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 2019-2020, 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.
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, The North Face Ventrix, 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 a similar jacket with more warmth, the Arc’teryx Atom AR uses thicker 120g Coreloft insulation around the core... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody See the Women's Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody
A Close Second (With Greater Breathability)
Weight: 12.2 oz.
Insulation: FullRange (60g)
What we like: Best-in-class comfort and breathability.
What we don’t: Not as durable as other jackets on this list.
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 are noticeably more breathable than the Atom LT above), and you won’t find a cozier piece for daily use or travel.
We knock the Nano-Air down a notch because it isn’t quite as durable as we would like for the price. The super-soft fabrics that define the jacket and make it so comfortable have a tendency to show wear with heavy use, and particularly around the sleeves and back of the neck. That said, Patagonia has upgraded the shell to a stronger 33-denier nylon, so we're optimistic that it will hold up better over time. And it’s worth noting that the Nano-Air was updated for fall of 2019: the quilted side panels were smoothed out (a positive change in our opinion) and Patagonia incorporated an 87-percent-recycled polyester shell and lining. But the formula largely remains the same, and the Nano-Air still is one of our favorite synthetic jackets... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody See the Women's Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody
Best Budget Synthetic Jacket
Weight: 12.3 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Gold with Cross Core (60g)
What we like: A super versatile jacket for everything from casual use to hiking and skiing.
What we don’t: Fit runs a bit trim.
It’s tough to pin down the Packaway Jacket. On one hand, it looks fairly unassuming and L.L. Bean is known for trending toward the casual end of the spectrum. On the other, it uses high-end PrimaLoft Gold with Cross Core, a brand-new technology that is claimed to be 15 percent warmer without adding extra weight. The result is a jacket that is warm, packable, performs well in the wet and wind, and looks the part for everyday use and travel. Given the very reasonable $169 price tag, that’s a whole lot of bang for your buck.
It’s worth noting that the Packaway Jacket was redesigned for winter 2019, including the new PrimaLoft insulation described above, an updated baffle design, and the use of 100-percent-recycled materials (this is a growing trend in the outdoor industry that is catching on in a big way this year). Taking into account all of the features including pockets (two hand, one chest, and one internal), a waist cinch for adjustability, and the ability to stuff down relatively small, in many ways the Packaway resembles the popular Patagonia Nano Puff, only cheaper.
See the Men's L.L. Bean Packaway See the Women's L.L. Bean Packaway
Best of the Rest
Weight: 13.4 oz.
Insulation: Ventrix (60g)
What we like: Warmer and cheaper than the Patagonia Nano-Air above.
What we don’t: Not quite as much everyday appeal as the Nano-Air.
We’ll be the first to say that we haven’t always loved products from The North Face, but that changed with the Ventrix. This synthetic jacket is warm, comfortable, and built for high-output activities. The stretchy and soft feel is reminiscent of the popular Patagonia Nano-Air above, except that the Ventrix costs a significant $79 less for the hooded version. Add in a nice, athletic fit that we prefer over the boxy ThermoBall below, and you have a very capable synthetic jacket for outdoor use and daily wear.
It’s important to note that The North Face Ventrix received a fairly significant update for fall of 2019, including less insulation (60g vs. 80g), a thinner face fabric (20D vs. 30D), and a lower weight at 13.4 ounces instead of 15.5 ounces. Overall, we appreciated the warmth of the previous-generation Ventrix, which beat out the drafty Patagonia Nano-Air in this regard, along with the toughness of the old shell. The new version definitely feels flimsier, but still is very competitive and now even more of an active piece. We have the Nano-Air ranked higher because of its everyday appeal and slightly cleaner look, although the Ventrix has closed the gap in this regard by dropping the thick forearm panels and two-tone colorways. And for even more technical prowess, The North Face has released a Summit L3 version of the Ventrix.
See the Men's The North Face Ventrix See the Women's The North Face Ventrix
Weight: 12.7 oz.
Insulation: Stratus (60g)
What we like: Solid warmth for the weight and wind protection.
What we don’t: Performance slant isn’t ideal for casual use.
The Xenon from UK-based Rab is an ideal synthetic for serious climbers and hikers. Updated for 2019 and replacing the long-standing Xenon “X,” changes include Stratus insulation in place of PrimaLoft Gold Active, an Atmos ripstop shell instead Pertex Quantum, a slimmer fit, and a lower weight. Similar to the older version, the Xenon packs down relatively small into its own chest pocket, which isn’t true of either the Arc’teryx Atom LT or The North Face Ventrix above. Importantly, the jacket also got a drop in price to under $200, which makes sense given the shift to in-house tech.
