If you’re looking for a jacket that offers solid warmth at a good value, synthetic insulation is the way to go. You don’t get quite as high of a warmth-to-weight ratio as down, but synthetic jackets resist moisture, can breathe better, and are more cost efficient. With the choice of both types in our gear closet, we find ourselves consistently reaching for our favorite synthetic jackets for just about everything but lightweight backcountry pursuits where every ounce counts. Below are our picks for the best synthetic jackets of 2016-2017, from lightweight pieces designed for cool fall and spring weather to winter parkas that can handle the toughest four season conditions. For more background, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Weight: 12.7 oz.
Insulation: Coreloft (60g)
What we like: Great mix of warmth, mobility, and comfort.
What we don’t: Breathability could be better.
Women's: Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody
Arc’teryx makes some of the top jackets and shells on the market, and the Atom LT Hoody is perhaps their most well-known model. Despite being around for a number of years, the Atom LT remains extremely popular because it absolutely nails the essentials: impressive warmth for the weight, supreme comfort, and a useful feature set. Unlike the Patagonia Nano-Air below that has a softer shell and interior fabric, the Atom LT is tougher and shows less wear over time.
We’ve worn the Atom LT during all kinds of outdoor activities from hiking and biking to cross-country skiing. It isn’t quite as breathable as the Nano-Air and other performance-centric synthetic jackets, but the Coreloft insulation and stretchy fleece side panels still work well for active use. Most of all, we love the versatility: the Atom LT works great as an outer layer or midlayer, and it’s one of the best options on this list for everyday wear. For similar quality but more warmth, see the Arc’teryx Nuclei AR below.
See the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody
Weight: 13.6 oz.
Insulation: FullRange (60g)
What we like: Best-in-class comfort and breathability.
What we don’t: Pilling can occur over time.
Women's: Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody
The Nano-Air from Patagonia may not be our top overall pick, but it wins outright in one important category: comfort. This pillowy synthetic jacket is extremely soft, stretchy, and breathable—it feels like a combination of a high-end performance piece and your favorite sweatshirt. Climbers and active folks love its ability to move and breathe (the FullRange insulation and stretchy shell is noticeably more breathable than the Atom LT above), and you won’t find a cozier piece for travel or daily use.
We knock the Nano-Air down a notch because it isn’t as durable as we would like for the price. The super soft interior and exterior fabrics that define the jacket and make it so comfortable have a tendency to pill with heavy use, particularly around the back of the neck and sleeves. That being said, it’s nearly impossible to create something this soft without compromising on toughness. The Nano-Air still is one of favorite all-around synthetic jackets and a first-rate midlayer.
See the Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody
Weight: 14 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Gold (60g)
What we like: Excellent wind protection and warmth for the weight.
What we don’t: Performance slant isn’t ideal for casual use.
Women's: Rab Xenon X
The Xenon X from UK-based Rab is an ideal synthetic for serious climbers and hikers. First, you get a healthy amount of PrimaLoft Gold Active insulation, which provides excellent warmth for the weight and breathes well—better than older versions of the Xenon X that had PrimaLoft One or Gold but not the “Active” version. Second, the Pertex Quantum shell material does a really nice job of cutting the wind (this helps add some warmth in the process). Finally, the jacket packs down relatively small into its own chest pocket, which isn’t true of either the Arc’teryx Atom LT or Patagonia Nano-Air above.
Why isn’t the Xenon X ranked higher? Its performance slant suits hardcore adventurers well, but the everyday appeal isn’t at the same level as the two options above. More, the jacket only comes in a hooded version, limiting its utility as a midlayer for activities like resort skiing. It still works great, however, as an outer layer in fall and in mild winter conditions.
See the Rab Xenon X
Weight: 12.3 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft ThermoBall (33g)
What we like: Great imitation of a lightweight down jacket.
What we don’t: Boxy fit.
