Call them packable, call them compressible, or call them puffers —just don’t call them late for dinner, because we’re talking about jackets here, and jackets don’t eat dinner. Also, they don’t have ears, so they couldn’t hear you even if they did. But I digress …
When every ounce and every square inch of pack space counts, you need a jacket that weighs little and packs down small. And, as you probably gleaned, packable jackets are designed to compress, making them ideal for travel, especially for the overland and/or alpine variety the dedicated outdoorsmen prefer. The coats get their distinctive puffy shape due to the many seams that create pockets of insulation. These many compartments allow the jackets to be folded up, packed down, worn around, and stored away, all without their insulation migrating about within the coat. Thus, they provide even, reliable warmth even when treated roughly, something that 1990s-era ski parka of yours just can’t do.
The traits shared by any reliable, high-performance compressible puff jacket will be that compartmentalized, multi-seamed look; the ability to be used for layering (whether worn as an exterior layer or worn under a shell or even under a parka in extreme cold conditions); and, of course, the fact that they can pack down nice and small.
There are as many qualities that separate packable puffer coats as there are those shared in common, though. These include differing types of insulation and fill ratings, different exterior materials, different water resistance properties, and more. While I think the gear I’m recommending here is all great stuff, you owe it to yourself to carefully consider where you’ll be spending your time and what conditions you’ll face before choosing the right jackets for your kit. I can only speak from my own experience, though I’ll posit that I’ve tested this stuff out in some pretty trying circumstances. I own five compressible jackets, which I admit is almost overkill, but the fact is, I genuinely use all of them at different times and for different purposes. I’m recommending three packable jackets today because, for starters, five really is borderline ridiculous, but also because, with these three compressible coats at your disposal, you’ll be ready for everything.
For Extreme Cold: Montane Icarus – $190
Late last year, I spent a few days trekking around in the mountains of Vermont. As you may or may not know, Vermont gets pretty cold in the wintertime. Despite the fact that I was wearing just one layer underneath my Montane Icarus Jacket, and despite the 20-degree temperature and steady breeze at altitude, I spent more time sweating than I did shivering. This thing is just so damn warm.
Frankly, the biggest drawback about the coat is that it’s too warm for many conditions. But that’s a better problem to have than the alternative. Said warmth comes thanks to PrimaLoft ThemoPlume insulation, one of the latest innovations from this world-renowned insulation brand. ThermoPlume is 100-percent synthetic, yet it mimics the insulation properties of down so well that when an independent lab tried to test the stuff against actual natural down, they couldn’t at first tell which was which. (True story, by the way.) In fact, PrimaLoft insulation surpasses down in that it retains 90 percent of its insulation properties even when wet. I could write an entire article about PrimaLoft (partly because I have visited their headquarters and got a behind-the-scenes look at their lab and testing facilities) and maybe I will sometime, but for now, just know that this is insulation you can trust.
The Icarus jacket has two side pockets, a chest pocket, a hood, and more than enough ability to keep you warm. It would serve well as a layering piece even in the Arctic or Antarctic, and is a fine choice as the only piece of warm weather gear for use in milder climates. It doesn’t pack down as small as the other jackets on our list, but it sure is the warmest.
The Most Packable: Patagonia Nano Puff – $199
My Patagonia Nano Puff jacket is the most compressible puffer jacket I own. I have packed it down into its own interior pocket many times, creating a package that takes up about as much room as a can of beer yet that weighs less than twelve ounces. In fact, I just stood up from my desk and stuffed the entire jacket into a front pocket of my jeans just to see if I could. And I have the pictures to prove it, dammit.
The Patagonia Nanopuff is not as warm as the Montane Icarus, and it’s not all that water-resistant, either. But as it’s filled with PrimaLoft insulation, it keeps you warm even when you’re wet. (Provided you didn’t wear a cotton base layer. You didn’t, did you?) With that modest water-resistance, though, comes lots of breathability. And listen, considering this thing weighs only three quarters of a pound and can fit in a pants pocket, it’s pretty warm, OK? It’s the perfect compressible jacket to stuff into your summit pack for that lightweight final ascent or to use as layering underneath a rain shell in moderate conditions.
It’s also made almost entirely from recycled materials, which is nice. This is my go-to jacket for shorter day hikes in the autumn or early spring, and I even wear it when jogging near my home in the winter. Some people may miss the hood here, but just as I often I prefer to have my head unfettered. Alternative: Patagonia’s new Micro Puff Hoody.
To Keep You Dry: Columbia Titanium OutDry Ex Gold – $250
When you see Columbia Sportswear’s proprietary OutDry label on a piece of gear, you can count on it to be 100-percent waterproof. I have worn my OutDry Ex Gold Down Jacket in rainstorms, snowstorms, and while hiking through mist so dense you could hardly see the trail and I remained completely dry within the jacket. Except for the sweat, I will say that with that 100-percent waterproofing comes a reduced breathability, and it is easy to get too toasty in this coat. But as noted with the Montane Icarus, that’s far better than being too cold when you’re out there in the field.
This packable jacket (which I have rolled up and tucked into a hat many times — makes a decent pillow, actually) is a must-have if you need to carry minimal gear while preparing for conditions that might range from cold to wet to both. The waist and hood can be cinched tight to keep in warmth and keep out precipitation, while the soft inner lining keeps you comfortable even in extreme conditions. The insulation comes from 700 fill power goose down, but don’t worry about the OutDry Ex Gold losing its insulation power, because no water is getting near that stuff.
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