Why isn’t the Rab Xenon ranked higher? Its performance slant suits hardcore adventurers well, but the everyday appeal isn’t at the same level as the options above. Moreover, 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 summer and shoulder-season conditions, and likely will continue to be a favorite among fast-and-light alpinists. We’re excited to put the new version to the test to see exactly how the warmth, wind protection, and durability hold up over time.
See the Men's Rab Xenon See the Women's Rab Xenon
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.
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 below, it feels like a lightweight down jacket but with better wet-weather performance and a lower price. This combination has made it one of Patagonia’s best-selling jackets year after year.
For those deciding between the Nano Puff and the Nano-Air, the former isn’t quite as performance-oriented 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... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Nano Puff See the Women's Patagonia Nano Puff
Weight: 15.2 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft ThermoBall Eco
What we like: The puffy feel of a down jacket.
What we don’t: Much heavier than the Nano Puff above.
Synthetic-insulated jackets long have aspired to mimic down, and the popular ThermoBall 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 its brick-like 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.
The North Face recently updated the ThermoBall to the “Eco,” which included swapping the standard nylon shell and polyester fill for 100-percent recycled materials. Further, the fit of our medium-size jacket is noticeably slimmer than the prior version, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, weight has stayed about the same at a listed 15.2 ounces (our men’s medium was a bit lighter at 14.1), so it still falls well short of the 11.9-ounce Patagonia Nano Puff above that delivers similar all-around performance. That said, the ThermoBall’s smooth styling makes it a strong option for daily wear, and it’s both warm and comfortable as a midlayer while skiing... Read in-depth review
See the Men's The North Face ThermoBall See the Women's The North Face ThermoBall
Weight: 13 oz.
Insulation: Polartec Alpha Direct (95g)
What we like: Lighter and less expensive than the Uberlayer.
What we don’t: Open knit insulation is unique and shell fabric is relatively thin.
We were very excited when the Uberlayer was released a couple of years ago, which was Outdoor Research’s most competitive performance synthetic jacket to date. But despite the innovative design, it ended up being too heavy (19.9 oz.) and expensive ($299) for our tastes. Enter the OR Ascendant, which was new last year and offers similar upsides as the Uberlayer but with notable improvements. This jacket is excellent is terms of breathability and warmth, but with Polartec Alpha Direct insulation and a less substantial shell fabric, the Ascendant weighs in at just 13 ounces. It’s a great active piece for skiing, cold-weather hiking and biking, and even travel.
What are the downsides of the OR Ascendant? The exposed Polartec Alpha Direct insulation on the interior has a unique open knit style that is almost yarn like in feel, and the 20-denier shell is less durable than the Uberlayer (30D) or Winter Ferrosi (90D) below. Moreover, the hand pockets are open and do not have closure systems. This seems like a strange omission for a technical jacket, but one that almost certainly was done in the name of cutting weight. Yet it’s hard to argue with the formula here: the Ascendant performs well, is lightweight, comfortable, and looks good to boot... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Outdoor Research Ascendant See the Women's Outdoor Research Ascendant
Weight: 16.7 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Silver Active (60g)
What we like: Tough, stretchy, and breathable.
What we don’t: Heavier than the jackets above.
Black Diamond has been making a big push in jackets of late, and the results have been strong. We like their heavyweight Belay Parka for cold weather, but the First Light Stretch is a much more active synthetic that can be worn in a range of conditions as an outer layer or midlayer. To be sure, the designers have ski touring and climbing in mind—they call the First Light an ideal “start-stop” piece and its build and feature set agree. For 2019, the Stretch version replaces the old First Light Hoody, which now brings to the table a stretch liner and adjustable hood. BD also updated the First Light Hybrid, which has merino around back for even more breathability.
In the mold of Arc'teryx's Proton line, the First Light Stretch has a softshell-like outer that can take some use and abuse. Sacrifices come with a few ounces of added weight and PrimaLoft Silver Active instead of the more efficient Gold, but we like the added mobility and performance hood. For casual wear, we prefer the Atom LT or Nano-Air, but for serious skiers and climbers, the First Light Hoody is a top-notch synthetic jacket that is most at home in the backcountry.
See the Men's BD First Light Stretch See the Women's BD First Light Stretch
Weight: 9.3 oz.
Insulation: PlumaFill (65g)
What we like: Warm, light, and packable.
What we don’t: Expensive for a synthetic jacket and has a thin shell.
