There's nothing better than feeling that first crispy bite of the cold season: Temps drop to the perfect sending range and tourists go back to their day jobs, meaning more routes for the rest of us. From the chill of fall through the frigidness of winter, while belaying at a windy crag or rappelling off a tall multipitch, proper insulation is key. Most of these puffies are best suited for rock climbing belays and frosty campsites, but several pieces would also work well for mountaineering and ice climbing. Twenty-five new-for-fall 2011 jackets went through our testers to reveal the best of the best in two categories: midlayers and belay parkas. Here are the eight that came out on top.
This 850-fill down pullover shined for being extremely simple and light, but still managed to keep our tester warm throughout fall in Colorado, including retrieving a cache at the Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park in 30° temps. It’s a slim-profile jacket: great as a midlayer in combination with a shell. The elastic sleeve cuffs were a great touch (Stoic calls them “wrist gaiters”); our tester liked how these kept the sleeves back from your hands for climbing. “When you want to sink a hand jam,” he said,” this would certainly translate to better durability as well.” The stripped-down style (no hood, one large front kangaroo pocket, half buttons instead of zip) made this jacket highly packable and very light (8 oz.), as well as inexpensive. Plus, it was easy to get on and off, a problem with some pullovers. Available in men’s and women’s.
- Light and small but very warm
- Simple and smart design
FEATHERED FRIENDS DAYBREAK HOODY
Three testers gave this jacket top marks for everything from weight (8.6 oz.) to warmth, saying, “It is extremely light—it just seems to float around you,” and “I was instantly warm when I put it on.” Perfect for moderate winter and fall conditions (it was worn in temps from 30°F to 60°F with complete comfort), this 900-fill down jacket would also stack up as a great midlayer thanks to a thinner profile. Plus, it’s not so puffy or techy that you stick out as “that” guy in a bar. Fit was versatile, too. Our short-torsoed, 6’1” male tester was happy with the fit, a common problem area for him, while our longtorsoed 5’5” female tester lauded the fit as well. “This jacket is a good length for me, and the sleeves are perfect,” she said. A deep and elastic-lined hood and unlined pockets made this jacket rise to the top for one tester. Even after constant smushing into a climbing pack and an initial washing, the Daybreak fully lofted back and kept all the down in its original place for a smooth, even texture. A sticky zipper for all testers was the one caveat, but it managed to hold up throughout testing. Men’s and women’s.
- Excellent warmth-to-weight ratio
- Good fit for a variety of body types
MAMMUT BROAD PEAK HOODY
From cragging to ultimate Frisbee to climbing a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado, our tester wore this jacket almost every day for a few weeks and had nothing but praise for its versatility and overall functionality. He didn’t overheat on easy approaches in 60°F weather, but stayed perfectly warm while hiking above treeline on Quandary Peak, Colorado, in windy 32°F conditions. He called it “inviting and warm, and really fluffy, too.” The 750-fill down kept the jacket slim, and a pretty tight fit on the medium had our 6’2”, 185-lb. tester using the jacket mostly as a midlayer, which means it would wear well under a shell for climbing ice. An included stuff sack packs it down to the size of a little camp pillow (which it can double as), but it refluffed perfectly with no migration of the down. Women’s version is the Miva Hoody.
- Functional and stylish
- Wide temperature range
HELLY HANSEN ODIN ISOLATOR
As the only synthetic piece to outperform some of the down jackets in the review, the Odin Isolator (men’s and women’s) stood out for warming up quickly on cold approaches, biking in the wind, and plugging gear on trad. With Primaloft insulation, the jacket was slim-fitting, and it sprung back to normal size and shape after washing. The smart fit included a longer back and sleeves that cover the tops of your hands, providing protection while climbing, and there is both a hooded and hoodless version. A pitch-black and windy rappel off Yellow Spur in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, in late fall was no match for the Isolator, as it managed to keep our tester warm and happy. Durable 15-denier ripstop nylon held up to plenty of rock abrasion and canine claws without any tears. Synthetic insulation means it stays warm when wet, making it great for ice climbing and mountaineering situations.
- Techy, sleek appearance
- Solid midlayer or light outerlayer
EDDIE BAUER/FIRST ASCENT DOWNLIGHT HOODED
This 800-fill down hoody shined in the durability category throughout testing, thanks to 20-denier ripstop nylon with a DWR finish. Our tester said, “I scratched it up, threw it down, climbed in it, stepped on it, and belayed in it. It held up completely.” Another favorite feature was the well-tailored hood, which fit over a helmet and a bare head without feeling baggy. Despite whatever notions you might have about Eddie Bauer’s old-school style, this puffy (men’s and women’s, shown) was stylish, modern, sleek, and trim. It was short enough for our 5’11” tester to wear a harness comfortably without exposing his midriff due to an extended back, and it never felt too restrictive. It was great for temps from 30°F to 45°F, but anything colder seemed to push its boundaries.
- Stood up to punishment without a scratch
- Great hood and overall design
OUTDOOR RESEARCH MAESTRO
“If you are a rock climber, this is the puffy jacket to get,” one tester claimed, thanks to climbing-specific features. “This jacket has the best designed pockets of any down jacket on the market, bar none!” It has two zippered security pockets, two hand-warmer pockets, a full-length back pocket above your bum for stashing stuff, and the coup de grace—two inside mesh pockets for stashing your shoes and keeping them warm while you wait to climb. From Colorado to New York, this 800-plus-fill jacket was an absolute winner in the comfort department. Our tester said, “Wearing this jacket is like living in a sleeping bag.” This puffy could also work well as the piece you throw over your layers when belaying for ice climbing. Size down for a snugger fit. Men’s only.
- Smart pockets and hood design
- Sized larger to be worn over layers
“This thing is a beast and amazing as a belay parka, heating you up the second you put it on,” said a male tester of the 850-fill down Bitterroot. This jacket had a higher loft than others in the test due to additional baffling that keeps a higher concentration of down in each baffle (men’s and women’s baffling were articulated appropriately for body shape: Men’s has a slight taper from shoulders to hips, and women’s comes in at the waist and flares at the hips). It didn’t layer well under anything, but it was great as an outer layer for low-output activities and belaying. The DWR-coated Pertex Quantum GL outer fabric “is a bit flashy for my taste, but it was still my go-to jacket for nights on the porch or out at the bar,” our female tester said. A tricky double zipper was great for over the harness, but a bit fi nicky when you’re just trying to zip it up. Micro fleece–lined pockets were warm, but tended to snag on gnarly chalked climber hands.
- Perfect belay parka
- Articulated, full-coverage hood
High Puff Factor
This jacket was the puffiest in our review, with a bit of a Michelin Man look, despite the relatively low down fill power of 700. It packed down to about the size of a football, and the loft bounced right back after being packed away for several hours. The hood was also puffy, which our tester said was his favorite feature; it zipped right up to the nose and kept his noggin toasty, with or without a beanie. This jacket had the burliest zipper of the test, which can be a problematic feature for puffies and is often the first thing to break. Bonus feature of this jacket: With Pertex Microlight on the outside and inside, along with a thoughtful design, it’s reversible, so you get two jackets in one, and you can put climbing shoes in the pockets for warmth. An athletic fit was appropriate for our long-armed, 6’, and broad-shouldered tester, and hems lined with elastic kept hood, waist, and sleeves in place during moderate movement.
- Reversible, durable
- Bomber zipper