We've been testing the best insulated jackets for over seven years, with over 45 tested. Our 2020 review covers 13 of the top models, which we purchased and put through the wringer via a series of extensive side by side comparisons. Our experts ran trails, hiked, backpacked, ski toured, and sent their climbing objectives, all with an insulated jacket in tow. These jackets utilize synthetic insulation, which allows for exceptional breathability, warmth, and loftiness with wet. After hours of playing outside in the wilderness, we come back with newfound knowledge and data. This review highlights the top performers for comfort, warmth, and budget.
The Best Synthetic Insulated Jackets of 2020
Best Insulated Jacket
Rab Xenon Hoodie
With optimal performance in nearly every test that we conduct, the Rab Xenon is the best insulated outer layer you can buy. Its lightweight construction is easy to stuff into its pocket. For its light weight, it's surprisingly warm, with performance on par with any windbreaker. The DWR treatment wicks light rain while the insulation keeps you warm, even when wet. To top it off, it's one of the most affordable options out there.
As with any product, there are a few downsides. With a highly wind-resistant shell, the trade-off is much poorer breathability compared to its stretchy counterparts. We also found the fit to be quite large and borderline baggy, so consider sizing down if you fall between sizes. The large fit makes it easy to layer over other layers, but also prevented us from wanting to use it as a mid-layer very often. However, as a wind-resistant, insulating outer-layer, this jacket cannot be beaten for almost any cold-weather activity such as hiking, biking, climbing, or running.
Read review: Rab Xenon
Best Insulated Active Mid-Layer
Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody
The Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody represents one of the best stretchy active mid-layers out there. Its stretchy materials move with your body, and it fits like a glove. It isn't tight or restricting but sits close enough to your body that it doesn't hinder movement while climbing. It's also easy to pile layers on top of. The highly breathable design allows you to hike uphill on skis or by foot, without taking it off, but it'll also keep you warm when the temperatures plummet. Finally, we just love its stylish appeal. This is a piece we'd wear from the mountains to the bar, and it fits in in both places.
This jacket is expensive! It's not an option for those on a tight budget, or for those that appreciate a stellar deal. Another caveat is its lack of wind resistance as a result of its great breathability. It makes for a much better mid-layer than an outer layer in cold weather for this reason. Aside from that, it makes for an excellent jacket while climbing in cool temps or hiking uphill in the winter.
Read review: Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody
Best Bang for the Buck
Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata Hoody
Do you love the look and performance of the top active insulated mid-layers like the Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody or the Patagonia Nano Air Hoody, but simply don't want to pay the high price to own one? We hear you! We like the Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata Hooded. Built with the same design and function in mind, this jacket performs almost identical to others but is priced like it's on closeout. It is thin, yet still warm, fits close to the body to minimize dead space and also make it easy to layer over, and stretches easily as you move. It breathes well, allowing you to ditch the extra heat once you build up a sweat, and is stylish enough to be worn out on the town. In almost every way, this jacket performs just as well as the others in this review, making it an ideal Best Buy winner.
Of course, it also has the same downsides you would expect for an active mid-layer. It doesn't keep out the wind particularly well, so it needs to be layered over in windy conditions. The DWR coating also isn't the best in our performance testing, so while the synthetic insulation will still work to keep you warm if it's wet, rest assured that it will get wet if you get rained or snowed on. Compared to some of the slightly heavier options, it is a bit thinner and, therefore less warm, although that means it's also lighter.
Read review: Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata Hooded
Warmest Insulated Jacket
Synthetic insulation is a fantastic alternative to down and has the capability of providing just as much warmth, while typically costing less. The Rab Nimbus is a perfect example, as it's the warmest jacket in this review, and also one of the least expensive. While the active mid-layer has become the most popular style of insulated jacket, the Nimbus is a straight-up "puffy", complete with overstuffed horizontal baffles designed for maximum heat retention. It cuts the wind and sheds a drizzle, making it the jacket you would throw on to trap the heat once you stop moving in the mountains, for long belays, or for chilling around the campfire or shoveling the driveway.
The principal downside to this jacket is that it is relatively heavy, a price you pay when choosing synthetic insulation instead of down. A comparable down jacket could easily way half as much, and stuff down smaller as well for stowing in a pack. But not everyone wants, needs, or can afford, down insulation. For them, we recommend the Rab Nimbus, our Top Pick for Warmth, which also comes at a nice price point.
