By Michael Lanza
There’s one certainty about the clothing layers we use in winter: We get our money’s worth out of them. While a rain shell or puffy jacket may rarely (or even never) come out of our pack on a summer hike or climb, we almost invariably wear every article of clothing we carry when backcountry, Nordic, or downhill skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, climbing, or trail running in winter. That’s money spent wisely to make us more comfortable and safer.
Every winter, I test out new clothing layers doing all of those activities frequently—something I’ve been doing for more than 25 years, previously as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and for many years running this blog. This review spotlights the best shell and insulated jackets, base layers, and pants I’ve found for high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities in winter.
In my story “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” I offer advice—based on more than three decades of Nordic and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, camping, and trail running in winter—on how to choose a specific, personalized layering system for different exertion levels and body types in temperatures near or below freezing. Use the tips in that story, along with this review, to make the best choices in winter outdoor apparel for your activities and your body.
Please share your experiences with any of these products in the comments section at the bottom of this review. And if you make a purchase through any of the affiliate links to online retailers in this story or other reviews at The Big Outside, you support my work on this blog at no cost to you. Thanks for doing that.
Don’t go out in the cold before reading “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.”
The Best Base Layers for Winter
Whatever your exertion level, you want next-to-skin tops and bottoms that perform two functions that become especially important in winter:
1. Wick moisture off your skin quickly.
2. Provide at least the minimum amount of warmth you need for the conditions and your body.
Here are the best base-layer tops I’ve found for various activities in winter as well as cooler three-season conditions.
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I routinely wear the Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck ($69, 7.5 oz.) while backcountry, resort, and Nordic skiing and on cool- to cold-weather trail runs. The Polartec Power Grid fabric’s brushed-grid delivers a lot of warmth for its low weight and wicks moisture quickly, while the Polygiene permanent odor control has prevented it from getting stinky.
Comfort is excellent thanks to flatlock seams and shoulder construction that allows full mobility without causing the top to hike up. The fabric’s smooth face slips easily into fleece jacket sleeves. Thumb loops hold the sleeves over your hands. The Polygiene odor control has prevented it from getting stinky through many sweaty outings and launderings. All in all, you get a four-season, midweight top with Patagonia quality.
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The soft yak wool of the Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer ($145, 8.5 oz.) has a wide temperature-comfort range. I wore this top on chilly October mornings on back-to-back, rim-to-rim dayhikes across the Grand Canyon, dayhiking in fall in Zion National Park, and Nordic skate-skiing in temps in the 20s in Idaho.
It’s warm for its weight, partly due to the weave’s density. Kora says this fabric—made from Hima-Layer Original 230 fabric, using yak wool from the Qinghai Tibet plateau in the Himalayan Mountains—is 40 percent warmer and 66 percent more breathable than Merino wool. Flat-locked seams are positioned off the shoulder to avoid pack straps, and the close fit helps move moisture off skin without inhibiting freedom of movement. This midweight top is worth its price for its versatility from the mountains in summer to any activity from fall through spring.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase the men’s Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer at kora.net, or the women’s Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer at kora.net.
“The Best Gloves for Winter” covers gloves for high- and moderate-exertion activities.
For a huge range of activities and exertion levels in temps from just above to well below freezing, few base layers offer the versatility of the men’s Patagonia R1 Pullover Hoody ($159, 10 oz., in a range of sizes that will fit many women) and women’s R1 Pullover ($129) and women’s R1 Crew ($99). Patagonia touts these pullovers for climbing and skiing—for which they certainly excel—but I have worn the R1 Pullover Hoody year-round for backcountry skiing; climbing, hiking, and in my sleeping bag on cool, damp days and nights at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve; and as my only insulation piece on a six-day backpacking trip in May in the Grand Canyon.
