The big test: Insulated jackets reviewed (2018)

If you want to stop on a mountain to drink in the view, an insulated jacket will take away the chill – but should you choose a fleece jacket, a down jacket or a synthetic insulated jacket? Trail headed to the hills to find out...

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The runners up


Haglofs Heron Hood £100

Tester: Tim Butcher

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  • Material Pontetorto Technostretch fleece

  • Men’s S-XL

  • Women’s XS-XL

  • Weight 425g (men’s XL)

The fleece fabric on this jacket has a good abrasion-resistant finish on the outside, while on the inside it’s quite fluffy to add more warmth. The hood was the best fitting out of the fleece jackets that I have used too, and so overall it feels very comfortable and ideal to wear as part of a layering system. However it is quite a lightweight fleece, so its use is limited to that of a mid layer in warmer weather. On cold days or for winter in Scotland I’d need either a thicker main insulation layer or an additional insulation layer to stay warm. I also noticed the wind driving through this layer easily. The price makes it feel like a luxury for something that won’t keep you warm year-round. But this lightweight fleece is ideal for walking in the UK from late spring through to early autumn.

Pros

Price, weight, packed size, great hood, works well as a warm-weather mid layer.

Cons

Not warm enough for colder spring or autumn days and so extra layers will be needed regularly and more so in winter.

Buy it if

You want an excellent fleece jacket for walking in warmer conditions.


Rab Alpha Flux £140

Tester: Jon Bennett

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  • Materials Polartec Alpha synthetic insulation

  • Men’s S-XXL

  • Women’s 8-16

  • Weight 328g (M)

Polartec Alpha insulation has a core of lofted knit fibres, so it traps more air than fleece, and offers far more insulation, which makes it ideal as an additional layer to throw on over other layers when the temperature dips. It’s also exceptionally breathable, therefore it works well under waterproof layers. This jacket also gets stretch side panels, giving it a closer fit than other jackets and again making it ideal as part of a layering system. I also liked the way the hood fitted and moved with my head. It’s not the warmest option though. Yes it is great as an additional layer when moving, which is what it is designed for, but when sitting around I’d need extra insulation on colder days. It’s not that windproof either, so expect to need a wind or waterproof shell over the top to stay warm.

Pros

Weight and packed size, price, great hood, works well as part of a layering system when moving.

Cons

Warmer than fleece, but you’ll need extra insulation in cold weather, especially if not moving.

Buy it if

You want extra insulation to wear as part of a layering system while moving.


Arc’teryx Cerium SL Hoody £270

Tester: Graham Thompson

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  • Materials 850 fill power down, Coreloft synthetic insulation on shoulders and cuffs

  • Men’s S-XXL

  • Women’s XS-L

  • Weight 236g (men’s L)

A new jacket using very efficient 850 fill power down, which ensures you get an extremely low weight. But importantly you also get synthetic Coreloft insulation in areas that may collect moisture, which would impact on the down performance, so this is placed on the cuffs and shoulders and also at the top of the front zip. Another huge benefit of this jacket is that you get rear cord volume adjustment on the hood, so it fits really well and moves effortlessly with the head. There is a hem drawcord too – a feature many jackets lack. You also get two main pockets. The main drawbacks are the price and it’s not quite the warmest option. But if you can afford it (and another jacket for colder winter days) this is a great jacket for year-round use.

Pros

Weight and packed size, warm enough for mild conditions, great hood, additional synthetic insulation.

Cons

Price, not quite warm enough in winter, no cuff adjustment, slightly short body compared to others.

Buy it if

You want a very lightweight insulated jacket for spring to autumn and on the mildest winter days.



The top three


Berghaus Privitale 2.0 Extrem Fleece Hoodie £90

Tester: Tim Butcher

This is a modern, practical fleece jacket, but is it warm enough to beat the chill you’ll experience at the lofty heights of a mountaintop lookout?