Women's: The North Face ThermoBall
Synthetic-insulated jackets have long aspired to mimic down, and the popular ThermoBall jacket from The North Face is one of the best efforts yet. Created in partnership with insulation wizards PrimaLoft, ThermoBall technology is an efficient insulator thanks to small round clusters of PrimaLoft thermal fibers housed inside the jacket’s baffles. This gives the jacket a look and feel that emulates a lightweight puffy but at a lower cost and with superior performance when wet.
One of our sticking points with the ThermoBall is fit: we’ve found this jacket to run rather boxy and it seems like it’s more intended for a casual audience than the performance crowd. It’s still a great choice for daily wear and as a midlayer for skiing, which is exactly what many people who buy it want. The cherry on top: the ThermoBall comes in a ton of colorways so you shouldn’t have trouble finding exactly what you are looking for.
See the North Face ThermoBall Full Zip
Weight: 11.9 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Gold Eco (60g)
What we like: Lightweight feel and great for casual use.
What we don’t: Will have trouble withstanding serious cold or wet.
Women's: Patagonia Nano Puff
Before the Nano-Air there was the Nano Puff. This versatile synthetic jacket is a nice choice for hiking on crisp days, as a midlayer for skiing, and for use around town. Similar to The North Face ThermoBall above, it feels like a lightweight down jacket but with better breathability and at a lower price. This combination has made it one of Patagonia’s best-selling jackets year after year.
For those deciding between the two Patagonia synthetics on this list, the Nano Puff isn’t quite as performance oriented as the Nano-Air with less stretchiness and breathability. And although the Nano Puff also is known for comfort, the shell and lining are more slick than soft. But the Nano Puff’s lightweight and comfortable feel have made it extremely popular, particularly for daily use and travel.
See the Patagonia Nano Puff
Weight: 18 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Silver Active (60g)
What we like: Tough on the outside and inside.
What we don’t: Heavier than the jackets above.
Women’s: Black Diamond First Light Hoody
You knew Black Diamond wouldn’t enter the market lightly, and they made quite a splash with the new-for-2016-2017 First Light Hoody. We like the heavyweight BD Stance Belay Parka below for cold weather, but the First Light is a much more active synthetic that can be worn in a range of conditions and as an outer layer or midlayer. To be sure, the designers have ski touring and climbing in mind—they call the First Light Hoody an ideal “start-stop” piece and its build and feature set agree.
In the mold of the Outdoor Research Uberlayer below, the First Light has a softshell-like outer that can take some use and abuse. Black Diamond also added a relatively strong nylon liner that should resist wear better than other models (we’ve looking at you, Patagonia Nano-Air). Sacrifices come with a few ounces of added weight and PrimaLoft Silver Active instead of the more efficient Gold Active like the Rab Xenon X. For casual wear, we prefer the Atom LT or Nano-Air, but for serious backcountry skiers and climbers, the First Light Hoody is a top-notch synthetic jacket.
See the Black Diamond First Light Hoody
Weight: 16.2 oz.
Insulation: Coreloft (100g and 60g)
What we like: Warm and durable.
What we don’t: A two-way zipper would be nice.
The synthetic jackets above fall into the “lightweight” category—they should keep you cozy down to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), depending on factors like layering and activity level. Enter the Arc’teryx Nuclei AR, which offers considerably more warmth along with impressive breathability and water resistance. It’s a true midweight synthetic for those who want more warmth than the Atom LT but the same level of Arc’teryx quality.
Calling the Nuclei AR just a belay jacket would be limiting. Our testers have used it for backcountry skiing, winter hiking, and ice climbing, among other things. The jacket sheds water and moisture well and packs down quite small for the warmth it provides. In terms of durability, we put it through the wringer and have had no issues. All in all, it’s a Swiss Army Knife synthetic jacket for cold and wet winter conditions... Read in-depth review
See the Arc'teryx Nuclei AR
Weight: 13 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Gold (60g)
What we like: A great value.
What we don’t: Styling isn’t as slick as Arc’teryx or Patagonia.
