Insulated vs. Non-Insulated Jackets
I'm sure you've heard about the importance of layering when it comes to dressing for winter activities. In a typical three-layer system you'll start with a wicking base layer, covered by a warm, insulating fleece layer, all encased in a waterproof/windproof outer shell jacket. 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 jacket.
Each type of jacket performs better under different conditions. 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 prefer to layer up against the elements.
Insulated shell jackets are a great addition to your cold-weather clothing as they are designed to keep you warm in ways that noninsulated shells can’t. A typical insulated jacket is comprised of 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 which are all great ways to stay protected from the cold.
A high quality insulated shell is a great choice for cold weather and is 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 be less expensive than buying a 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 a noninsulated shell jacket may be more aligned with the outdoor activities you'll be taking part in. Noninsulated shells are the best choice if you’re looking for a lightweight jacket as they don’t have the built-in layer that insulated shells do. These shells fit easily over multiple insulating layers, creating a much more versatile and adaptive layering system, and can be packed down tightly while adding little additional weight.
Waterproof/Breathable vs. Water Resistant
You’ll find that many insulated jackets don’t use waterproof, breathable technology. If it’s cold enough to wear an 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.
Most noninsulated shells use a waterproof, breathable coating or laminate 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.
Vents can quickly become essential for regulating your body temperature as your exertion level rises, are much more likely to be found on noninsulated shells. You’ll often 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 noninsulated shell 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.
The 3-In-1 Approach
There’s a third option when it comes to deciding between an insulated and noninsulated shell jacket: 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 non-insulated 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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