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  • Material Stretch polyester fleece

  • Men’s S-XXL

  • Women’s n/a

  • Weight 593g (XL)

It’s good

The Privitale is an immensely comfortable and warm jacket at a great price for what you get. Its stretch polyester fleece fabric has a tight knit on the outside to improve wear, while inside the looser knit increases warmth and comfort. The fit is close but as the fleece is very stretchy it does not restrict movement. The hood is particularly well-designed with a close fit, and turns with the head easily. The baffle behind the zip, long sleeves with thumb loops and generous back length protected my 6ft 2in body well to keep out draughts and retain body warmth. A great benefit over many jackets is that the pockets are large and easily accessed while wearing a rucksack. Also as fleece is very breathable this works great under a waterproof jacket as part of a layering system. The Privitale is versatile enough to be worn over a base layer and under a waterproof jacket, so it can be used as your main insulated layer or as back-up insulation.

However

Whilst I’d be happy with this as my only mid-layer on most hill days, I’d still want something a little warmer and with more wind resistance, such as a down or synthetic insulated jacket, for back-up in autumn or winter, particularly for camping on the hill or for bothy nights or for really snowy Scottish mountains days. While I like the price tag, I’d be happy to pay a few extra pounds for a hem drawcord to lock out drafts and retain the great fit if I was lucky enough to lose a few pounds in weight on a trip. But the main drawback here is the weight and bulk of this jacket compared to warmer jackets, as any back-up jacket that is spending much of the day in the rucksack needs to be as light and compact as possible, and others are better in this department. Sadly there is no women’s option either.

Verdict

For me it’s the perfect mid layer, providing reassuring warmth and ease of movement at a great price, but others are lighter and offer more weather resistance.

  • Features 4/5

  • Packability 3/5

  • Weatherproofness 3/5

  • In use 4/5

  • Value for money 5/5

  • OVERALL SCORE 76%


Montane Icarus / Phoenix £150 

Tester: Jon Bennett

Does the latest Primaloft Thermoplume insulation make this jacket ideal for taking on the hill when extra warmth is needed at a reasonable price?

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  • Material Primaloft Thermoplume

  • Men’s S-XXL (Icarus)

  • Women’s 8-16 (Phoenix)

  • Weight 605g (M)

It’s good

New for 2018 and made from the latest Primaloft Plume insulation, which is said to offer similar levels of performance to 550 fill power down. Not surprisingly perhaps, this was very warm – in fact the warmest jacket we tested. The outer Pertex Quantum Eco nylon shell fends off wind and moisture well, and is also reasonably breathable so you don’t get sweaty. This jacket feels pretty warm and cosy, with a good length, well-insulated hood, and elasticated cuffs and hem to lock out draughts. The two main handwarmer pockets are well placed to allow access even when a rucksack is worn, and there’s a third useful GPS receiver-sized zipped chest pocket. So this jacket is ideal for stopping for a brew on the hill or sitting around a bothy or campsite, with the added bonus that the synthetic insulation won’t be impacted by dampness as much as a down jacket. It’s as warm as a down jacket too, but with a far less chilling price.

However

It costs more than a fleece and is quite heavy and bulky too. So while great in terms of warmth, you may think twice about carrying it regularly in your rucksack. It’s not as breathable as a more open-knit fleece either, so isn’t so great for walking with. Also, while the fit was good, the hood doesn’t move quite as well with my head as the hoods on some other jackets, and the cuffs didn’t fit as neatly as they could. As there is no Velcro adjustment on the cuffs there is no way of tightening or loosening the fit here to allow the cuff to fit over gloves. The hem is elasticated, but again has no additional adjustment. This jacket is great in terms of warmth but it could be too warm for mild autumn days, so with its extra weight and bulk this is one for colder days only.

Verdict

Great for stopping out on a cold, British winter mountain, with a price that’s more attractive than a down equivalent. But the weight and packed size are drawbacks.