Women's: Outdoor Research Cathode
We were a bit surprised to rank the Cathode over the newer and more highly touted Outdoor Research Uberlayer, but one factor in particular swayed the decision: value. Don’t mind the $199 MSRP—you often can find the Cathode on sale for as low as half that. If so, the Cathode is all the synthetic jacket that many people need and nothing they don’t. You get PrimaLoft Gold insulation along with nice stretchy side panels under the arms that are reminiscent of the more expensive Arc’teryx Atom LT above. Despite the reasonable price, the feature set works well for ski touring, climbing, and backpacking. We don’t love the Cathode as much at the full $199, but on sale it’s an awesome synthetic jacket.
See the Outdoor Research Cathode
Weight: 11.7 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Luxe
What we like: Down feel from a synthetic.
What we don’t: Less versatile than other jackets on this list.
Women's: Dynafit TLT PrimaLoft Jacket
In terms of creating a true down alternative, the TLT PrimaLoft jacket from skiing hegemon Dynafit could give The North Face ThermoBall a run for its money. The jacket is filled with PrimaLoft Luxe insulation, which is designed to be as close of a facsimile of down as possible. The TLT has great loft, packs down small, and provides very impressive warmth for its sub-12-ounce weight.
Our only real concern with the TLT PrimaLoft is that it’s clearly designed for use as a midlayer. Most jackets above can pull double duty as an outer layer or casual piece, but the Dynafit TLT has backcountry adventuring in mind with its no-nonsense design and lack of features. We definitely appreciate the fluffiness and warmth for the weight, but the jacket is somewhat limited in its uses.
See the Dynafit TLT PrimaLoft Jacket
Weight: 19.9 oz.
Insulation: Polartec Alpha (98g)
What we like: Climbing-ready design that can be worn everyday.
What we don’t: Heavy and pricey.
Women's: Outdoor Research Uberlayer
For years, Outdoor Research’s leading performance synthetic was the Superlayer, which couldn’t quite hang with the heavy hitters. Enter the Uberlayer, which was new for last year and features Polartec Alpha, a highly breathable active insulation, along with a stretchy outer shell. The jacket is climbing ready with a small wire brim built into the front of the hood and has long arms for reaching for your next hold or planting your poles while ski touring. A double separating zipper is a surprise in this category and works great for accessing a belay device or dumping excess heat.
We can testify to the Uberlayer’s high level of breathability following a late season hike with conditions varying from 30 and snowing to 50 and sunny. Never once did we feel the need to remove the jacket despite the changing conditions. Our issues with this jacket are price and weight: the Uberlayer’s main competitors are the Nano-Air (the Uberlayer is not much warmer despite weighing an extra 7 ounces) and the new BD First Light Hoody (again, that jacket is lighter and cheaper). We still like the Uberlayer for backcountry skiing and climbing, but it could use a few tweaks before getting bumped higher up this list... Read in-depth review
See the Outdoor Research Uberlayer
Weight: 12 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Gold
What we like: Great design and colorways.
What we don’t: Expensive.
Aside from the difficult-to-pronounce name, we like most things about the Mammut Eigerjoch Pro IS. It’s filled with PrimaLoft Gold insulation, which is one of the premier synthetics on the market. It’s lightweight at just 12 ounces yet reasonably warm. And it’s sleek with the clean lines and appealing colorways that Mammut is known for.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? The Eigerjoch Pro IS is too pricey for our tastes and doesn’t beat out our more highly ranked synthetic jackets in any particular category. The Rab Xenon X is a better performance piece for less money, and the Patagonia Nano Puff looks as good for casual wear and also is cheaper. But we do like the classy design—it’s one of the best looking jackets on this list—and that may be enough to sway some people.
See the Mammut Eigerjoch Pro IS
Weight: 25.8 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Silver (2 layers of 80g)
What we like: Extremely warm and still well under 2 pounds.
What we don’t: Styling is clean but conservative.
