High-loft insulating garments have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than any other type of clothing. So, they are perfect complements to a lightweight backpacking clothing system when temperatures plummet.
This review compares and contrasts three very different synthetic high-loft insulating jackets from Wild Things, GoLite, and Integral Designs. For a more thorough discussion of high-loft garments, be sure to read Jordan et al.’s Clothing and Sleep Systems for Mountain Hiking.
Wild Things Primaloft Sweater
Looking for a synthetic-fill jacket that’s trim enough for layering under a shell but loftier than most Microloft garments on the market? If so, then the Wild Things Primaloft Sweater may be the answer.
The Primaloft Sweater is a full-zip jacket with a 1.1-oz ripstop nylon shell and Primaloft PL1 insulation. We measured the weight of a size M at 17.0 oz. A high collar, straight hem, and elastic cuffs keep warmth in in a trim-fitting design designed for layering.
Two layers of 1.8-oz Primaloft Sport are quilted to the shell for (thoeretically) about 1.5″ of single-layer loft, offering warmth that easily exceeds that of a 300-weight fleece jacket. After quilting and construction, the actual loft of the new jacket is about 1.0″.
Two zippered handwarmer pockets round out a simple but very functional design.
Interestingly, the design is reversible, allowing for two different colors to be displayed. The jacket’s color combinations include chili red/navy, gold/gray, and cobalt blue/black.
FITTesters generally found that the Primaloft Sweater offered a trim fit that made it an ideal piece to layer under a rain shell. A hem that extends just beyond the waist retained torso warmth without impairing mobility, and this jacket was both comfortable and unobtrusive.
However, lack of sufficient articulation resulted in the wrist cuffs riding a little higher than some would have liked, although this was an issue only for our longer-armed men. Women and short-guys wouldn’t have had much of a problem with sleeve length.
PERFORMANCE REVIEWWe used the Primaloft Sweater in a variety of conditions:
- spring backpacking in the southern Appalachians
- winter snowshoeing in the northern Rockies
- alpine climbing in the North Cascades and Northern Rockies
The jacket performed adequately in all conditions, and it excelled in the wet spring climate of North Carolina and the high mountains of the Cascades
One of us even submerged the jacket in a lake and wrung it out, then wore it to bed (in a 45*F-rated Primaloft sleeping bag) on a 45*F night, with little discomfort. Best of all, the jacket (and the sleeping bag) were nearly dry in the morning, a testament to the low water absorption of Primaloft that was unmatched in a similar test with a Polarguard 3D garment and bag combo. Indeed separate tests conducted at our labs have shown that Polarguard 3D absorbs about three to four times more water per fill weight than the 1.8-oz Primaloft.
So, in addition to serving well for mountaineering and backpacking in sloppy climes, the Primaloft Sweater might make the ideal garment for three-season canoe camping trips.
Perhaps one of the more remarkable practical field tests of this series was an alpine climb in the Northern Rockies of Montana. Our tester packed only a windshell and the Primaloft Sweater before embarking on a half-day alpine climb to a 12,000 foot summit, for which his partner packed a wind shell and an 18-oz down jacket. On the descent, the skies unleashed their fury in a typical afternoon thunderstorm (that lasted well into the night!), dumping buckets of rain on the climbers and soaking them to the bone. With wind-chill temperatures in the 20s, both climbers were forced to wear their insulating jackets (over their wind shells in each case) simply to remain warm while moving. During the course of the 3-hour descent, the down jacket (which was shelled with a similar lightweight ripstop nylon) lost well over half its loft and resulted in near-hypothermic chilling of the climber, while the Primaloft-clad alpinist felt warm in his jacket, which had lost little if any of its loft. Both climbers wore their jackets to bed (both using 30*F down sleeping bags). The Primaloft Jacket was completely dry in the morning, while the down jacket regained very little of its lost loft.
We’ve been testing this jacket for more than a year, with approximately 60 nights of use in all seasons in the mountains of the Cascades, Rockies, and Appalachians. With repeated stuffing, wetting, and laundering, the jacket has still retained 90% of its original loft in all cases, in surprising contradiction of Primaloft’s reputed lack of durability (as claimed primarily by Polarguard activists). Testers did use care in handling the jacket, storing it at full loft when it was not in use and not ever packing it in a compression stuff sack.
