Outdoor clothing is a tool like anything else.
Outdoor clothing ends up being my work clothes in a sense. And much like my Dad and my grandfather before him, work clothes are separate from everyday wear.
Though I appreciate, as my Dad would say, “looking sharp” when not outdoors, my outdoor clothing tends to be utilitarian. Meaning it gets worn, used, and tends to show wear and tear after a while. And despite my best cleaning, oils accumulate, sweat stains appear, and the occasional piece of repair tape adorns the jacket.
So I want outdoor clothing that ends up being functional and not necessarily fashionable at the end, and will, well do what is intended. And like any tool, I use different tools for different jobs.
And my outdoor puffies are no different. In 2019, puffies are a “go to” layer for not just winter, but in all seasons. Light, compressible, and capable. Though it is not the ideal layer for all situations, it is unusual for a person to not take this layer overall esp when on extended backpacking trips during typical three-season conditions.
And like other clothing or gear, I tend to have a quiver of puffies for different uses.
One puffy works well for three-season use but ends up being terrible for deep winter (as defined by my Colorado Rockies experience). And the lofty down coats are not ideal for wet, humid, and sloppy conditions back East.
With all that in mind, here is my current quiver of puffies for various uses.
- Three-Season backpacking conditions when mainly dry – Montbell Superior Down
My Montbell Superior Down is the mainstay backpacking garment for three-season conditions in Intermountain West and nearby. I’ve used one for a few years and received a new one to replace my still serviceable, but not as lofty, older one. At about 9 oz, it packs a surprising amount of warmth in a small package. It worked well for the Colorado Rockies, all over the Colorado Plateau, countless trips over a year of use, and down the spine of Canada. I am sure my new one will give me similar results over the months, and years, ahead.
- Deep Shoulder Season and early Winter conditions (Intermountain West and nearby) – GoLite Bitterroot
Now that I live in Moab, I find I’ve been using my one coat more often than in the recent past. It can get cold in Utah, of course. But generally not the deep winter conditions customary in the Colorado Rockies. Which means late-Fall/early winter conditions by my old calibration. Call it high teens or low twenties and perhaps a little colder at night. My Montbell Frostline (below) would be overkill. The jacket I grab? My GoLite Bitterroot.
With 5 oz of down fill, a water-resistant shell, and packing lightly, it has been perfect for the conditions I’ve been experiencing in the Moab area on the Colorado Plateau. The jacket is sewn-through stitching and not baffle construction, so not as thermally efficient as it could be versus other similar coats. However, like the typical “bread and butter” gear that GoLite sometimes did right when they weren’t making “lifestyle clothing” the Bitterroot ended up being a great price point, practical, and good quality. An excellent coat for shoulder season backpacking.
- Deep Winter Use, Intermountain West and nearby – Montbell Frostline Parka
For deep winter use, I’ll take my Montbell Frostline Parka. As I wrote earlier:
Not exactly inexpensive at just under-$300, but it has many similar features as more expensive parkas. Meaning? Over 7oz of down fill, baffle box (sleeping bag) style stitching versus the less thermally efficient sewn through style,insulated draft zipper tube, fleece lining where appropriate, a hood that cinches, etc.
I’ve been delighted with this parka. At 19 oz, it is not as light as similar puffies in its class. But, the slightly thicker nylon shell stands up a bit more to the challenges I face when winter backpacking. Meaning, handling skis, poles, and other winter gear that can poke, prod, and tear more delicate fabrics. Cheap? No. A good deal for what it does? Yes!
- All-Purpose Beater Down Coat – EMS Glacier Down
Every active outdoors person should have a beater down coat. Throw it on during truck bivys when your other layers are stowed for the following day’s backpacking trip. Wear for car camping. Grab it for the occasional cold-weather chores or even sitting around the campfire (carefully!). My beater down is an EMS Glacier Down coat. I’ve had this coat for well over a decade now. The fill-power is “only” 650 but is more tolerant of moisture than their higher fill-power cousins, the thicker nylon shell does not compress as well and makes the jacket heavier but is a bit more durable, and the chunky zipper does not snag on fine red dirt that gets everywhere on the Colorado Plateau. Very useful when winter camping. Not by coincidence, my most significant use of this layer over the years! Though I do not have an insulated hood with this coat, I find a heavy fleece balaclava works well for my use. I suspect I’ll have this warhorse for years to come.
- Three-Season Jacket, wet or humid conditions – Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody
In a different life, I worked IT support. One of my first “real” jobs. The guy who fixed your laptop, got the WiFi working, sync up your smartphone to your computer, etc. And occasionally I’d pull being an IT Monkey at a company trade show. I’d do the same crap, just with a lot more people noticing if something screws up. I guess I did an OK job as I received a spot bonus. A generous gift card that I could spend at various stores. Including one that stocked Patagonia products. So I bought a Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody to replace a similar, if non-hooded, Montbell Thermawrap. And since Ubuntu had a Natty Narwhal distro at the time, and my colleagues and I loved that name, I went with the Narwhal color. Yes, I do have some geek roots!
The Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody is a baggier cut than the Thermawrap and is slightly heavier. But it is a warm and functional three-season garment. And it is a jacket I already own!
I do not use this layer all that much, to be honest. Most of my hiking is in the drier Intermountain West or nearby. However, if I were to go on an extended hike in New England, the Cascades, or similar environments, I’d gladly use this layer again.
- Late Fall and Early Winter Jacket, all-purpose synthetic
The Mountain Equipment Superflux s jacket I received for a review, and one I like quite a bit. I ended up using this jacket a lot all of last year as it is functional, durable, and forgiving of more conditions than my similar Bitterroot. Since I was on the road for nearly a year, I needed to make some concessions for versatility. At 19oz, the jacket is a bit heavy and bulky compared to similar down garments. But it ended up being a superb all-purpose jacket be it for January backpacking in Cedar Mesa, cooler nights during the Spring, or even acceptable around town when not being a hiking bum always on the road.
As noted earlier:
..for an all-purpose jacket in camp and colder (late fall or late winter) backpacking? My Mountain Equipment Superflux has been quite handy. Down is lighter and more compressible. But synthetic is more forgiving in a variety of conditions. The thicker nylon shell and synthetic fill shows the climbing roots of this British company. The coat has become a favorite “go to” layer of mine many nights. The jacket is heavier and bulkier than my older GoLite Bitterroot, but since I am on the road, I do need to make some concessions for versatility sake.
- Dirt bagger favorite, M-65 liner jacket
The M-65 Liner is a synthetic jacket that is cheap, functional, and light at ~10-11oz for a medium. Surprisingly warm when worn under a shell, this humble garment kept me toasty during a cold snap on the Benton MacKaye Trail. I still have one and will occasionally layer it with my beater down jacket when in camp. Kind of a warm, if ugly, olive-drab green sweater! If you are on a budget or only have occasional use for a synthetic puffy layer, you can’t do wrong by purchasing this sub-$15 piece of taxpayer-funded clothing. Works well in as emergency clothing car stash, too.
And that’s my quiver of puffies. My Bitterroot is getting a touch less lofty in the sleeves near the cuffs, but otherwise, everything is holding up OK. I could go a touch lighter in some cases, esp with the Nano Puff Hoody. But spending another $200-$300 to save a couple of ounces when I have a perfectly functional jacket does not seem the best use of my money at this time.
Disclosure: Backpacker Magazine provided the Superflux for my review. Montbell provided the first Superior Down for volunteer work I did at the time, the replacement supplied at no cost to me. All the other layers I purchased with my funds.