It’s that time of year. The leaves are red and yellow. If they haven’t started falling already they soon will, and the air has a bite to it when walking the dog in the morning. In other words, it is time to start thinking about winter jackets.
There is virtually a plethora of choices when it comes to winter jackets. Making up your mind can become a stressful affair. Should it be waterproof? Should you go for a jacket with fixed lining, or should get something thinner and layer underneath? Hood or no hood? Down or pile lining? A lot of questions, and not really any incorrect answers. It all depends on what you need the jacket for.
If you have read this blog before, you know that in general we recommend polyester and cotton jackets over membrane jackets. The reason is that, especially during the warmer months of the year, they breathe better than a waterproof jacket during high intensity activities such as hillwalking for example. However, in winter this issue is less pronounced. This is because the way a membrane work is by using a pressure difference which is caused among other things by a difference in temperature. During winter the temperature difference between the inside of the coat and the outside is greater than in the summer time. So the coat breathes better. Looking at it this way makes a case for waterproof jackets in winter.
Another aspect worth considering is activity. If you are going to be sitting or standing still for long periods of time, you won’t really need the breathability of the jacket anyway since you won’t be generating heat that needs transported out through the fabric. In other words, a waterproof is better for watching the kids’ football game while a polyester and cotton might still be preferred on the hill.
There’s also the matter of which way to go in terms of the lining of the coat. Some chose a thin polyester and cotton shell jacket, and then wear wool or fleece layers underneath for insulation. This is something that I do personally. I will be the first to say that there are definite up- and downsides to this approach. On the positive side it offers a versatility that you simply could not achieve with a fixed lining. My winter jacket becomes my summer jacket with the removal of the wool zip up I wear underneath. On the other hand I have looked on in envy as my wife pulls her Didriksons jacket on and heads out the door while I am struggling with my layers still.
The conclusion I have come to personally is that if your everyday jacket is also the coat you wear for trekking, skiing, or doing anything else of fairly high intensity, the occasional slight delay when getting dressed in winter is probably worth it. If it’s not you might as well go with a lined coat. For example, Bergans' womens cecilie wool jacket has a two-layer structure providing insulation for different temperature conditions and different levels of activity, meaning you can wear it for that ski trip and a windy walk to the store.
Insulation in jackets work much the same as in other areas of outdoor clothing. Pockets of air warmed by your body are trapped in the fabric and provides a protective layer against the cold outside. The loftier the fabric, the more air is trapped and the greater the warmth-to-weight ratio.
This is why down jackets offer such good insulation. Pile lining on the other hand is a man-made fabric, not all that different from fleece. It does not insulate as well as down, basically nothing does, but is less expensive and also comparatively insulates better than down if the material gets wet. A pile lined jacket will not be as puffy as a down jacket, giving it a sleeker look.
There are also synthetic materials that mimic down, such as Primaloft and Supreme Micro Loft. These materials are created from ultra-fine fibres, which traps the pockets of air you need to stay warm. The fine fibres also mean that it is a really soft material, with a compressibility that compares well to natural down. A definite advantage of these synthetic down alternatives is that the fibres have been treated to be water resistant, allowing the material to stay drier and maintain its insulation properties better. Again, there is no such thing as a better option, it all depends on what you are planning on using the jacket for
No matter where your preferences lie, in the end the single most important thing is how much you like the jacket you have decided on. Unless it fits right, feels right, and not least looks right, it will be stuck in the back of the wardrobe. And no jacket will do you any good there, no matter how great it is.