Core Backpacking Clothing || Stop — Items 8-9: Insulated Jacket & Pants

With a high-loft jacket and pants insulated with down or synthetic fill, it's possible to be comfortable in cool or cold temperatures even without generating much body heat. Here, a winter backpacking trip with temps in the teens.

With a high-loft jacket and pants insulated with down or synthetic fill, it’s possible to be comfortable in cool or cold temperatures even without generating much body heat. Here, a winter backpacking trip with temps in the teens.

During cool camps, cold nights, and crisp mid-day rest stops, I retain my body heat with a puffy jacket containing down or synthetic insulation. If I expect nighttime temperatures below about 30 degrees, or long camps with temperatures below about 40 degrees, I will add insulated pants to my kit.

Down- and synthetic-filled garments are far more thermally efficient (i.e. warmth per weight) than synthetic or merino fleece, making them the ultimate “stop” pieces. Both garments make my Core 13, a 13-item collection of backpacking clothing that can mixed-and-matched to create appropriate systems for any set of 3-season conditions.

Quantifying warmth

Unlike sleeping bags, down- and synthetic-filled jackets and pants are not assigned temperature ratings, making it difficult to determine and compare their insulating value. Instead the best indications of warmth are:

For down, “fill weight” (e.g. 75 grams) and “fill power” (e.g. 800-fill, meaning that 1 oz of down will fill 800 cubic inches of volume). The more down and the higher the quality the down, the warmer the jacket or pants will be, assuming identical construction and sizing.

For synthetics, the weight of the insulation per square area, e.g. 60 g/m2. However, this information is not entirely reliable since synthetic insulations vary in their short- and long-term thermal efficiency. Unfortuantely, the ideal measurement — the insulation’s clo value per its weight — is rarely published.

Synthetic insulation inside an old jacket that I tore open

Synthetic insulation inside an old jacket that I tore open

Down insulation removed from a baffle of a down-insulated coat

Down insulation removed from a baffle of a down-insulated coat

Down versus synthetic

Down and synthetics both have pros and cons. Down is:

  • Warmer for its weight,
  • More compressible, and
  • Longer-lasting.

Synthetics are:

  • Less expensive,
  • More humane (no live plucking), and
  • Less adversely affected by moisture.

In specific regard to the issue of moisture sensitivity, I want to point out that synthetic insulations are absolutely not “warm when wet” like is often claimed. Moreover, down is so much more thermally efficient that even moisture-degraded down will be as warm for its weight as dry synthetic insulation. Finally, I’ve never had my down insulation get truly wet. Damp from high humidity, yes, but never wet from, say, having worn it in the rain or fording a river — that’s what my rain jacket and pack liner are for.

With the introduction of water-resistant down a few years ago, synthetics lost much of their wet-weather advantage. So now it’s mostly a cost and ethical consideration.

With few exceptions my preference is down. It’s the superior insulation, especially as one who tends to backpack in dry environments and as someone who can justify their purchases with extensive use. And, equally important, down is a better long-term investment — my heavily-used down pieces are almost as warm now as they were when new, whereas my synthetic-fill pieces are limp, lifeless, and needing replacement after just a season of daily use.

A hooded parka with about 100 g of down insulation is perfect for 3-season use in the Mountain West, where we normally have dry but cool mornings and nights.

A hooded parka with about 100 g of down insulation is perfect for 3-season use in the Mountain West, where we normally have dry but cool mornings and nights.

Fit & Features

My sole consideration in an insulated garment is its warmth relative to its weight, i.e. its thermal efficiency. It need not be capable of much — basically, I just want to be able to stand around or sleep in these pieces without getting cold.

The jacket and pants should be built slightly oversized, so that they fit comfortably when worn over a hiking shirt and mid-layer, or underwear and hiking pants. It doesn’t happen often, but keep room for a 3-season shell jacket and pants too, if you’re ever desperately cold. The jacket and pants should seal off drafts in the torso area, so the jacket should be mid-butt (requiring a lady-like hourglass cut so it doesn’t bunch up at the waist) and the pants should rise nearly to the belly-button. Thumb loops, such as those on the Sierra Designs Elite DriDown Hoody, help keep wrists and hands warm.

I avoid features that add weight without warmth like fleece-lined pockets, unnecessarily heavy zippers, stretchy underarm panels or arm cuffs, and hood and waist cinch cords and locks that are no substitute for good design.

Wispy 10- or 20-denier shell fabrics are ideal. Ignore the claims that these fabrics are “water-resistant” — when new, that’s being generous, and long-term it’s downright disingenuous. Heavier fabrics are more durable, but little durability is actually needed for this application. Waterproof-breathable fabrics are much heavier, and ironically their poor breathability leads to the insulation getting wet from trapped perspiration.

Left: An old 22-oz GoLite baffled parka that is overkill for anything short of winter backpacking. Right: the 13-oz Sierra Designs DriDown Parka, which with a hood and 125 g of 800-fill insulation is about perfect for many of my 3-season backpacking trips

Left: An old 22-oz GoLite baffled parka that is overkill for anything short of winter backpacking. Right: the 13-oz Sierra Designs DriDown Hoody, which with a hood and 125 g of 800-fill insulation is about perfect for many of my 3-season backpacking trips

Jackets: My picks & suggestions

Normal low temperatures on my backpacking trips are in the 30’s and 40’s, with a rare summer night in the 50’s. For these conditions, I find that an insulated jacket with a hood and about 3.5 oz (100 grams) of 800-fill down is about perfect. A well executed jacket with these specs will weigh about 10-12 oz. With lower-grade down fill (e.g. 700-fill) and/or less thermally efficient construction (e.g. fleece-lined pockets), the garment will weigh more.

