Patagonia’s most celebrated product of 2018, the Micro Puff jacket, performed well in terms of packability and comfort. However, if not for the extra $50, the Arc’teryx Cerium LT would give it a worthy match in terms of warmth and weight. Competition aside, there isn’t a “bad” jacket in the bunch, only products that testers found better in one way or another.
Marmot’s broad product line tends to hamper their ability to champion one product over another, but the company’s use of 3M Thinsulate Featherless insulation earned it high marks from a tester who was surprised at the material’s quick-dry characteristics.
As evidenced by this test, brands continue to push fabric companies like Polartec, 3M, and Schoeller to invent tougher, lighter, and higher performing fabrics. At the same time, environmental restrictions, self-mandated and industry-driven, are creating pressure on companies to be more transparent in how they source down. Both Patagonia and VF Corp recently faced serious public battles with PETA.
Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when in a few years the majority of lightweight insulated jackets will be filled with synthetic insulation. It just makes sense. It’s very close to as packable, warm, and comfortable as the natural stuff, and will give companies an environmental leg to stand on when they face inevitable scrutiny over their essential use of down in larger, winter puffer jacket lines.
More jackets are being tested as you read this, and will make their way into the test as we evaluate them. Arc’teryx, for example, has a Cerium SL (super light) that is an ounce less than the Patagonia Micro Puff, and REI has a new line of insulators that looks to compete for credibility with the likes of the aforementioned. Marmot, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, Topo Designs, Big Agnes, and others are in the mix as well.
Fabric choice varied widely in this test and were highly specialized, such as Black Diamond’s First Light Hoody Nanosphere face from Schoeller. Not only does it repel water to the extent of a soft shell, it also keeps absorbing dirt and oils to a minimum. Arc’teryx uses a nylon shell called Arato and Cotopaxi chose a burly (relatively speaking) 20-denier ripstop to protect the insulation in its Fuego LT, which was a combination of 950-fill power down and Polartec’s Alpha Direct.
The skin and guts of these products are what ultimately defines their performance. Things like hem drawcords and zipper garages play supporting roles in making these jackets as comfortable as possible in uncomfortable conditions.
Patagonia’s Pluma Fill is 100% polyester, but felt the most authentic, more so than Marmot’s 3M-supplied Featherless fill. The First Light’s exterior is the winner here, as it combines softness, good looks, and technical smarts. However, the Pluma Fill is pretty impressive stuff that we’re sure Patagonia will continue to use, and it merited a tie with the First Light.
We used this rating to measure how well a jacket’s fabrics and features partnered to repel the environment. Did the shell do its job, and how well was that job supported by things like hood design, cuff closures, and zipper guards? We found that most of these jackets did a decent job of repelling wind; but none of them can replace a true windshell. Of those tested, the Marmot Featherless and Black Diamond First Light Hoody were best against the wind, and the Patagonia wasn’t far behind.
Other factors contributing to how well a jacket fought off the elements include, hoods, chin-zips, cuff design, length, and additional shell treatments such as DWR finishes. The Black Diamond scored highest here, namely as a result of the jacket’s intent to be used as a stand-alone exterior layer in conditions just shy of “very cold and wet.”
Above all else, these jackets need to keep a person warm. Yet, they can’t be “too warm” either, because sweat and cold don’t make good bedfellows. The Cotopaxi’s side-panel bound Polartec Alpha Direct expelled a good deal of heat during a test that involved snowshoe hill climbs, but had a hard time beating the Arc’teryx and Patagonia entries in overall warmth when stationary. Each of the latter scored above average as the highest mark achieved in this rating.
While the Marmot staved off wind at elevation, one tester had an issue with torso and sleeve fit contributing to cold air intake. The Black Diamond is designed to breathe and insulate while in motion, and in that specific respect, it’s the best of the bunch. However, the majority of buying decisions in this line of goods will be based on general, “standing around” warmth on belays, ski lifts, outdoor events and winter errand running.
There’s nothing overly complex about this rating. In general, is a jacket comfortable? Beyond that, we asked testers to look for nitpicks that evolved over-time. For example, did the sleeves run up the forearm? Or, was a hood too tight? Add-ons such as hood tensioners and hem adjustments play a part, but most people know in the store what a jacket will feel like when worn.
One tester commented that the Patagonia Micro Puff “floated” over him, given its airy materials. However, the Arc’teryx and Black Diamond earned wins in this category with above average scores. The Cerium LT’s European goose down and ideal fit above layers matched the First Light Hoody’s super-soft face fabric and lack of restriction. The Marmot and Cotopaxi scored OK in this criteria. Neither of them are tedious to wear, but suffered from sleeve length issues and how they cooperated with layers.
Brands look to these add-ons to support the overall intent of the jacket. For example, if a jacket includes materials that are clearly designed to keep a person dry, it makes sense to include a hood. Hem drawcords are popular, and the Fuego LT and First Light Hoody used the same locking toggle to secure the cord’s position once pulled tight. The Patagonia was the only coat tested that lacked a way to tighten the waistline; yet, it sports two internal pockets, a hood,
a “storm flap” behind its center zip, and a stuff pocket that is quick to fill.
All jackets scored above average, except for the Marmot, which sat right on what we consider an average set of features with a hem drawcord and mechanism for packing it away. We then looked at cuff design, pocket placement, zipper choices, and other such tools that aid in comfort and weather protection.
For the 2018 test, jackets were put to the test in a number of conditions in varied locations around the United States, but most of them ended up subjected to a moderate winter in the northern Sierras around Lake Tahoe and Truckee, California.
Testers wore products doing everything from shoveling snow to monitoring ski race courses, and from ski patrolling to backcountry tours. They were also used in spring and summer backpacking and camping trips. Testers were asked to pack them, allow them to get wet, and in general, treat them to the extent their marketing states they can handle. Zippers were pulled on, pockets stuffed, and hem cords yanked tight.
What is a Lightweight Insulated Jacket?
Jackets in this category are those that can be used alone from spring to fall (in most cases), and worn as supportive, layered insulation in the winter months.
They tend to be made of materials designed specifically to be packable and generally easy to wear even in summer, at least for a few minutes each night and morning. This is also the category where manufacturers are getting more ambitious in terms of weight, warmth, and exotic fabric choice, because it’s assumed winter puffer jackets will be heavier, more durable, and not as commonly found hanging from a harness or in the mesh external pocket of a backpack on the AT. Thus, brands can be more lenient about weight and packability, subsequently leaving it to the rest of the year’s product line to demonstrate the technical achievements of shell fabric and insulation advancements, i.e., “How light can we go and still keep a person warm?” Patagonia’s Micro Puff is the ideal example.
Lightweight insulated jackets tend to dominate the market, too. Most brands have multiple examples, perpetuating buyer’s confusion about what’s best for them, and more importantly, forcing outdoor retailers to make tough buying decisions.
There’s been a definite shift toward the cosmetic appeal of insulated jackets. They are almost commonplace in cold midwestern and northeastern urban environs among the “non-practicing” outdoorist. They are fashionable today, without question, and outdoor brands aren’t hesitating to seize the moment of crossover.
Thankfully, this category of insulated jacket remains largely stalwart to its core market: the outdoor recreation market. The versatility and multi-year reliability of most lightweight insulated jackets is hard to overstate, and the selections are only getting better.