  • Features 4/5

  • Packability 3/5

  • Weatherproofness 5/5

  • In use 4/5

  • Value for money 4/5

  • OVERALL SCORE 80%


Mountain Equipment Arete Hooded £160  

Tester: Graham Thompson

Down insulation is extremely efficient, so is this lightweight jacket the best option for stashing in your rucksack as a back-up jacket?

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  • Material 700 fill power down

  • Men’s S-XXL

  • Women’s 8-16 

  • Weight 370g (M)

It’s good

The use of 700 fill power down inside this jacket ensures that it is very lightweight. It also packs down small, and both of these features make it great for stashing in a rucksack just in case you need it on the top of the mountain. The level of insulation is less than the heavier, synthetic Montane jacket featured here, but more than fleece, making this a great general-purpose jacket for autumn and spring. And for me it is just about warm enough for mild winter conditions too. The outer is a lightweight Helium 20 nylon which fends off wind better than fleece and keeps some moisture away from the down. The hood and cuffs are only elasticated, but you do get a hem drawcord so you can fine-tune the fit more easily than some others. There are just two main pockets and these are placed low to make them good for hand-warming. The price is also more attractive than some other down jackets you could consider!

However

For the depths of winter you may need something even warmer if camping in snow or sitting around for long periods high on a snowy mountain. As the Arete uses down, lots more care is needed to ensure this jacket stays dry, as its insulating performance drops off dramatically if it does get wet. Also, of course, this is not as breathable as a more open knit fleece, so it’s not one for wearing while walking. While the fit is okay, the hood disappoints in this area and did not turn easily with my head. Also some adjustment on the hood and cuffs would be a real benefit. The pockets are okay, but again on other jackets these are placed higher or are bigger or there is a third chest pocket. There are some niggles with this jacket and you can get lower-priced fleece or synthetic jackets if cash is tight. 

Verdict

Ideal for stowing in a pack year-round just in case it gets chilly, but some lower-priced jackets are warmer or perform better if damp.  

  • Features 4/5

  • Packability 4/5

  • Weatherproofness 4/5

  • In use 5/5

  • Value for money 4/5

  • OVERALL SCORE 84%

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Rab Ventus (2015)

Features

The Rab Ventus provides just a little more wind and water resistance than a fleece but lacks the insulation of one. It has two main pockets placed high on the body, plus a hood. There is hem drawcord to keep out draughts, while the cuffs are elasticated but there is no hood adjustment. It’s minimalist compared to most soft shells for sure. 4/5

Fit

Men’s sizes are S-XXL and women’s sizes are 8-16, with the jacket fitting closely without being tight or restrictive. The hood even fitted okay due to there being stretch in the material, which allowed it to hug my head and move well. The cuffs too – despite only having elasticated cuffs – fitted well, and the cuffs and hem didn’t budge when I raised my arms. 5/5

Comfort

The Rab Ventus is a thin, stretchy, wind-resistant top with minimal insulation. Its comfort level is high, but it is not very warm, so in summer you could wear it over a base layer but in autumn you’ll need a thin fleece or thick base layer system. Not as water- or wind-resistant as other soft shells, but for walkers who carry a waterproof all the time this may be a benefit. 4/5

In use

This is superb at what it does, which is provide a stretchy, comfortable, slightly wind- and water-resistant layer. The pockets have very easy access, and are nice and large. The hood is great too. My problem is I’m not sure how useful it is. Some people will love it while others will prefer a fleece or thicker soft shell. But it is unique in what it offers so well, and for that reason it demands a look. 4/5

Value

The price is good but not stunning as the Rab Ventus uses much thinner fabric than higher-priced options, but it’s a better design than similar options. 4/5

Verdict

The Rab Ventus is a thin and stretchy spin on the soft shell concept that is ideal for climbing, backpacking, and fast and light activity. 4.2/5