For consistently warmer weather, consider a jacket with less insulation and/or without a hood, like the Patagonia Ultralight Down Jacket. For consistently colder weather, look for a jacket with more insulation and perhaps even baffled (not sewn-through) construction, such as the Sierra Designs Baffled DriDown Parka.

There is a lot of competition for the title of best insulated jacket, partly because many manufacturers use essentially the same shell fabrics, insulations, and/or Asian sewing factories. While the 8-oz Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer — which has a hood and 80 grams of 800-fill water-resistant down — is often listed as a top contender, I’d rather carry an extra few ounces in the form of the 11-oz Western Mountaineering Flash XR Jacket or 11-oz Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody in order to have 25-50 percent more down insulation, which is the primary driver of the jacket’s warmth.

If you wish to go the synthetic route, look at the beautifully minimalist Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody and Rab Strata Hoodie.

Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka and Pants. Among synthetic jackets, the Parka is a purist piece. The 3/4-length side zips on my pants make putting them on and taking them off much easier when wearing big boots, but are unnecessary for 3-season use.

Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka and Pants. Among synthetic jackets, the Parka is a purist piece. The 3/4-length side zips on my pants make putting them on and taking them off much easier when wearing big boots, but are unnecessary for 3-season use.

Pants: My picks and suggestions

Shopping for insulated pants is easy: there are few worthy options. For pure 3-season backpacking, the Western Mountaineering Flash Pants and the Montbell Superior Down Pants leave little room for improvement, each containing 2 oz of premium down and weighing less than 8 oz total.

If you wish to own just one pair of insulated pants and if you need them to serve winter-duty as well, however, I would encourage investing weight in full-length or three-quarter-length leg zippers, which make the pants easy to put on and take off while still wearing big winter boots (i.e. ski boots, mountaineering boots, snowshoe boots). At 12.5 oz, the Western Mountaineering Flight Pants would be my top pick. For a synthetic, consider the Arc’teryx Atom LT Insulated Pant, which are an ounce lighter but not as warm as the WM pants.

Synthetic-insulated pants will be heavier than comparably warm down pants, but they will be less expensive. But even if even the aforementioned Arc’teryx Atom pants are too pricey, look for the “long” version of the military’s M-65 insulated pant on eBay or a local military surplus store. For less than $20 with shipping, they are the hands-down best value.

Posted in on March 16, 2015


  1. Dave F on March 17, 2015 at 7:44 am

    +1 for the Atom LT pants. I’ve used them on about 5 trips so far between Nov-Feb and love them. I originally looked at the Montbell down pants but liked the idea of the full length zips on the Atom, and I’m glad I went that route even if it is a little heavier. I’m also glad they fully unzip at the waist rather than stopping halfway like other pants do. It probably amounts to a few extra ounces but the convenience of not having to pull them over your shoes makes for much easier transitions.

    The funny thing is that one of my favorite parts of having the side zips is the flexibility of adjusting them inside my sleeping bag if it’s a cold night (or if it starts out being a cold night and then warms). Definitely a lot easier than trying to take off or put on pants in your bag which can require some awkward stretching.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2015 at 8:37 am

      I would add that the zippers offer ventilation, too. When I was in Alaska’s northwest Arctic in 2010, daytime high temperatures were -15 F and lows were almost -30 F. It was so cold that I had to ski in my insulated pants or else my butt would get too cold. With the three-quarter zipper, I could regulate their warmth very easily so that I stayed “just right” — not too hot and not too cold.

  2. Michael on March 17, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Perhaps I’m being stupid light, but after my first mountain west trip I stopped carrying puffy jacket/pants and opted for just thicker sleep clothes (Capilene 3 or 4) should the need arise for more warmth. I have worn them on a few mornings near 30 (my other layers being very light woven nylon shirt/pants and DriDucks.) My thinking was that if there was record cold or snowstorm I’d just stay in the tent longer or pack up quick and get hiking. I do have my youngest son take a fleece jacket since his little body would get cold much quicker than mine.

    • Mitchell E. on March 17, 2015 at 12:10 pm

      A full set of Cap 4 easily outweighs a puffy jacket. Why carry separate sleep clothes?

      • Michael on March 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm

        The puffy jacket I own is the very warm New Balance Fugu at 13 oz so, yes, the Cap 3/4 does outweigh it by almost 2 ounces.

        I carry sleep clothes for 3 reasons:
        1. for insulation since I’m not carrying puffy clothing. 🙂
        2. in case my hiking clothes are muddy it keeps my bag cleaner or if they are at all damp I’m not wasting heat trying to dry my clothes (or having excess moisture going through my bag).
        3. Related to #2 would be protection from hypothermia. Should I get soaked for some reason and hiking isn’t keeping me warm enough, I can get the tent setup, get into my dry clothes and warm up in my bag.

      • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2015 at 1:08 pm

        As someone who lives in a dry climate, it’s hard for me to understand why backpackers take sleeping clothes — until I visit the wetter parts of the country, e.g. east of the 100th Meridian and the PNW. There, getting soaked is an inherent part of the backpacking experience. Frequent rain, high humidity, heavy shade and no real opportunities to dry anything out. On trips like this, sleeping clothes make a lot of sense. Pull into camp, put your sleeping clothes on, and to bed. Wake up in the morning, change out of your sleeping clothes into your wet hiking clothes, and start the day.

        BTW, sleeping clothes are Items 12 & 13.

        • Michael on March 17, 2015 at 2:25 pm

          It’s definitely true that it is drier out west but I stick to the same system. I always change into my sleep socks but I will often wear my clothes to bed if they aren’t too muddy or damp from sweat, a recent stream crossing, etc.

