In the typical 3-layer ski clothing system, the midlayer is given the all-important insulating duties. As such, it is the one article of clothing you’re most likely to swap out depending on weather conditions. Is it bristling cold and dry? Grab your down jacket. Or, is it a slushy, warm mess? Then a lightweight fleece or synthetic jacket might just do the trick. All three insulation types have their proper applications, and we cover the pros and cons of each in our buying advice and comparison table below the picks. To complete your ski kit, we've also tested and reviewed the best ski jackets and best baselayers.
Weight: 12.4 oz.
What we like: Supremely comfortable and excellent breathability.
What we don’t: Not quite as warm as down.
The Patagonia Nano-Air is special: it’s a super soft, stretchy, and breathable synthetic midlayer that feels like a combination of a performance down jacket (minus the down) and your favorite sweatshirt. The result is a jacket that can be worn as a midlayer for winter sports or as an outerlayer during the shoulder season or warm winter days. The stretchiness and breathability make it a favorite among backcountry skiers and climbers, and the soft feel is great for everyday use (we’ve put it through countless days of wear around Seattle).
The Nano-Air can be your Swiss Army Knife layering piece, but keep in mind that its warmth is solidly middle of the pack. This is a lightweight synthetic jacket and doesn’t offer the same warmth-to-weight as down fill. And the price is steep compared with newcomers like the Ventrix from The North Face below. Despite these shortcomings, you won’t find a cozier midlayer. We’ve become quite addicted to ours for everything from skiing and snowshoeing to travel. For a more breathable and lighter version of this jacket, try the Nano-Air Light... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Nano-Air See the Women's Patagonia Nano-Air
A Close Second
Weight: 11.1 oz.
What we like: Great mix of mobility, warmth, and comfort.
What we don’t: Not as breathable as some of the newer synthetic options.
Arc’teryx has built its reputation on legendary shell and insulated jackets, and one of its biggest sellers is the Atom LT. This synthetic jacket is no spring chicken, having been released a number of years ago with only minor updates. Yet the Atom LT remains so popular because it nails the essentials: an excellent balance of breathability and warmth, great mobility, and a just-right cut that fits most folks really well. For these reasons, it’s a top-notch midlayer for both resort and backcountry skiing.
Compared to the Patagonia Nano-Air above, the Atom LT is less breathable with its tough shell and Coreloft synthetic fill (although its stretchy fleece side panels ventilate pretty well). The Nano-Air also gets the edge in comfort thanks to the generous stretch from its shell and liner fabrics. But we do like the Atom LT’s wind-resistant exterior that allows it to function well as an outerlayer. It’s also more durable than the Nano-Air, showing very few signs of wear over time. For a warmer down midlayer option from Arc’teryx, see the Cerium LT below... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Atom LT See the Women's Arc'teryx Atom LT
Best Budget Midlayer
Weight: 16.6 oz.
What we like: Inexpensive and comfortable.
What we don’t: Limited warmth and questionable durability.
Sure, you can spend $300 or more on a midlayer and get some of the fluffiest down or techiest synthetic insulation on the market, but that doesn’t mean you have to. For days at the resort that aren’t super cold, you often can get away with a simple fleece like the tried-and-true Columbia Steens Mountain 2.0. Soft, inexpensive, and offered in a ton of sizes and colors, this is a very popular budget option. For $35 (and less on sale, which it frequently is), you get a no-frills midlayer with a surprisingly comfortable fit.
What are the shortcomings of going so cheap? The materials on the Steens Mountain 2.0 are very basic and the jacket has few features to speak of. It also won’t last as long as the higher-end fleece options on this list—the material is pretty soft and prone to pilling. Finally, the Steens is decently cozy but falls somewhere in the light to midweight category, meaning that the warmth it provides will be limited. For long and cold days at the resort, you’ll certainly want to go with a pricier down or synthetic midlayer. But for mild conditions and spring skiing with a baselayer underneath, the Steens Mountain 2.0 should get the job done.
See the Men's Columbia Steens Mountain 2.0 See the Women's Columbia Benton Springs
Best Down Midlayer
Insulation: 800-fill down
Weight: 13.1 oz.
What we like: Warm, versatile, and well built.
What we don’t: Fit is a bit boxy.
