Synthetic Insulated Jackets for Winter

Whilst Scotland seems to be basking in balmy Spring weather I’m still holding out for a final icy blast for an oft-postponed igloo-building trip. Although there’s plenty of snow forecast for later this weekend, at the moment here’s a distinct lack of the white stuff around, but that shouldn’t lead to complacency when it comes to winter clothing, particularly insulating layers. Thanks to Scotland’s temperate, maritime climate I’m never totally sure that my puffy down jacket will remain free from moisture and that disconcerting descent to a feathery porridge consistency. Especially in winter, I want an insulating layer that I can throw over myself without having to think about the ambient conditions – with spindrift in my eyes and cold fingers I don’t want to be taking off layers and protecting fragile down insulation with a waterproof shell – I just want to be warm.

Whilst not as effective or long-lasting as down, modern synthetic insulation is pretty good, and in Scotland this is my preferred choice for year-round use. In winter I carry an oversized belay-style jacket, large enough to be layered over everything – hard or soft shell, wet or dry.

In this review I’ll be looking at insulated jackets from a number of brands, each containing at least 100gsm of synthetic insulation in the torso. I’ve where possible I’ve deliberately selected a size larger than my normal size L to allow space for inner layers – it may look a bit silly but it avoids frustration and cursing on the hill! Oh, and the last jacket is a little bit special….

Keela Belay Advance JacketRRP: £75

I’m determined to get Fife-based Keela on this site as much as possible – as a key supplier to the military their stuff is no-nonsense and rugged – ideal for hill use. The Belay Advance Jacket is available in black or olive green- hinting at the intended market. Features and styling are functional rather than fashionable – a decent layer of high-performing Primaloft One sandwiched between two layers of nylon (the outer ripstop) and a zip up the front. All the pockets are fitted with chunky YKK zips, with the outer zips equipped with a simple tape tab to aid operation with gloves on. The bottom hem is simply finished and elasticated – I’d like to see a more secure adjustment here to keep the jacket sealed effectively. The cuffs are fitted with a Velcro tab to keep things sealed. The collar – tall enough to keep the weather out –  is fleece-lined, along with the uninsulated zip baffle. I can understand why military customers may not require a hood, but for winter hill use I consider a hood an important safe-haven (see the video above) and even a detachable hood option would have been a good idea. In use the jacket performs as advertised. Keela have taken no risks with the design, there’s nothing superfluous and this is a good, basic insulation layer. The price is extremely good, and I’ve seen it available for under £50. Also available in olive green.

Female equivalent? Nope.

Fabric: Flylite Ripstop Fill: 133gsm Primaloft One  Pockets: two side zipped, one inner chest zipped  Weight: 631g (L)

Vaude Khumbu JacketRRP: £175

It’s very orange. This highly-technical jacket may not get much use as street-wear (though it’s also available in black with white detailing) but on the hill it performs pretty well. Vaude are really keen to promote their sustainable credentials and this garment caries Vaude’s ‘Green Shape’ label, signifying that it is “made of at least 90% organic cotton or recycled materials, coloured using the eco-friendly VAUDE ecolour dyeing process or made to conform to the world’s most stringent textile standard bluesign®.” This seems like a logical and responsible step for manufacturers to take. Outwith the fabrics, the jacket has the superb attention to detail and finishing  that I’ve come to expect from Vaude – from the high quality press studs to clever zip pulls loops that make operating the good YKK zips a breeze. The bottom hem has an elasticated drawcord which can be adjusted one-handed  from within the side pockets (keeping any excess shockcord captive and preventing it whipping into sensitive areas in the wind). In total contrast to the simplicity of the Keela Belay Advance the construction of the Khumbu is pretty complex. There are Polartec Powerstretch panels built into the jacket under the arms to aid both breathability and range of movement, and a bizarre arrangement at the cuffs. Rather than a wide cuff with a cinching mechanism – ideal for accepting gloved hands – Vaude have decided to use a stretchy inner cuff with a thumb loop. This works OK with bare hands or a thin glove, but is less-than-ideal when wearing anything bulkier, especially a gauntlet-style glove which needs to be removed before donning the jacket. It”s possible to turn the inner cuff inside out and ignore the thumb loop – but that’s just a bit of extra faff. The high quality has resulted in a high price, but if you can cope with the cuff this is a great choice.

