By Michael Lanza
Whether climbing peaks, taking an ultra-dayhike or trail run, Nordic or backcountry skiing, or backpacking, the more time I spend in the backcountry, the more I value and wear lightweight jackets and vests that pull double duty as middle and outer layers. Unlike with heavier, warmer, and less-breathable jackets, you can often wear this type of garment while on the move—while your body is producing heat, but you still need some warmth. That makes you more comfortable and, ultimately, safer in widely ranging mountain weather. Plus, you get more bang for your buck from versatile layers like these because you use them more.
Here are six of the very best.
I’ve tested the jackets and vests reviewed here in all four seasons and the gamut of temperatures and weather conditions one encounters in mid-latitude mountains and high desert. All are top performers; they vary in design, materials, and weight—from seven to 22 ounces (men’s medium or small)—giving each of them unique strengths. But all but one are comparably compressible, packing down to the size of a cantaloupe.
I think at least one will suit your adventures, climates, and body type—and you’ll find discounted prices on some of them right now, just as we’re getting into a time of year when you’d wear any of them a lot.
Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody
$229, 9 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XS-XL
This partly insulated, lightweight, and very compressible wind shell may be the most seasonally versatile jacket you’ll ever own: I’ve probably worn it more than any other layering piece I have over the past several months, for virtually everything I do outdoors, in every season, from backpacking in August in the Canadian Rockies and in October in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains to hiking and scrambling 10,000-foot peaks in September, and numerous times skate-skiing in late winter.
The secret sauce is that it delivers just enough warmth for being active in cool temps without causing you to overheat, thanks to fleece under the arms and 40 grams of synthetic insulation in the torso—but no insulation in the adjustable hood or on the outside of the sleeves, where there’s just windproof shell fabric. And it breathes well: At the end of even the sweatiest outings on Nordic skis, the inside of the jacket was hardly damp. The fit is trim—you can layer a couple of lightweight or midweight tops under it, and even pull a jacket over it; but wearing two layers of jacket sleeves really compromises breathability, so this won’t have the layering potential of, say, a vest.
See my full review of the Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody at backcountry.com. or rei.com, or a women’s Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody at rei.com.
Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody
$185, 10 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
I’ve done something while wearing OR’s Deviator Hoody that I’ve rarely done in any insulation piece: I went from standing around in camp inactive to hiking in it without making any layering adjustment. That fact speaks to the temperature and activity-level versatility of this next-generation, hybrid insulation piece, which functions as a middle or outer layer for everything from cool-weather hiking to skate skiing in winter. Its potential is limited only by your creativity in thinking about your layering system.
The Deviator uses lightweight, breathable, fast-drying, synthetic Polartec Alpha insulation in the front, sides, and shoulders; and Polartec Power Grid fleece, which stretches, breathes and wicks moisture very well, and is warm for its weight, in the back, sleeves, and the close-fitting hood. The combination provides warmth when you’re standing or sitting around in cool, typical three-season temps, and just the right amount of warmth with good breathability when you’re on the go in cool to cold temps. I also found it’s a super piece for high-energy activities like running or Nordic in cool to sub-freezing temps, because even when I’m sweating hard, it wicks and dries out quickly. Tip for spouses: I bought my wife one of these and earned major points.
See my full review of the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com, or a women’s Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com.
Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket
$199, 10 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
From four straight days of backcountry skiing in the mountains above Lake Tahoe in heavy snowfall and winds gusting to 50 mph, to Nordic skate skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains in weather ranging from overcast and windy to warm sunshine, I stayed warm and mostly dry in Patagonia’s Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket. That’s because it traps sufficient heat in my torso while releasing excess heat off my back and arms.
It achieves this through a hybrid design that puts stretchy, breathable synthetic insulation in the front of the jacket, upper shoulders, and top sides of the sleeves, and a much more breathable, wicking, stretch waffle knit on the back of the sleeves, in the sides, and covering the entire back. It also sports a very lightweight, 20-denier, nylon ripstop shell and lining. The result is a jacket with exceptional mechanical stretch and air permeability that offloads body heat about as fast as you produce it. Plus, its low-bulk and low-profile design allows it to double as an outer or a middle layer. When I wore it as an outer layer while skinning uphill, the shell fabric’s DWR (durable, water-repellent finish) shrugged off heavily falling snow well enough that it never got more than superficially damp.