          Perhaps I’ll change to carrying a puffy by learning the hard way some day. So far I’ve not come across any severe weather where I wasn’t in my shelter. I just assume that if I do come across a nasty storm I can either get my shelter up or keep hiking to stay warm if there’s no suitable place to stop. I also don’t get to go out in Sep-Oct when it’s more likely to get below freezing at night.

    • Dave F on March 17, 2015 at 1:50 pm

      I think it’s all about balance and depends on the rest of your system too. For instance, I carry the puffy jacket (and maybe insulated pants, depending on how cold i expect it to be) because I carry a lighter sleeping bag (Mountain Hardwear Phantom 45, about 18oz) and can use those items to significantly increase the warmth of that sleeping bag. If you’re starting off with a warmer sleeping bag, the additional insulation may not be required (technically, it’s already built in) so then it just becomes a question of whether you can stay warm enough without those layers outside of your sleeping bag.

      The reason I went this route instead of getting a warmer sleeping bag is so I can also use it in the late spring/summer/early fall in the mid-atlantic, where it’s pretty warm at night. I wouldn’t be able to use a warmer bag in that environment. The puffy layers make it a spring/fall bag so I don’t need a 3rd sleeping bag between my summer and winter bags. Plus it’s more flexible having the insulation separate from my sleeping bag so I don’t need to be in my bag at all times just to be warm when I’m stopped.

      I wouldn’t call your way stupid light if it works for you, though.

      • Michael on March 17, 2015 at 2:49 pm

        Yes, my bag is warmer (likely 25-30 range in reality). My system was setup to not be ideal but thrifty so I generally have only one of each piece of gear/clothing. I wear the same shirt/pants in 3 season regardless of forecast/location so I’ve been in Grand Canyon in late June (during record heat wave in the SW) and 30 F in Wind River. One backpack for 1 night solo or 1 week with a son (and his food). One bag from -2 F to that Grand Canyon trip (slept on top of it the night in the canyon).

        It works for me but I’m not that picky and have a wide range of personal comfort levels I guess. Though I did decide to get us a hotel room rather than sleep in the high 90s near Las Vegas during that heat wave. 😛

  3. Andrew U on March 17, 2015 at 10:34 am

    Love this article series so far. Between you and Mike C steering me towards system style thinking I have significantly simplified and improved the contents of my gear closet.

  4. Joshua Rousselow on March 17, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Hi Andrew, I agree with you on down vs. synthetic. What are your thoughts on the Feathered Friends jacket choices? I’m considering the Hyperion for my PCT the hike. It has a good price point, and from an American cottage company. Also, I’m having a hard time finding treated water resistance down used in jackets/pants. Is there any logical reason for this? Thank you for your help!

    • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2015 at 1:52 pm

      No experience with FF. Obviously they have been around for a long time and make high-quality products, but I don’t hear FF being discussed as a major innovator.

      For the PCT, the down absolutely need not be water-resistant. You’re talking about prime conditions for down: warm and very dry. It might start getting wet in the PNW as you move into September, but I would recommend that you just throw another layer in your kit at that time rather than drive yourself crazy now looking for WR down in all of your stuff.

      • Joshua Rousselow on March 17, 2015 at 2:58 pm

        Thank you, what is your opinion on how necessary an attached hood is for the insulated down jacket? How often do you use it and should it be an absolute when purchasing a 3 season jacket? I suppose I’m asking if its an ultra light vs stupid light decision depending on cost.

        • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2015 at 3:04 pm

          A hood weighs very little, but it’s the most thermally efficient way in which to keep your head warm. (Consider the weight of a fleece cap versus the weight of your puffy’s hood.)

          If you are looking for one parka to cover the full range of 3-season conditions, get a hooded version. It’ll be too warm for the peak summer months, but before and after you’ll be happy you have it.

          • Jorgeh Johansson on March 18, 2015 at 12:52 pm

            I can only say halleluja. A hood might be the most thermally efficient piece of clothing in existence, be it on a puffy layer jacket or on a windshirt (one of my favorites). The few extra grams that protect skull and neck really delivers a lot of bang for the weight.

    • Eilish on March 17, 2015 at 3:49 pm

      Hi Joshua – Rab make great down jackets which have hydrophobic down with a pertex endurance shell (water resistant but not waterproof). I have their Neutrino Endurance version (ladies) which I used on Kilimanjaro and some of the chillier hikes here in Ireland. For Kilimanjaro it was absolutely amazing and kept me toasty warm at -22 deg C while others in the group were freezing 🙂 Overkill for most 3 season hiking trails but a fantastic jacket. Their Microlight Alpine jacket would probably suit the PCT more assuming 3 season needs. It is lighter and has the water resistant shell and hydrophobic down you are looking for… It has great reviews and even though its not the lightest down jacket on the market (445g) I’m going to get this model for my rest-of-year hiking…

  5. Paul Mags on March 17, 2015 at 10:53 am

    Military puffy pants! Because OD green is perfect for any occasion. 😉

  6. Louis Brooks on March 17, 2015 at 11:37 am

    I have to say I love my MH Ghost Whisperer. Used it the past two years in temps around 20 and been very comfortable. (with a micro weight wool UL) Just don’t snag it on anything.


    • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      I’m surprised you can take it that low with so few clothes underneath. Do you tend to run warm? I know that I would need a heavier parka, a good mid-layer, and probably puffy pants too if I wished to stand around in those temps.

      • Gordon on April 12, 2015 at 9:11 am

        An earlier version of the MH Ghost Whisperer uses 850 fill power down, not 800, in theory making it somewhat warmer than the current version. That said, as a “Stop” piece in 20-degree temps, I for one need a lot more down. I think the real value here, however, is in Andrew’s overall framework – although no doubt there are many who will benefit from his specific recommendations.