The versatility lies in the Polartec Power Grid fabrics, used exclusively by Patagonia. They have outstanding stretch and breathability and excellent warmth for their weight, making this top versatile as a layering or stand-alone piece in temps ranging from the 50s Fahrenheit to as far below freezing as you can bear. A midweight fabric is used on the front, back, and sleeves, while a slightly lighter, more breathable grid fabric comprises the hood, sides, armpits, and girding the waist. The close fit has space for layering a lightweight T-shirt or long-sleeve underneath, or wearing alone and under other layers, and the extended length stays tucked inside a pack belt or climbing harness.
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I frequently pulled the close-fitting hood over my head and felt an immediate and noticeable difference in warmth; but I also found it easy to tuck the hood under the collar, out of the way (with little bulk, it doesn’t interfere with another hood in a layering system); it also fits smoothly under any helmet. The front zipper plunges nearly to the belly button for superior venting and zips up to let the balaclava-style hood cover your nose when desired. The elasticized cuffs, with thumbholes for wearing the sleeves up to your fingers, have good stretch to both seal out cold air and slide the sleeves up to the elbows. The zippered chest pocket has enough space for a wool hat or light gloves, and is mesh-lined, so you can put a damp hat or gloves in there to quickly dry from body heat. Polygiene treatment controls odors.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a Patagonia Men’s R1 Pullover Hoody at backcountry.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com, a women’s R1 Pullover at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or a women’s R1 Crew at backcountry.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com.
The Best Insulated Jackets for Being Highly Active
As I write in my story “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” for backcountry skiing or ski touring, snowshoeing, or hiking, you need a layering system with great versatility—and the critical piece is the middle, or insulating layer. It provides most of your layering system’s warmth, and it must breathe well, because your outer/shell layer provides the full weather protection. In moderate-exertion activities, the more breathable your insulating layer, the less frequently you have to make layering changes—a challenge that modern synthetic insulation has risen to meet effectively.
If your winter sport of choice involves sweating and breathing hard, like running and Nordic skiing or even power hiking, you need only a lightweight jacket with some warmth, superior breathability to dump the moisture your body is producing, and enough water resistance to not soak through in light rain or snow.
Here are the best middle/insulation layers I’ve found for moderate- and high-exertion activities in winter.
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The Patagonia Nano-Air Vest’s ($199, 8 oz.) breathable synthetic insulation makes this lightweight garment functional on outings year-round. I’ve regularly grabbed it instead of other vests in my closet for Nordic skate-skiing in “milder” temps above freezing and warm sunshine.
On an early-October backpacking trip in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, it stayed on me not only through cool evenings and mornings in camp, but also while hiking with a full backpack uphill, off-trail, in temps in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit, with intermittent wind. Both the nylon ripstop shell and the insulation have four-way stretch.
Read my full review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Vest.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Nano-Air Vest at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or patagonia.ca in Canada.
The lightweight, trim-fitting Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody ($229, 9 oz.) quickly became a personal favorite for everything from chilly days hiking in spring and fall to skate-skiing and running in temps from above freezing to the mid-20s, because it delivers just enough warmth for moving in cool temps without causing me to overheat.
It marries lightweight fleece under the arms with 40 grams of synthetic insulation in the torso, while the adjustable hood and the outside of the sleeves have no insulation, only windproof shell fabric. It breathes reasonably well: At the end of even the sweatiest outings on Nordic skis, the inside of the jacket was merely damp.
Read my full review of the Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody.
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I wore the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket ($249, 10 oz.) for activities ranging from four straight days of backcountry skiing in the Sierra in winds gusting to 40 to 50 mph and heavily falling snow, to Nordic skate-skiing and snowshoeing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains on days both overcast and windy and in warm sunshine.
Arguably the most versatile insulation layer covered in this review, its hybrid design puts FullRange synthetic insulation, which stretches and breathes, 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. The result is a jacket that offloads body heat about as fast as you produce it—while keeping you warm at varying levels of exertion.
Read my full review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
The Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody ($249, 12 oz.) features Polartec’s breathable insulation, Alpha Direct, which consists of low-density fibers packed between air-permeable woven fabric layers, allowing moisture to pass through.