Women's: Black Diamond Stance Belay Parka
For frigid winter climates like the Midwest and East Coast of the United States, the Stance Belay Parka is Black Diamond’s warmest synthetic jacket. It’s categorized as a belay jacket, which often involves standing in place for extended periods, and therefore is light on features and heavy on warmth.
On the upside, the Stance Belay is much cheaper than a midweight jacket like the Arc’teryx Nuclei AR yet still can handle frigid temperatures with two layers of PrimaLoft Silver. The comfortable collar and hood do a terrific job at blocking out the elements, and although the Parka does have a DWR coating, don’t expect Gore-Tex level protection. However, for everyday cold-weather use and belaying, it’s the warmest synthetic on this list.
See the Black Diamond Stance Belay Parka
Weight: 15.5 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft/down blend
What we like: Warm and inexpensive for what you get.
What we don’t: The blend means less water resistance and breathability.
Women's: REI Stratocloud
Okay, perhaps we are cheating by including the REI Stratocloud on this list: it’s not 100% synthetic but instead filled with a blend of PrimaLoft and 650-fill down. All fibers are treated with a water repellant finish and the durable shell does a really nice job at cutting the wind. That’s a whole lot of jacket for $160 and will keep you warmer than many of the more expensive options above that are made with purely synthetic fill.
Despite the good warmth and great price, the Stratocloud naturally is lower on the water resistance and breathability scale than a jacket packed only with a fill like Primaloft or Coreloft. It still can handle light precipitation and many people wear a shell when the going gets rough anyway. Therefore the Stratocloud isn’t a true synthetic alternative but a nice option for those who might be on the fence in the down vs. synthetic debate.
See the REI Stratocloud
|Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody||$259||12.7 oz.||Coreloft (60g)||20-denier||No|
|Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody||$299||13.6 oz.||FullRange (60g)||20-denier||No|
|Rab Xenon X||$235||14 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold (60g)||20-denier||Yes|
|The North Face ThermoBall||$199||12.3 oz.||PrimaLoft ThermoBall (33g)||15-denier||Yes|
|Patagonia Nano Puff||$199||11.9 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold Eco (60g)||22-denier||Yes|
|Black Diamond First Light Hoody||$249||18 oz.||PrimaLoft Silver Active (60g)||40-denier||Yes|
|Arc’teryx Nuclei AR||$425||16.2 oz.||Coreloft (100g and 60g)||20-denier||Yes|
|Outdoor Research Cathode||$199||13 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold (60g)||22-denier||Yes|
|Dynafit TLT PrimaLoft Jacket||$230||11.7 oz.||PrimaLoft Luxe||Unavailable||Yes|
|Outdoor Research Uberlayer||$299||19.9 oz.||Polartec Alpha (98g)||30-denier||Yes|
|Mammut Eigerjoch Pro IS||$275||12 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold||Unavailable||Yes|
|Black Diamond Stance Belay||$299||25.8 oz.||PrimaLoft Silver (2 layers 80g)||40-denier||No|
|REI Stratocloud||$159||15.5 oz.||PrimaLoft/down blend||Unavailable||Yes|
- Types of Synthetic Insulation
- Water Resistance
- Hood or No Hood?
- Durability and Care
The shape and texture of synthetic insulation varies significantly. Some synthetics are sheet-like in appearance with a continuous filament pattern, creating a buffer of warmth like a blanket. Other newer versions mimic the shape and loft of actual clusters of down but with the added water resistance of a synthetic. Below we break down some common insulation types you will come across when shopping.
Much of the recent synthetic insulation surge can be credited to this company. It has been well known for years that down insulation struggles in the wet, but no big-name synthetic insulation had put out a product that could compete in packability and warmth for the weight. PrimaLoft changed that, and the brand became synonymous with lightweight warmth on popular jackets like the Patagonia Nano Puff. The lineup has increased substantially in recent years, and the new PrimaLoft Gold Active is a standout in the market, but the core benefits of compressibility, breathability, and low weight remain.
