From winter climbing to hiking, skiing, and everyday cold-weather use, we’ve found the best synthetic insulated jackets for every activity.
Synthetic insulation avoids the main weakness of down by remaining functional and warm when wet. Additionally, synthetic insulation is significantly cheaper than down and is vegan-friendly. The benefits of synthetic insulation remain tempered by a significant drawback: synthetic materials are heavier and less warm than down.
However, as new insulation innovations hit the market with each passing season, the marginal differences between down and synthetic are quickly disintegrating. Many synthetic-insulated jackets now rank among the best insulative clothing on the market. Period.
The jackets on this list fall into two unique categories. The first of these, the synthetic midlayer category, stresses thermal efficiency for lower-output activities such as walking, belaying, fishing, and so on. Puffy synthetic midlayer jackets prioritize maximum warmth over breathability.
The second type, active-insulation jackets, offers more breathability for high-output pursuits such as backcountry skiing, jogging, and climbing. Synthetic jackets designed for active use are breathable and better at regulating temperature.
We tested synthetic jackets while climbing, hiking, and running errands around town. We then evaluated each jacket based on fit, comfort, and durability. Breathability, pack size, and overall value were also important considerations in our testing process.
We’ve broken the article into two main categories:
- Best Synthetic Insulated Jackets
- Best Active Insulation Jackets
While there isn’t a single jacket for everyone, we’ve highlighted useful features of each of our recommendations to help you find the best jacket for your needs. At the end of our list, be sure to check out our comprehensive synthetic jacket buyer’s guide and frequently asked questions section.
The Best Synthetic Insulated Jackets of 2021-2022
The Arc’teryx Atom AR ($299) has been a favorite of ours for higher-elevation rock climbing for many years. With every new mission, it proves to be a reliable synthetic middle and outer layer. When the winter mountain forecast is just short of arctic, the one-pound (men’s medium) Atom AR goes into the pack. And surprisingly for Arc’teryx, the pricing is competitive.
The fit is comfortably close, which made it layer well under shells while still allowing layers underneath. The articulated sleeves, underarm gussets, and elastic-paneled cuffs kept our wrists covered in all positions. But the torso length is on the shorter side, which made the lower hem rise above our waist during reaches overhead.
The cuff dimensions are on the smaller side, which sealed tiny wrists well, with just enough stretch to be pushed a few inches up the forearms. The front of the collar zips up to cover the mouth, and the single-adjust hood is just big enough for a climbing helmet. The Atom AR served well as a belay jacket, but we wished for at least one internal dump pocket to dry gloves.
The DWR coating has proven extremely durable over the seasons, continuing to bead water long after some of the competitors’ coatings. The Atom AR compresses to the size of a volleyball.
- Insulation: Arc’teryx Coreloft Insulation
- Weight: 1 lb.
- Key features: Athletic fit, helmet-compatible hood, two zippered hand pockets, one zippered chest pocket
- Relatively breathable for such a warm jacket
- Runs a bit small
The Outdoor Research Refuge Jacket ($220) is a full-featured, durable, and versatile insulating midlayer. It also works great as an outer layer for moderate activities down to freezing. Plus, the price makes it a great value.
The Refuge uses Outdoor Research’s own VerticalX synthetic insulation. And although the insulation might have elastic properties, the 20×30-denier polyester ripstop shell is limited in its mechanical stretch.
Combined with the narrower shoulder dimension, the Refuge Hooded Jacket feels a bit tight across the upper back when active, but the jacket fits most torsos extremely well. The arms were a little short for our 34.5-inch arms when reaching forward or overhead. And even though the torso is on the longer side, the lower hem creates a gap when arms are raised overhead.
The VerticalX is one of the warmer synthetic materials on the market. With a light base layer, we could lounge to near freezing comfortably.
The Refuge breathes well, allowing hiking around the freezing point with little moisture accumulation. And the DWR coating fended off light precipitation admirably. All these attributes allow the Refuge to do double duty as an outer layer.
The Refuge will stuff down to the size of a cantaloupe, inside a handwarmer pocket with a carabiner clip.
- Insulation: VerticalX high-loft insulation
- Weight: 1 lb. 4.1 oz.
