High-quality jackets separate you from the elements. Years of technology in action, they’re often what makes the best adventures—the ones that leave you breathless and mesmerized—possible to achieve.
Therefore, the best jacket is one that will meet you where you need to go. It will speak directly to your sense of adventure, provide you with shelter, and comfort you in the most remote places on earth. From epic days in snow-covered mountains to harrowing escapes from grizzly bears, your jacket will handle whatever you throw at it—going where you go quietly, comfortably, and without a fuss, while keeping you warm, cool, dry, and/or mobile all at the same time.
Not All Jackets Are Created Equal
You may be thinking to yourself, is picking a jacket really that big of a deal? And the short answer is yes. The long answer, well, let me share a story with you.
Imagine yourself, dressed in your newly procured vintage Nike jacket circa 1982, and miles deep inside of Montana’s Glacier National Park. From grizzly bears and mountain lions to wolverines and pygmy shrews, Glacier’s ecosystem is brimming with life and home to more than 70 species of mammals and a diverse array of flora and fauna. It’s a geological wonderland that is leaving you breathless and vying for more as you hike up a valley to the next glacial meadow on your trail map.
Then, mid-daydream, you halt dead in your tracks. Stopping to listen to a sound unlike any you’ve heard before, you inch closer and peak through a thicket of greenery. You hold your breath, because mere feet away, stands an 800-pound mama grizzly and her three hungry cubs. Feasting loudly on elk tartar, they’ve yet to hear you approach.
Frozen, you’re dying to take a photo, but dare not make a sound by reaching into your pocket. Minutes pass, and unable to hold your position any longer, you begin to shift ever so gingerly. Willing your hip neon jacket silent, it occurs to you that perhaps this awesome vintage jacket from the 80s is not the best idea for an afternoon in the Wild West. Unable to escape the cheap nylon shell that’s rustling is about to turn you into the second course, sweat drips down your body as you ponder your options.
Since the breathable jacket had not yet been perfected in the 1980s, you’re thoroughly clammy when to your relief, clouds gather overhead and with a loud stroke of thunder, massive water droplets start slamming down around you. Effectively masking the sounds of your cheap fabric from hell, the storm lends you an opportunity for escape.
Backing away slowly, you start to turn and make a run for it, but are disturbed to find yourself unable to move. Looking back and cursing all things neon you yank on the hot pink waist cord that is now firmly attached to an adjacent tree branch. Panicked, you manage to pull out a pocket knife and cut yourself free, but just then mama bear looks in your direction. She heard your struggle. Cold, wet, and miles from the nearest trailhead, you tighten your grip around the bear spray and, preparing for what comes next, promise the universe that if you make it out in one piece today, you’ll never again go within 10 feet of vintage hipster outerwear.
See? Jacket choices matter; quality > fashion.
So, What's the Best Jacket for You?
To answer this question, you must first consider the what, where, when, and how of your intended pursuits. From type of activity and location to season, time of day, and length of trip, everything matters when selecting your optimal layer of protective outerwear.
In essence, modern jackets exist thanks to DuPont, the company behind nylon, polyester, and elastane (aka spandex). Both lightweight and durable synthetic fabrics, nylon and polyester are naturally hydrophobic (i.e. meant to expel water), wrinkle resistant, UV resistant, mildew resistant, stretch resistant, shrink resistant, and generally easy to care for.
Invented in 1935, some six years before polyester, nylon (aka polyamide) was the world’s first synthetic fiber and the original polymer used in jacket construction. Softer, stronger, and more expensive than polyester, nylon is regarded for its strength and durability. Cords created using nylon can be made strong enough to pull a car and nylon is the main fiber behind most climbing equipment including climbing ropes as it has considerable stretch and can safely support your body weight during huge falls. Dirt and debris do not hold well to nylon, making it easy to clean. Nylon’s main disadvantages as a jacket material are that it’s noisy and dries less quickly.
Invented in 1941, polyester is typically more abrasion resistant, faster drying, better at wicking away moisture, easier to dye, and less expensive to produce than nylon. Polyester jackets tend to be cooler than nylon and although both fibers are UV resistant, polyester has a higher resistance and is able to withstand more prolonged exposure to the sun than nylon without breaking down.
Tricot fabric is often used as a lining material and can be made from any natural or synthetic fiber.
Typically derived from polyester, it’s very soft and more breathable than both polyester and nylon. Tricot jackets tend to be heavy, warm, and good at wicking away sweat. They are, however, less water- and wind-resistant than their nylon and polyester counterparts, making tricot more preferable in casual or light athletic wear that doesn’t involve extreme weather conditions.
Features: What To Look For
Breathable and waterproof were once juxtaposed concepts when it came to jackets. However, in recent years technology has taken us to new lengths in the protection that our outerwear can offer without sacrificing other important features such as the ability to repel water while wicking away moisture from the inside.
Essentially, for the right price, we can now have everything we’ve ever dreamed of in a jacket. As such, lightweight, waterproof, breathable, packable, insulated, hardshell jackets are no longer relegated to the pages of futuristic sci-fi novels, but rather readily available on athletic store shelves.