This type of insulation actually is a variation of PrimaLoft, but in a unique application made by The North Face. Rather than a flat sheet of insulation, Thermoball uses PrimaLoft synthetic in clusters to mimic down insulation. It does a really nice job of doing this, with heating efficiency equally a claimed 600-fill-power down jacket. It’s also decently compressible and lightweight, which has made The North Face Thermoball jackets a popular choice for hiking, skiing and travel—not to mention for daily wear.
Most proprietary synthetic technologies are decent, not top performers, but Arc’teryx has a real winner in their Coreloft fill. Found in everything from their all-world Atom LT jacket to areas vulnerable to moisture in their creative down/synthetic hybrid Cerium LT, Coreloft is a staple for lightweight, hydrophobic warmth. Arc’teryx are purists in that they don’t buy into hydrophobic down, and their consistent use of synthetic insulation in insulated wet weather gear is a testament. As with most variations of PrimaLoft, breathability isn’t as good as the FullRange or Polartec Alpha below, but it beats those newcomers in warmth per gram.
FullRange and Polartec Alpha
Although they are different brands, FullRange by Patagonia and Polartec Alpha are direct competitors in performance synthetics. They share a common goal: high breathability for high-output activities. And they’re both quite successful at it, despite having slightly different technologies. The downside of both types of insulation is they don’t keep you as warm when you’re not moving. More air moving through the insulation means less heat retention. We recommend FullRange and Polartec Alpha for activities like climbing, ski touring and light mountaineering when you’re most prone to overheating.
The single biggest selling point of synthetic fill over down fill is that it retains its ability to insulate when wet. With a down jacket, prolonged exposure to rain or snow will eventually lead to soaked feathers, causing them to lose their loft and warmth-creating potential. Even new hydrophobic down technologies eventually give in to sustained moisture. A wet down jacket is heavy, won’t keep you warm, and takes much longer to dry out than a synthetic one. Synthetic insulation resists moisture and water instead sits between the fibers, allowing them to retain their shape, continue to insulate, and dry more quickly. The degree to which synthetic insulation resists water varies by type, but all synthetics repel moisture much better than down.
On both sides of the aisle, gear manufactures are commonly adding a DWR (Durable Water Resistant) treatment to insulated jackets. This helps water bead off the shell instead of collecting and eventually soaking through to the interior of the jacket. DWR treatments do a pretty good job at repelling light to moderate precipitation, but by no means waterproof the jacket. Synthetic jackets do a much better job than down in wet conditions, but for prolonged exposure you will want to consider a rain shell.
Synthetic insulation creates less warmth for its weight than down. For example, you can expect that a 12-ounce down jacket will be noticeably warmer than a 12-ounce synthetic jacket. However, synthetics still do a pretty respectable job in this department and are only getting better. Gear manufacturers continue to innovate with new and improved “down-like” synthetics hitting the market year after year.
There is a significant amount of variation in the warmth of our synthetic jacket picks above. Popular models like the Patagonia Nano Puff, The North Face Thermoball, and Arc’teryx Atom LT fall into the lightweight category; all weigh around 12 ounces and are designed for cool weather fall and spring use. Jackets like the Outdoor Research Uberlayer weigh approximately 20 ounces and are more midweight pieces. For freezing winter conditions, parkas like the Arc'teryx Nuclei AR, Black Diamond Stance Belay, and Patagonia DAS are true winter-weight synthetic jackets. And although these jackets are quite warm, the vast majority of our picks for the best winter jackets have down fill.
It’s tough to gauge exact temperature ranges as comfort is relative and depends on factors like layering, humidity, and even the age and circulation of the person wearing the jacket, but our estimates are as follows: lightweight synthetic jackets are great for temperatures from around 40 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit with little in the way of layering (you can buy yourself some more warmth by adding a cozy baselayer). Midweight jackets can take you down to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, particularly if you’re active and getting some blood flow. Heavyweight parkas can handle the toughest conditions down to well below freezing.
Down fill has relatively average breathability, and given its warmth-to-weight ratio, a down jacket can cause you to overheat during high exertion activities. More, when you are sweating inside a down jacket, you are actually hurting its insulating properties as your water vapor comes into contact with the down feathers.