Female equivalent? Yup: Women’s Khumbu Jacket

Fabric: 100% polyester Fill: 100gsm Primaloft Eco Pockets:  two side  zipped, one inner chest zipped  Weight: 599g (XL)

Rab Photon JacketRRP: £120

Walkhighlands RecommendedI need to stop featuring Rab garments in these reviews – I spend ages searching for faults and generally fail, making for a slightly boring review with an inevitable ‘Recommended’ badge. Rab make outdoor equipment for UK conditions, and the new Photon is pretty much perfect for the application described. Primaloft Eco combines the advantages of synthetic (plastic) insulation with a sustainable approach – using 70% post consumer recycled materials obtained from things like plastic bottles. The outer Pertex Microlight fabric is a good combination of breathability and water resistance, and the 30 dernier construction suggests durability. The cut is on the sensible side of athletic, with a good range of movement and a drop-tail to prevent inadvertent kidney-chilling. The arm length is in proportion for a UK build, and cuffs are sealed with a simple Velcro tab. The bottom hem is secured with a shockcord drawcord, adjusted with one hand and the excess kept to each side and well away from delicate areas. Pockets are large, secured with YKK zips with cord pulls and above rucksack and harness straps. The hood is helmet-compatible but easily cinched-in with a Velcro volume adjuster and one-handed shockcord adjusters. A wired peak keeps precipitation at bay, and forms a good seal around a pair of goggles. The price is superb, and the weight reflects the thick insulation and outer fabric. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Female equivalent? Yup: Rab Women’s Photon Jacket

Fabric: Pertex Microlight 30D Fill:133gsm Primaloft Eco in body and 100g Primaloft Eco in sleeves Pockets: two chest  zipped, one inner chest zipped Weight: 637g (XL)

Paramo Torres JacketRRP £140

As a UK company Paramo agree with my ‘chuck it over everything’ approach to layering, and the Torres Jacket is specifically designed to interact with their range of waterproofs. The Torres continues the pump action of the Analogy fabric by ensuring that the moisture on the face fabric of the waterproof shell is conveyed through to the surface of the Torres quickly where it can evaporate. This is noticeably less ‘technical’ than some of the other jackets shown, with a boxy cut and simple features such as a plain elasticated bottom hem and cuffs. The hood will not accommodate a large climbing helmet easily, but does seal around a hillwalker’s hat-clad head remarkably well. The excess shockcord on the hood adjusters feeds into a narrow channel to exit within the jacket. This negates the danger of the ends whipping around in the wind, but requires a bit of fiddling or unzipping the top of the jacket to remove the loop of elastic sitting at mouth level. The inner mesh pocket is a nice touch – large enough to accept an OS map but also a great place to dry wet liner gloves using body heat. This is a bulky jacket thanks to rugged inner and outer fabrics and thick insulation, but longevity is assured and there is very little to fail thanks to the simple construction. In true Paramo style, this is a great British-designed jacket for the worst British conditions.

Female equivalent? Nope.

Fabric: Nikwax Windproof Fill: 133g Nikwax Analogy Insulator Pockets:  two chest  zipped, one inner chest zipped Weight: 681g (L)

Montane Flux JacketRRP: £140

This jacket has been through various incarnations over the years, and the current a jacket is more of an ‘active’ garment, just thin enough that it can be used all day rather than simply as a rest-break jacket. This explains the extra pockets – four external and one internal – that have the capacity to accept a fair amount of stuff and are usable with a rucksack or harness on. Accepting the intended use, there is little to fault – all the detailing and hardware is of high quality, good YKK zips and usable zip pulls, side-adjusting hem drawcord toggles and a practical wired hood. A one-handed captive toggle on the rear of the hood reduces volume and cinches the hood around your head, and two further toggles adjust the hood opening around your face/goggles. There is a particularly good microfleece beard guard at the top of the insulated zip baffle, and a double front zip. Cuffs have effective Velcro tabs with subtle reflective decals, and the sleeves are a good length relative to the jacket size. For the amount of insulation the weight is slightly high, I assume due to the extra on-the-move features, but the tailored slim fit has stopped this getting too out of hand. Whilst not an ideal belay-style jacket this is a superb utility jacket that is extremely popular with a wide range of outdoor users.

Female equivalent? Yup: Montane Women’s Flux Jacket

Fabric: PERTEX Microlight Rip-stop Fill: 100gsm Primaloft Eco in torso, 60gsm in sleeves Pockets: two side zipped, two chest zipped, one inner chest zipped Weight: 609g (XL)

Helly Hansen Odin Isolator Hooded JacketRRP £250

Helly Hansen have expended considerable time and effort on their mountain range, developed in conjunction with professional guides and ski patrollers. Immediately noticeable is the lack of weight – a combination of the thin, glossy outer fabric and the lightweight 100gsm Primaloft Sport insulation. I’m a bit disappointed that Helly Hansen chose to use Sport rather than 70% recycled Eco – the difference in performance is so marginal as to be insignificant (Primaloft One is the highest-performing of the three). Nonetheless, this is a classy jacket with a focus on performance – the 15D ripstop nylon shell repels water well and should be durable enough to cope with anything a hillwalker could put it through bar use as a scree sledge. The bottom hem is plain but elasticated, and manages to form a decent seal. Unusually there is also an inner skirt – similar to a powder skirt found on ski jackets – which professes to act as a further draft excluder. It works, but not noticeably better than the standard adjustable hem toggle arrangement found on the other jackets. There are two side handwarmer pockets lined with Helly Hansen’s famous LIFA fabric and a further chest pocket, all reinforced with tape to protect the thin shell fabric. The original Isolator jacket didn’t have a hood, and this model has been developed after customer and tester feedback. It’s a plain hood with no adjustments whatsoever – it doesn’t accept a large helmet easily and does feel a little like an afterthought though the plain design does save weight. Impeccable attention to detail, high quality and minimal weight come at a premium price, and I feel it’s just a little too specialised for most hillwalkers.