Few synthetic jackets, if any, have received the hoopla of the Micro Puff from Patagonia. As has been attempted many times in the past, the jacket’s PlumaFill insulation tries its best to mimic the loftiness and warmth of down. Patagonia has done an excellent job here, and the Micro Puff lives up to its billing: it’s warm, light at just over 9 ounces, well-built, and comfortable. We also like that it packs down small for a synthetic, much like your favorite down jacket would.
Our issues with the Micro Puff are that it’s expensive and not super versatile. For $300, you could buy a premium down jacket like the Feathered Friends Eos that is similar in weight but warmer, although the Patagonia wins out in wet conditions (down will lose its loft and stop insulating). Additionally, the thin 10-denier shell fabric makes it one of the most fragile synthetic jackets on this list—we’ve put a number of holes in ours—and limits its everyday appeal. But we do love the warmth and packability of the Micro Puff, and it’s a fun lightweight piece for the right uses... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Micro Puff See the Women's Patagonia Micro Puff
Weight: 11.3 oz.
Insulation: Octa Loft
What we like: Noticeably more breathable than the Atom LT and better for high-output activities.
What we don’t: Limited warmth and lacking in everyday appeal.
One knock we have against our top-ranked Atom LT is breathability, which Arc’teryx’s more performance-oriented Proton line seeks to remedy. The ultralight Proton FL has a thin layer of Octa Loft insulation, providing that small dose of warmth when a baselayer alone just won’t cut it. As expected from Arc’teryx, you also get a premium finish and fit, excellent mobility, and a stretchy face fabric that is both comfortable and surprisingly durable. For adventurers on the go, this sleek and streamlined synthetic jacket is a nice option.
Why is the Arc’teryx Proton FL ranked here? At the end of the day, it’s a specialty piece designed for high-output activities such as climbing, biking, hiking, running, and cross-country skiing. But with barely noticeable insulation and air-permeable fabric, it’s not very warm or weather-resistant (it’s certainly not an everyday jacket like the Atom LT or many other models on this list). And for $259, the Proton FL is a fun option if you can afford it, but the lack of versatility is real. For those who want similar breathability with more warmth, Arc’teryx also makes the midweight Proton LT ($299 and 13.2 oz.)... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Proton FL See the Women's Arc'teryx Proton FL
Weight: 8.4 oz.
Insulation: Climashield Apex (65g)
What we like: Ultralight, warm, and reasonably priced.
What we don’t: Lack of storage, no cord adjustment in the waistband, and the jacket takes weeks to ship.
The majority of the jackets on this list aim to balance performance and casual use, but the Enlightened Equipment Torrid Apex is an outlier. Simply put, this is a true ultralight synthetic-insulated jacket built with serious thru-hikers in mind. It weighs just 8.4 ounces for the hooded version in a men’s medium, is filled with 65g Climashield Apex insulation, and has a 10-denier shell fabric with a DWR finish (to cut even more weight, a 7D fabric option is available). You won’t get fancy logos or much in the way of everyday appeal, but the Torrid Apex is beloved by long-distance hikers.
Another interesting ultralight synthetic jacket comes from Utah-based Nunatak with the Skaha Apex Pullover. The customization options are endless, from back and sleeve length to pockets and the actual amount of insulation (yes, you can customize and differentiate the insulation in the body and sleeves/hood, too). The Nunatak is warmer and heavier than the Torrid and built to handle tougher conditions, and both use continuous filaments for added durability. In terms of competition, that mostly comes from ultralight down jackets like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer and various Montbell models, but the Enlightened Equipment and Nunatak prove that synthetic insulation is a real option for hardcore hiking and backpacking.
See the Enlightened Equipment Torrid Apex See the Women's EE Torrid Apex
Weight: 15.3 oz.
Insulation: PlumaFill (135g and 90g)
What we like: Warmer than the Micro Puff but still relatively light and packable.
What we don’t: Still not as cozy as down, yet just as expensive.
Building on the success of the Micro Puff above, Patagonia has released the Macro Puff for fall 2019. As the name indicates, this is a bigger and warmer variation intended for moderate, winter-like conditions. You get the same lofty PlumaFill insulation that packs down impressively small, but they’ve bumped the thickness from 65-gram in the Micro Puff to 135-gram in the Macro Puff’s body and 90-gram in the sides and sleeves. In wearing the two, the Macro Puff has a longer cut and is a little roomier for layering underneath, but it remains a well-made product that crosses over nicely between outdoors and around-town use.
Unfortunately, a number of our complaints with the Micro Puff hold true with the new Macro. For starters, they share a thin 10-denier face fabric that can easily shred on rock or branches, which impacts the jacket’s usefulness for climbing and in the backcountry (we recommend packing repair tape). Further, at $399, the Macro Puff is extremely pricey for a synthetic, especially when you consider it costs more than a premium heavyweight down jacket like the Rab Neutrino Pro, for example. On the flip side, the Macro Puff easily outperforms down insulation in the wet. All in all, it packs an impressive level of performance into a sub-1-pound package... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Macro Puff See the Women's Patagonia Macro Puff
Weight: 22.9 oz.