Few jackets have stood the test of time like the Patagonia Down Sweater. First and foremost, down offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any type of insulation. This jacket doesn’t breathe as well as the synthetic options on this list, nor will it insulate as well when wet (down has a tendency to clump up and lose much of its warmth when damp). But for use as a midlayer in cold and dry weather with a shell over top, we love what the Down Sweater has to offer. You get premium 800-fill down for warmth, a high-end build that should last for many seasons of skiing and casual use, and classic styling that looks good just about anywhere. It’s quite likely that you’ll wear the Down Sweater under your ski jacket during the day and around town at night.
As mentioned above, this jacket is inherently less breathable than synthetic jackets, meaning that it’s great for the resort but not a viable option for backcountry skiing. We also don’t love the fit of the Down Sweater, which is boxier than we would prefer to accommodate a wide variety of people and uses. But it’s hard to knock the versatility: this jacket makes a terrific midlayer, packs down decently small for travel and hiking, and looks the part. For less coverage and a lower price point, see the Patagonia Down Sweater Vest below... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Down Sweater See the Women's Patagonia Down Sweater
Best of the Rest
Weight: 12.3 oz.
What we like: Great imitation of a lightweight down jacket.
What we don’t: Boxy fit.
The ThermoBall jacket from The North Face is one of the most popular and heavily marketed synthetic jackets ever. Made in conjunction with synthetic insulation masters PrimaLoft, ThermoBall technology uses small round clusters of PrimaLoft thermal fibers housed inside the jacket’s baffles, giving it the look and feel of a lightweight down puffy (and remember that synthetics insulate much better when wet). It still falls short in terms of warmth for the weight compared to high quality down—just like every other synthetic out there—but is a pretty darn impressive effort overall and the jacket has been a huge success.
Like many products from The North Face, one of our main sticking points with the ThermoBall is fit. We’ve found that it runs rather boxy, which is fine for everyday wear and use as a layering piece at the ski resort (this is exactly what most people are looking for). We still prefer a performance cut in general for better mobility, which is part of the reason why the ThermoBall falls to number 5 on our list despite its more affordable price tag... Read in-depth review
See the Men's North Face ThermoBall See the Women's North Face ThermoBall
Insulation: Down and synthetic
Weight: 9.9 oz.
What we like: Premium build and super warm for the weight.
What we don’t: Pricey and won’t breathe as well as the synthetic jackets above.
The Patagonia Down Sweater above is a great crossover piece, but the Cerium LT offers a step up in performance. Weighing in at just 9.9 ounces—one of the lightest midlayers on this list—the Cerium is warmer than the synthetic options and packs down smaller than the Patagonia with its 850-fill power and thinner shell. And despite using mostly down fill, Arc’teryx made this jacket capable in wet conditions by mixing in synthetic insulation in areas most prone to moisture: the collar, shoulders, underarms, and cuffs.
Why is the Arc’teryx Cerium LT ranked here? At $349 for the non-hooded version, it’s expensive and overkill for use strictly as a midlayer. The Down Sweater offers comparable warmth, and the packability and added features won’t come into play for most resort skiers. Having said that, the Cerium LT is a superb down jacket that can be used for everything from skiing and backpacking to casual use (Arc’teryx looks darn good in the city too). An added bonus: we like the fit of this jacket, with is noticeably less boxy and more performance-oriented than the Patagonia. For an even lighter down midlayer, see the Cerium SL... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Cerium LT See the Women's Arc'teryx Cerium LT
Weight: 10.5 oz.
What we like: Great value for a down jacket.
What we don’t: Less of a performance option.
For those looking for a down jacket on a budget, we love what REI Co-op has to offer. It’s a simple jacket that lacks the fit and finish and just-right cut of a Patagonia or Arc’teryx product, but at an undeniable value. At $100, the REI Down Jacket can still go head-to-head with down sweaters that are double the cost from brands like Columbia and Marmot.
Keep in mind that this jacket isn’t a serious performance piece and is best for causal use and layering. The 650-fill down is a lower quality than the Cerium LT above, although it’s still superior in warmth-to-weight than most synthetics. In addition, this jacket lacks a hem adjustment, which is limiting for dialing in fit. However, for daily use, travel, and as a midlayer for resort skiing, you just won’t find a better deal. As an added bonus, the Co-op stuffs down into its left-hand pocket, making it easily packable... Read in-depth review
See the Men's REI Co-op Down Jacket See the Women's REI Co-op Down Jacket
Weight: 14.3 oz.
What we like: The ultimate athletic fleece.
