Shopping Guide: How to Find the Perfect Jacket

August 02, 2014

I confess: I have a jacket problem. I love the concept of simplicity—and multifunctional pieces—but there are so many different, beautiful jackets that each have unique qualities for different activities and conditions, it’s hard not to want to collect them all. So how do you decide which ones are perfect for you? Here are some tips to help you get exactly what you need—even if that means three different kinds.

Before you shop, ask yourself:

What kind of activities will you be doing?
If you plan on doing strenuous cardio, like running or cross-country skiing, you’ll need a fabric that breathes, so you don’t get clammy underneath and ultimately get cold and uncomfortable. If you’re doing something more sedentary, like sitting around a campfire, you probably want a jacket with insulation—like down—since your body won’t be keeping you warm.

What kind of weather do you expect?
I pack a different jacket when I visit the Pacific Northwest than I do at home in Colorado, because the chance of heavy rain is much higher. A hard shell with reinforced seams is par for the course if you expect constant showers. But if you’re hiking in the Colorado Rockies, where you want to carry something “just in case,” you can get away with an ultra-light hard shell that stuffs down really small.

What’s the difference between them all?

Soft shell
Soft-shell fabric usually has a little stretch to it, cuts wind and repels moisture. It’s not waterproof, so if you expect serious rain, pack a hard shell, too. Soft shells allow some of your own body heat and moisture to escape, so they’re perfect for trail running, mountain biking or other activities when you’re exerting yourself enough to get sweaty.

Hard shell
Pack a hard shell if you expect rain—or are planning a multiday trip. The fabric is tightly woven and then either laminated or coated with a weatherproof protector, like Gore-Tex or eVent. A high-quality hard shell will keep you dry underneath in pouring rain. If you think you’ll be exerting yourself in the rain—like hiking on a backpacking trip—make sure your hard shell has zipper vents to allow your body heat to escape.

Down and synthetic insulation
Insulated jackets—of “puffies”—are like wearing a hug. Especially if they have a hood. They help keep your body warmth where you want it in cold weather—near your body. Most are filled with either down feathers or synthetic filling of some sort, like PrimaLoft. The difference between the two is that synthetic material keeps its insulating properties even when it gets wet. So if you’re planning on a little drizzle or getting sprayed with wet snow, go with synthetic. If you’re planning a winter camping trip to the desert, go with down. Some companies now make down jackets with either waterproof coating on the individual feathers—like DriDown—or a waterproof outer shell over down insulation. Usually they’re a bit more pricey, but they get rave reviews.

Ultra light jackets
Lots of outdoor companies are promoting a new breed of super-light, minimalist jackets. Some people love them, some hate them. They’re perfect for a couple specific activities, mostly alpine climbing or minimalist hiking, backpacking or trail running. These jackets are somewhat windproof, somewhat waterproof and usually pack down to about the size of an energy bar. They don’t have pockets to stick your hands into—which helps keep them light and packable—and won’t keep you bone dry in a downpour like a full-strength hard shell. But if you want to pack super light, one of these is better in a pinch than nothing and takes up almost no space in your pack. If you’re out for a day of climbing, you can clip it to your harness. If you’re out for a hike, you can carry it in your hand or fit it in a hip pack.

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