- Key features: Adjustable hood, zippered hand pockets, zippered chest pocket, internal shove-it pockets, carabiner loop
- Great warmth-to-weight ratio
- Not very stretchy
Best of the Rest
We had subdued impressions when we received the Bight Gear Swelter jacket ($329). It has understated looks, felt bulky, and was in the middle of the road in weight at a verified 1 pound 2 ounces for a men’s medium. But after a few weeks, we found ourselves regularly reaching for this insulated layer for moderate-output activity with temperatures near freezing.
Originally, the Swelter felt almost overfilled with 100% post-consumer recycled Polartec Power Fill. But it soon broke in, softened, and shrunk down considerably. The fit is generous and allows plenty of layering room. And the articulated sleeves are just long enough to keep the wrists covered in all positions.
The Swelter Jacket has a long torso, which kept the gap between pants and base layer covered. The front collar is high enough to cover the nose when fully zipped. Breathability was adequate for hiking near the freezing point. And the Swelter packed down to the size of a volleyball. The 20-denier ripstop nylon shell fabric’s DWR coating beaded light precipitation for the duration of the test, which included several wash cycles.
The most useful and impressive feature was the sleeve design at the wrists. A large patch of Polartec Power Stretch Pro at the openings kept them sealed around wrists of all sizes. But a quick push got the sleeves out of the way for stove operation and such. The generous elasticity allowed the sleeves to go all the way to the elbow if desired.
The Swelter’s feature list also includes an elastic drawcord hem, brushed tricot-lined handwarmer pockets in the low position, a mesh interior stash pocket, a zipped mesh chest pocket, an exterior zipped chest pocket, and an adjustable helmet-compatible hood.
- Insulation: 100g Polartec Power Fill
- Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
- Key features: Helmet-compatible, interior stash pocket, drawcord hem, articulated elbows
- Great for layering
- Thoughtful sleeve design
The Prima Lochi Jacket ($185) comes from a relatively lesser-known brand that seems poised to make a splash in the outdoor market: Beyond Clothing.
Beyond Clothing uses premium Polartec Alpha insulation often found in active insulating pieces (which you’ll see more of below). But we categorized this piece within synthetic jackets because it’s just too warm for many high-aerobic activities in all but the coldest weather. That said, if you’re getting after it in weather around 10 degrees F and below, well, this could be an awesome choice.
If your activity level is a little more dialed back — say slowly scaling mountains, snowshoeing, or walking home from work on a frigid winter day — listen up. The Prima Lochi is quite warm, especially for a layer that breathes well. A reversible jacket, it has 70-denier quilted micro-ripstop fabric with a DWR finish and an attached hood. Alone, it should protect from moderate wind and rain.
Put it under a shell in super-cold weather or heavy wind and precipitation, and you’ll stay toasty warm.
We could see this as a versatile layer for downhill skiing (under a shell) or many mountain pursuits. It’s likely a little on the warm side for backcountry skiing. And the reversible nature adds fabric and weight you’d probably not want to carry for mountaineering.
The brand also doesn’t make a women’s version of the coat at this time.
But as a great standalone jacket that can handle cold weather as a layering piece, it’s a strong contender. And with exceptional fast-drying Polartec Alpha insulation, wonderfully smooth zippers, and good-size pockets, this is a layer worth considering if you spend a lot of time outdoors in cold or wet conditions.
- Insulation: 60g Polartec Alpha
- Weight: 1 lb. 3.8 oz. (size large)
- Key features: Reversible, zippered hand pockets, chest pocket, quick-drying
- Quite warm
- Competitive pricing
- Great for layering
- Doesn’t pack into its own pocket
Patagonia’s Micro Puff Hoody ($299) has drawn accolades and awards from users and media since its release in September 2017. The Micro Puff Hoody is the perfect just-in-case insulating layer that’s barely noticeable in the pack.
The 10-ounce Micro Puff Hoody kept us warm during moderate level activity down into the 30s with just a base layer. And it was surprisingly wind-resistant for such a light garment. Consequently, breathability was on the lower side.
The DWR treatment was exceptional and has continued to bead water after a few wash cycles. The fit is snug, and the sleeves kept our wrists covered — except when our 34.5-inch arms were overhead.