Review by Graham Thompson

First published in Trail magazine September 2015

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Paramo Bora Smock (2015)

The Bora takes a different approach to soft shell. It is essentially a thickened-up, over-the-head windshirt, so it is exceedingly light (just 178g) and very packable. By itself, it is highly windproof (the peaked hood is especially good) and very breathable, thanks to two vertical venting zips up the abdomen. But the Bora has more to it than that. It is designed to be used with a Bora fleece (£100) and Nikwax proofing treatments. Put on both Boras and rub the latter into this, and you have a fully waterproof, windproof and breathable combo that is also extremely light. It’s a very clever proposition, and if you buy the combo together (for £165), you can potentially tick off all your spring/summer mid and outer-layer needs for the same price as a good waterproof alone. It’s perhaps too light for really nasty rain, but it will deflect the average squally summer shower with ease.

Specification

Weight: 178g

Fabric: Nikwax Windproof

Colours: Blue, green

Women’s version: Yes (Zonda)

Contact: 01892 786444

www.paramo.co.uk

Verdict

A good soft shell in itself, but even better value when added to its fleece brother and some waterproofing gel.

Originally reviewed by Nick Hallissey in Country Walking April 2015

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Regatta Nebraska (2015)

I’d forgotten the price when testing this and was so surprised post-walk that I had to triple-check the figure. Surely there’s a ‘one’ missing before the ‘four’? Nope. A simple £40 it is. It was already praiseworthy, but in light of that, it’s hard to beat. The Nebraska performs wonderfully. On a late winter walk it proved resistant enough to hold out strong, chilly gusts and gallantly fended off a hail shower. The cinchable hem and adjustable cuffs allow you to really batten down the hatches in bad weather, and when the sun comes out, you can loosen them to stay fresh and cool. My only beef comes with the pockets: two handwarmers and no chest, so if you’re wearing a backpack with a hip-belt, pocket access is zero. And the inner lining of one pocket pulled away after a couple of outings, so it is perhaps unlikely to be the longest-lived jacket in your cupboard.

Specification

Weight: 410g

Fabric:  Polyester, elastane

Colours: Black; lime/turquoise; orange/purple; coral/pink

Men’s version: Yes

Contact: 0161 866 0579

www.regatta.com

Verdict

Great protection at a real bargain price, but build quality may be somewhat compromised.

Originally reviewed by Sarah Ryan in Country Walking April 2015

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Craghoppers Pro-Lite (2015)

It’s rare – very rare – that our reviews could start and finish with the cheapest item, but Craghoppers’ new Pro-Lite really does give you the whole story of a soft shell jacket in a nutshell. It’s lightweight, sharply-cut, very breathable and completely windproof. It works up a mountain, in a country park and on the high street, and it looks good in all three landscapes too. It’s part of a new mini-range called Pro-Lite, in which the complete outfit of jacket, fleece, trousers and base-layer weigh in at less than 1kg. That implies this might be a rather skimpy jacket for emergencies only, but it’s no such thing: it really is a fully-functioning item for all-day use. Plus you get luxuries like handwarmer pockets, a good-sized chest pocket and an internal pocket. It isn’t as water-repellent as some of the more advanced jackets on the market but in all other respects, this is pretty much the definition of a good soft shell jacket.

Specification

Weight: 422g

Fabric: Polyester/elastane

Colours: Navy, black

Women’s version: Fleece only

Contact: 0844 811 1022

www.craghoppers.com

Verdict

Well-featured, practical, adaptable and good-looking, at a price that is too good to resist.