The Primaloft Sweater suffered only a few minor weaknesses:
- The quilt stitching (the stitching that secures the insulation to the shell fabric to prevent it from shifting) proved prone to abrasion and showed significant signs of wear; this was primarily cosmetic and did not result in shifting of the Primaloft in the garment.
- The lycra hems were prone to abrasion; both wrist cuffs on our test specimen suffered fraying that eventually caused them to fail.
- Excessive quilting may have resulted in undue compression of the insulation, given the discrepancy between the actual and theoretical loft measurements.
Special care and attention by the user could probably prevent or at least minimize the wear to stitching and hems. That the jacket might have been warmer quilted another way is a moot matter for now: it’s however warm it is. Still, future models might use the fill more efficiently.
In conclusion, Wild Things owns a niche with the Primaloft Sweater: trim-fitting synthetic-fill insulating garments with approximately 1.0″ of loft. In fact, after reviewing the market extensively, we found no product comparable to the Primaloft Sweater, and its ability to layer under slim shell jackets was our testers’ favorite feature.
FINAL GRADE: B+
CONTACT INFOWild Things Gear
64 Hobbs St
Conway, NH 03818
GOLITE COAL PARKA The GoLite Coal Parka may provide the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any synthetic jacket we’ve seen. Uncrushed Polarguard 3D, a long cut that covers your rear end, an ultralight nylon shell material, and a hood, make this 19-oz wonder an easy selection for a Trail’s Best Award for backpacking warmwear.
(TRAIL’S BEST AWARD)
PRODUCT DESCRIPTIONThe GoLite Coal is a full-zip jacket with a 1.1 oz ripstop nylon shell and Polarguard 3D insulation. With the removable 2.5-oz hood, we measured the weight of a size M at 19.2 oz. The hood, a high, insulated collar, twin drawcords (waist and hem), and elastic cuffs contribute to make this the warmest garment in its weight range we’ve seen yet. Polarguard 3D is quilted sparingly to a 1.1 oz nylon shell and results in about 0.75″ of single-layer loft. GoLite uses “uncrushed” Polarguard, which is shipped from the supplier without vacuum sealing. GoLite says that this increases their shipping costs, but that it results in the insulation having higher loft. Two zippered handwarmer pockets round out a simple, but very functional design.
FITThe jacket is cut full for layering over your clothing and shell, but is trim enough to fit under a loose-fitting parka and works in perfect concert with a poncho, where it’s lofting can’t be inhibited. The hem extends well below the waist to keep the netherlands warm but can be cinched at the waistline for better mobility. Good sleeve and shoulder articulation, combined with the long hem, made the jacket comfortable when reaching overhead while scrambling, hanging a bear bag, or casting a fishing rod.
PERFORMANCE REVIEWWe used the Coal Jacket in a variety of conditions:
- 3-season backpacking in the Tetons
- winter snowshoeing in the Montana Rockies
- 3-season alpine climbing in the North Cascades and Northern Rockies
The jacket performed adequate in all conditions, and excelled in the drier climates, where the jacket’s shell breathability allowed it to have a wide comfort range. In wet conditions, even when the fill material was nearly soaked (which occured only on exposing it to sustained hard rain or submerging it in a lake), the jacket retained a surprising amount of loft (about 0.5″) after wringing it out. The DWR finish of the shell fabric did wear out after a few washings, but it was easily restored with an aftermarket product (we used Gore Revivex). We would love to see an EPIC shell version for alpine climbing purposes (when the jacket would be used as outerwear) but appreciated the lighter weight of the 1.1 oz nylon shell for traditional backpacking pursuits.
In our “submerge and sleep test”, where we submerged the jacket in a lake and wrung it out, then wore it to bed (in a 45*F-rated Primaloft synthetic sleeping bag) on a 45*F night, we found that the jacket was not completely dry by morning, but did manage to gain about 0.13″ of loft (from 0.5″ saturated to 0.63″ by morning). We did not find it to be particularly uncomfortable in this sleep system, despite the moisture that had been absorbed by the Polarguard 3D in the Coal. These findings agree with ongoing laboratory testing at BackpackingLight.COM that has revealed that Polarguard maintains good insulating properties when wet, despite the fact that 3D absorbs about 3-4x as much water per fill weight than Primaloft PL1.