Very compressible, the jacket stuffs into one of its two zippered hand pockets, and has a close-fitting, helmet-compatible hood and thumbholes in the cuffs. And it’s warm for 12 ounces.
Useful from fall through spring, this is a legitimate four-season insulation layer for backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, mountaineering, bike commuting, or throwing on after you finish a trail run.
Read my full review of the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or outdoorresearch.com.
Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
The Best Insulated Jackets for Extra Warmth
For really cold days of backcountry skiing, ski touring, snowshoeing, hiking, or resort skiing, many of us need an insulation layer with extra warmth—but also the breathability to release the heat your body generates while moving so that you don’t overheat. Here are my top picks for insulated jackets that cross over from moderate-exertion activities in temps well below freezing to summer backpacking and camping.
The Outdoor Research Refuge Air Hooded Jacket ($229, 15 oz.) might impress Goldilocks as the perfect light, breathable, water-resistant, insulated jacket for everything from ski touring and climbing in full-on winter conditions to sitting in your campsite sipping your joe in the chilly morning air of the High Sierra or Tetons in August.
The breathability of OR’s proprietary VerticalX synthetic insulation may have no competitor among synthetic insulation—although I found it too hot for skinning uphill in warm sun with temps in the low 20s—and it traps heat even if it gets wet in falling snow or from perspiration moving through it. But this puffy jacket also has good stretch and warmth for its weight that rivals 700-fill-power down jackets. The Pertex Quantum Air shell fabric sheds light precipitation like a soft shell and has better breathability than I’ve found in other synthetic-insulation jackets. An comfortable, athletic fit, helmet-compatible hood, and three zippered pockets complete this versatile package.
See my full review of the Outdoor Research Refuge Air Hooded Jacket.
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Few insulated jackets demonstrate the seasonal and activity versatility of The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix Hoodie ($280, 15 oz.). I’ve worn it under a Gore-Tex jacket ski touring through blowing snow and cold wind along an up-and-down mountain ridge; on a day of backcountry skiing with weather that constantly shifted between cold wind and snow squalls to warm sunshine; and on cool evenings and mornings on a six-day, July backpacking trip in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.
TNF says the “dynamic” Ventrix polyester stretch synthetic insulation’s perforated micro vents open to release body heat with a wearer’s movement and close with decreased activity. It demonstrated good breathability: Although I overheated while skinning uphill in warm sunshine in temps in the teens, my base layer dried out once my exertion level went down. The athletic fit, no shoulder seams under pack straps, and close-fitting, stretchy, adjustable, under-the-helmet hood create a comfortable jacket, and it has zippered chest and hand pockets.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s The North Face Summit L3 Ventrix Hoodie at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
While it’s not made for breathability while being active, for incomparable warmth in a lightweight, packable puffy, I haven’t found anything that beats the Feathered Friends Helios Hooded Down Jacket ($389, 1 lb. 1 oz. medium). On winter nights in the single digits outside a yurt in Idaho’s Boise Mountains, and raw, wet spring mornings camped in Idaho’s City of Rocks, this fat down jacket felt crazy warm—especially for its weight and packability, spotlighting its versatility as an outstanding down jacket for winter and a puffy that’s light and packable enough for chilly, three-season trips.
The Helios is stuffed generously with 900+-fill down, the highest-quality down produced, including in the comfortable, adjustable hood. The water-resistant, 20-denier Pertex Endurance LT shell fabric repels light rain, and the jacket has two hand pockets with overlapping stretch flaps in lieu of a zipper, plus one small, zippered inside pocket.
Read my full review of the Feathered Friends Helios Hooded Down Jacket.
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The Best Winter Backcountry Shell Jacket and Pants
For activities like backcountry skiing, ski touring, snowshoeing, climbing, and hiking, when I’m working hard outside for hours in wide-ranging winter temps and weather conditions, I want a shell jacket with superior breathability—so that I don’t get soaked with sweat when exerting in it—that also repels hours of falling snow and blocks most wind. It must have an adjustable, brimmed hood that keeps wind and precipitation off my face. It must layer comfortably over an insulated jacket and allow me full range of motion—all without being too heavy.
