Breathable Insulated Jacket
Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody
$249, 12 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
The range of activities, conditions, and seasons in which you wear a jacket arguably says more than anything else about its value, so I’ll tell you what I’ve done (so far) in my Ascendant Hoody: On a 39-mile, mid-September backpacking trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, I wore it in camp on cool, windy mornings and evenings. I’ve worn it as a middle layer on days of skiing downhill at resorts, and as an outer or middle layer skiing up and downhill in the backcountry. And I’ve regularly pulled it on to ride my bike on errands around town this winter. Its versatility derives from having just the right amount of breathable insulation to make it the insulated jacket you grab more than any other all year.
The Ascendant Hoody joins the new generation of jackets with breathable insulation—making them something you can wear on the move, not just insulation when inactive. The critical ingredient is Polartec’s latest iteration of its breathable Alpha synthetic insulation: Alpha Direct. Sewn into the jacket as a solid, thin lining, it gives the Ascendant a more-slender profile than a puffy down jacket. But don’t let the looks deceive: I found it warm enough over just a T-shirt and midweight, long-sleeve top sitting in camp in the Winds in temps in the low 40s Fahrenheit, with steady wind. Being a synthetic, Alpha retains its ability to trap heat even when wet; but unlike non-breathable synthetic insulation, once wet, its breathability means your body heat moves through it faster than through traditional insulation, speeding up the process of drying it.
In terms of warmth and breathability, the Ascendant falls in between two other OR jackets with breathable insulation: the warmer Uberlayer Hooded Jacket, which is very much a winter piece, and a lighter favorite of mine, the Deviator Hoody. While backcountry skiing, I get warm enough when skinning uphill that I may wear only a long-sleeve top in temps no colder than the mid- to upper 20s. But the Ascendant gives me just the right warmth I need climbing uphill when the combination of ambient temperature and wind chill dips to the low 20s or colder. The Ascendant’s particular balance of warmth and breathability makes it more versatile across all seasons as part of a dynamic layering system.
I’ll illustrate an important distinction about the Ascendant Hoody with a real-world situation that almost any backpacker or climber could encounter: The day after we finished our September backpacking trip in the Winds, over a foot of new snow fell there. Had that storm hit while we were there, we would have needed adequate boots (and gaiters), shells, tents, bags, and layers—all of which we had. But my Ascendant Hoody would have been much more useful than a standard, non-breathable down or insulated jacket because I could have worn it while hiking through that snowstorm; a down jacket would likely have trapped body heat and sweat inside, potentially even dampening the down to the point of rendering it ineffective. Versatility matters in the kind of circumstances many of us encounter.
The insulation’s breathability demands pairing it with a breathable shell fabric, and OR got it right with the stretchy Pertex Microlight nylon ripstop stretch-woven shell. Moderately windproof, it’s more importantly very air-permeable, so it helps the Alpha insulation offload heat when you’re working hard but temps still demand an insulating layer. You can feel some wind coming through the shell—an indicator of its breathability, which is what you’re after when climbing uphill in cold temps.
The shell doesn’t repel falling snow as well as a shell jacket (like another OR favorite of mine, the Skyward Jacket); but that’s why you carry a shell. At 20-denier, the fabric is lightweight—be careful not to catch it on sharp edges. But that said, a slight tear wouldn’t present the same problem as you’d have with a down jacket that could start leaking feathers; Alpha insulation consists of solid panels, more like fleece than feathers. Besides, slight tears are why duct tape exists.
The athletic cut fits closely, but with some stretch to the fabric, it doesn’t inhibit movement at all. The hood, adjustable in the back and elasticized, fits snugly around the head and under a helmet. Thumb loops inside the cuffs keep the sleeves from riding up, and the cuffs fit well either over a lightweight glove (or the removable inner glove of any 3-in-1 glove system) and under a warmer, over-the-cuff-style glove.
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The two hand pockets are warm and roomy enough to stuff gloves or a hat inside; but I wish they had zippers, so that I could keep a second pair of gloves in them (or dry out a wet pair) without fear of losing them. There’s a drawcord hem to seal in warmth. The jacket stuffs into a hand pocket, packing down to about the size of a cantaloupe—making it as packable as high-quality down jackets that offer comparable warmth.
The Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody’s breathability and degree of warmth make it a legitimate four-season shell for summer backpacking, shoulder-season dayhiking and climbing, backcountry skiing, mountaineering, bike commuting, or throwing on after you finish a trail run. And it costs less than many insulated jackets that are less versatile.
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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 my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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