  7. Chris Vores on March 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    I have the golite bitterroot jacket comparable to the ghosr whisperer but also have the non hooded Patagonia nanopuff jacket. Which or both should I take on the High Sierra Trail last week of July and first week in August? Debating on my glove choice also if anyone has experience hiking to Mt Whitney?

    • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2015 at 1:47 pm

      Assuming that it’ll be an average forecast and that you’re not an excessively warm or cold person, the Nanopuff should be fine. In the High Sierra, that Bitterroot is really a September-June parka; in July and August, nighttime temps are usually in the 40’s, making the Bitterroot overkill.

      The only gloves I would consider bringing would be rain mitts, in the event of a cold afternoon thunderstorm. If you don’t have a pair, bread bags work pretty well, though durability is obviously a weak point.

  8. Eugen K on March 17, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    Hi Andrew, are there any particular advantages of sizing the insulated jacket to fit over the rain shell vs. sizing the rain shell to fit over the insulated jacket?

    • Andrew Skurka on March 17, 2015 at 2:48 pm

      In 3-season conditions, you shouldn’t need to wear your shells over your insulated garments. If it’s raining, it’s almost certainly above 32 degrees, and probably much warmer. If you need to hike in the rain, you should be warm enough while hiking in your hiking shirt, mid-layer, and shell jacket (up top) or underwear, hiking pants, and shell pants (down below); if it’s warmer out, you can get by with less. As soon as you roll into camp, set up your shelter and then throw your puffy garments on to retain your body heat.

      In the winter, you need the shell to fit over the insulated garments because temps may be cold enough that you need to wear them while moving. If it’s snowing hard and/or if it’s wet snow, a shell will help keep the precip off.

  9. Mark M on March 18, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Any experience with the Patagonia Nano Air Hoodie.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 19, 2015 at 8:25 am

      No, but just based on its specs I know what should be expected of it. It’s a lightly insulated jacket (just 60 g/m2 of synthetic fill, which is the lightest I regularly see) and it will lose its warm with extensive use because synthetics do not rebound completely after compression. No hood. Fine for mild nights, not okay for cold or cool nights, or for a long thru-hike when reliable long-term performance is a big consideration. Also not acceptable for a mid-layer garment, since it will not buffer moisture as well as fleece.

    • Rudie on October 28, 2018 at 5:29 am

      If you need to hike in the rain, you should be warm enough while hiking in your hiking shirt, mid-layer, and shell jacket (up top)

      What would your mid-layer be in that set-up? Sounds like the hiking shirt is your base-layer. Do you wear a lightweight fleece over that or what? Thanks for clarifying.

  10. Adam Streu on March 19, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. A question for you:

    From your own expereince, if you were wearing a light baselayer and a full down insulation layer (say 7 or 8 ounces of 800 down throughout your chest, sleeves, hood, pants, booties, etc.), how much warmth in degrees would that add to a sleeping bag at night?

    The reson for my question: I sit around in camp a lot, and am considering purchasing a 40 degree quilt and some new insullating garments to replace my 20 degree mummy bag. I would like to still be comfortable on the ground with a decent pad to 20 degrees.

    Thank you.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 19, 2015 at 12:58 pm

      You’re not going to get 7-8 oz of down in your garments. More like 5 (3 in the jacket, 2 in the pants). The Western Mountaineering SummerLite, which they rate to 32 deg F and which is a mummy-style bag, has 10 oz of down in it. So by wearing a puffy jacket and pants you are increasing the amount of down surrounding your body by 50 percent.

      However, it’s that easy. A sleeping bag is going to be more thermally efficient than a jacket or pants, because volume grows exponentially as surface area grows linearly. For instance, think about the amount of down and fabrics needed to create one arm of a jacket. With the material of 5 arms, you might be able to enclose in a sleeping bag an entire body, which is 10x or 15x the volume of an arm. See?

      My point is, even though parka + pants increases the amount of down by 50 percent, it will not result in a 50 percent increase in warmth. Maybe more like 20 percent. And that probably translates into 15-20 degrees of additional nighttime warmth when you sleep in your parka and puffy pants.

      • Adam Streu on March 20, 2015 at 10:42 am


  11. Vadim Fedorovsky on March 22, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    Andrew do you know anything about whether or not the down used by Sierra Designs is “ethically” sourced?

    I am not even sure how ethical and painless the harvesting can be. Patagonia would likely know.

    What I am sure of, and this is just my opinion so please let me know if you disagree with me, is that the majority of hikers strongly desire materials that are “ethically” sourced.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 22, 2015 at 8:09 pm

      Of course we want ethically sourced down. But are you willing to pay for it?

      I don’t know the specifics of SD’s down program, but if they were going above and beyond in sourcing they would probably be talking about it publicly. Not all down is ethically sourced, and not all of it is unethically sourced either.

      • Vadim Fedorovsky on March 23, 2015 at 3:16 pm

        I contacted Sierra Designs today about this.

        Customer service rep’s response that all their down comes from a company called Allied Feather

        It is claimed to be ethically sourced as a by product of the food industry, and not live plucked.

  12. Vadim Fedorovsky on March 23, 2015 at 7:07 am

    Re: willing to pay for it

    It’s hard to say since I have no idea what the cost increase would be but I am willing to bet a lot of conscious consumers would be willing to pay for it. Again though, hard to predict without knowing what the price difference would be.

  13. Michael on March 27, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Where do you keep your insulation so you can easily get to it on a short stop yet it doesn’t get wet in your pack if raining? I’ve always kept my bag and sleep clothes in the pack liner (compactor bag) and everything else in the pack outside of it since those items could be dirty/damp and I don’t care if they get wet.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 27, 2015 at 10:23 am

      Two scenarios, both assuming that daytime temps are cool enough that I will want an insulated layer during rest stops, which really is only the case during brisk spring and fall days, or at really high altitudes in the summer.