What we don’t: Limited water resistance (no DWR treatment).
In terms of performance fleeces, it’s tough to beat Patagonia’s R series. With three models of varying warmth to choose from, our top midlayer pick is the R2, which hits a nice middle ground of warmth and breathability. This jacket is a hybrid of two types of fleece: a cozy high-loft fleece around the body and arms, and Patagonia’s more breathable and lower profile R1 fleece under the arms and along the sides. The combination nets plenty of warmth for days at the resort but is great for movement and won’t overheat should you venture off trail.
We also like fleeces as midlayers in terms of value. Patagonia apparel isn’t cheap in general, but the R2 at $169 is a nice step down in price from the synthetic and down jackets above. The major downside is that this jacket (and fleeces in general) will not block wind, which limits its utility as an outerlayer. Remember to carry a shell in inclement weather, but when using the R2 as a midlayer, you’ll be just fine.
See the Men's Patagonia R2 Fleece See the Women's Patagonia R2 Fleece
Weight: 14.8 oz.
What we like: Nano-Air comfort and fit for $50 less.
What we don’t: Not everyone will appreciate the technical details.
Similar to Patagonia, The North Face is synonymous with cozy layering pieces. Their Ventrix synthetic jacket takes direct aim at the Nano-Air above with a super soft liner and shell, along with insulation that puts a premium on breathability and temperature regulation. It falls a little short of the Nano-Air’s pillow-like feel, but the Ventrix costs $50 less and is a little warmer to boot.
Most products made by The North Face have a casual slant—including the ThermoBall above—but the Ventrix unquestionably is a performance piece. The jacket has a more athletic cut than the Nano-Air, and includes technical features like tiny holes under the arms for venting and panels of higher denier fabric on the forearms. But we give the edge to the Nano-Air as a midlayer: it essentially matches the Ventrix in terms of performance without all the fuss, not to mention its clean styling wears better around town. But if you like the techy look and fit, the Ventrix is a similar concept as the Nano-Air for less... Read in-depth review
See the Men's North Face Ventrix See the Women's North Face Ventrix
Weight: 11.7 oz.
What we like: Light, breathable, and a great value.
What we don’t: Hand pockets don’t have zipper closures.
Outdoor Research jumped into the high-output synthetic market a few years ago with the Uberlayer, but it never fully clicked with us: it was too heavy, didn’t pack down well, was expensive at $299, and only came in a hoody design. But then they released the Ascendant, which addresses each and every complaint. By removing the inner liner and simplifying the feature set, the jacket is a feathery 11.7 ounces and priced very competitively at $215. And for midlayer use, we love the addition of a standard, non-hooded jacket.
Where could the Ascendant be improved? We value the focus on cutting weight, but we think Outdoor Research took it one step too far by making the hand pockets without zippered closures (the chest pocket is zippered, however). Also, the exposed insulation on the interior is more vulnerable to wear. Although the thinner 20-denier shell makes this jacket less durable than other (often pricier) midlayers from brands like Arc’teryx, Patagonia, and The North Face, we think the Ascendant is a great addition to the active insulation field... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Outdoor Research Ascendant See the Women's Outdoor Research Ascendant
Weight: 9.8 oz.
What we like: Warmth where you need it most.
What we don’t: Less versatile as an outerlayer.
We all know by now that down is the warmest and most packable insulator, but for midlayer use in moderate conditions, a full down jacket can be too much. Enter the Patagonia Down Sweater Vest, which will provide ample warmth around your core without overdoing it. Like the popular full jacket version, the Vest uses premium 800-fill down, has excellent build quality, and looks great, too. And the vest weighs only 9.8 ounces, a nice 3-ounce drop from the jacket.
We love this vest for wearing under a shell or even as an outerlayer for winter hiking and snowshoeing on a clear day. And of course, vests are great for casual wear in the fall and spring. One final piece of advice: if you go with a vest for a midlayer, make sure to choose a warm and comfortable baselayer. Obviously it matters more with your arms exposed.
See the Men's Patagonia Down Sweater See the Women's Patagonia Down Sweater
Weight: 16.6 oz.
What we like: Warm and breathable with a tough shell fabric.
What we don’t: Heavier than the options above without a boost in warmth.
Black Diamond is relatively new to the apparel scene, but their First Light jacket caught our eye as a high performance piece. Made with breathable PrimaLoft Silver Active insulation and a stretchy shell, the First Light is made to move with you on the skin track or while climbing. Furthermore, among high-output synthetic options, the jacket's Schoeller exterior fabric is tougher and offers superior protection against wind and moderate precipitation.
