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.