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. It means it gets worn and used and shows wear and tear afterward. 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 do what is intended. And like any tool, I use different tools for different jobs.
And my outdoor puffies are no different.
In 2023, puffies are a “go-to” layer for winter and all seasons. Light, compressible, and capable. Though it is not the ideal layer for all situations, it is unusual for a person not to take this layer overall, especially when on extended backpacking trips during typical three-season conditions.
And like other clothing or gear, Joan and I tend to have a quiver of puffies for different uses.
One puffy works well for three-season use but is terrible for deep winter found in the mountains. And the lofty down coats are not ideal for wet, humid, and sloppy conditions back East.
Joan has similar thoughts and will also use different puffies for different uses.
With all that in mind, here is our current quiver of puffies for various uses.
UPDATED in November 2023 with different gear and input from Joan.
Joan gets colder than me while hiking or at night. She needs more insulation than I do, regardless of the season. Suffering from Reyanauds, staying warm while camping or backpacking is essential.
Before Joan held a permanent position, she worked seasonal jobs. One meant a brief time sewing for Nunatak (based in Moab then), who makes some of the best outdoor clothing and quilts. Joan made herself an 8.5 oz/240g synthetic fill jacket that’s become her go-to piece for most of her temperate weather backpacking. It’s minimalist, light, practical, and layers well.
Joan no longer sews for Nunatak but works with her own small batch gear company. 😉
A favorite puffy of Joan and myself, Joan appreciates the warmth in the small Montbell Alpine Light down package. She is now on her second one and, as before, went with a men’s cut for more effortless layering, larger baffles, and overall warmth. It’s our overall favorite puffy for both of us.
The Montbell Japanese website often offers items unavailable for U.S. locations (at least initially). I purchased some full-zip rain pants this way. Joan bought her favorite camping jacket from Montbell, offering a thicker shell than the typical backpacking garments from Montbell; it’s warm, durable, and very comfortable.
We are not sure of the exact model, as Joan purchased it over five years ago. But it’s a mainstay for her.
A bonus from buying from the Montbell Japan website? Depending on the Yen to Dollar ratio, you can sometimes get discounted goods (even with S&H).
- Deeper cold beater camp puffy – L.L. Bean vintage down coat
We picked up this “vintage” eBay special for an excellent price after we started camping together in deeper cold weather. It’s tall, has a very thick shell, is warm, and is sized up enough to go over the Montbell layer above. It has no hood, so that Joan will use it with a Nuntak down balaclava she made earlier for freezing weather.
While I don’t run as cold as Joan, I tend to enjoy snow-based backpacking with skis and tolerate the colder weather in general. I have a couple of pieces in my kit that reflect these differences.
My Montbell Superior Down is the mainstay backpacking garment for three-season conditions in Intermountain West and nearby since 2014. Weighting in at ~9oz/250g, it packs a good amount of warmth in a light and very packable garment.
I am now on my third version after retiring version 2.0 this past October after many days and nights of backpacking. And I suspect version 3.0 will be of similar use to me.
My absolute favorite puffy is, by far, the Montbell Alpine Light Down. It’s warm enough for many different conditions but not so warm I could not use it for more moderate conditions; well-made, reasonably light (~14 oz / 400 g), and versatile. It’s the ULA Circuit of puffies, and if I had to own just one puffy for everything, it would be this one.
It’s a favorite of Joan and I for many reasons.
- Deep Winter Use, Intermountain West and nearby – Montbell Alpine Down (formerly the 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, / 535g for a men’s large (newer versions are lighter), 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. This means 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!
I don’t use it as much now that I live in Utah and spend time mainly in the cold, but not overly cold, desert, but it’s a piece I am still glad to have for the nearby La Sals and Abajos for overnight use.
I planned a longer walk of my native New England back in 2019, but that did not work out due to family commitments, and I ended up walking a loop in New Mexico instead. No complaints!
However, I knew synthetic insulation would work better for the wet and overall damp weather I’d experience in a New England autumn. I got a Montbell Thermawrap UL that I thought would work well for these conditions.
Though the hike did not materialize, I use it for pack rafting trips, and I find it one of the most comfortable and breathable of all the puffies I own. It’s the usual Montbell attention to detail with its simple yet stylish aesthetics I’ve long admired.