Read review: Rab Nimbus
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is a collaboration between two of our top reviewers — Andy Wellman
Matt Bento. Andy is a former climbing guidebook publisher who has spent many years reviewing down jackets for OutdoorGearLab, before switching over to cover insulated jackets. As a lifelong and obsessive climber, backcountry skier, backpacker, and mountain town liver, Andy has spent pretty much his whole life wearing insulated jackets, of both types, for comfort and out of absolute necessity. He is joined by Yosemite Search and Rescue member Matt Bento. For the last ten years, Matt has been climbing and living out of his vehicle at climbing destinations all over the country. This way of life means that Matt is outside in the elements on an extremely regular basis and perpetually putting his gear to the test. With such a constant and varied need for quality gear, Matt has a unique foundation of knowledge from which to test and judge insulated jackets.
With years of data on many of these jackets and our finger on the pulse of the industry, we have a thorough understanding of the best insulated jackets on the market and how they have evolved. We've used these jackets side-by-side as mid-layers, at frigid belays, on multi-pitch climbs, on ski adventures, and out in the rain. We put them each through the wringer in our lab, testing for loft, weight, storage convenience, and even wore them into the shower. The result is an exhaustive look at the best insulated jackets on the market today and the information you need to choose the right one for your needs.
Related: How We Tested Insulated Jackets
Analysis and Test Results
Unless you're hiking around in the sweltering lowlands in the middle of summer, you're going to need an insulating layer for your outdoor pursuits. While down insulation offers an unbeatable warmth to weight ratio, it loses its insulating abilities as soon as it gets wet and takes a substantial amount of time to dry and re-loft. The jackets tested in this category all use a variety of synthetic insulation; some are optimized for maximum warmth, while others are engineered for breathability. Despite advances in forecasting, we're always rolling the dice in the mountains when it comes to the weather, so an insulated jacket not only needs to be warm, it needs to be light and packable. Beyond these two critical components, we chose to assess each model for its breathability, comfort, style, and overall value, described in greater detail.
Related: Buying Advice for Insulated Jackets
A good insulated jacket doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg but plan on spending a good chunk of change for great quality. Synthetic jackets have historically been less spendy than down competitors, but with their rise in popularity, the field (at least price wise) has evened out. Our Editors' Choice award winner, the Rab Xenon, is a perfect example of excellent value. A lower-priced jacket with superior performance to the rest. While it's not as inexpensive as our Best Buy award-winning options, this is probably one of the biggest bangs that your buck will have. Other fantastic performers at a lower price are the Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata Hooded and the Rab Nimbus. The Kor Strata provides the best value among the more expensive active insulated mid-layer genre of jackets, while the Rab Nimbus is a warmer jacket for colder weather.
First and foremost, your jacket, combined with your other layers, needs to keep you warm in the weather you plan to use it in. We've weighted this metric most heavily: 25% of each model's score. As we detailed above, down is warmer by weight than synthetic insulation, though each year, synthetics are catching up to the superior warmth-to-weight ratio of down. However, the scores awarded to the jackets in this review only compare their warmth relative to each other, not compared to down jackets. This review spans thicker pieces that are intended as an outermost layer in frigid weather, breathable models for aerobic activity, and thinner pieces to be used as mid-layers. Thinner jackets also make great outer layers for around-town wear in cooler months.
The Rab Nimbus is an excellent option for those who run cold, but still want a lightweight jacket that stuffs into its chest pocket. It is one of the warmest we tested. The Arc'teryx Atom AR also gets top marks for warmth, with 120g/m of Coreloft insulation in the torso region. The REI Groundbreaker, although lacking a hood, is the thickest and most heavily insulated contender. It is a decent choice for those who don't need an outdoorsy technical jacket, and simply want to keep warm.
Comparing warmth in lightly insulated models is challenging. Some are designed in whole or partly to allow wind to blow through for breathability, while others are wind resistant. To pick a comparison point, we rated their warmth as an outer layer when worn over baselayers with a light breeze.