      1. When it’s not raining and unlikely to rain, I keep it inside my pack near the top. I don’t bother to close the pack liner.

      2. When it’s raining or likely to rain, I still keep it near the top of my pack, but inside the pack liner with a good seal.

  14. Dennis on April 3, 2015 at 1:45 am

    When going with a jacket with a hood, do you forego on any beanie?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 3, 2015 at 8:07 am

      Simple decision consideration: Will I need to insulate my head when I am hiking, not just in camp? If the answer is no, then I don’t take a beanie. If the answer is yes, then I take a beanie, or use the hood on a mid-layer.

      Temps must be pretty crisp to warrant additional head insulation, and I usually go with a merino earband or neckband (aka Buff) before I go with a beanie, since it’s more versatile. Since I often wear the Headsweats ProTech on my trips in the West, my temperature tolerance is better than if I were just wearing a ballcap or visor.

  15. Stu on April 3, 2015 at 9:06 am

    Unless hiking in winter, I prefer down vests to jackets – I always have a ski cap and buff with me for temperature regulation whilst hiking, so I only need to keep my core warm during rest stops. When I’m resting I usually have my hands in my deep vest pockets so only my upper arms are exposed from the warm down. If trying a down vest, be sure to get one with a tight seal right the way around the arms – too many leave gaps under your armpits! Mine is a PHD minimums vest from the UK but I’m sure equivalents must exist in the US.

  16. Matthew Polley on November 25, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    Have you looked at or tested a jacket with Ramtect insulation?

    • Andrew Skurka on November 25, 2015 at 9:19 pm

      I’ve heard of it and seen samples staples of it, but have no first-hand experience with and have not seen any testing results on it. I see it as being a natural alternative to synthetic insulations, but it does not rival warmth/weight of down.

  17. konrad on December 3, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    I want to have some gear to eventually do Denali with. For a baselayer I was going to go with Terramar with their heavy polyester for shirt and pants. Arcteryx atom LT hoody on top of that followed by an Arcteryx Nuclei hoody on top and then an Arcteryx Alpha FL shell. All very lightweight and should be sufficient for summiting I would think. Pants: Terramar baselayer with Alpha SL shell and a insulating layer of Arcteryx Atom LT full zips that I could put over the shell for summit day or wear as an insulating layer if needed. I am still figuring out boots, mittens. What do you all think?

    • Andrew Skurka on December 3, 2015 at 6:33 pm

      I’m not the best person to consult about clothing for Denali. If you are going with a guide, I would get their thoughts.

      In really cold temperatures, personal metabolism plays a big role. I tend to run cold, needing a lot of activity to get warmed up, whereas others run hot just standing around.

  18. Ronnie on January 7, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    Any recommendations for women’s insulated/down pants?

    • Andrew Skurka on January 7, 2016 at 10:33 pm

      Insulated pants are such a low-volume item that I think you will struggle to find women sizing. But check around — WM, Montbell, MH, and any other brands I may have mentioned.

  19. Gordon on January 22, 2016 at 7:40 am

    Thanks for pointing out that SD makes a box-baffled parka. I got one for my wife, who hikes quite warm, but gets very cold immediately after she stops moving. She is very happy with the extra warmth. I thought it would replace her much lighter sewn-through baffled puffy, but she still takes that along to sleep in. 😉

  20. Wayne on February 17, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Andrew: A lot of great advice but I’d change your synthetic recommendation to something a bit warmer than the Montbell UL Thermawrap Parka @ 50gm/m2 and 12.8 oz. I have Primaloft One/Gold in several jackets in different weights: 40gm/m2 (hoodless MEC Uplink jacket), 60gm/m2 (MEC Uplink Hoodie) and 100gm/m2 (hoodless Cabelas jacket). I view the 40 or 50gm/m2 stuff as lightweight sweaters not dependable mid-layers especially if you’re planning to use them as outers without a shell over them. I use the 60gm/m2 14oz Uplink Hoodie in that role and would recommend others go no lighter than that as well. To match your 13 oz Sierra Designs DriDown Hoody in synthetic form, you’d have to go with something like the Montbell Thermawrap Pro with 80gm/m2 and 15.1oz weight. Unless you’re hotblooded by nature — and us oldies aren’t — then the 50gm/m2 isn’t on the list of picks. OutdoorGearLab rated the hoodless Thermawrap jacket as “significantlly less warm” than the 60gm/m2+ competition in their rating. I concur. I use a baselayer or two (with 150 or 200 merino with maybe a Brynje Super Thermo underneath) coupled with a midweight capilene fleece and 60gm.m2 hoodie. With a cold, near freezing wind thrown in, I’ll add a shell over everything. Think Rockies in late September/early October with a chance of an early blizzard. Great site and info BTW. I love your term “stupid light”!

    • Andrew Skurka on February 17, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      It looks like Montbell has changed their product line and/or naming since I wrote this post 12 months ago.

      The old UL Thermawarp Parka appears equivalent to the new Thermawrap Pro. They offer 80 g/m2 insulation. This should be adequate for 3-season use in the Mountain West.

      I’d agree with you that the old UL Thermawrap Jacket, and new Thermawrap Sport Parka and new Thermawrap Sport Jacket, with just 50 g/m2 insulation, are a little thin except if you live in the East, where 3-season low temps tend to be warmer (more often 50’s and 60’s than 30’s and 40’s).

  21. julien on March 9, 2016 at 9:55 am

    On paper the borah gear down pants are worth a look especially for 150$. I don’t own them but at a bit under 6oz, down filled, that could be a good alternative.