Originally reviewed by Nick Hallissey in Country Walking April 2015

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Regatta Breaktrail (2015)

Features

The Regatta Breaktrail’s biggest benefit here is the price of just £25, but at such a low cost it isn’t surprising to find that hillgoing features are limited. There’s a short front zip, only one pocket and no hood. But the zip does have an inside baffle to block wind and prevent chin scraping. The pocket is large enough for a small guidebook, GPS receiver or compass. 3/5

Fit

The Breaktrail is available in S-XXXL for men and 8-20 for women, which is a very wide size range compared to most other options. The fit is close rather than tight or baggy, and is well-sized for wearing over a base layer or under a soft shell or waterproof jacket as part of a layering system. The elastication at hem and cuffs has no adjustment but fitted well. 3/5

Comfort

The Regatta Breaktrail’s material is a soft 200 series polyester fleece that offers excellent breathability while providing good windproofness and insulation for general year-round use. Thermally this is ideal over a base layer all year round, but in winter you might want to add an extra layer under or over it for the chillier days. As the front zip is short you can’t vent it too much. 4/5

In use

I like to have a pair of large chest pockets and a hood on a fleece, which the Regatta Breaktrail doesn’t have. So for me this is either something to wear under a waterproof or other fleece jacket, or for use as a main fleece for moving fast when you don’t want pockets or hoods. The chest pocket is too small for OS maps. 3/5

Value

The value is superb but you aren’t getting many features, so you must decide if it offers enough for your needs. 5/5

Verdict

The Regatta Breaktrail is low-priced with minimal features that are great as part of a layering system, but as a main fleece others have benefits. 3.6/5

Review by Graham Thompson

First published in Trail magazine March 2015

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Sprayway Cerberus (2015)

Features

The Sprayway Cerberus has instant hill appeal, thanks to a hood and two large pockets on the chest with easy access even when wearing a rucksack with a wide hipbelt. The front zip is full-length and gets a baffle on the inside to block draughts while the top of the zip is protected to prevent chin scrape. Thumb loops are provided at the cuffs, but there is no hem drawcord. 4/5

Fit

The Sprayway Cerberus comes in S-XXL for men and 8-18 for women. The fit isn’t as close and neat as higher-priced equivalent designs. It’s longer than many fleece jackets and the hood fits reasonably closely despite the fact it has no drawcords. The slightly loose fit allows this to be worn over other insulating layers, while also being comfortable under a waterproof jacket. 4/5

Comfort

This fleece is made from Exotherm 100 polyester, which is a very closely woven material, so it blocks a little more wind than some other more open fleece options. It’s not quite as thick as some fleece jackets, but still offers a good year-round comfort level. Not having a hem drawcord is a drawback, though, as it potentially makes this area draughty. 4/5

In use

The ‘two chest pockets with a hood’ design is perfect. You can put guidebooks or maps in those pockets and maintain access to them easily even while wearing a rucksack with a wide hipbelt. The hood works well and some people will like the thumb loops. My only niggle is that the lack of a hem drawcord, plus a slightly

baggy fit, equal draughts. 4/5

Value

This is a great price for the features and design, and while not perfect it offers a great value-for-money option. 5/5

Verdict

The Sprayway Cerberus is a very practical fleece jacket for the hillwalker. While not perfect it’s easily the best option here if you can’t pay more than £75. 4.2/5

Review by Graham Thompson

First published in Trail magazine March 2015

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Vaude Basodino Hooded Jacket (2014)

The Vaude Basodino Hooded Jacket is made from Bluesign-approved fabric, which means the material is environmentally friendly. The fabric is also nice and stretchy and provides a good level of insulation, which makes it ideal for hillwalking. Put the jacket on and it instantly feels comfortable and really hugs the body, but without being restrictive. There are three pockets. The small chest pocket is placed quite high, so if you put a large item in here it does run the risk of sneaking under your rucksack shoulder straps, which is uncomfortable. The hip pockets are OS map-sized, but access to them is easily obscured as soon as a rucksack with a hipbelt is worn, making them rather useless compared with better-designed pockets on other jackets. The hood doesn’t get any drawcords or adjustment, but it fits okay and moves well with the head. As someone who does rate eco values highly I therefore found this jacket rather frustrating as it’s great in terms of worldly goodness, but when I’m on the hill the pockets would drive me insane. However, for the price of £75 you could just pretend the pockets are not there and still have a good jacket, which could be viewed as a better option than choosing other less eco-friendly products with perfect pockets.

