I'm sure you've heard all about the importance of layering when it comes to dressing for winter activities. In a typical three-layer system, you'll throw on a wicking base layer, covered by a warm, insulating fleece layer, all encased in a waterproof/windproof outer shell. However, depending on the type of shell you decide to buy, this layering configuration can change, and the activities you'll be engaging in will influence whether you need an insulated or noninsulated shell.
Both types of jackets have their share of benefits for certain situations. So before making your decision, take a moment to think about the weather and climate in which you'll be active, what level of energy the sport will require, and how you personally prefer to layer up against the elements
In short, insulated shells are a great addition to your cold-weather clothing because they provide warmth that noninsulated shells lack, plain and simple. A typical insulated jacket comprises an outer layer—either a hard or soft shell—along with an insulating layer that’s constructed directly into the jacket. This layer is usually made of a fleece, down, or synthetic material such as PrimaLoft, which are all great ways to stay protected from the cold.
A good insulated shell is a great choice for cold weather and is by far the most convenient option. Instead of throwing on multiple layers, one jacket will suffice when heading out into the cold. Also, keep in mind the costs associated with buying multiple layers. Purchasing one insulated shell will most likely always be less expensive than buying an noninsulated layer in addition to multiple warm layers.
While it may sound like insulated shells are the be-all, end-all when it comes to jackets, the benefits of an noninsulated shell may be more in line with the outdoor activities you'll be taking part in. Without a built-in insulating layer, noninsulated jackets are the best choice if you're looking for a lighter-weight jacket. These shells can be easily worn over multiple insulating layers, creating a much more versatile and adaptive layering system, and can be packed down tightly with little additional weight.
Venting options, which can quickly become essential for regulating your body temperature as your exertion level rises, are much more likely to be found on noninsulated shells. Often, you'll find pit zips that can be easily opened when you're hiking, skiing, or engaged in any other activity that works up a sweat. Core vents are also commonly found on these jackets. If you're looking for versatility and a jacket that isn't limited to your arsenal of cold-weather gear, this may be your best bet.
Waterproof/Breathable vs. Water Resistant
Most noninsulated shells use a waterproof, breathable coating or laminate such as System Three or Gore-Tex to keep you dry in any weather. This is a nice feature to have, especially if you decide to wear it as a rain jacket in the spring or summer. This does add to the cost of the jacket, however.
You’ll find that many insulated coats don’t use waterproof, breathable technology. If it’s cold enough to wear the insulated jacket in the first place, you’re more likely to encounter snow than rain, and jackets that are water resistant usually suffice to keep you dry in a snowstorm.
The 3-in-1 Approach
There’s a third option when it comes to deciding between an insulated and noninsulated shell: buy both in one.
3-in-1 jackets feature all the aspects of proper layering technique in one garment, and are built with two pieces that fasten tightly together and can be worn either separately or as one. If it's raining, but not very cold, wear the waterproof outer shell. On a cold but dry day, use just the insulating liner. But if the weather goes sour and you need protection from both the cold and the rain, fasten them together, and you're all set.
The preference for either an insulated or noninsulated jacket is unique to everyone. So take a moment to decide what's best for you and how your jacket will help you have a comfortable experience in the outdoors.
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