  22. Shane Cutting on March 20, 2016 at 1:41 am

    Hello Andrew,
    You mentioned that “With few exceptions my preference is down.” Under what circumstances do you believe that synthetic insulation becomes the preference? Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 20, 2016 at 10:19 am

      It’s not a cost issue, all things being equal. If my budget were limited, I would favor a low-quality down (e.g. 600-fill) over synthetic. The two insulations are about as warm per weight, and the down will last many years longer. You may not be able to find a 600-fill product that you want, however. Usually when companies build a budget product, they use synthetic, not low quality down.

      So the only real exception is extreme amounts of humidity and liquid moisture (not snow), where you will never get an opportunity to dry down out (e.g. a bit of sunshine, a dry dry where you can hang it up). I’ve personally never been in such a situation — they’re pretty rare. I’m thinking the temperate rain forests of the Northwest during their rainiest months. You might get a multi-day stretch with similar conditions elsewhere in the country, but by the time you really need to dry out your down, you’ll either be going home or the weather will have turned for you.

  23. Lee on May 21, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    Kudos for mentioning the M-65 pant liners. A tip as well, the jacket liners are equally as good. Even with all the new, high speed, “tactical” cold weather gear we have nowadays, sometimes the oldies are still the best.

  24. Sam on June 16, 2016 at 8:59 am

    I have a pair of M-65 pant liners and use them for winter camping in Michigan with
    temps down to 10 degrees so far. They have buttons along the sides so they are easy to put on over whatever pants and boots you might already be wearing. Mostly I wear them in camp as added insulation as needed for lower temps. They weigh a pound. I think they are overkill for 3 season use. Very inexpensive, around 15 bucks.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 16, 2016 at 11:21 am

      > I think they are overkill for 3 season use.

      Depends on how you define 3-season use, and how well your body holds onto its heat. For a lot of 3-season trips, I agree they will be overkill. But if you want to push into the shoulders of this season, a lot of people will appreciate having something for their lower legs. In Colorado, for example, I bring puffy pants starting in mid-September, once nights are reliably in the 20’s.

  25. Phil on August 20, 2016 at 3:34 am

    Hi, what do you think about down vests? I have a Cumulus Vest with 53g of 850 down and a Haglöfs Polartec PowerDry Hood and don’t know if this is sufficiant isolation for the TeAraora in NZL in Combination with a long baselayer…

    • Andrew Skurka on August 20, 2016 at 2:15 pm

      Per warmth, vests are more efficient than jackets (due to the relationship of surface area to volume), but they don’t do much for your arms in cooler temperatures.

      Do you know the temperatures you will encounter on the Te Araora? Knowing the conditions is the starting point for all gear selection.

      • Phil on August 21, 2016 at 12:49 pm

        I guess the nighttemperatures will be around 10 C in the lowlands but in the alps it can drop around freezing from time to time. My current MYOG quilts limit is around 5C (Tshirt, Polartec fleece hood and Patagonia nano air jacket plus beanie).

        I consider buying a warmer quilt since my current is on the cold and small side. I guess I just have to test different clothing concepts before we start our trip to NZL. I actually dont want to buy a new quilt AND a new puffy since I allready own the down vest and the synthetic jacket (which is quite heavy).

  26. Paolo on August 31, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Hi Andrew

    I consider buying a new down jacket and could get a good deal on 3 different models, but don’t know which to take in terms of fillweight. I do 3-season backpacking, mostly in the italian alps. So temperatures can be below freezingpoint in summer, but mostly wont.
    1: 65g / 2.3 oz of 850 cuin goose down, no hood, total weight 190g / 6.7oz
    2: 100g / 3.5oz of 850 cuin goose down, no hood, total weight 9.8 oz (but a bit more comfy material)
    3. 115g / 4oz of 850 cuin goose down, hooded, total weight 11.4 oz. A bit heavyer but I might leave my beanie at home

    Price is more or less equal for all three jackets – where do you think one would get the best bang for your buck?

    Thanks a lot!

    • Andrew Skurka on August 31, 2016 at 9:53 am

      The 115g jacket would give you the most versatility — you could use it throughout the summer, and also in the spring and fall. Also, I like hoods.

      The 65g jacket would be okay for summer only.

      The 100g jacket is a better summmer jacket than the 115g (which is a bit overkill), but why not get a more versatile jacket for just 1.6 extra oz?

      • Paolo on August 31, 2016 at 11:08 am

        Wow – what a fast answer! 🙂
        Thanks for your advice, I guess I’ll get the hooded jacket then (which was my favourite anyway) eventough it might be a bit overkill.
        What do you think about its weight to warmth – ratio? There are lighter jackets on the market, but most of them have less fillpower, so it’s hard for me to compare…

        • Andrew Skurka on August 31, 2016 at 12:50 pm

          Less than 12 oz for a jacket with 115 g of fill power sounds pretty good to me. Sounds like you have a winner.

  27. Smurfy on September 12, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    I’m having a little trouble figuring out winter layering for some 3-5 day trips later in winter. My area is warmer than the arctic but colder than most of the USA, and I can’t find many examples to base my system on.

    I’m in Alberta, Canada, and will end up maybe in Jasper area this winter for several trips. Temperature average from nov-feb is -5C (23F) to -10C (14F), but -25C (-13F) isn’t that unusual

    1 – What kind of layering system would be just barely not-enough for this sort of area?

    2 – What kind of layering system would be just barely overkill for this sort of area?

    (I’m considering: T2 base layer with hood, fleece jacket or vest, wind jacket as action suit, then possible puffy then camp jacket for camp/rest stops)

    3 – What do you think of the MEC socked-in hoody as a camp / rest jacket? ~600g(~21oz), 80-100g/m primaloft insulation, W/B shell with 30000 g/m2/24h breathability. I’m worried that the W/B will be an issue for being able to dry out if ever it gets wet, or that it will not insulate enough for when I’m doing camp chores. Its a nice jacket though. I can’t find any other high insulation synthetics around besides the DAS parka which is probably overkill, even as a camp jacket.

