A winter jacket used to be a thick ply, made with itchy wool or piled down, a protective layer against polar gales. Today, brands favor operative terms including “breathable,” “packable,” “air-permeable” — lightweight pieces that adapt to the elements of cold, sun, wind or rain.
Nature demands a thick skin, or at least an adaptable one, and gear designers answer with nano-particles, membranes and materials able to “map” how your body moves.
These pieces span from affordable to high-end, each with its own purpose to insulate and protect in the backcountry, on the trail or on your way to work. Invest in one of these now and enjoy it for years to come. All prices are MSRP.
Black Diamond touts this Gore-Tex hardshell as “minimal weight and bulk,” weighing 14 ounces yet offering a waterproof shield against a storm. It is cut thin and made for mountaineering or winter hiking with a pack, when extra features give way to a minimalist design. A streamlined hood pulls tight or expands to fit over a climbing helmet when you’re heading up.
The North Face’s synthetic alternative to down is an air-trapping, spherical insulation called ThermoBall, which has gained mass adoption in frozen places. I like its packable nature as well as its expert capability to repel water — the insulation remains heat-trapping even if wet. A cozy hood cinches tight enough to stand in as a baffled hat.
Corbet 120 Jacket
SmartWool built a dream coat for active types in this “vest with arms.” The Corbet offers merino wool fabric next to the skin and a windproof, insulated baffled panel on the front. The body-temp-regulating top is ideal for cross-country skiing and winter running. A chest pocket with media cord ports lets you pump tunes while exercising in the chill.
Starting at $150; columbia.com
Columbia Sportswear offers a new kind of jacket that is more durable than any waterproof hardshell I’ve seen. The OutDry Extreme fabric is a shiny, dense, rubbery face that significantly combats wear while still letting the body breathe. The jackets in this line feel like rain slickers but are made to stand up to winter’s worst. Available in February.
Stormy Kromer offers a classic look and a comfortable fit with its wool-synthetic pullover. Made in the U.S., the basic layer is built to work as a standalone piece for chopping wood or taking a hike. Wear it under a shell jacket as a mid-layer that traps body heat on the dankest winter days.
Uberlayer Hooded Jacket
Outdoor Research offers “active insulation,” a new industry concept, with this warm-but-breathable piece. A mesh internal lining coupled with Polartec Alpha insulation creates a chameleon coat that can adapt by moving body heat as you sweat. But stop at a cold vista and the insulation kicks back in, trapping body heat to “actively” keep you warm.
$64 to $80, depending on color; exofficio.com
Leave the bug spray at home and throw on this number by Exofficio. The insect-shield technology makes this jacket a must-have for geographic locations with warm (and buggy) climates, no matter the season. Repel mosquitoes, ticks, ants, chiggers and no-see-ums with the odorless, invisible ingredient bonded to the jacket’s fabric.
Stephen Regenold is the founder of GearJunkie.com.