British Columbia’s South Coast often has what is referred to as a “damp cold,” with moisture in the air and temperatures that hover around freezing. This can lead to a deep body chill to which I easily fall victim. I’ve typically worn down rather than synthetic fill, but recently began searching for the perfect insulated jacket—one that is reasonably light, not too bulky, breathable, and most importantly, keeps me warm whether I am active or sedentary in the backcountry. Black Diamond’s First Light Hoody achieves many of those goals, offering great performance and versatility along with a durable build that stands up well to abuse. Below we break down the First Light Hoody’s insulation and warmth, weather protection, breathability, weight and packability, fit and sizing, and more. To see how the First Light Hoody stacks up, see our articles on the best synthetic jackets and best midlayers.
The most important metric for an insulated jacket is its ability to keep you toasty in a variety of weather conditions. With the First Light Hoody, Black Diamond opted for 60g/m2 PrimaLoft Silver Active insulation, which like the Gold version, does not lose its loft or insulation qualities when wet. To test the jacket, I’ve worn it in virtually all weather conditions while climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing.
The first outing was an alpine camping trip in an early season sleet and windstorm, during which I wore the First Light Hoody as a midlayer under a hardshell. Despite some very tough conditions, the jacket remained warm and dry throughout. On another occasion, I remember pulling the First Light Hoody from my pack—where I also had stuffed my snow-covered touring skin— to find that the jacket was soaked. Though unintentional, it was a perfect test of PrimaLoft’s insulation, which managed to keep me warm despite its dampness. You just won’t get that with down insulation.
For these reasons, the First Light Hoody easily has become my favorite garment for active wear down to within about 5 degrees of freezing. When the temperatures dip below freezing and I’m confident that moisture will not be an issue, I opt for a down insulating layer instead as it offers more warmth at a lower weight.
The shell on the First Light Hoody is made by Swiss manufacturer Schoeller, and consists of stretchy woven nylon with their patented nanotechnology (it’s said to mimic natural products like beetle shells and honeybee wings). Regardless of the recipe, the result is a water-repellant finish that does the job. In light to moderate precipitation, water beads up and rolls off the jacket with ease. However, I have noticed that during sustained exposure, the area close to the cuff has started to wet out. When the rain or sleet is constant, I definitely recommend wearing a hardshell jacket over it.
While I anticipated the warmth and perhaps even the water repellency, I was surprised by the First Light Hoody’s ability to cut harsh winds. Given how breathable it is, I expected that the wind would permeate the jacket. I’ve been caught in high winds while wearing the First Light as my outer layer, but was completely protected from the bite of cold air, a welcome surprise from such a breathable piece.
PrimaLoft’s Silver Insulation Active is designed to breathe, and Schoeller’s nanotechnology shell is the same. Therefore it’s no surprise that the First Light Hoody is touted as Black Diamond’s most breathable insulating layer. I’ve worn the jacket in situations where I normally would heat up and opt for a thinner piece, such as sun-drenched winter climbs and backcountry ski tours involving significant ascents. While touring in the First Light Hoody, I’ve worn it over layers of merino and suspected that I would get warm in a hurry, but instead I remained comfortable and did not need to take the First Light off or even unzip it. To date and despite my best efforts, I have not managed to sweat while wearing it. I love pointing this out to others in the group who are drenched from sweat while I’m dry and warm.
The build quality of the First Light Hoody is excellent, and the jacket has proven to be extremely durable through a full season of use. The stretchy 40-denier outer fabric is pretty thick for a jacket in this category—Patagonia’s Nano-Air has a thinner 30-denier shell, Outdoor Research’s Ascendant uses 20-denier, and Arc'teryx's Proton LT matches the First Light at 40-denier. This makes it easier to trust as an outerlayer around sharp climbing and ski gear. I have not been easy on this jacket: it has been stuffed into packs, dropped in mud, snow, and slushy cabin floors. Despite the abuse, it still looks new with no significant signs of wear and tear.
The First Light Hoody is on the heavy side for a synthetic jacket: my women’s small weighs in at 438 grams (15.4 ounces). It doesn’t come close to the weight of a down jacket, which can offer similar warmth at less than 10 ounces, but the First Light is competitive within the active insulation market. These jackets put a priority on breathability, so the shells often are a little thicker and have tough exteriors that can handle abuse. In the end, the First Light falls well short of a lightweight piece like Patagonia's Nano-Air Hoody (11.6 ounces), but is warmer, more weather-resistant, and more rugged than the Patagonia with a 40-denier shell instead of 30—all of which are important for backcountry pursuits.
Synthetic fill is not as lightweight or compressible as down, and this is noticeable when packing the First Light Hoody. The entire jacket technically can be stuffed into its own internal mesh pocket, revealing a loop that can be clipped onto a harness with a carabineer. I’m a big fan of stuff pockets so was eager to use this option, but found that the fit is a bit tight and I am not able to stuff it easily with cold or damp hands. This issue is fairly common and the First Light does fit with some effort, but I still find that it’s a bit bulky to hang off a harness. Instead, I prefer to store it in my pack.
Storage is fairly straightforward on this jacket: in addition to an internal mesh pocket, you get two generously sized zippered hand pockets. I have found that the entrance to the hand pockets is a bit small for my average-sized hands, and is even more difficult to get into while wearing gloves or mittens. The large internal pocket is great for holding important items such an avalanche beacon, inReach, or phone. And as mentioned above, it’s also designed to be used as a stuff sack for the jacket.
