Breathable Insulated Jacket
Outdoor Research Refuge Air Hooded Jacket
$229, 15 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
On a ski tour in blowing snow in Idaho’s Boise Mountains, I wore this breathable, insulated jacket climbing uphill for the first hour without overheating. Then, while ski touring along a windy ridge with up-and-down terrain, I stayed warm without making a layering change as my exertion level decreased. In fact, I stayed warm in the cold wind and blowing snow even though the shell fabric got quite damp—I was surprised at how damp it was when I got back to my car, precisely because I had not noticed it was wet while wearing it. And that story only begins to describe the versatility of OR’s Refuge Air Hooded Jacket.
Call me Goldilocks: As a fan of breathable insulated jackets for their year-round functionality whether you’re active or sitting in a campsite—and thus, their potential for being a quiver-of-one puffy jacket—I was eager to try out the Refuge Air because of its welterweight size, to assess whether it can strike a delicate balance between not too warm for moderate exertion in winter and adequate warmth for three-season camping in the mountains. Besides ski touring, I wore it under a shell on days of resort skiing in weather that ran the gamut from overcast with cold wind and temps in the teens and 20s, to sunshine and temps in the high 30s and low 40s.
Similar to two other favorites of mine from OR, the Ascendant Hoody and the Refuge Air’s bigger cousin, OR’s Refuge Hooded Jacket, the Refuge Air Hooded Jacket is designed for wearing while active in cold conditions, because it moves moisture effectively. But it’s warmer and three ounces heavier than the Ascendant, and less warm and three ounces lighter than the Refuge—allowing it to better cross over from ski touring, climbing, or snowshoeing in winter conditions to three-season backpacking because it’s warm enough for sitting around a campsite in temps from the 30s to 50s Fahrenheit.
The versatility originates in OR’s proprietary VerticalX Air synthetic insulation, which combines a good warmth-to-weight ratio with breathability and loft retention over time. In the Refuge Air, it’s paired with ActiveTemp, a thermo-regulating treatment on the interior lining that OR says helps keep the wearer warm at rest and comfortable on the move—a performance quality that I noticed. The jacket’s breathability isn’t such that you can move at a highly aerobic pace without overheating. But while maintaining moderate exertion, even sweating, I remained comfortable; and my base layer always dried out within a reasonable time, thanks to the breathability of this jacket.
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The fit is relaxed athletic—not too bulky or poofy, but with enough room to fit a couple of base layers underneath. Like many OR insulated jackets, it’s quite comfortable and allows for unhindered mobility.
On the exterior, Pertex Quantum Air fabric provides the weather protection of a soft shell, with better breathability than I’ve found in other synthetic-insulation jackets of a similar weight: Biking through the city in winter, I could feel the cold air slightly penetrating the sleeves and front of the jacket—not so much that it made me cold, but signaling that the fabric does breathe.
At just under a pound, the jacket’s warm-to-weight compares with other synthetic jackets and with 700-fill down. If your goal is simply to find the best warmth per ounce for backcountry camping from spring through fall, you should look at down jackets with 800-fill or higher down—but you’ll pay a lot more for that. It stuffs into its own pocket, packing down to slightly larger than a liter bottle, with a small clip and carabiner loop for attaching to a climbing harness.
The non-adjustable hood has some stretch and fits closely enough to stay put in wind and when you turn your head, and to wear a climbing helmet over it. The two zippered hand pockets are large enough to warm up or dry out a pair of winter gloves, while the zippered chest pocket easily fits a large smartphone. The low-profile cuffs slide easily inside a gauntlet of over-the-cuff winter gloves or mitten, or fit snugly over a lighter, under-the-cuff glove, and the sleeves have a thin, internal thumb loop. The elasticized drawcord hem seals out cold air well.
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With good breathability for an insulated jacket, very good heat retention when wet, and enough warmth for camping in temps above freezing, the Outdoor Research Refuge Air Hooded Jacket delivers rare versatility as a legit, four-season insulated jacket that you can wear while active or inactive—making it conceivably the only insulated jacket you need, at a good price.
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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 my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.