Understanding hiking jackets - What do you really need?

Understanding hiking jackets - What do you really need?

Okay, I’ll admit it, outdoor apparel is confusing, especially when it comes to jackets.

I came to this realization after my girlfriend Niecie asked me why I needed a rain jacket. The question struck me as odd, since of any jacket, a raincoat seams pretty self-explanatory, after all, it keeps you dry.

But what Niecie was really asking me was why I needed a raincoat, windbreaker, an insulated jacket and a fleece.

While these jackets may sound somewhat redundant — a raincoat will block the wind just as well as a windbreaker and a fleece and insulated jacket with both keep you warm — they all serve different purposes.

You wouldn’t want to wear a raincoat in the desert or a fleece in a rainstorm, at least not unless you want to be miserable.

“But we don’t live in the desert, we live in the Midwest,” Niecie insisted.

And this is certainly true, but living in the midwest means we have seasons to contend with and that means no one jacket is suited to deal with them all, at least not without some compromise.

Isn’t a raincoat just a windbreaker?

Windbreakers and raincoats may look the same, but they couldn’t be more different.

Windbreaks are typically constructed of a single layer of a wind resistant material like nylon or polyester. The single layer allows heat and moisture to escape while keeping the wind out. Many windbreakers are treated with a water-resistant coating for added protection from the elements.

Rain shells, or as they’re often called hard shells, take this a step further by laminating multiple layers of fabric to form a waterproof barrier. These layers help keep you dry in even the heaviest downpours, but they also have a tendency to trap heat.

Many rain shells feature vented pockets and armpits, sometimes called “pit zips” in the hiking and backpacking community.

Some rain shells are made from materials, such as Gore-Tex or eVent, that are both waterproof and breathable. These jackets tend to be more expensive and are rarely as breathable as a simple nylon shell.

In more recent years, windbreakers have been replaced by the softshell. These sleek jackets combine the best aspects of windbreakers and fleeces, making them ideal for the spring and fall.

What about in cold weather? Don’t you need a winter coat?

It gets cold in Wisconsin. This winter, temperatures dropped well below 0 degrees. Don’t you need a winter coat? Sure, but what is a winter coat?

Most winter jackets come in one of three varieties: heavy puff jackets, insulated hard shells and three-in-ones.

While the first two are sure to keep you warm, they’re not very versatile and are only useful when temperatures drop below freezing.

Three-in-one jackets are a great alternative. These jackets bundle a water and windproof hardshell with a zip-in insulated jacket often made of fleece or down. Each layer can be worn by itself or together, making the jacket useful year round.

You can achieve the same thing as a three-in-one by wearing a hard-shell over a fleece or “puff” jacket.

In parts of the world where temperatures stay below 0-degrees Fahrenheit for weeks on end, an insulated hard shell might be worth the investment. For the majority of winter hikers and backpackers, they’re an unnecessary expense with limited usefulness outside of the coldest winter months of the year.

What you really need

Perplexed by this, Niecie asked what are the bare necessities when it comes to jackets.

In most places in the United States, there are three kinds of jackets you’re going to want to have.

1. Hard shell: As previously mentioned, a hard shell is a barrier against the elements, keeping wind and water out so you can keep on trekking no matter what mother nature throws at you. These jackets are sometimes marketed as raincoats or rain shells, but they are useful year round in a variety of weather conditions.

Examples include Marmot’s Precip Jacket, Patagonia’s Torrentshell and Outdoor Research’s Helium II

2. Soft shell: Despite what its name would suggest, there is nothing soft about a softshell. These light-weight jackets combine the best attributes of windbreakers and fleeces. And, because they’re often made from tough water-resistant materials, they’ll even keep you dry in a light drizzle.

Examples include Columbia’s Ascender, Marmot’s Gravity and The North Face’s Apex Bionic.

3. Insulated: The sole purpose of an insulated jacket is to keep you nice and warm, whether it’s a cool spring evening or the depths of winter. Common examples include fleeces and insulated jackets. Fleeces are made from natural and synthetic fibers that trap heat close to your body. Insulated jackets, or “puff” jackets as they are often called, trap heat in pockets filled with down feathers or synthetic insulation. These jackets are often layered under waterproof shells since they tend to be poor at blocking the wind.

Examples include Duluth Trading Company’s Bear Hide Fleece, The North Face’s Chimborazo, Columbia’s Steens Mountain Fleece and Marmot’s Tullus Puffer Jacket.

If you want to learn more about all the different jackets out there, check out Backcountry’s intro to outdoor jackets.

Further Reading

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Share your thoughts

So tell us in the comments section:

  • Do you prefer a heavy winter coat or do you layer?
  • Fleece or insulated down/synthetic jacket?
  • What questions do you have about outdoor apparel?

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