Marmot Variant Hoody review

Marmot Variant Hoody

Hybrid Cold-Weather Jacket
Marmot Variant Hoody
$185, 15 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
marmot.com

Whether a fast-forward winter sport like skate-skiing, or a pack-carrying activity like hiking, ski touring, and snowshoeing, many cold-weather outdoor adventures demand a jacket that doesn’t quite fit into the traditional definition of insulation, hard shell, or soft shell. Short story: You need more insulation in front and breathability on your back and arms. Enter the Variant, a hybrid cross between lightweight insulation and a soft shell. I’ve really grown to like it for my two primary winter sports, skate-skiing and ski touring, but it would function equally well for hiking and snowshoeing.

The front consists of synthetic insulation in a lightweight, windproof nylon shell fabric, while the hood, sleeves, underarms, and back are made of highly breathable and stretchy Polartec Power Stretch. So while the front of your torso stays warm, even in wind—and the synthetic insulation keeps you warm even when wet—your arms and back ventilate supremely well. It’s the most perfectly designed jacket for skate-skiing that I’ve ever worn, and it remained comfortable while ski touring whether I was climbing uphill or traversing gentler terrain. The Power Stretch allows unhindered range of arm motion—this jacket is so unencumbering that I felt like I was skate-skiing in shirtsleeves. My arms got chilled when I first set out skate-skiing in temperatures from the mid-teens to the 20s, because the wind cuts through the Power Stretch; but I prefer the breathability of those sleeves once I’m warmed up, within minutes.

The sleeves’ extra length and thumbholes cover your hands right up to the first knuckles—very helpful if, like me, you tend to get cold fingers. (Keeping your wrists and hands warm helps maintain blood flow to your fingers.) The hood adds just the right amount of warmth when needed (I pull it over a hat), and fits closely enough that the wind never blew the hood off my head, even though it lacks cords to adjust the fit. The Power Stretch moves moisture to the outside very efficiently, so in cold temps, when exerting—especially, I noticed, in fog in the mountains—you can build up a little frost on the sleeves from moisture being pushed to the outside. This just highlights the fact that, if you’re out for more than just an hour or two and expect your exertion level to vary, you may still need a shell to wear over this jacket and/or another insulation piece (depending on temperatures). One nitpick: Only slick-faced base layers slide easily into the close-fitting sleeves; waffle-style, warmer base layers tend to stick to the Power Stretch.

NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.

—Michael Lanza