Specifications:

Material Meryl Bluesign-approved
Men’s/unisex sizes S-XXL
Women’s sizes none
Weight 569g (size L)
Hood yes
External pockets 3
Website www.vaude.com

 

Verdict

Winner of Trail’s ‘Best Value’ award, the Vaude Basodino Hooded Jacket has environmental credibility and a great price – but is that enough to compensate for pockets you can’t use easily on the hill?

Review by Graham Thompson
First published in Trail magazine March 2014

 


The North Face Storm Shadow (2014)

The North Face’s Storm Shadow is designed as a next-to-skin or mid layer fleece. To provide maximum comfort it’s a close-fitting top that’s extremely air-permeable while offering superior ‘wicking’ (moisture-removing) performance. All this makes it ideal when used under a waterproof jacket or when worn on its own during highly aerobic activities, or for scrambling or walking in non-windy environments.  It also works well under or over other insulation as it’s quite a thin layer. But it isn’t quite as warm as thicker options so in winter it will probably need supplementing with other layers. In terms of design it’s unusual in that it’s a thinner layer with useful pockets, which makes it ideal when a waterproof shell isn’t worn over the top. The two main pockets are OS map-sized and easily accessed while wearing rucksack hipbelts. The additional chest pocket is useful for a GPS receiver or compass. There is no hem drawcord or cuff adjustment, so it’s worth checking that these areas fit snugly to prevent draughts. But apart from that the The North Face Storm Shadow is an extremely useful year-round layer when worn on its own or combined with other layers. It would work well under some of the other jackets featured here in colder conditions.

Specifications:

Material Pontetorto heathered grid jersey fleece
Men’s/unisex sizes S-XL
Women’s sizes XS-L
Weight 378g (size M)
Hood no
External pockets 3
Website www.thenorthface.com/eu

 

Verdict

The The North Face Storm Shadow is a very useful thinner fleece that’s ideal for use with other layers. Because it has pockets it also works well when a waterproof jacket isn’t being worn.

Review by Graham Thompson
First published in Trail magazine March 2014

 


Mountain Equipment Shroud (2014)

The Mountain Equipment Shroud is a jacket that I’ve been wearing regularly for four years and amazingly its price hasn’t changed in that time. It’s built around Polartec 100 fleece fabric, which for me provides just the right degree of insulation to wear year-round in the UK over a base layer or under a waterproof jacket. The fabric also offers medium levels of air permeability, so there are more windproof options as well as more open-weave options, but for me this fabric is about right for most hillwalking situations. The hood, underarm and sides of the jacket are made from Polartec Powerstretch, which is more elastic and helps to improve the fit. As there is no adjustment the Shroud’s hood either fits or it doesn’t, which is a drawback, although for me it does fit fine – but if this doesn’t work for you then another fleece jacket may be better. The two main pockets are large enough for maps and they’re ideally placed for easy access when wearing a rucksack. The cuffs get thumb loops, which are useful in winter. A worthwhile addition to the latest version is a flap inside the front zip to keep draughts at bay when the Mountain Equipment Shroud is worn without a waterproof over the top to block the wind.

Specifications:

Material Polartec Classic 100 Micro, Polartec Powerstretch
Men’s/unisex sizes S-XL
Women’s sizes 8-16
Weight 376g (size L)
Hood yes
External pockets 2
Website www.mountain-equipment.co.uk

 

Verdict

An excellent blend of fabrics and design make the Mountain Equipment Shroud ideal for a wide variety of outdoor activity, but check the hood fit as there’s no adjustment provided. It won Trail’s ‘Best in Test’ accolade.

Review by Graham Thompson
First published in Trail magazine March 2014