Insulation: VerticalX (80g)
What we like: Super tough and great range of movement.
What we don’t: Heavy and limited packability.
The regular, softshell version of the Ferrosi has a cult-like following among climbers and ski tourers for its combination of comfort, breathability, and the ability to block wind, but in the cold most people throw it over an insulated jacket. Outdoor Research wised up and launched the Winter Ferrosi with the addition of VerticalX insulation. The result is an absolute beast of a synthetic that is among the warmest and toughest on this list. If you like to head out in the winter without worrying much about the elements, we really like this jacket.
The Achilles' heel of the Winter Ferrosi is bulk. The burly 90-denier shell and healthy amount of insulation put it among the heaviest models on this list (and that's for the non-hooded model as the hoody has been discontinued), and it won’t stuff down small in your pack. If you know you will be wearing the Winter Ferrosi most of the time (on a cold-weather hike or bike ride, for example), it’s a great choice. But for those carrying their belongings in a pack for extended periods, we prefer a lighter and less substantial piece.
See the Men's OR Winter Ferrosi See the Women's OR Winter Ferrosi
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.
The Outdoor Research Cathode earns a spot on our list for one main reason: value. Don’t mind the $199 MSRP—it’s officially been discontinued, and you often can find the Cathode on sale for as low as half that. If so, it’s 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 Cathode’s feature set works well for ski touring, climbing, and backpacking. We don’t love the jacket at the full $199 MSRP because the build quality and breathability fall short of the options from Patagonia and Arc'teryx above, but on sale, it’s an awesome synthetic jacket. And it’s worth noting that with the Cathode falling out of OR’s lineup, the Refuge line steps in with VerticalX insulation instead of PrimaLoft.
See the Men's Outdoor Research Cathode See the Women's Outdoor Research Cathode
Weight: 20.3 oz.
Insulation: FullRange (60g)
What we like: Waterproof and extremely versatile.
What we don’t: Doesn’t pack down very well.
It’s difficult to even categorize Patagonia’s Stretch Nano Storm, but that’s probably a good thing. It’s definitely a synthetic, with the same 60-gram FullRange insulation as the Nano-Air above. And it’s legitimately a rain jacket, with Patagonia’s waterproof H2No shell fabric. Throw in a significant amount of stretch and a number of alpine-centric features like pit zips and a helmet-compatible hood (alpine, not ski), and you have yourself one heckuva Swiss Army Knife piece that can work for climbing, skiing, and a whole lot more.
The most obvious downside of the Stretch Nano Storm is cost: $399 can get you a very nice down jacket and it’s one of the most expensive models on this list (tied with the new Macro Puff above). In addition, the Stretch Nano Storm does not pack down well, which somewhat limits its backcountry appeal. Finally, we like the athletic fit, which is less baggy than a traditional ski jacket, but means that it won’t take on layers quite as easily. But for serious adventurers who get out a lot of the winter, the Stretch Nano Storm is a very versatile piece to have in your quiver.
See the Men's Patagonia Stretch Nano Storm See the Women's Stretch Nano Storm
Weight: 17.6 oz.
Insulation: PrimaLoft Gold/PrimaLoft Gold Active (60g)
What we like: Nice crossover appeal.
What we don’t: Styling isn’t for everyone.
Most Kuhl products are more casual than performance-oriented, but the Firefly does a pretty decent job at both. On the surface, this jacket looks sleeker than many of its puffier counterparts above. The nylon fabric on the torso is almost shiny with very small baffles along the arms that don’t scream hardcore outdoor use. But when you look under the hood, the Firefly has performance chops too, including high-end PrimaLoft Gold insulation, reinforced shoulders, articulated sleeves, and a good amount of stretch. With its warmth, breathability, and styling, the Firefly can be your outer layer on a cool day and also works as a midlayer under a shell or winter jacket.
As is the case with other Kuhl gear, the styling can be a bit polarizing. You either like Kuhl and it fits your motif, or some people find it to be a little too much. One final consideration: the Firefly is relatively inexpensive at $190 and you shouldn’t expect it to last forever under heavy use. Kuhl build quality can vary, and although the shell fabrics on the Firefly are sourced from “a superior Japanese mill,” don’t expect Patagonia or Arc’teryx quality.