Black Diamond offers the First Light in both hoody and non-hooded versions, but we prefer the former for its boost in weather protection and warmth. In the end, we have no complaints about the hood: it’s comfortable, climbing helmet-compatible, and helped keep my ears warm while belaying by cold crags. Keep in mind that there is no adjustability on the hood—the simple elastic piping around the rim keeps it in place. And the hood will not a fit over most ski helmets, so you’ll need to use the hood on your ski or shell jacket for that.
The fit of the First Light Hoody is true to size and my women’s small fits me perfectly. I wear multiple baselayers under it, yet it’s still fitted enough to wear comfortably under a hardshell. Typically puffy jackets are designed for wearing while sitting or standing around, but the First Light hoody allows for movement. Both the shell fabric and insulation are stretchy, so it’s easy to wear the jacket while alpine or rock climbing, or while performing simple movements like reaching down to fiddle with boots or ski bindings.
Other Versions of the First Light
We tested the women’s version of this jacket, and Black Diamond also makes a men’s version that is nearly identical in terms of design, weighs 2.5 ounces more at 18 ounces total, and costs the same ($249). In addition, Black Diamond has added a non-hooded version of the First Light to the mix, which shaves $20 off the price and 0.9 ounces off the weight. That said, we found the climbing helmet-compatible hood to be incredibly practical, warm, and comfortable, and we think it’s worth the negligible cost increase and added bulk. And in keeping up with competing jackets like the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid, BD makes a First Light Hybrid Hoody with a thin layer of blended merino for the back panel. Finally, the First Light is available in vest versions for $149.
What We Like
- Warm and breathable.
- Exceptionally durable. I love this jacket, wear it almost daily, have not been kind to it, and it's still in great shape.
- Surprisingly good wind resistance for such a breathable piece.
- Minimalist elastic cuffs. I know that adjustable Velcro cuffs are popular, but I find that I constantly scratch myself with the Velcro and appreciate cuffs that simply fit well as is.
- In addition to the backcountry, this jacket is spiffy and fitted enough to wear in urban settings.
What We Don’t
- Heavier than most of its rivals.
- Entrance to hand pockets is on the small side, making them hard to access with gloves on.
- Area near the cuff has tendency to wet out after sustained exposure.
|Black Diamond First Light Hoody||$249||15.5 oz.||PrimaLoft Silver Active (60g)||40D||Yes|
|Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody||$299||11.6 oz.||FullRange (60g)||30D||No|
|Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody||$249||10.9 oz.||Polartec Alpha (95g)||20D||No|
|The North Face Ventrix Hoodie||$220||14.8 oz.||Ventrix (80g)||30D x 20D||No|
|Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody||$299||12.7 oz.||Coreloft Continuous (65g)||40D||No|
|Rab Xenon X Jacket||$235||10.6 oz.||PrimaLoft Gold Active (60g)||20D||Yes|
All active insulation pieces are compared to the extremely popular Patagonia Nano-Air. The hoody version of this jacket easily undercuts the First Light in weight (11.6 vs. 15.5 ounces for the BD), and the stretchy fabric on the Nano-Air is super soft and comfortable. But for backcountry skiing and climbing, the First Light was the better jacket for our needs. It’s warmer than the Nano-Air, protects you from wind without giving up much in terms of breathability, and stands up better to abuse with a burly 40-denier shell as opposed to the 30-denier Patagonia. It’s hard to match Patagonia’s everyday appeal and versatility, but for active skiers, climbers, and cold-weather explorers looking for a jacket that’s equally capable as an outer layer and midlayer, the BD First Light is a nice option.
Outdoor Research’s Ascendant Hoody has similar goals as the First Light, and we’ve been impressed with its breathability and weather protection (you can read our full review here). Moreover, its hood is adjustable, and the jacket comes in at almost 5 ounces lighter, all for the same price ($249). That said, we’ve experienced premature wear on the OR Ascendant after only a few months of use, and the lack of zippered hand pockets is a notable downside for us. It’s a tough call, but unless hood adjustability is critical, we give the slight nod to the First Light.
Another strong competitor to the First Light is The North Face Ventrix Hoodie. The Ventrix undercuts the First Light in weight by less than an ounce, but is warmer and cheaper ($220) than the BD. Its 30Dx20D shell is a bit thinner than that of the First Light, but we haven’t had any durability issues, and its beefed-up 50Dx40D forearm panels make it a viable option for rock climbing and backcountry skiing. The First Light wins out by a hair in casual appeal (the forearm panels on the Ventrix are a little techy), but the Ventrix is a stronger high-output and technical piece.
Arc’teryx has made a notable push in the active insulation market with its Proton series. The most comparable model to the First Light Hoody is the Proton LT Hoody, which costs $299 but weighs 12.7 ounces and is a standout in terms of breathability. For high-output activities where staying cool is paramount, or if the 2.8 ounces of weight savings matters, the Proton line is pricey but a true winner when it comes to performance. Both jackets have 40D shells and are built for serious use in the backcountry.
Last but not least, Rab’s Xenon X doesn’t get the hype of the more prominent American brands but is a top-notch synthetic jacket nevertheless. The Rab is the lightest of the bunch at 10.6 ounces, uses a similar 60g of PrimaLoft insulation (Gold Active), has a thinner 20-denier shell, and comes in slightly cheaper than the First Light at $235. Overall, the Xenon X is an ideal synthetic for weigh-conscious climbers and hikers, and the Pertex Quantum shell material does a really nice job of cutting the wind and boosting warmth. However, the everyday appeal of this jacket is more limited with its shiny shell and minimalist feature set. This means that the Rab is great for summer and shoulder-season adventures in the alpine, but the BD is better suited for winter and everyday use.
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