The lack of stretch and the just-to-the waist torso length allowed a little gapping during long reaches. The jacket is very compact, and the slick outer surface makes it ideal for layering underneath shells or heavier layers.
The Micro Puff Hoody will stuff into a handwarmer pocket with a clipping point to just under the size of a cantaloupe. This ability, combined with the best-in-class warmth-to-weight ratio of Patagonia’s PlumaFill, makes it a great always-packed insulator.
The Pertex Quantum GL face fabric proved durable during the test period but does require care, as the wispy fabric is prone to tearing on sharp objects.
Check out our full Patagonia Micro Puff review.
- Insulation: PlumaFill
- Weight: 10 oz. (men’s medium)
- Key features: Helmet-compatible hood, elasticized cuffs, stuffs into its own pocket, plentiful zippered and drop-in pockets
- Expensive compared to similar options
Small features and attention to detail point to the quality construction in this synthetic piece ($199). The stitching, materials, and construction look and feel high-quality. The felt lining in both chest and handwarmer pockets adds a small but much-appreciated touch.
The fit runs a little big, which is worth noting whether you plan to layer this piece or not. Those who do layer will appreciate the Annapurna’s taffeta lining.
As for the performance, Sherpa uses 3M’s Thinsulate. This well-known insulator worked great as temps varied from 40 and windy down to 20 and snowy. Much beyond that, and you’ll want to add a heavier insulator over it.
But the real selling point for this piece, as with much of Sherpa’s gear, is its eye to social and environmental responsibility. The insulation comprises 75% recycled materials.
Meanwhile, the shell is made of 100% recycled polyester, and the garment carries both Bluesign and OEKO-Tex certifications for sustainable practices both in manufacturing and materials. And most notably, every item Sherpa sells helps fund a child’s education in Nepal, from elementary school through college.
- Insulation: 75% recycled Thinsulate
- Weight: Unavailable
- Key features: Adjustable hood, zippered hand pockets, chest pocket, drawcord hem
- Attention paid to sustainability
- Nice looking
- Fit is a bit baggy
Best Active Insulation
In this guide, we’ve delineated insulating midlayers into two categories. The synthetic jacket category stresses protection from the elements, while the active insulation category incorporates more breathability.
Active insulation works best for stop-and-go pursuits when air permeability while moving paired with adequate protection when stopped can prevent the need to add and remove layers. We recommend the following layers for activities such as backcountry and nordic skiing, fat tire biking, jogging, and snowshoeing.
The Proton FL ($259) has a very trim fit with stretchy underarm gussets, articulated elbows, and high elasticity for excellent mobility with no gapping except for the front lower hem in extreme contortions. This is one of the thinner active insulation jackets tested, which made it fit well under heavier layers. And the perforated inner liner has a smooth finish, which facilitated gliding over a base layer.
The Proton FL felt remarkably warm for its minimal bulk. Arc’teryx’s Fortius 20 shell and Octo Loft insulation struck a great balance between air permeability and protection. We stayed well vented when fast hiking at 40 degrees but were still warm during breaks.
The Proton FL has an uninsulated under-the-helmet hood, fleece-lined handwarmer pockets, two chest pockets, and an adjustable lower hem (with a foam strip to keep it tucked under a harness).
As of November 2021, this jacket is out of stock. We’ll update this article as soon as the Proton FL is available for purchase once again.
- Insulation: Octa Loft
- Weight: 11.3 oz.
- Key features: Zippered pockets are accessible while wearing a harness, dual hem adjusters, low-profile helmet-compatible hood
- Highly breathable
- Durable fabrics
- Front zipper tends to come unzipped on its own
The Helly Hansen LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket ($220-280) is a surprising piece. While it looks like a standard insulator at first glance, it’s proven itself incredibly quick-drying and highly breathable in 6 months of hard use and everyday wear.
GearJunkie’s editor-in-chief, Sean McCoy, has worn this jacket downhill skiing, skinning in the backcountry, and as a daily wear jacket in Denver’s winter. He also used it as an insulating layer during strenuous elk hunts in the Rocky Mountains. His verdict? The LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket is a winner.