We tested the First Light's hooded version, and loved it for use primarily as an outer layer while climbing and backcountry skiing. But we're a little less enthusiastic about the standard jacket. To start, the stout shell isn’t necessary when worn as a midlayer, and the 16.6-ounce weight is among the heaviest on our list. Further, you’re not getting any extra warmth with its 60-gram fill. If the First Light were priced closer to the Ventrix above, it could very well move up our list, but at $229 it ends up with a midpack finish... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Black Diamond First Light See the Women's Black Diamond First Light
Weight: 15 oz.
What we like: Great range of motion.
What we don’t: A bit heavy and not as warm as a synthetic jacket.
For a serious performance fleece, we again turn to Arc’teryx and the versatile Kyanite. This jacket pretty much does it all: the midweight Polartec build works well as an active midlayer for backcountry skiing, yet it’s thick enough to wear as a standalone piece on the uphill and for climbing use in the shoulder seasons. We also appreciate the stretch of the fabric, which offers solid range of motion, and the trim fit means that you won’t have much in the way of bunching under a shell.
What are the shortcomings of the Arc’teryx Kyanite? In general, fleece jackets are less warm and packable than comparable synthetic options, although you do save a bit in terms of cost. And at 15 ounces, the Kyanite is one of the heavier midlayers on the list, despite only providing moderate insulation. For a thinner fleece from Arc’teryx, the Konseal is a nice midlayer option for mild conditions and use as a cool-weather outer layer.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Kyanite Hoody See the Women's Arc'teryx Kyanite Hoody
Weight: 14.9 oz.
What we like: A quality mid and outer layer for ski touring.
What we don’t: Very backcountry-specific and the slim cut isn’t for everyone.
Dynafit is best known for their innovative backcountry bindings, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their apparel line is equally focused on the ski touring world. The TLT Hybrid PrimaLoft jacket is designed with the uphill in mind, with PrimaLoft Gold Luxe insulation around the core and shoulders, stretchy and breathable panels on the arms and back, and a wind and water resistant shell. And unlike many insulated jackets, the TLT Hybrid layers easily—even under performance shells—with its very snug fit and low-profile hood.
The focused design of the TLT Hybrid is fantastic for its intended use on the skin track, but it’s one of the least friendly jackets on this list for everyday wear. The body-mapped insulation and trim cut just don’t look that good around town, lacking the balance that we love from an option like Patagonia’s Nano-Air above. Moreover, at a premium $220 price, this jacket is just $30 less than the Nano-Air and $20 less than the Atom LT, which puts it among competitive company. Nevertheless, for serious backcountry skiing, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better hooded midlayer that won’t get in your way.
See the Men's Dynafit TLT Hybrid See the Women's Dynafit TLT Hybrid
Weight: 3.1 oz.
What we like: Unbeatable weight and packability.
What we don’t: Very thin shell fabric.
Montbell’s Plasma 1000 Vest can be summed up with two specs: 1,000-fill power down and a 3.1-ounce total weight. Starting with down fill, we consider 800-fill power to be premium quality, 900 is only offered from a few select companies, and 1,000 fill is nearly unheard of and just silly in terms of warmth to weight. And at 3.1 ounces all-in, the vest gives your core a surprising amount of cozy warmth at a weight that will make even the most discerning minimalists happy.
The very thin 7-denier shell on the Plasma 1000 is protected when worn as a midlayer, but it’s still a significant downside of the vest. Not only is the material crinkly when moving around, but it’s too delicate to trust without a shell overtop for most outdoor adventures. And even though the warmth-to-weight ratio is fantastic, the vest’s minimal 1.1 ounces of down only provides a modest amount of insulation. For extra warmth there is a Plasma 1000 jacket, which is viable for most summer backpacking and climbing trips, but clocks in at a “hefty” 4.8 ounces.
See the Men's Montbell Plasma 1000 See the Women's Montbell Plasma 1000
Insulation: Synthetic (wool blend)
Weight: 15.8 oz.
What we like: Functional wool insulation and athletic fit.
What we don’t: Pricey; wool insulation isn’t all that warm.