See my full review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com, or a women’s Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com.
Patagonia Nano-Air Vest
$199, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XS-XL
You can get so much mileage out of a vest that I’ve relied on various models since the Dark Ages when they were all made of bulky fleece. Despite the similar names, the Nano-Air Vest isn’t just a sleeveless version of the jacket. From summer and fall dayhikes and backpacking trips in Idaho’s Sawtooth and White Cloud mountains to a five-day whitewater rafting and kayaking trip in July down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the Nano-Air Vest spent many hours keeping my torso warm, without making me overheat—even while hiking with a full backpack uphill, off-trail—which is the strong suit of breathable synthetic insulation being used in some new layering pieces today.
Its breathable, synthetic insulation makes this vest ideal for on-the-go, cool-weather activities, but it functions as an insulation piece in any season. The fit is close, but the nylon ripstop shell fabric has four-way, mechanical stretch, making it feel like an outer layer of skin, as well as a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment), so it sheds light rain. Even the synthetic insulation has mechanical stretch, so the entire garment moves with you. The tall collar keeps your neck warm, and the vest has a functional feature set with one zippered chest pocket and two zippered hand pockets, plus a drawcord hem. The Nano-Air Vest offers a rare combination of core insulation and breathability, while keeping your arms uncovered so you don’t overheat.
See my full review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Vest.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Patagonia Nano-Air Vest at backcountry.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com, or a women’s Patagonia Nano-Air Vest at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or patagonia.com.
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Marmot Isotherm Vest
$175, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
I’ve worn this lightweight vest—the lightest and most compressible garment reviewed here—on local dayhikes in the Boise Foothills, backpacking in cool temperatures in the canyon of southern Utah’s Dirty Devil River in March, and backcountry skiing both uphill (as an outer layer) and downhill (under a shell). Filled with breathable Polartec Alpha synthetic insulation, this vest achieves a nice balance of warmth without causing me to overheat when on the move in cool to cold conditions. A mesh lining across the back helps move moisture out.
The 20-denier Pertex Quantum nylon ripstop shell sheds light precipitation and is fairly impervious to abrasion for its low weight and bulk. It has three zippered pockets, one on the chest and two hand pockets. The zippers have a cord and plastic tab for grabbing with gloves on, and there’s an adjustable drawcord hem. Being a touch lighter and less warm than the four other pieces reviewed here, in addition to its breathable insulation, makes this an ideal choice for when your body is consistently producing heat in cool temps.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Marmot Isotherm Vest at moosejaw.com.
The North Face Novelty Denali Jacket
$179, 1 lb. 6 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
The simplicity of a classic fleece jacket belies its versatility in all seasons, especially for on-the-move activities in cool and sub-freezing temperatures of fall, winter, and spring. And The North Face Novelty Denali Jacket—which has kept my teenage son warm through many days of backcountry skiing, including days of heavy snowfall and temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit (as well as many winter days walking and biking to school)—stands out for warmth per ounce, comfort, and durability.
The partly recycled Sherpa fleece is warm, soft, and durable; and it has a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment) to shed light rain or snow, meaning you can wear it as an outer layer in light precipitation. Abrasion-resistant nylon overlays on the shoulders, upper chest, and forearms reinforce areas of higher wear when carrying a pack, and it has four zippered pockets. But the real strength of a quality fleece like the Novelty Denali is its blend of warmth and supreme breathability: You can sweat hard and this fabric will move that moisture from inside to outside almost as fast as it pours from your pores. It’s much heavier and bulkier than any other garment reviewed here, but it could be the piece of outerwear you slip into more than any other.
See my full review of The North Face Novelty Denali Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a The North Face Novelty Denali Jacket at backcountry.com.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.