Finding the right winter jacket makes all the difference when it comes to spending time outdoors in the cold and snow. Having a proper cold-weather coat won’t just make going outside more tolerable; it can make it downright enjoyable. But, with so many options to choose from, how do you even begin to search for the perfect winter jacket?
While finding that right coat may feel like an impossibility at times, it isn’t quite as hard as it might seem. We’ve put together some helpful tips that can save you time and effort while keeping you warmer too. Here’s what you should consider when shopping for a new winter jacket.
How Will You Use It?
When searching for a winter coat, the first thing to think about is what you’ll be doing outside in the cold weather. Will you mainly be wearing your new jacket while commuting to and from the office and when running errands? If so, your needs will be very different than if you plan to go skiing or on winter hikes.
When taking part in aerobic activities—like running or cross-country skiing—your body will generate plenty of heat to help keep you warm. Under those circumstances, a lighter, thinner jacket, paired with a proper layering system, will usually suffice. A lightweight down jacket or a wind- and waterproof shell will provide plenty of protection against the elements and keep you surprisingly warm in the process.
However, during less intensive outdoor activities, you’ll probably need something thicker and heavier to keep you warm. A full-length wool or fur coat or a down parka can provide additional warmth in those conditions. This type of jacket may be heavier and bulkier, but it can help keep you warm even when you’re outside for extended periods of time.
Type of Insulation
Once you know how you’ll be using your jacket, you’ll want to consider what type of insulation it should use to keep you warm. Most modern coats designed for use in cold weather use either down or synthetic insulation. Both styles have their advantages and drawbacks, which is why it is important to understand the role that they play.
Sometimes referred to as “puffer jackets” or “feather coats,” down jackets use goose or duck feathers as a form of insulation. Those feathers offer the highest warmth-to-weight ratio of any naturally occurring material, resulting in exceptional performance from a lightweight garment. In order to maintain its effectiveness, down needs to stay fluffy, which allows it to trap warm air and keep it close to the body. This property is known as “loft,” which is referred to as “fill power.”
When shopping for a down jacket, you’ll usually see a fill power rating of between 500 and 900 on its hangtag. Generally speaking, as that number goes up, so does the quality of the down used in the jacket. A higher fill power usually equates to a warmer jacket, although it is not uncommon for prices to rise accordingly as well.
In the past, the biggest knock against down insulation was that it would lose its loft when it became wet, eliminating its ability to keep you warm. But with the introduction of hydrophobic down and better water-resistant and waterproof fabrics, this is much less of a concern these days. Because of this, down remains the best option choice from a performance and cost perspective.
Synthetic insulations are manmade materials designed to mimic the performance of down. The advantage of this type of insulation is that they are usually thinner and perform better in very wet conditions. The downside is that these types of insulation also tend to be a little heavier and not quite as warm. Additionally, synthetic insulations aren’t biodegradable, making them less eco-friendly than their naturally occurring counterparts.
Water Resistant vs. Waterproof
Another essential aspect to consider when shopping for a winter coat is how well it blocks excess moisture. Most manufacturers will indicate if the materials used in the jacket’s construction are water-resistant or waterproof. Those may sound like they are the same, but they are actually quite different in reality.
Water-resistant materials are fabrics that are woven so tightly together that it is difficult for rain or snow to penetrate into the interior. That said, if exposed to excess rain and snow, these materials can get so wet that moisture eventually passes through. Water-resistant fabrics will keep you dry through adverse conditions, but they can also fail if things get too extreme.
On the other hand, water-resistant jackets tend to be more breathable, allowing excess heat—and moisture—to escape from the inside. This helps keep the wearer warmer and drier on active days when it isn’t raining or snowing, allowing body heat out and keeping perspiration to a minimum.
Jackets labeled as “waterproof” use fabrics that create an impervious barrier from all outside moisture. These coats offer the highest level of protection from rain and snow, blocking water from reaching the interior. However, these materials aren’t exceptionally breathable, which can lead to overheating during aerobic activities. That said, if you’re looking to stay warm in the worst winter conditions imaginable, a waterproof jacket is the one you’ll need.
You should also pay close attention to the type of seams used in the construction of the jacket. If the manufacturer indicates that the coat is “fully seam-sealed,” it has been made using methods that prevent moisture from passing through any of the seams. Similarly, a garment with “critical seams sealed” usually indicates it is only waterproof along the front, back, and shoulders.
If the manufacturer doesn’t mention the seams at all, there is a good chance they aren’t sealed in any way. This could compromise the coat’s ability to keep you dry in bad weather.
When purchasing a winter coat, you may think that sizing isn’t something you have to worry about all that much, but it is something you’ll want to consider. When temperatures start to drop, we tend to wear warm clothes both at home and when we head outside. When worn under a jacket, thicker and bulkier clothes can impact our level of comfort, not to mention our ability to move freely too.
Once again, you’ll want to consider the activities you’ll be participating in when determining which size coat makes the most sense. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time on the slopes or snowshoeing, you’ll want to leave room for additional layers underneath. Consider moving up a size to accommodate the warm clothes you’ll be wearing underneath.
If you don’t plan to spend extended amounts of time outdoors and only need a jacket when moving between warm buildings and vehicles, a form-fitting, more fashionable model may be more to your liking. Still, be sure that it is a large enough size to allow you to comfortably wear additional layers, sweaters, or suits underneath should you choose.
Price is another critical item to consider when purchasing any jacket. As you shop, you’ll undoubtedly discover that prices can vary greatly depending on the brand, style, features, type of insulation, and a number of other factors. A good rule of thumb is that the warmer the jacket, the higher the price, in part because the materials and techniques used in its construction are of a higher quality.
That isn’t to say that you can’t find a low-cost coat to meet your needs, as there are plenty of winter jackets that offer surprisingly good performance. What often separates a higher-priced garment from its budget-conscious alternative isn’t performance but durability. A high-end coat is the type of garment that will last you for years of regular use, while a less-expensive model is more likely to wear out after just a few seasons. When that happens, you’ll be starting the shopping process all over again.
Whether you’re looking for a technical outdoor jacket for hiking and climbing or a men’s fur coat to wear around town, there are a few additional features that you may want on your new garment. For instance, you’ll want pockets that can keep your hands warm or to stash a pair of gloves. An interior pocket is especially convenient for holding a cellphone, as the warm interior will ensure its battery doesn’t lose its charge in cold conditions.
While a hood isn’t always the most fashionable feature on a jacket, it can provide extra warmth and protection from the cold. If your goal is to maximize your time outside during the winter, having a hood on your jacket will help you accomplish that. In the end, whether or not you want a hood will come down to personal preference, but it is an excellent option to have on cold days.
Other nice options include features like thumb loops that provide increased coverage for your hands, fur-lined cuffs and hood, fleece linings, and water-resistant zippers. Some coats come with strategically-placed drawstrings that allow the wearer to adjust the fit around the torso and hood to meet their individual needs. Other jackets include technical features like a snow skirt to keep powder out while skiing or zippers under the armpits that can be opened to vent excess heat.
Deciding which extra features make the most sense for you comes down to your own individual tastes and needs. But no matter what you’re looking for from a winter coat, chances are you’ll find one that can deliver the level of warmth and comfort that you’re looking for.