Similar to the vest options above, the Smartwool Smartloft 120 gives you warmth where you need it and range of movement where you don’t. All in all, we really like what Smartwool has done with this design, which includes a soft merino wool liner, SmartLoft 120g recycled wool insulation around the core, and a nylon exterior. Throw in a DWR finish and the result is an active midlayer, outer layer, or even baselayer that is comfortable, agile, and regulates your body heat quite well.
If you’re the type that runs cold, the Smartloft 120 probably isn’t the midlayer for you. Wool is a good insulator and does a great job at not retaining moisture or stink, but even the 120-gram fill isn't all that warm for the weight (not to mention it’s only on the front of the jacket). But we still appreciate the design, which is very functional and creative compared to traditional jackets that are uniform in materials and thickness throughout. And we love the versatility: you can ski, hike, bike, and even hit the town in this jacket.
See the Men's Smartwool Smartloft 120 See the Women's Smartwool Smartloft 150
Weight: 14.8 oz.
What we like: Fuzzy and comfortable, yet very functional.
What we don’t: Polarizing looks.
The Monkey Man is an excellent performance fleece and one of our all-time favorite pieces of gear from Mountain Hardwear. First, it’s one of the softest jackets not just on this list but in general, made with Polartec's signature High Loft fabric. Aside from the high loft, this is not your bulky and casual fleece of yesteryear: it’s a slim-fitting piece that has built-in elastane for a forgiving stretch.
In terms of insulation, the Monkey Man is on the thin side and has clearly been designed with midlayer use in mind. The open weave construction of the Polartec High Loft freely lets air in and out, which contributes to both excellent ventilation and little protection from the wind. And although for the weight we’d prefer a bit more warmth (synthetic and down options are far warmer), the Monkey Man remains a solid midlayer option for winter sports.
See the Men's MH Monkey Man See the Women's MH Monkey Woman
|Patagonia Nano-Air||$249||Synthetic||60g FullRange||12.4 oz.||No|
|Arc’teryx Atom LT||$239||Synthetic||60g Coreloft||11.1 oz.||Yes|
|Columbia Steens Mountain 2.0||$35||Fleece||MTR filament fleece||16.6 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Down Sweater||$229||Down||800-fill down||13.1 oz.||Yes|
|The North Face ThermoBall||$199||Synthetic||33g ThermoBall||12.3 oz.||Yes|
|Arc’teryx Cerium LT||$349||Down/Synthetic||850-fill down; Coreloft||9.9 oz.||Yes|
|REI Co-op Down Jacket||$100||Down||650-fill down||10.5 oz.||Yes|
|Patagonia R2 Fleece||$169||Fleece||Polartec Thermal Pro||14.3 oz.||No|
|The North Face Ventrix||$199||Synthetic||80g Ventrix||14.8 oz.||No|
|Outdoor Research Ascendant||$215||Synthetic||95g Polartec Alpha||11.7 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Down Sweater Vest||$179||Down||800-fill down||9.8 oz.||Yes|
|Black Diamond First Light||$229||Synthetic||60g PrimaLoft Silver||16.6 oz.||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Kyanite Hoody||$179||Fleece||Polartec Power Stretch Pro||15 oz.||No|
|Dynafit TLT Hybrid||$220||Synthetic||PrimaLoft Gold Luxe||14.9 oz.||No|
|Montbell Plasma 1000 Vest||$229||Down||1,000-fill down||3.1 oz.||Yes|
|Smartwool Smartloft 120 Jacket||$200||Synthetic/Wool||Smartloft (wool & polyester)||15.8 oz.||No|
|Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man||$175||Fleece||Polartec High Loft||14.8 oz.||No|
- Midlayer Insulation Types
- Important Strengths and Weaknesses
- Getting a Proper Fit
- Midlayer Jacket Features
- Don't Forget Your Baselayer
A skiing midlayer classic, the fleece jacket is a comfortable and affordable way to stay warm. In spite of what the name may indicate, fleece (or polar fleece) is a wholly manmade synthetic made up of petroleum products. Many new models are made of plastics such as recycled bottles, and through a rather impressive process, out spits a cozy and soft fleece. These jackets are wonderful as a midlayer for skiing thanks to their ability to resist absorbing moisture and their fast drying time. Additionally, cost is a big reason for choosing a fleece, even if they do have a tendency to pill up over time.
