Best Synthetic Sweaters of 2017
In this category, we're taking a look at sweater-weight jackets with synthetic insulation. This weight and insulation style suits a range of situations and applications—under a shell layer for warmth in particularly nasty winter spitting weather, as an insulation layer between climbs at your local climbing area, as an extra layer to stow in your backpack on a shoulder-season hike, or even as a warmth layer for the city.
The jackets in this test set were chosen with an aim of comparability-each is roughly in the same weight, warmth, and quality range. These six jackets all straddle the boundaries of a number of different application and can all be used as both layering pieces and standalone jackets, which increases their applicability. These jackets could all be seen on a backcountry skiing trip, on a cold night in the city, on a shoulder season backpacking or camping trip, or on an alpine climb.
One trend that continues to develop in the technical jacket market space is the chase after that dreamed all-in-one-jacket. Shells are changing, with the comfort and performance divide between soft and hard shells narrowing. Insulating puffies are not resistant to this change, which has been driven by technology. The down-is-worthless-when-wet adage is being challenged with chemical treatments such as Downtek water resistant down that doesn’t sacrifice fill-power ratings. Synthetic puffies are changing too; there seems to be a greater push towards ‘active’ synthetic puffies, with insulation like Polartec Alpha pushing the boundaries on breathability and flexibility of warm jackets. These active jackets are meant as stand-alones, so in this test we focused on jackets which could straddle the stand-alone / layering piece divide.
The Best in Class title goes to the Arc’teryx Atom AR. High scores in the Warmth, Quality, and Comfort categories added up, and this technical layer ended up with a rating of 90—excellent. It also happens to be the most expensive jacket in the test set, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in this category the adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ holds true. This was a close test, with only a nine point spread between the Atom and the bottom scorer—the Thermoball Full Zip from The North Face. The Thermoball is well constructed but was hurt by a voluminous torso cut and a relatively high price tag.
Prices for the five jackets we compared in this test ranged from $100 (OR Cathode and Cotopaxi Kusa Jacket) to $279 (Arc’teryx Atom AR), and weights ranged from 241g (Montbell UL Thermawrap) to 596g (Helly Hansen Odin Flow Jacket). With a score of 85 and a price tag of $100, the OR Cathode takes the Best Value title, while the Helly Hansen Odin Flow Jacket at $250 scores pretty low. Three jackets employ Primaloft insulation, one has Coreloft, and one jacket insulates with a llama wool/poly blend.
Tests took place throughout the winter and spring across the western United States, including the East Side of the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe, the Cascades of Central Oregon and the high desert to the east, and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, between sea level and about 10,000 feet. This geographic range allowed us to subject these jackets to a wide diversity of conditions—from a bitter cold night in the Buttermilk Boulders high above Bishop, CA to a cold, dense bank of fog in the Pacific Northwest.
Scott Morris is a backcountry guide with Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides. He spends his summers leading long backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada and his winters driving around the American West and going on scenic trail runs.