This layer is light enough to wear under a shell or in conjunction with other layers for a complement to a system made up of a base layer and maybe another light fleece or wool layer. It sits well directly under a shell. It also packs down fairly small (although not as small as down) to stow in a pack.
The LifaLoft Hooded Stretch Insulator Jacket has two average-size zipper pockets above the hips and a zippered chest pocket. Two interior stow pockets and a fitted hood round out this versatile layer.
- Insulation: 80g LifaLoft
- Weight: 1 lb. 1.9 oz.
- Key features: Inner zipper storm flap, zippered hand and chest pockets, fixed hood with elastic hem
- Quick to dry
- A touch on the heavy side
Best of the Rest
Black Diamond has been churning out lots of high-quality jackets in the past few years. The stretchy, durable, and breathable First Light ($260) is no different. In the brand’s own words, this jacket is the ideal “start-stop” piece. While ski touring or multi-pitch climbing, the First Light provides warmth when you need it and airy breathability when you don’t.
This jacket has a softshell outer material that is relatively snag-resistant and impressively hardy. Though the First Light isn’t the lightest option on this list, it comes with a few clutch features including plentiful mobility, a large chest pocket, and a performance-oriented hood.
If you’re looking for even more breathability, be sure to check out the First Light Hybrid, which features merino insulation on its backside.
- Insulation: 60g PrimaLoft Silver Active
- Weight: 1 lb. 0.7 oz.
- Key features: Large chest pocket, elasticated hood, softshell outer material
- Highly breathable
- Great for “start-stop” activities such as climbing and backcountry skiing
- Not the best warmth-to-weight ratio
The Rime Flex ($239) has a very snug fit when still, but class-leading elasticity allowed free movement. The sleeves and lower hem were a tad short for overhead reaches, but the fit around the shoulders felt ample regardless of arm movements.
The Rime Flex is on the warmer and bulkier side of the active insulation category. The Pertex Quantum Air shell and OTI Stretch insulation provided breathability and warmth that worked well for loaded hiking down to the upper 20s.
It proved warm during breaks, even in moderate winds. The jacket still performed well into the 30s as long as the main zip was vented. We found it excellent for lounging into the lower 50s.
The Rime Flex has two handwarmer pockets in the high position, two chest pockets, adjustable lower hem, dual-zipper pulls, and an insulated helmet-compatible hood.
- Insulation: 60g Toray stretch insulation
- Weight: 12.8 oz.
- Key features: Zippered front pockets are compatible with pack straps and climbing harnesses, elastic cuffs, adjustable hem
- Very warm for an active midlayer
- Thoughtful features
- A bit bulky
The Ortles Hybrid Tirolwool Celliant Jacket ($200) has a contoured, body-hugging fit with a long torso and long sleeves for coverage in all body positions. Elastic underarm gussets and stretchy softshell sleeves enhance mobility. This jacket was one of the thinner and less-bulky active insulation pieces, making it layer well under heavier garments.
The wool-and-polyester hybrid insulation provided warmth for the core during higher-output activities down to freezing. And the nylon front and back panels blocked wind. The softshell sleeves and sides vented well.
But this hybrid construction made the arms and sides feel much colder than the rest of the body when windy or stopped. The Ortles Hybrid Tirolwool Celliant Jacket was the most comfortable in shoulder season conditions for moderate-intensity pursuits when the core versus arms insulating contrast wasn’t as dramatic.
- Insulation: Tirol wool insulation (60% polyester, 40% wool)
- Weight: 14.2 oz.
- Key features: Tailored and insulated hood, zippered outer pockets, inside pocket doubles and compression bag, Bluesign-approved fabric
- Layers well
- Low profile
- Arms and sides can feel chilly due to minimal insulation
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Synthetic Insulated Jacket
Synthetic insulation has become a popular alternative to down over the years, and the market now offers a wide range of high-quality synthetic-filled jackets. On this list, we’ve broken our recommendations into two major categories: puffy jackets that prioritize warmth and active-wear jackets that prioritize breathability.
Beyond these two vast categories, there are many other factors to consider as you narrow down your synthetic jacket search. In this buyer’s guide, we aim to prepare you to make an informed and confident purchase.