As far as warmth is concerned, fleece jackets are most often measured in terms of fleece weight. A 100-weight fleece—also referred to as lightweight, R1, or others, depending on the brand—is a thin and lightweight option that breathes very well but isn’t as warm. These are great for mild weather skiing or backcountry skiers. 200-weight is the classic midweight and is the most popular choice for a standard fleece jacket, including the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man and Patagonia R2 above. It’s warm enough for most cold days but has less of a tendency to overheat like the 300-weight option. Those heavyweights are for the truly cold days on the slopes—unless you’re someone that’s constantly cold.
Opting for a synthetic jacket will most often involve a slight step up in cost from a fleece but comes with reduced bulk and a more stylish, quilted appearance. And as an upgrade from down fill, synthetics continue insulating when wet. Mid and high-end synthetic jackets have become synonymous with a single name: PrimaLoft. This brand of thermal insulation has taken off in recent years thanks to their microfiber design that heats very efficiently—even if it still falls short of down. Recent trends in insulation have placed a big emphasis on breathability, including the impressive FullRange insulation used by Patagonia in their Nano-Air jacket. Combined with a breathable shell, the Nano-Air is a fantastic midlayer for active resort or backcountry skiers.
Synthetic insulation is measured in grams, which is how much insulation a 1 x 1 meter section of the fibers weigh. Lightweight synthetics will have approximately 40 to 60 grams of insulation, and midweights are closer to 100 grams. Once you reach the midweight category, you are dealing with a very bulky jacket, which is why the 60-gram choice is so popular. It’s light and easy to move in, making it perfect as an all-around ski midlayer.
The synthetic options above have never been able to match the heat retention of natural goose or duck feathers. There is simply no better way to stay warm than a down jacket, as long as you avoid heavy moisture—down will clump up and stop insulating when wet. If you really make an effort to stay dry with a bombproof shell, or for dry and cold conditions found in areas like Utah, Colorado, or parts of the East Coast, a down jacket is a perfect fit. On positively frigid days, an option like the venerable Patagonia Down Sweater remains a go-to choice.
In comparing down jackets, the two most important specifications are down fill-power and fill weight. These are two independent measurements, but taken together they will give you an indication of how warm the jacket will be. To start, fill-power is a measurement of the quality of the down clusters. Because down relies on loft to trap heat against your body, a jacket that requires fewer clusters to achieve the same amount of loft will be equally as warm but weigh less. As a result, you pay more for a higher fill-power. Mid-range fill-power falls in the 550-650 range, and high-end jackets will have 700+, reaching as high as 1,000 for some brands like Montbell. Fill weight is the next metric, and this is simply the total amount of down in the jacket, given in ounces. Now remember, weight isn’t the only indicator and should be looked at alongside the fill power, but it remains a very helpful number in figuring out jacket warmth.
Your preferences on warmth will depend on a number of factors, including where you ski and the conditions you’re willing to go out in, as well as considerations like if you use an insulated ski jacket or just a shell. Warmth will vary no matter the choice, but the most efficient heater is the down jacket. The clusters of feathers offer unmatched warmth relative to the weight of the garment. And choosing a higher fill-power option will have the best warmth-to-weight ratio.
Next in line is synthetic insulation, which is sometimes referred to as a synthetic down because it was designed to emulate the heat capturing abilities of the duck or goose clusters. While not as efficient in heating for the weight, synthetic jackets are still a great choice for skiing in typical resort conditions.
A fleece jacket may be at the bottom of our warmth list, but that's not to say you can’t find a very warm fleece coat. It just takes a lot of fleece to get you there. And for many skiers (us included), a bulky jacket can interfere with the fun, which puts fleece at the bottom of our warmth scale.
Synthetic: Very Good
Snow and Wet Weather Protection
This category is where the down jacket struggles in relation to the other two. If your down jacket is poking out the bottom of your shell and you plant yourself in some wet snow (the Pacific Northwest variety comes to mind), the jacket’s ability to insulate will be compromised. One of the appeals in moving to a synthetic insulation is the fact that it is still able to retain some insulating properties when wet. And although synthetic jackets easily outperform down—even the new hydrophobic down variations—fleece remains top of the class. This is due in part to the naturally hydrophobic nature (as natural as a manmade plastic can be) of the polyester construction. But what helps give fleece the edge in this category is its ability to dry much faster than the synthetic fibers.