Thus, when assessing breathability, the more the better. Have you ever heard the phrase “you sweat, you die?” In the great outdoors, it’s a rule to live by. That’s why all GORE-TEX products are extremely breathable and reduce sweat accumulation during various outdoor pursuits. You never want to feel as though you’re wearing a trash bag, because trash bags are clammy, wet, and uncomfortable. Less breathability creates more moisture, meaning you’ll get colder faster. In alpine climates, this can spell disaster, so opt for moisture-wicking fabrics that will keep you dry inside and out.
Can you free your armpits when you get too hot? Ventilation, like breathability, is key to staying dry and warm when it matters, like at the top of a windy, exposed 14,000-foot peak after a strenuous uphill climb when you’ve stopped moving and have only a few moments before your body heat turns to liquid. Outerwear vents typically consist of zippers in areas that generate the most heat and pockets.
How likely will your jacket be to rip when you rub against a rock or charge through a thicket of trees?
Today’s technology allows outerwear designers to reinforce the most likely to be compromised areas of your jacket without thickening the entire piece, however, outerwear durability continues to vary greatly across brands and styles. In some cases, durability comes at the price of added weight, decreased mobility, and less breathability. But jackets made with 3-layer GORE-TEX Pro fabric are not only engineered to withstand abrasion in rugged environments without compromising comfort but are also extremely breathable, waterproof and windproof.
The amount of durability you need depends on your what, when, how, and where. Springtime trail running, for instance, will likely make durability of little concern to you. On the other hand, if you’re deep in the middle of nowhere, mountaineering for days in frigid conditions, a gaping hole in your jacket could be the difference between life and death.
As a result, all GORE-TEX Pro products for mountain sport activities utilize a new, patent pending, 100 percent ePTFE-based multilayer membrane system. Using Gore Micro Grid Backer Technology, which enhances breathability while minimizing weight, internal abrasion and snag resistance, the patented inner lining features a thin, low-density, fabric backer instead of a tricot knit, allowing your jacket to slide easily over internal layers. Together, multilayer membrane system delivers superior protection against extreme conditions without sacrificing key features.
Unless we’re shopping for an urban environment where fashion precedes function, the ability to move freely is something we’ve grown to expect from every jacket. To allow it to perform its duties and prevent you from getting cold, you don’t want excessive space between yourself and your jacket, but you also don’t want it to feel like a straitjacket. Consider what you’ll be wearing underneath, then select a size, cut, and stretchy materials that will allow you to move as freely as your activities require. You want to be able to lift up your arms without your jacket riding up to expose your lower back and belly and you never want to be inhibited from reaching as far and wide as you need to, such as to the next hold on a rock face.
With advancements in technology, lightweight jackets of today are often nearly weightless. In fact, even fully waterproof, insulated jackets are weighing in at just a few ounces, making them easy to bring along on any adventure. In general, the more features, insulation, and durability you need, the heavier your jacket will be, so choose wisely and be sure your jacket fits the activity you’ll be using it for.
A hooded jacket can protect you from more than just rain, but with added features comes added weight and greater danger of getting caught on stuff. Removable hoods are now also an option and whether or not you want one depends on the elements you intend to play in. If you opt for a hood, be sure that it doesn’t limit your visibility and if your pursuits of choice involve the use of a helmet, check that your jacket hood is designed to fit one inside.
Though a jacket pullover or half-zip jacket can sometimes be a pain to take on and off, it has its perks. Namely, the pullover design has half as much zipper and therefore half as much zipper weight along with a smaller area where water and wind have a greater chance of seeping through. Additionally, if your zipper breaks, as zippers sometimes do, you’ll remain generally protected. In situations where you’re outdoors for longer periods of time or in extreme weather conditions, the fewer holes the better.
Typically at the expense of breathability, mobility, weight, and silence, hardshell jackets tend to provide greater protection from rain and snow, increased durability, and more insulation. In contrast, softshell jackets tend to be quieter, lighter, and more breathable while allowing for greater comfort and freedom of movement.
Unlined vs. Insulated
Will you be riding powder in the backcountry while climbing glaciers or summer mountain biking in the desert? Added insulation usually comes at the cost of weight and mobility, so select accordingly.
Though all jackets are technically packable, the packable jacket design you’re looking for here is one where packability will save you significant space when it’s not on your body. The smaller you can get it to close up on itself and stay that way, the better.
Your Jacket Takeaways
The days of cheap, non-breathable rubber and nylon old are history. Today’s infinitely lighter and more waterproof breathable jackets are constructed of specialized composite materials and a testament to the technological advancements of recent years. Since waterproof and breathable technologies are no longer mutually exclusive, modern jackets come in styles as versatile as the elements you play in.
Remember the what, when, where and how, and unless you’re city slicking, avoid the urge to buy vintage jackets with outdated technology or overly stylish jackets with excessive bells and whistles that pose a risk of getting caught on things.
Whether you’re skiing, climbing, or running away from grizzlies, you’ll want to remain dry, quiet, and free in a durable jacket with a streamlined design. Learn how GORE-TEX products will exceed your every expectation with highly technical new jackets designed for when both you and the weather are all over the place.