Among the lighter weight models tested, the Arc'teryx Atom LT, Rab Xenon, and Black Diamond First Light Stretch Hoody struck us as the warmest choices. Some very light jackets can still be impressively warm. For instance, the Patagonia Micro Puff uses new insulation called PlumaFill, resulting in extraordinary warmth, despite being the lightest jacket in the review by several ounces. Unfortunately, its super lightweight shell makes it very vulnerable to abrasion from rocks and brush. Additionally, the PlumaFill tends to leak out in long strands once there is a tear in the shell.
Weight & Compressibility
Since we find ourselves taking an insulated jacket pretty much everywhere, light is usually right. All else being equal, we'll choose the lighter, more compressible model almost every time. The Patagonia Micro Puff takes the lightweight cake, weighing in at a mere 8.15 ounces. The Rab Xenon is the next lightest choice, while the Patagonia Nano Air Hoody and Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata Hooded are both close behind. All have outstanding warmth-to-weight ratios when used as a mid-layer. If you are looking for the perfect balance between warmth and weight, it's hard to beat the Editors' Choice Xenon. It's less expensive than many of its competitors and significantly more durable than the Patagonia Micro Puff.
We appreciate a jacket that stows away in one of its pockets. This makes just-in-case storage in a backpack easy and keeps the outer fabric clean, protecting its DWR treatment. Most models tested stuff into a pocket or come with a stuff sack. The Xenon and Rab Nimbus are our favorite stuffable pieces; all are compact, have a clip loop, and regularly traveled on our testers' climbing harnesses. While it is a top scorer, the Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody, unfortunately, doesn't include a stuff sack or a stuffable pocket option. The Patagonia Nano Air Hoody stuffs down into its pocket, except that it's so challenging to get the jacket to fit in the pocket that we didn't find this feature very useful.
While synthetic insulation has become more compressible, long-term durability is still an issue. The fiber's ability to rebound to full loft decreases with repeated compression, and the more tightly compacted they are, the more wear the fiber matrices incur; we recommend that you always store jackets in their uncompressed state.
In this category, we assessed each piece's mobility, as well as small details that made each more comfortable. We found that some moved with us better than others, some had features, like fleece-lined chin guards or hand pockets, that deliver happiness for minimal weight. We also note the fit characteristics of each jacket, giving you a better idea of what body types each jacket fits best and helping you choose the correct size.
Let's discuss mobility first; this is a crucial jacket attribute. When you reach overhead while climbing or digging in your pack, a model that stays put (without the waist hem being tugged upwards) is appreciated.
We also assessed how well we could move our arms, as well as the hood mobility. Ease-of-use is another consideration when comparing jackets. Nice zipper pulls, pockets in the right places, and convenient hood adjustments are a few features that contribute to higher comfort scores.
Three jackets stood out above the rest when it came to comfort, usually due to a combination of unobstructed mobility, perfect fit, and soft, comfy fabrics. These were the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody, Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody, and The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix 2.0 Hoody. The Arc'teryx Atom LT also received high comfort scores; it has low-bulk cuffs, well-shaped zipper pulls, and excellent mobility. The Xenon scores well for comfort; its light fabrics and lofty insulation feel good. The snug hood, which features microfleece chin and neck patches, was our favorite.
We enjoy having hoods since they provide a warmth upgrade for little weight. A hood is impossible to misplace, unlike a hat. We wore hoods under and over climbing helmets. Our favorite hood designs featured cinch cords that tightened the hood around the head and not the face, although more and more hoods are being designed with only elastic to secure the facial opening. While this design is lighter and simpler, it cannot adjust depending on your head shape, or the weather. A hood can sometimes get in the way if you're planning to wear your layer primarily under a shell that has its hood. Most hooded models tested are available in hoodless versions, which we noted in our specs table.
We've all found ourselves in torrential downpours and fierce winds despite a bluebird forecast. In these situations, the right insulated jacket could save your life, and they'll always reduce the suffer factor. Most of the products tested are designed to be worn primarily as a mid-layer with a rain jacket or hardshell on top for foul weather. That said, many users employ these products as their outer layer if the conditions aren't too severe. We wore all the jackets reviewed as outer layers while hiking and running in fall and early winter. We also toted many along on climbs and days out at the crag for both warmth and wind protection.