    • Andrew Skurka on September 12, 2016 at 1:34 pm

      This conversation is beyond the scope of this post and the Core 13.

      I’m going to reference you to my gear list from the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, Specifically, look at the Winter and Spring list. Since you’ll have an accurate forecast for a 3-5 day trip immediately before you go, you can decide whether you should take the winter kit or the spring kit.

  28. Gordon on November 8, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Andrew, the link for the Montbell UL down pants goes to a Backcountry page that no longer features the Montbell pants. On the other hand, a Montbell page has a “Superior Down Pant”. Do you know if this is the “same” pant? Also, it’s the time of year to buy this insulation, so you might want to update your Montbell link in some way. I prefer to follow your links when I can to get to a product.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 10, 2016 at 7:40 am

      For all intents and purposes, the Superior Down Pant is the same as the older UL Down Pant. It looks like Montbell is now only available direct. Not sure whether that was their plan or not, i.e. if dealers dropped them because of low sales, or if Montbell decided they would be better off without retailers.

      Thanks for the encouragement to update some of the products — it was needing to be done. For affiliates, it actually does not matter, so long as this was the last website to send you there.

      • Gordon on November 10, 2016 at 1:24 pm

        Western Mountaineering really has a premium price for that two-ounce weight savings. Rab has a pant on sale now (Backcountry) for about the same price as the Montbell, but it uses the Pertex fabric they are fond of. I guess it’s more durable and moisture proof, but the pants weigh in at over 13 ounces. Haven’t been able to determine how much down they have.

        • Andrew Skurka on November 10, 2016 at 1:28 pm

          I think you’re paying for WM reputation and for USA-made, too.

  29. Sven on November 16, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Hi Andrew,

    When would you opt for the flash pants and when for the flight pants? Can you put a temperature number on the divide? When I look at your gear list for your Yukon expedition, it looks like the flight pants would have been overkill for temps above -20F? So I wonder why you recommend the flight pants if you were to buy only one down pant.

    In my personal situation, I am looking for pants that will (in combination with my 850fp 7oz down filled hoody) add about 15 degrees to my 32F quilt and that I can also use to watch the northern lights for about an hour up to -10F. What would you recommend? The flash or the flight pants? (I sleep quite warm and use an XTherm pad)

    • Andrew Skurka on November 17, 2016 at 8:24 am

      If my funds limited me to one pair of insulated pants, I would go with the Flight because they can be used whenever I would want to wear the Flash (although with a 6 oz weight penalty) plus colder conditions, like in deep winter.

      The Flash pants are good for cold shoulder-season trips, when you want insulated pants mostly for camp, and you can remove them before you leave in the morning. The Flight pants are better for winter trips when you need them in camp and during the day whenever you take a break. The full-length side zips will quickly justify the 6 extra ounces, due to the convenience of layering up and down. When it’s very cold out, the last thing you want to have to do is remove a ski boat in order to take your insulated pants off.

  30. Zach on November 16, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    Oh. I just brought a mountain hardware ghost whisper hooded jacket. I hope I saw ur article earlier. I guess I will just use it as a late spring to early fall insulation. Do u recommend the arcteryx cerium hooded jacket?

    • Andrew Skurka on November 17, 2016 at 8:15 am

      I’m unfamiliar with the Cerium, besides what I can gather from its specs.

      The usability of the GW depends on where you are and what your personal needs are. I tend to run cold and I do most of my backpacking in the West. For me, it’d be a fine jacket from June through September, plus/minus a few weeks on each end depending on the forecast. Most people would want something lighter for the summer months, though.

  31. Eric Blumensaadt on December 12, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    I’m looking at MontBell Tec down pants. At barely over 6 oz. they are nice for around camp and extending the warmth of my sleeping bag, if necesssary.
    At $145. they seem reasonably priced considering the high quality.

    My 3 season bag is an overstuffed Western Mountaineering Megalite (good to 20 F.) with room to wear puffy jacket and pants on nights below 20 F.

    My winter bag is an LL Bean -20 F. down bag and if I need more insulation in that bag it will be damn cold!

    My winter hiking/BC skiing pants are Duluth Trading fleece lined nylon cargo pants that are plenty warm with light poly long johns.

    • Tony Yarusso on January 8, 2017 at 12:31 am

      I was just scrolling down to add a comment recommending the MontBell Tec Down pants. They’re 1.6oz heavier than the WM Flight, but $125 cheaper, and still give you fully-separating zippers. I’ve been using them for a few years now. I think you meant barely over 6oz *more* than the Superior Down though? The total is listed as 14.1 oz. They also come in women’s sizes. Besides the zippers, the other difference from the Superior is a heavier fabric on high-wear areas, which has seemed worth it for my use.

  32. Matthew Stenger on February 6, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    I swear I read an article of yours once about how your gear all wetted out on you on your Yukon trip, and you felt synthetic insulation would have been clutch. Has experience taught you otherwise since or am I mis-remembering?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 7, 2017 at 3:04 pm

      You might be confusing synthetic insulation for fleece. I was fleece-less on my Alaska-Yukon Expedition, and regretted it on multiple occasions because my rain gear crapped out and I got soaked. A fleece mid-layer would have trapped some heat and buffered some of the moisture.

  33. Chris on February 15, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Andrew. As a newbie backpacker who wanted to buy once and buy right, this article has saved me a lot of money (and weight). Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise.

  34. Eric Blumensaadt on February 15, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    Fleece Hmm?

    Well, I do carry a 200 weight fleece vest as a backup for core protection.

