types of insulation will vary in how long they hold up to harsh conditions. When thinking about the durability of a jacket, the type and quality of the insulation (such as PrimaLoft Gold versus PrimaLoft Silver) and the construction of the outer shell (such as what denier and material is used) need to be taken into consideration.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that often the more durable a jacket is, the heavier it is. So, if an ultralight setup is your main concern, you may need to go with a more fragile layer.
A shell like the Helly Hansen LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket offers increased durability, but may weigh your pack down too much for quick missions in the mountains. If you want to thrash about without concern, something like the thinner Patagonia Micro Puff Hoodie may not be the best choice, but could lend itself as the optimum layer if light and fast is your main goal.
Where synthetic insulation really trumps down is in its ability to insulate when wet. Down absorbs water, and clumps up, thereby losing its loft, as opposed to synthetic insulation which retains its loft. Water sits between the fibers, allowing the insulation to keep its shape, maintain warmth, and dry faster than down.
While all synthetics will generally repel moisture better than down, the degree to which a jacket will insulate you in damp conditions varies from brand to brand. Most manufacturers are adding a DWR (Durable Water Repellant) treatment to the outer shell of their insulated jackets, which beads up water in light precipitation, allowing it to roll off and not soak into the insulation. This only works to a certain degree, however, and in constant rain, you’ll want to add a rain shell to your layering system.
Jackets such as the Beyond Clothing Prima Lochi Jacket, with a 70-denier micro-ripstop shell and fast-drying Polartec Alpha insulation, will hold up to inclement weather much longer than something like the lighter, and thinner Salewa Ortles Hybrid Tirolwool Celliant Jacket.
Sure, you plan to wear the jacket, not just pack it around. But for those times you need to ditch a layer or bring it just in case, the pack size and weight matter. Synthetic insulation doesn’t tend to pack as small as down (although synthetic fill technology is rapidly improving).
While the Patagonia Micro Puff may not be the most durable jacket, it wins big on the packable scale. The Arc’teryx Proton FL is another easy-to-pack choice.
Depending on your intended use and general needs, you’ll want to choose a jacket with the right array of features.
Pockets, hoods, adjustable hems, and elastic cuffs are all examples of common synthetic jacket features. Each of these has a unique purpose and value.
Pockets come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. From zippered hand-warmer pockets to low-profile chest pockets, the recommended jackets on this list offer a wide range of configurations.
Many synthetic jackets are available in either a hoodie or non-hoodie style. The best choice for you depends on your use. Hooded jackets are great in frigid or stormy conditions and for people who tend to feel cold in the ears, head, and face. Unhooded options are generally best for everyday use around town or in-bounds resort skiing.
At the end of the day, you want to get a good deal. More than just the lowest price tag, a jacket’s value stems from its usefulness and bang for the buck.
Carefully consider how you’ll use your jacket and then look for features that fit your needs. Helmet-compatible hoods, pockets, and materials become important considerations.
Also, if you plan to wear your jacket regularly, it’s worth investing more. Spending a few extra bucks now will afford you many seasons of warmth and comfort outdoors.
Synthetic jackets are used in all sorts of situations where comfortable and reliable warmth is needed. From the ski hill to the jogging path, synthetic jackets are a modern and effective tool in the fight to stay warm.
Compared to down jackets, synthetic jackets tend to be slightly heavier and less vulnerable to moisture-related warmth loss. Elite mountaineers use synthetic jackets, as do city dwellers on their way to buy groceries.
On this list, we’ve divided our recommended jackets into two unique categories. For maximum warmth, check out our synthetic insulated jacket category. If you’re looking for a jacket that can regulate your temperature and breathe during active use, check out our active insulation category.
Compared to down, synthetic insulation is slightly heavier, slightly cheaper, and less likely to lose its effectiveness in a rainstorm. Unlike down, synthetic insulation is able to retain its warmth when wet.
When dry, however, synthetic insulation cannot quite match the miraculous warmth-to-weight ratio of down. In other words, synthetic jackets need to be a little heavier to achieve the same level of warmth.
Many skiers wear synthetic insulated jackets as a midlayer beneath their waterproof outer shells. On cold days at the resort, a warm and puffy jacket can be the difference between comfort and misery.
For backcountry skiing, breathable layers are the way to go. During uphill hikes along the skin track, you’ll want layers that can let some of your body heat escape in order to stay cool and prevent sweating.
Seiji Ishii is the climbing and cycling editor at Gear Junkie and has enjoyed a lifetime of outdoor adventure and sports, from participant and competitor to coach and trainer, and finally as an editorial contributor. His interests have spanned cycling, climbing, motorcycling, backpacking, and training for all of it. He has also designed outdoor and off-road motorcycling gear. He lives in Wimberley, TX, with his daughter and a small herd of pets. Read more of his musings at seijisays.com.
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