When (not if!) I get on that New England trip, and I’m sure it will be the garment in my pack…or for any East Coast or Pacific Northwest backpacking.
- Stashed in my day pack, used for camping, and worn around town on the way to places; beater jacket – Coropoate Schwag puffy.
A Nano puff clone freebie given to me by a past gig in corporate America, it’s something I don’t mind beating the crap out of or keeping stashed in my day pack.
To quote myself –
I keep it in the truck as a “just-in-case” jacket, wear it often, so I do not beat up my other clothes as much when camping, and frequently grab it for day hikes. In particular, it makes a good layering piece under my more oversized fleece jacket for colder weather when, again, in base camp situations.
Joan put a patch over the obnoxious corporate logo, and I’ve had people ask what company makes my jacket. A mysterious logo has the potential to get trendy!
Do you need a similar corporate schwag jacket of your own?
You could get one as a trinket from CEOs making much more money than you, potentially find one in the thrift store shortly, or purchase a budget one from Costco, Amazon, or directly via such places as 32 Degrees. And often for around $40 or less.
The stitching is a little frayed, and the cut is baggy, but it follows a variation of the 80/20 rule – You get 80 percent (or more) of the performance for 20 percent (+/-) of the price.
Paired with a fleece layer and a warm hat, I’ve been comfortable to about 40F +/- while standing still. Though down lasts longer, I find synthetic tolerates getting beat on more so than down. Synthetic makes a better all-purpose jacket, I find.
In a different life where I get maybe one or two backpacking trips a year and a handful of camping trips, I’d be perfectly content with this type of garment for going to the brewpub, returning to the office, traveling, and the occasional outdoor trip.
I write this quiver article from the privilege of cultivating a life and, with more than a bit of luck, having the time and variety of trips to justify a toolkit complete with tools for these purposes.
More than money, not everyone has the time to need or want a gear quiver.
Every active outdoors person should have a beater down coat. Throw it on during quick camping trips when your other layers are stowed for the following day’s backpacking trip. Wear for car camping. And let it take the brunt of sand, spilled cocoa, and stashing it not-so-carefully in the pack. And a wearable blanket of warmth when the mercury drops that takes whatever you throw at it.
My beater down of many years was an EMS Glacier Down coat. But after far too many patches and feather leaks, it was time to replace it. And I could not find any beater puffies here in my high desert home. Beaters became “vintage” on eBay or Etsy at corresponding prices. Time for another solution…
As I wrote earlier –
“I’ve long liked the military surplus current vintage of puffy pants for cold weather camping – durable, very warm, made of high-quality Primaloft, and relatively inexpensive, especially if bought previously issued.
I figured I would purchase a similarly priced use version of the parka. Much to my chagrin, even used, they are expensive! The parka, made by the New Hampshire-based Wild Things Tactical, retails for $500, and I’ve seen them for $200+ on eBay. As luck would have it, during the summer of 2021, I found a genuine military issue one for $75, jumped on it, and now happily use it for my cold-weather camping quite well. I hope to get at least fifteen years out of this parka.
Our Puffy Pants
And I can’t finish this article without mentioning our puffy pants. People often neglect the bottom part of layering. Some base layers, perhaps some fleece pants, and the appropriate puffy pants layers mean you can tolerate, and even enjoy, the colder weather much more effortlessly.
We use the ECWCS Gen I M-65 liner pants for both cool-weather camping and cold-weather backpacking.
There are lighter options, but few have the cost-to-versatility-to-perfomance ratio, often coming in under $20 a pair. One of the favorites of the interns and younger co-workers, Joan introduces them to as well.
And for cold weather, car camping? We use the ECWCS Gen 3 Layer VII pants, a.k .a. MEGA PUFFY PANTS!
These durable and warm pants have Primaloft filling for loftiness and quick dry properties. Make sure you buy them in the summer when I’ve seen them for under-$50. They look ugly and perhaps even comical, but staying warm makes you smile when everyone else is chattering.
And that’s our quiver of puffies and what’s worked for us over the years. We replaced a few different pieces in the past few months, and that is why I updated this article, but we should be set for a bit.
Disclosure: Montbell provided all the pieces except the “town” puffy and the (then) Frostline. A nameless corporation provided the corporate schwag puffy as part of a holiday trinket package. We purchased all the other layers with our funds and an employee discount supplied by the Nunatak for those pieces.