Female equivalent? Yup: Helly Hansen Women’s Odin Isolator Hooded Jacket

Fabric: 15D Nylon 66 ripstop  Fill:  100gsm Primaloft Sport  Pockets:  two side zipped, one chest zipped  Weight: 444g (XL)

Arc’teryx Atom SV HoodyRRP £200

Another premium product from Canadian brand Arc’teryx. It’s a beautiful jacket, with a propriety matt-finish face fabric that is a welcome relief from usual high-gloss. Whilst described as an athletic fit this model is actually sized generously so sizing up may not be required in order to use as a belay jacket. Assuming this ‘over everything’ donning method the stretch woven cuffs are disappointing – they seal nicely around bare hands or thin gloves, but walkers that don’t spend much time with their hands above their heads may find larger gloves or gauntlets will not fit inside the cuff. I’d much prefer to see Velcro tabs or similar used here. The jacket is long, preventing any gaps, and the front zip and collar high enough to combine well with the hood and seal well. A neat hidden toggle arrangement in the hood makes adjustment particularly easy, with a single toggle at the rear to reduce the volume in the helmet-compatible hood. Whilst offering sleek and uncomplicated lines, Arc’teryx have included articulated arms for a wide range of movement, and uninsulated panels in the armpits for aid breathability. The jacket doesn’t pack into its own pocket, but the combination of Gossamera shell and 100gsm proprietary Coreloft insulation makes for a suitably compressible package. The price seems fair for such as high quality garment – the styling is such that I can imagine this being worn both on and off the hill to give maximum return for your investment.

Female equivalent? Yup: Arc’teryx Women’s Atom SV Hoody

Fabric: Gossamera—100% Nylon ripstop Fill: 100g Coreloft  Pockets:  two side zipped, one inner chest zipped  Weight: 553g (XL)

Berghaus Mount Asgard Hybrid Jacket RRP £190

This isn’t really part of the  review – more a glimpse of a fluffy warm future.  Aside from the delightful colour scheme you’ll notice that I’m wearing a down jacket. But not just any down jacket – this one has been filled with hydrophobic down treated to actually repel moisture rather than get soggy. This revolutionary new down fills the lighter orange chambers in the photo on the right, with premium Primaloft One in the darker areas more likely to get wet. It’s a great concept – all the warmth-to-weight benefits of down without the porridge risk – but I have concerns about the longevity of this particular garment. Down generally has a longer life than the equivalent synthetic fill, so I’m unsure how it’ll perform over time. But that’s not really the point – it’s waterproof down. Think about it – waterproof down.  In time for Winter 2012 Berghaus will be launching some worryingly-lightweight jackets filled entirely with this down – I’m excited.

To avoid Paul and Helen shouting at me I should probably spend some time exploring the Mount Asgard Hybrid rather than getting over excited about the possibilities of waterproof down. It’s designed to be used as an outer layer whilst performing acts of daring on rocks, so it’s a pretty athletic fit rather than the oversized belay-style jackets above. Despite the close cut articulation is superb to accommodate overhead ice-axe wielding, with a drop tail and plain elasticated hems and cuffs to keep out drafts. The hood is of usual Berghaus quality, adjusting down to a narrow slot to close out the weather with a snug shockcord volume reducer. As a climbing-oriented jacket I’m not suggesting that the Mount Asgard Hybrid will appeal to the majority of hillwalkers, but as a first look at the future of outdoor insulation I feel that gear geeks will be talking about this jacket with reverence for years to come.

Female equivalent? Yup: Berghaus Women’s Mount Asgard Hybrid Jacket.

Fabric: Pertex Quantum Fill: 700 fill power hydrophobic goose down and Primaloft One  Pockets: two side zipped, one inner chest zipped Weight: 407g (L)

Rab Strata & Xenon X Hoodies

Rab Strata (left) and Xenon X (right)

Rab Strata (left) and Xenon X (right)

They may look remarkably similar, and externally they are, but it’s the insulation that divides them into two very distinct categories. The Xenon X (pictured on the right) uses 60g/m² PrimaLoft ONE – a premium, fluffy synthetic fill that is as close to down as you’ll get without, um, using down, but it dries quickly and retains functionality when wet. The Strata on the left uses Polartec’s new 80g/m² Alpha insulation, a totally different kind of sythetic insulation which resembles a kind of  high loft laminate and forms a slab of insulation rather than the usual loose fibre wadding. So, what does this mean in the real world? Read our detailed review of the Rab Strata and Xenon X Hoodies

Agree with Phil? Let us know what you think on our forum. Waterproof down. Imagine the possibilities…


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