See the Men's Kuhl Firefly See the Women's Kuhl Firefly
|Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody||$259||12.7 oz.||Coreloft (60g)||20-denier||No|
|Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody||$299||12.2 oz.||FullRange (60g)||33-denier||Yes|
|L.L. Bean Packaway||$169||12.3 oz.||PrimaLoft Cross Core (60g)||20-denier||Yes|
|The North Face Ventrix Hoodie||$220||13.4 oz.||Ventrix (60g)||20-denier||No|
|Rab Xenon||$195||12.7 oz.||Stratus (60g)||20-denier||Yes|
|Patagonia Nano Puff||$199||11.9 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold Eco (60g)||20-denier||Yes|
|The North Face ThermoBall Eco||$199||15.2 oz.||PrimaLoft ThermoBall Eco||20-denier||Yes|
|Outdoor Research Ascendant||$249||13 oz.||Polartec Alpha Direct (95g)||20-denier||No|
|Black Diamond First Light Stretch||$259||16.7 oz.||PrimaLoft Silver Active (60g)||40-denier||Yes|
|Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody||$299||9.3 oz.||PlumaFill (65g)||10-denier||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Proton FL Hoody||$259||11.3 oz.||Octa Loft||20-denier||No|
|Enlightened Equipment Torrid||$170||8.4 oz.||Climashield Apex (65g)||10-denier||Yes|
|Patagonia Macro Puff Hoody||$399||15.3 oz.||PlumaFill (135g and 90g)||10-denier||Yes|
|Outdoor Research Winter Ferrosi||$199||22.9 oz.||VerticalX (80g)||90-denier||No|
|Outdoor Research Cathode||$199||13 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold (60g)||22-denier||Yes|
|Patagonia Stretch Nano Storm||$399||20.3 oz.||FullRange (60g)||30-denier||No|
|Kuhl Firefly Jacket||$190||17.6 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold (60g)||20-denier||No|
- Types of Synthetic Insulation
- Water Resistance
- Hood or No Hood?
- Durability and Care
The shape and texture of synthetic insulation varies significantly. Some 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 down clusters but with added water resistance. Below we break down some of the most common synthetic insulation types on the market in 2019.
Much of the surge in synthetic insulation can be credited to PrimaLoft. It was well-known for years that down insulation struggles when wet, but there wasn’t 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 PrimaLoft lineup has increased substantially in recent years, so much so that it’s hard to keep track of all the options. PrimaLoft Gold is the current standout, with numerous adaptations within that category (Active, Eco, Luxe, etc.). The company also makes Silver and Black, and all types share core benefits of compressibility, breathability, and good warmth for the weight.
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 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. They've also expanded the line to include Coreloft Compact, which stacks up well to FullRange and Polartec Alpha in terms of breathability.
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.
New synthetic technology often gets a lot of hype, but The North Face delivered with the Ventrix. Released last year, Ventrix has a lot in common with Patagonia’s FullRange used in the Nano-Air: it’s stretchy, warm, breathable, and extremely comfortable. The North Face plays up the tiny pores in the insulation, which are designed to stretch and open during movement and close during inactivity for added warmth. It’s hard to confirm or deny the role that the pores play, but we really like Ventrix overall and the Hoodie quickly has become one of our go-to jackets.
Another big synthetic jacket release was Patagonia’s Micro Puff jacket, which uses PlumaFill insulation. We’ll start by saying that we were impressed with PlumaFill—Patagonia claims it offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any jacket they’ve created, down or synthetic. That’s a tall order, but PlumaFill certainly is among the lightest, warmest, and most packable synthetics on the market in 2019. It’s worth noting that Patagonia currently only uses PlumaFill in its Micro Puff and new Macro Puff, which we like but are thin with 10-denier shells. We hope Patagonia continues to use this unique insulation type in other pieces in the future.
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 repellant) 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 and Arc’teryx Atom LT fall into the lightweight category: both weigh around 12 ounces and are designed for cool-weather fall and spring use. Jackets like the Black Diamond First Light Stretch weigh approximately 17 ounces and are more midweight pieces. For freezing winter conditions, parkas like Patagonia's new Macro Puff 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. Further, 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 Ascendant 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 Ascendant are great choices and will far outperform down. Some other types of synthetic insulation like standard 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 in nearly all cases (Patagonia’s Micro Puff is one exception), 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, we often put on a jacket like the Arc’teryx Atom LT or Patagonia Nano-Air when we leave the house and can wear it literally all day. We 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 we were to put on a comparable down jacket like the Arc’teryx Cerium LT, it would be too warm for physical activity or sitting indoors. So although down undoubtedly is warmer, we save it for uses like backpacking when we 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 an insulated vest or 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.
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