On a fall alpine ice climb in the Tetons, where wet snow and hail fell nonstop during the climb (for a duration of 14 hours), the Coal was used as a belay jacket, layered over the tester’s climbing clothing (which included a thin fleece top and a windproof shell jacket). By the end of the climb (12 belayed pitches), repeated exposure to wet conditions and stuffing resulted in the Coal’s weight increasing by nearly 12 oz (from its original weight of 19 oz to 31 oz by the end of the climb). Remarkably, however, the jacket retained most of its loft. A custom-made Primaloft jacket of similar thickness, shell material, and construction used on the same climb, absorbed only 8 oz of moisture but its loft was reduced by more than 30%. Also, unlike the Primaloft garment, the Coal was quicker to dry, which is contrary to our findings when fill materials were completely saturated (where Primaloft dried more quickly). Our hypothesis is that the 12 oz of water absorbed by the Coal was distributed in smaller ‘droplets’ or ‘pockets’ of water that provided a greater surface area for drying. Thus, when partially saturated, we hypothesize that water has less of an impact on the integrity of Polarguard 3D than on Primaloft PL1. More testing is certainly needed to validate or invalidate this claim, of course, and the lack of a more extensive collection of data taken under more controlled conditions prevents us from making a statement one way or the other about Polarguard 3D vs. Primaloft PL1 in scenarios where the insulation becomes wet.
We’ve tested the Coal for more than 30 nights of mountain use, and stored the jacket stuffed (but dry) in a 500 ci stuff sack. It was subjected to repeated stuffing (perhaps 100 times) that included about 25 stuffings in a 1000 ci compression stuff sack with other clothing. With repeated stuffing, wetting, and laundering, the jacket has retained about 85% of its original loft, an impressive result considering that we probably abused the jacket beyond the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Since the coal’s hood is detachable, it would be nice if GoLite had designed it to be used without the jacket. To do this, the Coal’s hood needs a Velcro or snap neck closure similar to their Snow Cap. Right now, your only way to use the Coal’s hood without the jacket is to tie the drawstrings together. This not comfortable nor does it make a warm seal around your neck. This is a pity, since the Coal’s hood is warmer than the GoLite’s Snow Cap and there are many situations where a hiker would prefer it to the Snow Cap. For instance:
- To use with a synthetic vest like their Chill or any other insulating top layer, or
- To use with a hoodless sleeping bag, or
- To use by itself when you need to throw something warm on quickly in cold conditions.
The GoLite Coal Jacket suffered few weaknesses, even when taken out of its range of intended use (i.e., we tested it for alpine climbing conditions). Our only irritation — and this reared its ugly head only in very cold, wet conditions — was that the main coil zipper was prone to icing up, making it difficult to operate. For most weather conditions typical of three-season backpacking, however, this was never an issue.
All of our testers agreed that a version with a double layer of torso insulation, a hood large enough to fit over a climbing helmet, a larger-toothed zipper that resists icing, and an EPIC shell would be an ideal alpine climbing jacket for three-season and mild winter weather conditions.
With a price tag of $159 ($36 less than last year), it meets the price point for synthetic insulated jackets in this weight range. For occasional-to-moderate use by backpackers or climbers who take appropriate care of their gear, the Coal should last several seasons. Thus it can be thought of as a good value and an investment, and, cost aside, it’s our top pick.
For backpacking and general backcountry use, including summer alpine climbing, the Coal may have no match. It offers an outstanding performance-to-weight ratio and is the best in its class of hooded synthetic jackets in the 18-22 oz range.
FINAL GRADE: A
Boulder, CO 80303
INTEGRAL DESIGNS DOLOMITTI PARKA
The Integral Designs Dolomitti Parka offers a lot of loft that provides serious warmth suitable for three- and four-season use in mountain climes. Primaloft insulation and a Pertex shell are an outstanding combination that allows this jacket to thrive in wet, sloppy conditions. With a full-conditions hood that fits like the hood of a sleeping bag, the Dolomitti is suitable protection that could even get you through an unplanned bivouac.