The Outdoor Research Skyward II Jacket ($350, 1 lb. 7 oz., men’s medium) and Skyward II Pants ($299, 1 lb. 5.5 oz., men’s medium) have demonstrated unique versatility as winter shells over numerous days of backcountry skiing in a full range of conditions. I’ve skinned uphill and skied downhill through hours of dumping snow in temperatures in the teens and 20s Fahrenheit without ever taking the jacket off (and obviously not removing the pants) and remained comfortable skiing in single-digit temps (with an insulation layer under the jacket) and weather shifting from falling snow to sunshine.
The explanation is the combined weather protection and breathability of OR’s stretchy, proprietary AscentShell fabric, a waterproof-breathable Electrospun membrane that keeps water out and cuts wind while releasing heat and moisture, keeping me relatively dry and completely comfortable whether skinning up or making telemark turns off-piste going down. Jacket and pants are both fully seam-sealed.
The jacket has four waterproof, zippered external pockets, a helmet-compatible hood, a fit that accommodates warm layers—and excellent ventilation, with unique, two-way, side zippers that run from under the biceps all the way to the hem. The pants have ventilating side zippers running from hips to knees, plus four zippered pockets, two on the thigh and two hand pockets, and a mesh avalanche beacon pocket inside the right hand pocket that’s easy to access while wearing gloves.
This jacket and pants protect like hard shells while looking, feeling, and breathing like soft shells.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Skyward II Jacket and Pants.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, when you click any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Skyward II Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or outdoorresearch.com, or the a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Skyward II Pants at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or outdoorresearch.com,
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Winter Pants for the Backcountry
We generally wear one or two bottom layers and do not change them while outside in winter, so they must be chosen specifically for the activity and conditions. Here are my favorite pants for two different levels of exertion in snow-based activities.
When Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking in temps from the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit to below freezing, I favor lightweight soft-shell pants that breathe well, block some wind (for skiing downhill), and offer just a bit of warmth by having space to trap air inside (which your body warms up), but also to allow layering underneath them.
Made with Patagonia’s stretchy, weather-resistant soft-shell fabric, the Patagonia Simul Alpine Pant ($139, 11.5 oz.) breathed well and cut some wind when my teenage son wore them on a windy, chilly, four-day spring snow climb of The Mountaineers Route on California’s Mount Whitney. With fabric that sheds light precipitation, plus four zippered pockets and cuffs designed for low-profile boots, these pants are a good value for Nordic skiing, climbing, snowshoeing, and three-season mountain treks.
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The Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants ($139, 14 oz.) offer a somewhat more durable version of a stretchy, soft-shell pant that pairs good breathability with resistance to falling snow and light rain, for high-speed and moderate-exertion winter activities as well as all things mountain-related in the other seasons. The adjustable waistbelt with low-profile loops is comfortable under a pack belt or harness.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the men’s or women’s Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
For backcountry or downhill/resort skiing, climbing, or snowshoeing, I need more substantial pants that breathe well but deliver more warmth and weather protection.
The four-way, stretch-woven soft-shell fabric in the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Pants ($199, 1 lb. 11 oz.) kept snow and other wet stuff out when I’ve backcountry skied downhill through conditions ranging from powder to mashed potatoes. The fabric also breathes so well that, even on long, sweaty ascents on skis—including carrying a full pack to a backcountry yurt—I rarely even bother to open the side zippers, which extend from the thigh to the cuffs. Still, while the pants were warm enough on a 3° F morning without long underwear (which I rarely wear unless it’s really cold), those side zips deliver needed ventilation for uphill slogs on warm, spring days.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Pants.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the men’s or women’s Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Pants at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
Be sure to read my stories “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry” and “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter,” and all of my reviews of outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.
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.