In terms of synthetic insulation, breathability varies but newer breeds are really excelling in this category. For example, the FullRange insulation on the Patagonia Nano-Air is extremely impressive in terms of its breathability and we’ve loved it as a piece for activities like winter running and cross-country skiing. The Outdoor Research Uberlayer and its Polartec Alpha insulation is another jacket that trumpets breathability. And because synthetic jackets generally are less fragile and less prone to leakage than down jackets, a wider variety of breathable shell fabrics can be used.
If the purpose for your jacket involves movement, the Nano-Air and Uberlayer are great choices and will far outperform down. Some other types of synthetic insulation like Coreloft and PrimaLoft don’t breathe as well as those performance jackets, but their hydrophobic nature, which helps pull moisture away from the fibers, means they remain a better choice as active wear. And the parkas on this list are meant for belaying or hunkering down in cold weather, not for highly active use.
Unfortunately synthetic insulation doesn’t compress as tightly as down (along with warmth, this is one of its big selling points). This means that folks like thru hikers and ultralight ounce counters favor down jackets for their ability to stuff down extremely small in the bottom of a pack and bounce back quickly when opened. However, many of the synthetic jackets on this list either pack down into a pocket or have a separate stuff sack that makes them reasonably small. They won’t be as small as down, but for casual use and adventuring when space isn’t at an absolute premium, synthetics will pleasantly surprise you with their packability.
Synthetic jackets are comfortable thanks to their ability to regulate your body temperature. They’re the kind of mid or outerlayer that you can be wearing out in the cold and not have to immediately peel off as you come indoors. The same is true when used as an active piece. You’ll find yourself keeping it on for far longer than an equivalent down jacket.
For example, here in Seattle I often put on a jacket like the Arc’teryx Atom LT or Patagonia Nano-Air when I leave the house and can wear it literally all day. I can walk the dog in 45-degree weather, then move indoors to the office without missing a beat. These synthetics are incredibly comfortable and breathe well enough even for indoor use—you feel like you are wearing your favorite hoody or fleece. If I were to put on a comparable down jacket like the Arc’teryx Cerium LT or Patagonia Ultralight, they would be too warm for physical activity or sitting indoors. So although down undoubtedly is warmer, I save it for uses like backpacking when I really value the warmth-to-weight.
Many of our top-ranked synthetic jackets are offered in either a hoody or non-hoody style. What’s best for you will come down to use: we reach for a non-hooded jacket as a midlayer while skiing or around town, and the hoody is great as an outerlayer or if it’s really cold. For stop-and-go cold weather activities like fall hiking, ski touring, or snowshoeing, a hoody is nice to have for keeping you warm while taking a break. Expect to pay $20 to $50 extra for the hoody version of the same piece. A down jacket purchase shares many of the same considerations, and we’ve covered this question in greater detail in the article: Does Your Down Jacket Need a Hood?
A great thing about synthetic jackets is that they are easier to care for than down jackets. First, you don’t have to worry as much about moisture and they don’t lose feathers, meaning that you don’t have to be as vigilant about keeping a close eye on your jacket. Synthetic insulation will break down over time, but it’s certainly not as fragile at the outset. Second, most synthetic jackets are machine washable and don’t require special supplies and care for cleaning. We do not recommend drying your synthetic jacket on high heat no matter what it says on the instructions, but this process goes a whole lot more smoothly than with down.
Last but certainly not least, you get more bang for your buck with synthetic insulation. New synthetic jackets from top brands like Arc’teryx and Patagonia are still pricey, but synthetic insulation is cheaper to produce and this is reflected in the price tag. The cost of goose down has been going up, further incentivizing gear manufacturers to come up with new and sustainable down alternatives. No one has created a true down alternative yet that can replicate the warmth and compressibility, and for these reasons, down remains in high demand and therefore more expensive. Look for the synthetic market to continue to evolve, pushing ever closer to a true down replacement at a lower cost.