Fleece: Very good
Down: Not good (even hydrophobic down falls short)
Breathability is another strong suit of fleece jackets and synthetic insulation. Overall, we give the edge to fleeces, which are naturally porous, and new models that have built-in stretch open up even more avenues for hot air to escape. But as we mentioned above, products like Patagonia’s Nano-Air are pushing synthetic jackets well into the high performance world. Unfortunately, down jackets are on the outside looking in here. Their supreme warmth retention doesn’t breathe nearly as well as the other two options.
Synthetic: Varies, but can be excellent
Weight and Compressibility
For the backcountry explorer that needs to throw a warm layer in their pack to stay comfortable at mealtimes, the down jacket remains the best choice. An 800 fill-power down jacket with a thin shell is capable of compressing down to the size of a grapefruit (although over-compressing for long periods can damage the feathers, so don’t go too crazy). Synthetics vary quite a bit in compressibility. A lighter weight option like the Outdoor Research Ascendant is quite compressible, but even these thinner jackets don’t stuff down as compactly as down. Fleece jackets aren’t really all that compressible, and stuffing a mid or heavyweight fleece into a pack can make for a challenging endeavor.
Fleece: Not good
This can be a challenging category to judge because there is a wide range in levels of durability. Insulated synthetic and down jackets vary from super thin ultralight shells that are vulnerable to tears to tough jackets that you can throw on and forget about. The durability of a fleece on the other hand is usually quite good. It’s possible to put a hole in a fleece by catching it on a sharp object or just wearing it thin, but those are relatively uncommon occurrences or take place over a long period of time.
The near constant friction between your midlayer and outer shell jacket can cause abrasions and potential tears should a zipper catch the outer shell of your midlayer. In our opinion, because a couple extra ounces of weight are rarely a cause for concern while resort skiing, it’s worth it to get a more durable jacket. For insulated jackets, this means a tear-resistant fabric that is 20-denier (denier is a measurement of fabric thickness) or more. A jacket like the Patagonia Down Sweater has been popular for years on the slopes for having a great combination of sufficient toughness and minimal bulk.
Fleece: Very good
Down and Synthetic: Varies, but can be good
Fit plays a very large role in an effective midlayer. Too much extra fabric and you will have bunching and general discomfort underneath your shell, and a jacket that’s too trim will restrict your mobility. It’s best to find that middle ground where you have complete freedom of movement without the jacket riding up, and no excess bulk. We prefer a jacket that has a non-boxy cut that allows us to wear a similarly athletic-fitting outerlayer over the top. Arc'teryx in particular seems to consistently make jackets with this type of fit. As you're trying on midlayers, be aware of the normal pinch areas: around the waist, in the shoulders, and under the arm pits.
It’s true that most folks don’t use the pockets of their insulating layers on the slopes all that often—it’s a pain to have to unzip a couple layers. However, midlayers are a classic choice for daily use, so don’t dismiss pockets completely. And if you’re eying a very technical piece that goes without pockets and you plan to use it around town, you may want to reconsider. Case in point: a more all-around choice may be the Patagonia R2 jacket as opposed to the dedicated lightweight R1 Pullover.
Performance midlayers occasionally will have thumbholes built into the sleeves. While serving as an opening for cold air to sneak in when not in use, the openings work well for keeping the sleeves in place during high effort activities or when taking on and off layers. User tip: if you’re eyeing a jacket that has this feature, we recommend checking to make sure the fabric around the thumbhole has some stretch so it doesn’t feel like your thumbs are being yanked around every time you extend your arms.
For nearly all skiing conditions, a midlayer is best in non-hoody form. We always recommend using a helmet for skiing, so there is little reason to layer an insulated hood over top of that (not to mention most midlayer hoods are not helmet compatible). And for extra warmth under the helmet, a beanie is a far better choice. A hood also is prone to bunching up behind your neck and getting in the way of your outer layer; granted, some of the lower profile options aren’t as obtrusive. Overall, unless you really want a hood for around town use or will be wearing it quite a bit as an outer layer, we recommend steering clear for your skiing midlayer.
If you’re like most folks, you spend a lot of time picking out the perfect shell, then move to your insulating options, and finally just grab a baselayer willy-nilly. Trust us, this is a poor methodology. As the layer that’s next-to-skin, a baselayer is at the core of moisture wicking, temperature regulation, and a number of other essentials. If you have a crummy baselayer, all the fancy tech in your mid and outer layers will be nearly worthless. Top materials include merino wool for its excellent temperature regulation and odor prevention, and synthetics are quite good at drawing moisture away from your skin. Check out our top baselayer picks to see which ones stand out as best.
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