How to Pick a Winter Jacket

What’s a Winter Jacket?

A winter jacket is typically a coat with some added insulation and length that makes it appropriate for cold-weather usage. Unlike lightweight jackets worn as a mid layer under an outer shell, winter jackets are meant to be more of a stand-alone garment, and should be able to provide enough warmth when worn as a main layer. Since a solid winter coat should be able to get you through anything the cold weather throws at you, it should have some necessary features, like decent weather resistance against snow and sleet, while able to cut through icy winds.

How do I buy one?

A good rule of thumb for buying a solid winter jacket is to buy better, and less often. Having a collection of coats that don’t do their job isn’t nearly as useful as having one or two reliable options for when the weather turns. Quality is important when purchasing a winter coat, particularly as Canadians bracing themselves against the colder months out of the year. A coat purchase is a major one and if chosen correctly, you’ll be wearing it over a lengthy period of time. Lining should be thick but not bulky. Length choice should be reflective of your intended activities, weather and desired warmth.

1. Style

To effectively pick a winter jacket, it’s important to determine what type of activities you’ll need it for. Determining what your needs are will be the first step in finding a jacket that suits them.

Technical Parkas

If you are looking for a coat to keep you warm while on the slopes and performing other outdoor athletics, you’re likely in the market for a technical parka. These jackets usually have more performance-oriented features designed toward activity, like as a helmet-compatible hood and adjustable sleeve cuffs. They are usually lighter weight than a casual parka and more compressible. These can be worn for running errands, but are intended for higher impact usage than walking the dog.

Casual Parkas

If you are looking for a jacket that will see more use taking the garbage out to the road or picking up groceries in a blizzard, then you’ll probably want a more casual parka. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still going to need something warm and movement friendly, but less so than would be necessary in an ice climbing ensemble. A casual winter jacket will likely have more comfort-forward features than a more technical option, and will be more designed toward aesthetics than active performance.

Crossover Parkas

Looking for something to take you from the slopes to the chalet in style? You might be looking for a crossover jacket. With enough features you let you perform your activity of choice in the winter, and attractive enough to wear without gaiters, this is the mid jacket that combines functionality with attractiveness.

2. Down vs. Synthetic

A major consideration when searching for your winter coat is what sort of insulation it should have. The main options here are going to be down vs. synthetic.


If you’re worried about being cold and want a lightweight option, down is likely your best pick. Down filling provides the best warmth to weight ratio, and is incredibly easy to pack into small volume. The major drawback for down is that is doesn’t insulate nearly as well if damp,can be prone to incorrect washing, and is a more expensive choice. However, a lack of performance in wet weather could be potentially mitigated by selecting a jacket that has an outer membrane (basically a barrier for moisture), and water repellent down does help. As a rule, in severely cold weather, the air is quite dry, and down is going to be the best option for the wearer.

There’s two primary measures to consider when looking to purchase a down jacket: fill power and fill weight.

Fill power is an indicator of down quality. Specifically, it is a measurement of volume. The number you see, 900 for example, is the amount of cubic inches one ounce of down occupies when placed in a graduated cylinder and compressed by a standardized weight. Simply put, higher fill power down is lighter, has more loft, and therefore warmer for its weight relative to a lower fill power down. Six ounces of 900 fill down is warmer and more compressible than six ounces of 600 fill down.

The fill weight is the amount of down insulation used in the parka (basically how thick the jacket is). So a jacket with 8 ounces of 650 fill will be warmer than a jacket with two ounces of 800 fill, even though it uses lower quality down. These two numbers, the fill power and fill weight, can together give you a reasonable idea about how warm a particular product is.

Bottom line

In choosing your jacket insulation, you should consider whether:

  • low weight and compression are your priorities,
  • you travel in cold, dry conditions or shield your jacket from moisture,
  • you are willing to pay a bit more up front,
If you agreed with these, you’ll want down insulation.

Shop Down Jackets



Synthetic insulation is a man-made material that mimics down by trapping air between it’s fibres. Synthetic works by allowing tons of ultra-thin fibers of polyester to intertwine and create dense, warmth-trapping air pockets. Synthetic insulation is temperamental than down and the fibers are able to maintain their shape, even after long-term use. Synthetic materials can generally withstand a significant amount of exposure to moisture without losing any real ability to insulate, a huge bonus for soggy winter weather. In general, Jackets with synthetic padding can be washed easily, and are cheaper to buy, making them an attractive choice. The drawback here is that a synthetic jacket does not provide the same level of insulation as a down option, pound for pounds, and it takes up a little more space when packing.

Bottom line

If you want a want a warm jacket and

  • don’t mind just a little extra bulk and weight
  • prefer not to fret over water’s impact on its insulation
  • and want to save a few bucks, you want synthetic insulation.

Then synthetic is your best choice.

Shop Synthetic Jackets


3. Features and Considerations

Outer Shell

An important part of the jacket is the outer shell, where the main priority is protection against wind and precipitation. Areas with rainier winters, like Vancouver or Ontario may require a jacket with a waterproof exterior, such as one made from Gore-Tex. For areas that see more snow than rain, a water resistant shell with a DWR may be sufficient.


A hood is more than just protection from rain or snow, but a way to keep the head warm. We recommend carrying a good hat when in the back-country, but an insulated hood can go a long way to provide added warmth. Some parkas come without insulated hoods, and while this is less bulky, wearing a jacket with no hood usually requires a hat. The best hood are adjustable so that they can fit snugly over your climbing helmet or winter hat when you need it to, and it can cinched tight around the face when wearing nothing on the head. You may want to decide against a hood if you plan on layering your jacket under an outer shell that already has a hood with significant coverage.


The number and depth of pockets might be a big a consideration in finding your perfect winter jacket. Somebody looking to stick an iPhone in a zippered pocket likely is performing different activities than somebody looking for spots to attach more ‘biners. Climbers may want to consider finding a jacket with drop pockets in case they were interested in carrying gear, like extra shoes with them.


If possible, it’s helpful to try on different sizes of the same jacket, read the brand-specific sizing chart (not everything fits the same) and consider reading some reviews. You should envision how well other layers will fit underneath and consider how many layers you typically wear. Consider whether you want a close fit or something with a little more give to it, since a little forethought here will go a long way in ensuring you love your decision. A good rule of thumb for finding your best fit: if you raise your hands above your head and stretch, your core should remain covered and insulated by the jacket.


Winters can be rough, but finding an awesome jacket doesn’t have to be. With this handy guide in hand, you can rest easy knowing that the jacket of your dreams isn’t all that tough to find. Ready to get hunting for the perfect jacket? Let’s do it!