What Is Synthetic Insulation?
Synthetic insulation is designed to replicate the qualities of down. It’s made from polyester fibers arranged into intertwined filaments that trap warm air in millions of tiny pockets.
Compared to down, synthetic insulation has both pros and cons. Importantly, synthetic insulation is able to retain its warmth when wet. This is a huge advantage over down and a key reason why synthetic is often preferred in wet and cold environments.
Unfortunately, synthetic insulation cannot quite match the miraculous warmth-to-weight ratio of down. In other words, synthetic jackets need to be a little heavier to achieve the same level of warmth.
Take a few moments to envision how you’ll use your jacket. Do you need something for winter climbing or big-mile backpacking? Or will this be a jacket that does it all?
There’s no right or wrong answer. But getting clear on your intended use will help you prioritize certain factors such as breathability and durability.
We’ve divided our synthetic jackets into two main categories, and the main difference between them is breathability.
Generally, there’s a tradeoff between breathability and waterproofness. Fully waterproof jackets are less breathable than active-use softshell options.
If you’ll regularly wear your jacket as an outer layer, it’s worth investing in a bit more waterproofing. But if you’ll use it mainly for high-output activities, look for a jacket that maximizes breathability.
Durability is particularly important if you plan to wear your jacket as an outer layer in rough and rugged environments. Most jackets on this list stand up great to the rigors of bushwacking or climbing on rough rock. But some need a bit more care than others.
If you want to thrash about without concern, something like the thinner Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody may not be the best choice.
Sure, you plan to wear the jacket, not just pack it around. But for those times you need to ditch a layer or bring it just in case, the pack size and weight matter. Synthetic doesn’t tend to pack as small as down (although synthetic fill technology is rapidly improving).
Key Features: Pockets, Hoods, and More
Depending on your intended use and general needs, you’ll want to choose a jacket with the right array of features.
Pockets, hoods, adjustable hems, and elastic cuffs are all examples of common synthetic jacket features. Each of these has a unique purpose and value.
Pockets come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. From zippered hand-warmer pockets to low-profile chest pockets, the recommended jackets on this list offer a wide range of configurations.
Many synthetic jackets are available in either a hoodie or non-hoodie style. The best choice for you depends on your use. Hooded jackets are great in frigid or stormy conditions and for people who tend to feel cold in the ears, head, and face. Unhooded options are generally best for everyday use around town or in-bounds resort skiing.
At the end of the day, you want to get a good deal. More than just the lowest price tag, a jacket’s value stems from its usefulness and bang for the buck.
Carefully consider how you’ll use your jacket and then look for features that fit your needs. Helmet-compatible hoods, pockets, and materials become important considerations.
What Are Synthetic Jackets Used For?
Synthetic jackets are used in all sorts of situations where comfortable and reliable warmth is needed. From the ski hill to the jogging path, synthetic jackets are a modern and effective tool in the fight to stay warm.
Compared to down jackets, synthetic jackets tend to be slightly heavier and less vulnerable to moisture-related warmth loss. Elite mountaineers use synthetic jackets, and so do city dwellers on their way to buy groceries.
On this list, we’ve divided our recommended jackets into two unique categories. For maximum warmth, check out our synthetic insulated jacket category. If you’re looking for a jacket that can regulate your temperature and breathe during active use, check out our active insulation category.
What's the Difference Between Synthetic and Down?
Compared to down, synthetic insulation is slightly heavier, slightly cheaper, and less likely to lose its effectiveness in a rainstorm. Unlike down, synthetic insulation is able to retain its warmth when wet.
When dry, however, synthetic insulation cannot quite match the miraculous warmth-to-weight ratio of down. In other words, synthetic jackets need to be a little heavier to achieve the same level of warmth.
Do I Need a Synthetic Jacket for Skiing?
Many skiers wear synthetic insulated jackets as a midlayer beneath their waterproof outer shells. On cold days at the resort, a warm and puffy jacket can be the difference between comfort and misery.
For backcountry skiing, breathable layers are the way to go. During uphill hikes along the skin track, you’ll want layers that can let some of your body heat escape in order to stay cool and prevent sweating.