What is a Winter Jacket?
A winter jacket is a garment that can help you withstand the cold, wind, and snow or rain. It should contain thick insulation so that your body stays warm even when not in motion. It should also protect from wind and precipitation. It is these two points together that sets “Winter Jackets” apart from some of the lighter weight insulated jackets that we tested in our Down Jacket and Insulated Jacket reviews. Those thinner insulated and less protective pieces are often part of an integrated system of layers, to give the user ultimate discretion in warmth and perspiration management when used during winter activities. The jackets featured in this review, however, are intended to be used as an all-in-one overcoat, with few or no warm layers needed underneath.
A good winter jacket needs to keep you and the insulation dry and should have a waterproof/breathable outer shell. Besides being functional in a cold environment, these jackets also tend to have a more extended cut and more attention to how they will look on casual or more formal occasions. In contrast to their lightweight counterparts used for cold weather sports, casual models often include many more features that add to their comfort and livability, since weight is not a primary consideration.
You can check out our Full Review to see how the 11 models that we tested compared to each other in our side-by-side comparison testing process. If you’re in the market for a women’s model, you can head over to our Best Winter Jacket for Women for more good-looking parkas to weather the cold in.
There are many different types on the market, from stylish insulated trenches to technical “puffy” ones meant for various winter sports. We’ll break down the different types below and give you some key considerations to look for.
What makes a winter jacket “technical” isn’t just a dayglow color that fits right in at Everest Base Camp. A technical garment usually features a more athletic, trim fit that allows for more athletic movement, and the associated features are designed to support this same athletic movement or activity. Features that a technical model might have that a casual one might not include interior water bottle pockets, helmet-compatible hoods, climbing harness-compatible zippers or length, and more durable materials placed in high-wear areas.
The Rab Neutrino Endurance best exemplifies this category and was our favorite to bring on backcountry ski tours and ice climbing missions. In the latest review of winter jackets, we omitted the Rab Neutrino, mainly because its technical design didn’t fit. A model like this is well tested in other categories. Can you wear a technical jacket in a casual setting? Sure! Most manufacturers even offer these garments in more subdued colors, so you don’t have to look like a tennis ball if you don’t want to. Note, however, that these models typically come with a high price tag since you are paying extra for high fill-power down, which won’t make a difference in performance if it’s only worn on city streets. We try and avoid reviewing jackets like this in this category.
Casual models tend to focus less on weight and packable size, and put a lot more emphasis on warmth, weather protection, comfort, and style. Since the insulation is built-in and the jacket is typically a heavier weight, these are the types we are more likely to wear during low-output activities like shoveling the driveway, going to the local outdoor ice skating rink, or commuting to work in the city. Our favorite casual jacket in this review was the Arc’teryx Camosun Parka, thanks to its trim fit and clean exterior.
Casual jackets also have their own unique features, which can include internal smartphone pockets with headphone access, fur (or faux) lined hoods, removable hoods and longer/roomier fits. Asking the previous question in reverse, we don’t recommend wearing a casual parka in a technical setting. While you can get by on the ski hill with a relaxed model, since the lodge is usually close by, longer excursions in the winter need specific gear for safety and performance reasons. While an ultra-warm casual model, like the Canada Goose Expedition Parka, will keep you toasty warm (it’s our Top Pick for Extreme Cold), it’s hard to move your arms properly due to its bulky design, and is not the parka to bring on your next ice climb.
Elements of a Quality Winter Jacket
As with any piece of outdoor clothing or gear, certain factors distinguish a bargain basement model from a top of the line piece. Here’s what to look for regarding quality when selecting your next one.
A shell is a thin waterproof barrier for your jacket. It can offer superior protection from rain, sleet and snow by using a weatherproof barrier material such as Gore-Tex, eVent or H2NO to block out the elements, but offers little to nothing in regards to insulation. Using a rain shell as a winter coat means that you need to have a good idea of how to layer your clothing system. Please check out our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article for more information on layering.
Using an uninsulated shell during backcountry activities or on overnight winter camping trips offers the most versatility in layering choices. On trips closer to home, or where weight and adaptability aren’t as significant, we can afford to choose a jacket which offers more features and comfort. If you are in the market for a new uninsulated shell, check out our Hardshell Jacket review.
The models that we tested in this review featured either a two- or three-layer membrane material, or a DWR (durable water repellent) coating as the weather barrier, similar to what you find on a Rain Jacket. If you live in a climate where precipitation tends to fall as rain instead of snow in the winter, you’ll want to look for a model with a high-tech breathable barrier, like the Gore-Tex found on the Arc’teryx Camosun and Fission SV models. We also found the HyVent fabric used on The North Face Arrowood to be both durable and waterproof. On the flip side, models with a DWR coating, like the Patagonia Jackson Glacier and Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber work best in dry, snowy conditions, but can saturate through in the rain and/or once the coating wears off a bit.