The Integral Designs Dolomitti jacket is a full-zip jacket with a 1.3-oz Pertex nylon shell and a single layer of Primaloft Sport (5 oz) insulation, with a theoretical loft of about 1.5″. Including the removable hood, a Dolomitti in size L weighed in at 23.8 oz. A drawcorded-hood, a high, insulated collar, hem drawcords, and stretchy Spandura cuffs effectively seal the torso from the penetration of high winds and precipitation. In fact in eight months of testing in awful conditions, we found the Dolomitti to be one of the most weather-resistant synthetic-fill parkas in its class.
Primaloft Sport (5 oz/yd2) is quilted sparingly to a 1.3 oz Pertex shell and results in about 1.25″ (measured) of single-layer loft, which is close to the 1.5″ theoretical maximum for this insulation.
Two zippered handwarmer pockets, a removable, zip-off hood, and a nylon-toothed main zipper round out a simple and functional design.
The jacket is cut full for layering over your clothing and shell. Make no mistake: this parka was not designed for layering under a rain shell and is meant to be the primary means of protection between you and the elements. The hem extends well below the waist for trunk warmth but can be cinched at the waistline for better mobility.
Good sleeve and shoulder articulation, combined with the long hem, made the jacket comfortable in overhead reaching, and our reviewers found it to be an excellent parka for any four-season backcountry activity.
Our testers’ favorite feature was the Dolomitti’s hood, which was full of loft and cut large enough to layer over any amount of headwear worn by a backcountry traveler (including a climbing helmet). It could even cinch tight enough to leave nothing exposed but a breathing hole, like a sleeping bag hood, making this jacket an easy choice if there’s a chance of an unplanned bivouac, or for that matter if you are making it part of a sleep system which includes a hoodless bag.
We used the Dolomitti Jacket in a variety of three- and four-season conditions, but primarily we exposed it to the wet, sloppy conditions of winter alpine climbing in the Cascades and the drier but colder winter conditions affording snowshoeing and ice climbing in the Northern Rockies of Montana and Wyoming.
The jacket was a solid performer in all conditions, and it was surprisingly comfortable in wet ones. When the fill material was (seemingly) nearly soaked on long backcountry tours in Cascade sleet and snow, the jacket retained about 75% of its loft. The DWR finish of the shell fabric did wear out after a few washings, but it was easily restored with an aftermarket product (we used Gore Revivex).
In our “submerge and sleep test”, where we submerged the jacket in a lake and wrung it out, then wore it to bed (in a 20*F-rated Polarguard 3D synthetic sleeping bag) on a 35*F night, we found that the jacket had lost much of its loft after soaking, about 75% of it in fact, but it was nearly dry after a 10-hour night’s sleep in a tent, recovering most (90%) of its pre-soaking loft.We subjected the Dolomitti to a significant amount of abuse (repeated wetting, drying, and laundering cycles, in addition to serious stuffing for about 40 nights in the backcountry) and found that by the end, its loft had decreased to about 75% of its original thickness.
The Dolomitti provides solid features for a 1.5-lb synthetic parka. However, our testers were dismayed that the garment had lost 25% of its loft after only one season of use. Admittedly, the garment was probably abused beyond manufacturer recommendations (frequency of laundering, stuffing). Other weaknesses were only minor:
- the fit is slightly roomy for an athletic build; a trimmer cut might be more efficient at retaining heat;
- the elastic shockcord used for the drawstring hem is very stretchy; when the drawcord is cinched tight, an excessive amount (about a 12″ loop) remains flapping around, free to snag itself occasionally on gear, brush, or the like.
The Dolomitti is one of the few jackets on the market that bridge the gap between the one-pound summer parka and the two-pound parkas suitable for Himalayan winter conditions. For most winter conditions in North America, the Dolomitti gives all necessary protection from the elements. At 24 oz, it is light, compressible, and highly functional. Its hood and good performance-to-weight ratio make it a feasible option for unplanned bivies and a variety of other two-and three-season in the mountain areas of the U.S.
FINAL GRADE: B+
CONTACT INFOIntegral Designs
5516 3rd St SE
Calgary, AB, Canada T2H1J9