Back in the dark ages, if someone wanted to bring a thick insulating layer while backpacking, the choices were limited. A big, burly Michelin Man style of jacket often had to be brought.
Most people, myself included, only brought this type of layer when winter backpacking. For three-season use, many of us used a 200 weight (medium weight) fleece.
Bulky and heavy compared to today’s standards, but it did (and still does) the job.
Then, roughly a decade or so ago, light weight puffies started becoming commercially popular. A lightweight jacket really meant for cool temperatures.
Light, easy to stuff, take it out at a break or in camp. These light down sweaters have their limitations versus a simple fleece, but they do fulfill a niche that many people seem to like for certain conditions (myself included).
However, because they look similar to the thick puffies of about 15 or more years ago, people confuse them with an actual winter jacket.
They are not.
These lightweight winter puffies are meant, again, for cool conditions. Not that they can’t be used in colder conditions. They just will not be as effective versus something a little bit heavier but much warmer. Still, the lesser weight and bulk it often a trade-off that sometimes makes sense for specific trips.
In any case, because of the confusion for three-season versus winter use, thought I’d explain the differences with a general overview.
I tend to speak in generalities as opposed to hard numbers; rules of thumb and generalities make more sense for me to explain. I realize everyone is different, but adjust the rules of thumb as appropriate.
For those who want hard numbers, I suggest going down the rabbit hole that is the Iclo rating. Some hard numbers, and a detailed explanation, for standard backpacking clothing may be found here as well.
First, a word about synthetic vs. down puffies
In general, down puffies are lighter, compact better, last longer after being stuffed and unstuffed over many nights and are more expensive versus their synthetic counterparts.
Synthetic puffies tend to stuff less compactly, weigh more, are shot after two or maybe three seasons of hard use but are less expensive versus a similar down garment. Synthetic garments tolerate humid conditions better than down (but not as well as a simple fleece).
Generally speaking, only the lightweight jackets will be synthetic. Very rare to find a winter weight coat or parka that is synthetic esp for backcountry use.
No matter which layer is purchased, do not hike in these garments. The insulation will be compromised from the evaporation of sweat into these garments. These garments are meant for breaks, camp use and possibly augmenting a quilt when sleeping. The nylon shell will not breathe as well as fleece despite whatever manufacturers make magical claims.
The exception is for very extreme cold and dry conditions such as seen with high altitude mountaineering. Those conditions are well beyond the scope of not only this article but I suspect for most readers, too. I know they are for me.
- Jacket (Lightweight) Class
The down sweater and similar synthetic puffies are in this class. A light jacket good for those cool nights in camp with little wind and not too much moisture. Nice to throw on during quick breaks, too.
These jackets tend to be sized a bit more fitted (even the baggier ones from discount stores) versus a winter coat. Not as layering friendly as true colder weather coats. These jackets typically have sewn through construction vs baffle box style (sleeping bag baffle) construction. Weight and bulk are saved with a compromise in thermal efficiency. This stitching method, not by coincidence, also results in less expensive manufacturing costs, too.
In general, these jackets are sufficient to roughly mid-40s or so with just a base layer. Add a hood and 100 weight fleece? Perhaps low 40s… maybe high 30s for a person who is naturally warm.
Generally,these jackets have 2.5 to 3.0 oz of down fill weight (literally the total weight of the down in the jacket) . A synthetic fill jacket will have comparable thickness. A down jacket in this class is roughly ~8-12 oz for a men’s medium (no hood) depending on manufacturer, thickness of the jacket and fill power of the down used; ~10-14 oz for a men’s medium in a synthetic puffy without a hood and again depending upon manufacturer, material used, the loftiness of the insulation and so on. A hood may add an ounce or so to the total weight. As a dedicated quilt user for three season use, I like the hood. YMMV.
The combo of a light puffy, a 100 weight fleece and a light shell jacket is very versatile combo for the wide range of conditions I find for three-season+ backpacking.
These jackets are very popular and extend just beyond outdoor use among the general public. Higher end jackets that are very well made can be bought from Mountain Hardware or similar, mid-range versions from fast-fashion houses such Uniqlo or a house brand such as REI. And these jackets are popular enough that even an absolute budget one is available from such places as J.C. Penny or Walmart. Quality varies so Google for reviews if curious. A popular version of the synthetic puffy includes the Montbell Therawrap.
A shout should be made for the M-65 liner jacket. Though the Patagonia down sweater and similar kick-started the current trend and fashion, the first generation of the military’s ECWCS had the liner jacket way back in the mid-80s. This dirt bagger favorite can still be found on many surplus sites for dirt cheap. A frugal version of the Montbell Therawrap that works surprisingly well when worn under a rain shell. I wore it to good effect during a cold snap when I did the Benton Mackaye Trail.
Overall, this jacket class is essentially a replacement for the old stalwart of the 200 weight fleece. Roughly the same temperature range and fulfills a similar niche: Mainly, the go-to layer for general three-season backpacking and hiking use among many.
Again, it should not be considered a true cold weather coat.
Coat (Midweight) Class
True winter coats! A myriad of shells, baffle designs, down fill, etc. etc.
Unlike my older “beat down” coat I still use in certain situations, the newer down coats for backpacking/climbing/backcountry skiing tend to be made of thinner nylon material. More delicate, but some pronounced weight savings.
When I am winter backpacking, weight and bulk are my main concerns. Something such as the GoLite Bitterroot or similar works well. I just need something to cook dinner, perhaps hang out in camp for a bit and then go to bed.
For most winter backpackers, this type of coat works rather well for general use if with a tradeoff in thermal efficiency.
Car camping and/or more time spent hanging out? I reach for my trusty, if heavier and bulkier, old EMS Glacier down coat. I find it to be warmer than my Bitterroot. (Alas, no hood. I’ll augment it with a heavy fleece hood. Worked rather well in Chaco Canyon over Christmas Week when it was -7F… )
Typically, all these coats have at least 5+ ounce of down fill weight (if not more) and go below the waist a small bit. They are sized for easy layering.
A little bit bulkier and heavier than the jacket class puffy, but much warmer for the weight esp the ones meant for backpacking.
Synthetic coats can be purchased as well, but they are often for town use and/or more front country type activities.
Parka (Expedition) Class
When the wind is howling, the mercury is well below 0F and you are just hanging out in the sh**, this is the garment needed.
Though the term parka is used for almost any hooded winter garment, I am using the term “parka” more in the original sense of the word: Something burlier than a coat, with a thick hood and often goes at or near the thigh. Deep winter use.
These garments are thick, warm and relatively light for the warmth they give. The amount of down in these parkas are at least 10 oz in terms of fill weight..but usually more. Box style construction is how these parkas are made. Warmth and thermal efficiency are the needed traits. These parkas often cost a few hundred dollars.
Most people do not need these types of parkas. But if you do need it..then you need it. Mountaineering, extremely cold weather backpacking perhaps and so on.
A high level summary of the choices of insulating clothing for outdoor use.
- Lightweight jackets for three-season use. Approx 3 oz. down fill or equivalent synthetic insulation.
- Midweight coats for winter and perhaps deep shoulder season use ~5 oz. of down fill insulation.
- Expedition weight parkas for truly cold and/or nasty conditions while out and about (As opposed to being in a sleeping bag and tent). If you are needing this type of garment, I suspect you have the experience where you could (or SHOULD be able to ) have written this article. 😉 ~10 oz or more of down insulation.