    I thought I should be carrying my down vest in addition to my EB down sweater but liked the safety of the fleece – and this is even though the down vest has down Dri-Down DWR. Fleece works in the very worst of conditions.

    Going ski camping this weekend above 8,000 ft. and wearing an even heavier 300 weight fleece vest under an eVent parka but carrying the down sweater for camp use.

    We have about 100 total inches of snow in Las Vegas’ Spring Mountains (above 7,000 ft.) and expect another 17″ this weekend. Oh Boy!

  35. BCap on January 3, 2018 at 6:59 am

    Ben at GooseFeet gear made my wife a pair of down pants (custom tailored). They are quite price competitive with big brands, while being better fitted (she has runners quads so many womens pants don’t fit well) and significantly more down. (The vanilla 20D sewn thru version with 4.5 oz of down was only $160 compared to the MontBell at $169 and 1.8 oz of down).

  36. Eric Blumensaadt on January 3, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    Thanks BCap.

    I’m now looking for down pants to extend the temp rating of my -20 F. LL Bean down bag to as far as -40 F. for a N. Dakota trip this winter. I will talk to GoosFeet to wee what I can order. I had been looking at Montbell’s lightest pants B/C they were much less expensive than their warmer pants.

  37. Dan on August 10, 2018 at 10:15 am

    Since you mentioned the humane treatment of the birds and live plucking, and since you had a strong relationship with Sierra Designs, can you comment on the sourcing of the down that SD uses in their jackets and sleeping bags? Many companies are listed on the Responsible Down Standard website as having made a commitment to using ethically sourced down. Some companies, Patagonia for example, are not on that website but have made their own commitments. Do you know where Sierra Designs stands on this issue? I have long used synthetic fill bags and jackets for this reason but I am tired of carrying such a huge, heavy bag.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 10, 2018 at 10:30 am

      I’m no longer with SD and I didn’t get too involved with materials sourcing when I was there. But I believe that SD works with Allied Down and its TrackMyDown program, Each down-filled SD product has a hangtag with a unique ID, which can be entered into the website to see its source.

      • Dan on August 10, 2018 at 10:44 am

        Thanks for the link, lots of good info.

  38. Eric B. on August 10, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    I noticed that my LL Bean -20 F. goose down bag (750 fill) was from “… responsibly sourced European and Chinese geese” So I guess the down was harvested after slaughter for meat.

  39. Mike G. on August 20, 2019 at 11:10 am

    Hey Andrew,

    Wondering if there are any additional considerations if you plan to use a down jacket to supplement your quilt, specifically the hood? Do you still not want adjustable cords to help reduce drafts/lost warmth?

    Thinking about WM Flash, Feathered Friends Eos, etc. that have elastic hoods, but don’t cinch. Do you think something like the MB Superior Down would be better as it is more adjustable?

    Overall, love the Core 13 Guide! Great content that keeps on giving!

    • Andrew Skurka on August 20, 2019 at 2:11 pm

      If you plan to wear your hood all night long, I think the most important thing is comfort, not necessarily snugness.

  40. Eric B. on August 20, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    Andrew, This past January I bought an EDDIE BAUER -30 F. Peak XV down expedition parka that was tagged with the” hangtag.

    So I looked it up online and found it came from European geese. Nice that companies are getting onboard with responsible materials sourcing.

    I’m a backcountry skier and needed a “camp parka” so the slightly heavier Cordura brand fabric was no problem. The fabric has a unique tiny diamond pattern and is noticeably tougher than light ripstop fabric (having accidentally “tested” it on a broken branch).

  41. Adam on April 11, 2020 at 7:14 pm

    Andrew – what do you do about the ankle cuffs of full zip down pants? the Western Mountaineering Flight pant cuffs are incredibly small/tight. i was hoping to get some full zip down puffy pants for use at camp, but none of them seem to have ankle cuffs large enough to go over my touring boots.

    too small:
    Western Mountaineering Flight Down
    Feathered Friends Helios
    Mont Bell Tec Down

    fit, but synthetic insulation and big/heavy:
    Rab Photon
    Mountain Hardware Compressor
    Black Diamond Stance

    • Andrew Skurka on April 11, 2020 at 7:33 pm

      I’m not familiar with the cuffs of all the insulated pants in the market. But I’ll speculate that you can divide them into two camps: the ultralight pants designed for three season backpacking, and more robust pants designed for mountaineering. The former will have tighter cuffs, and the latter will better accommodate bulky plastic boots.

      The only time I’ve needed insulated pants while wearing ski boots was during my Alaska trip, and at the time montbell made three quarter length synthetic ultralight pants that I could mostly zip over the boots. The boots were low profile however, since they were leather three-pin Nordic.

      Most of the time that I’m wearing insulated pants I’m in camp or sleeping, and usually I’m not walking around in ski boots.

  42. mike Frye on April 17, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    So, I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at your gear suggestions and find them very helpful. My most pressing issue is staying warm in the evenings, those 2-3 hours after the sun sets when I’m just hanging out at camp. I typically wear my hooded Patagonia down sweater, a Patagonia R1 fleece jacket, a hooded shirt, my long lite-weight hiking pants, long underwear (Patagonia R1), a wool beanie and am still freezing anytime it dips into the 30s or below. Should I just suck it up? I don’t want to carry a lot more. Suggestions?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 19, 2020 at 8:53 am

      It’s unrealistic to think you can sit around in 30- or 40-deg temps for several hours while just wearing some relatively light insulation layers. I would start by investing in some insulated pants, which will be far warmer than leggings. That will buy you some time but I’m still not sure it would be enough. I’d start thinking about building a fire or wrapping my sleeping bag/quilt around me, or just going to bed early. You could also look into getting a warmer down jacket, like the Montbell Alpine Light Parka — an extra few ounces of down increases the jacket warmth dramatically.

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