How To Buy a Technical Jacket

Don’t let inclement weather thwart your outdoor plans. Today’s technical jackets are a product of decades of innovation and boast technologies that will keep you comfortable in the face of the worst Mother Nature throws your direction. Whether you’re gearing up to bag peaks or camp out with the family, the topics in this guide will help you learn how to choose the best technical jacket to suit your needs.

Type: Technical Jackets come in varying levels of insulation, breathability, and weather resistance. Pick yours based on your level of activity, where you’ll be using it, and how cold you get.

Hardshells: Hardshell jackets, made of two- or three-layer fabric are made to be weather resistant; they’re typically the most waterproof and breathable option. Just an outer layer, they are designed to be worn with multiple layers underneath if the going gets cold. Hardshells provide protection from wind, snow, and rain.

Insulated: Insulated jackets feature warming layers typically made from either down or synthetic filling, or fleece lining. They usually have a hardshell outer face, but that can vary and impact the price of the jacket. Insulated jackets are inherently warmer, so they’re a good bet if you run cold, or plan to travel somewhere the temperatures are low. Beefier than shells, they can inhibit layering. Many come with removable inner layers.

Puffy jackets: A puffy jacket is an insulated jacket filled with synthetic insulation or down. In dry, cold climates puffies can make for good outer layers, but they’re often best used as midlayers because they’re insulating, but not always wind or waterproof.

A Note on Down: Still considered by many to be the best insulating material available, high-end down is warm, light and extremely compressible. For many years, the only negative associated with down was that it lost most of its insulating properties when wet. This is still the case with standard down, which must be kept dry to work properly.

With the advent of DriDown, this material became much more versatile and resistant to moisture. Hydrophobic treatments have created a type of down that dries quickly and maintains loft even when damp. These treatments are not a cure-all and down should still be kept dry if possible.

Down is rated by fill power. An entire article can be devoted to the types and qualities of down, but the short version is this: the higher the number, the lighter, more efficient, more compressible, warmer per ounce, and more expensive a down jacket will be.

Frank Kvietok, the Director of Advanced Development at American Rec (makers of Sierra Designs DriDown) explained the advances in hydrophobic down technology.

“Basically think of DriDown as a down with a Durable Water Repellant on it. You have not made the fabric waterproof, but the fibers are waterproof. It doesn’t turn a down jacket into a raincoat. It makes the down itself highly water repellent.”

Softshells: Softshell fabric is lighter and stretchier than hardshell fabric. It’s typically more breathable, and less waterproof. Softshell jackets are good in dry climates, or for skiers who have high aerobic output and need a breathable outer layer.

Layering: Layering depends on personal preference and weather conditions, but a three-layer system, with base, mid, and top shell layers, is a time-tested standard that can be easily adjusted for conditions. Look for a jacket that accommodates a range of layering systems underneath, so you can adjust your setup to the temperature.

Waterproof: Waterproofing either comes from a membrane in the fabric, like GORE-TEX® Pro Shell, or from a coating that’s applied to the outside of the fabric. A fabric’s water resistance is measured in millimeters of water it will hold before it leaks, so a pant that’s rated 20k waterproof was tested to hold 20,000 mm of water over one square inch of fabric without leaking.

Breathability: The level of breathability you need depends on your level of activity. Breathability comes from the fabric, and is usually inversely related to waterproofing, although some fabrics, like Polartec NeoShell, are built to be both. Breathability is measured by how many grams of water get pulled through the fabric in 24 hours. For instance fabrics rated as 20k waterproof, pulled 20,000 grams.

Windproof: A jacket’s resistance to wind comes from its outer layer. Some fabrics, like GORE-TEX® Windstopper have a membrane laminated into them, which makes the garment windproof.  Others are tightly woven, so air doesn’t pass through. Some jackets will be treated with a windproof coating, but that can wear off after use and washes. Often softshells, which aren’t waterproof, are still windproof.

Hood: Jackets that have hoods come with attached, detachable or stowaway hoods, which roll up into the collar. Attached hoods are the least bulky. Climbers, bicycle commuters, and skiiers/snowboarders should for a hood that’s helmet compatible, so you can still use it when it gets stormy.

Seams: Any seam or zipper is essentially a hole in your jacket and a way for moisture to get in. If the weather’s going to get particularly ugly, you’ll want to have a jacket with sealed seams. There are three main ways that seams are sealed: fully taped, where waterproof material is sealed over the edges of the seams; critically taped, which is similar, but taped only over the seams that are exposed to the most moisture; and welded, where instead of a seam the edges of the two fabrics are bonded together. Welded seams are the lightest and most waterproof, but also the most expensive.

Back Length: Your jacket should be a little longer in back, so it doesn’t gap when you crunch up into an athletic stance. The extra length will keep snow and rain out, too.

Fit: Look for a jacket that’s roomy enough that you can layer under it, but not so baggy that you loose insulating value. If you’ll be using it for skiing or winter hiking, make sure the sleeves are long enough that they won’t gap around your gloves, and think about how your cuffs will integrate with your gloves. Do you have gauntlet style gloves that go over your cuffs, or slimmer cut ones that go under?

Venting: Jacket ventilation comes from underarm zippers (pit zips) or patches of highly breathable material under the armpits, which allow you to dump heat from the sweatiest part of your torso. Two-way pit zips, which zip from both the top and bottom, are convenient, especially when you’re wearing a pack. Some jackets also feature large pockets over the chest that double as vents.