Models with a continuous or nearly continuous outer fabric do a better job of stopping the wind. The Rab Xenon is the most weather resistant of the 60 g/m2 insulated products tested. Its nylon ripstop fabric has a durable water repellent coating that works in light rain and snow, and it is practically windproof. While it is not seam-taped, the design minimizes seams. The Xenon is one of the only light models we'd purposefully wear without a shell during a short, light rain, though the Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody, like the Xenon, also beads water and offers a high level of water resistance.
With the exceptions of the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody, all the models tested have a DWR treatment. This causes light rain to bead off the shell and keeps insulation dry, as long as it is effective (not all are). The most impressive DWR treatment was very surprisingly found on the REI Groundbreaker, a warm jacket that we wouldn't carry out on serious missions with us. The treatment on the Proton LT was the most effective of those found on stretchy, breathable face fabrics. The DWR treatments on other lightweight jackets, like The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix 2.0 and the Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata Hooded was far less effective.
The medium and heavy insulated models tested all earned high weather-resistance scores - their bulk stops the wind from penetrating. After months of heavy use and exposure to dirt, the DWR treatments begin to lose their effectiveness, but out of the box, water rolls right off.
Hybrid construction jackets present an interesting conundrum in rating weather resistance. The OR Ascendant Hoody makes a wonderful mid-layer, but will get soaked quickly in a downpour because of its breathable shell fabric that also lacks a DWR treatment.
Breathable insulated jackets are a newish arrival and are designed to regulate temperature and wick sweat during high energy activities in cold weather. The introduction of Polartec Alpha and, more recently, FullRange insulation from Patagonia allows a new approach to breathability. The insulation itself moves moisture and promotes better airflow. Perhaps the most popular and recognizable of these jackets, the Patagonia Nano Air Hoody, pairs FullRange insulation with stretchy, breathable shell fabric and a moisture-wicking lining to create one of the most breathable models tested. The Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody uses Polartec Alpha direct insulation. This insulation is highly breathable, doesn't need an internal liner, and has a fleecy feel against the skin.
The Nano-Air Hoody is the most breathable option according to our testing. Not far behind is the Arc'teryx Proton LT Hoody. The Proton isn't as light as the Nano Air, but it's nearly as breathable and much more durable. Other companies have also begun imitating this style of jacket, and The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix 2.0 and the Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata are similarly breathable as the two listed above. For high energy activities, like backcountry skiing and winter running, these styles of jackets are game-changers. Add a light shell, like the Marmot Ether DriClime or the Patagonia Houdini, in case it gets windy.
The long-standing approach to making a Primaloft or Coreloft product better suited to exertion is to incorporate low-bulk, breathable panels under the jacket's arms and on the sides. The Arc'teryx Atom LT takes this hybrid approach. Wind-resistant fabric protects your core, while stretchy side panels dump excess heat. This hybrid earned solid breathability scores. The medium and heavy models tested were the least breathable, but they work the best as terminal layers, keeping you warm when you've stopped to take a break while hiking, or waiting at a windy belay station.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we've done our best to assign a style score to each piece. Puffy jackets aren't just outdoor recreation items these days, and some products look better than others for around-town wear. Some, like the Patagonia Micro Puff, have quilted stitching in the outer fabric, which creates a distinctive look. Most have a shiny, techy ripstop nylon shell, but the active mid-layers have a softer, matte look and feel, that makes them seem more suited to daily casual wear. The Patagonia Nano Air Hoody earned the highest in our testing, ensuring that you'll look sleek and clean. Most models are available in a variety of colors, allowing you to be as loud or as subtle as you like.
We like hoods on insulated jackets, as they provide a warmth upgrade, but a floppy hood isn't precisely an out-to-dinner look. Additionally, layer after layer of hoods stacked on top of hoods can be pretty cumbersome and uncomfortable. We tested jackets with hoods and without. Some of the hoodless models don't come in hoody versions, so if having a hood is essential, be sure to investigate further.
With the vast assortment of choices available, choosing the best jacket can be tough. We rank warmth, and weight high on the list of essential attributes, yet other features, such as weather resistance and breathability, may prove to be significant depending on your use. Remember to ask yourself what you'll be doing in your insulated jacket. Will you be running or ski touring? Then go for something light and breathable. Want the best compromise of all metrics? The Rab Xenon continues unchallenged.
— Andy Wellman & Matt Bento