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How To Choose A Hiking Jacket (Buyer’s Guide)

Designed to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable while out hiking, the hiking jacket is one of the most important pieces of equipment you can buy. However, with so many options out there, each with various features, knowing how to choose a hiking jacket is not easy.

To choose a hiking jacket you must consider where you hike and the conditions you hike in most often. The jacket should fit you well, protecting you from the elements and providing warmth. It is beneficial to own more than one jacket, each suited for specific circumstances.

There are many factors to consider when buying a hiking jacket. You must understand your likely hiking conditions and your personal preferences to choose a jacket that will work best for you. Below, we go into more detail on the types of hiking jackets and what to look for when making your choice.

Different Types Of Hiking Jackets

There are so many different types of hiking jackets to choose from. Each type of jacket has its own advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, it is important to understand and compare these factors to your hiking conditions. This will help you determine the type of jacket that will perform the best for you.

Fleece Jackets

Fleece jackets are common and are great for keeping you warm and snug. However, they are not at all suitable for rain or moisture. They are often viewed as a basic essential item as they are the ideal light jacket for a relatively mild, dry day.

They are best for standard hikes in average weather. They are not suitable for going out into the extreme weather, cold or hot, as they would not provide enough insulation. You should also avoid fleece jackets when on rough trails because they can be easily damaged when snagged or caught on branches and foliage.

Despite this, you should still consider owning a fleece jacket for those average, chilly hikes. They can be used on many hiking trails and will provide some warmth in early mornings or if the wind picks up during your hike.

Softshell Jackets

Softshell jackets are wonderful year-round, as they incorporate warmth like fleece, and have a showerproof and windproof outer layer. If you do not want to go for the full-on waterproof jacket and prefer something lighter to wear, then a softshell jacket could be the perfect solution.

Although this jacket features a waterproof outer layer, it will not provide as much rain protection as offered with hardshell jackets. This means they typically work best with short or light rain. If you believe it may rain for the entire duration of your hike, consider another option.

Waterproof Jackets Or Hardshell Jackets

If you plan on venturing out on a hike during harsh or unpredictable conditions, you should consider having a waterproof or hardshell jacket. These jackets are best for protecting against strong rain and wind. They can come with various types of coatings on the outer layer to protect against weather.

With various outer layer options, you will have to consider the features you find most important. An example could be wanting a waterproof jacket that blocks out the wind but is still breathable on the inside. This type of jacket is available, but you will need to pay extra attention to confirm the jacket has the right coating for you.

Down Jackets

Lastly is the down jacket. This type of jacket is specially designed for winter hiking or hiking in harsh conditions. They provide more insulation to combat the colder temperatures. Down jackets not only keep you warm, but also stop cold winds from penetrating the jacket and reaching your core.

Down jackets, also known as puffer jackets, have an excellent weight to warmth ratio where they provide plenty of warmth without adding too much excess weight for you to carry. This type of jacket would be the ideal choice for winter hikes that are cold but dry.

With these different jacket options, remember that you can create combinations of jackets. Some jackets come with fleece inner layers that can be removed from the waterproof outer layer. This may prove useful for hikers who do not venture out in harsh weather conditions but still need to know they are covered for most circumstances.

What Is The Best Type Of Jacket For Hiking?

The best type of jacket for hiking is the option that provides you with the correct protection for that particular hike. Consider your hiking conditions and personal preferences to determine the type of jacket that would offer the best protection for you.

A popular investment for many hikers is a 3-in-1 jacket. This jacket features both a waterproof outer layer and a fleece liner. These layers can be worn individually or together, creating three options for you to choose from. This means you can cover various hiking conditions all with one jacket, saving you money and space.

Conditions Dictate The Best Jacket

The best jacket for your hike is dependent on the conditions you will face. The jacket should provide you with more than adequate protection from the conditions. For example, winter hiking requires different equipment and gear from that necessary on a mild day in spring. Your needs vary with the conditions, therefore your jacket would change as well.

Therefore, many hikers will own more than one hiking jacket. Those who hike regularly will be exposed to various conditions and will have multiple jackets to meet their changing needs. Some hikers may carry more than one jacket, or a 3-in-1 type jacket, for a hike if they are expecting the weather to change throughout the day.

Hardshell vs Softshell Hiking Jackets

When browsing the various options for hiking jackets, you will likely notice the terms hardshell and softshell. These terms describe the outer layer of the jacket. Hardshell and softshell jackets differ in how they offer protection. We cover the differences between them below.

What Is A Hardshell Jacket?

A hardshell jacket is a waterproof jacket complete with a hood. Not always insulated, it provides protection from rain and sometimes wind. These jackets tend to be lightweight and durable. The outer fabric offers very little stretch and often makes noise when you walk.

What Is A Softshell Jacket?

A softshell jacket is a jacket resistant to water, best suited for short and light showers. The fabric used is softer and has more stretch than that of a hardshell jacket. This jacket cannot tolerate harsher weather conditions, but offers some protection in light, inclement weather.

Difference In Weather Conditions

When comparing the two types of jackets based on weather conditions, the hardshell jackets offer more protection from harsher conditions like rain and snow. Therefore, if the weather is poor you should choose a hardshell jacket. For cool, dry days, a softshell jacket will keep you warm.

Breathability

This may not be the case all the time, but generally a softshell jacket is manufactured with more breathable material than a hardshell. They are designed to allow your body to breathe without the cold air being able to penetrate through.

A hardshell jacket is usually made with tenser fabric, making them less breathable. It aims to block out the rain and wind, and often prevents body heat from escaping. Therefore, hardshell jackets are not a good option for hiking in warm weather.

Durability

Generally, hardshell jackets tend to be more durable than softshell. This is because of the fabric differences. However, neither should be easily damaged. If you plan to hike in rough conditions, you shouldn’t have to worry about branches or foliage ripping the fabric. Hardshells are certainly tougher, but softshells can withstand some roughness as well.

Weight

Neither of the jackets will feel exceptionally heavy when worn, but softshell jackets tend to be lighter than hardshell jackets. This is because of the tougher fabric used in hardshell jackets, it tends to be heavier due to the additional properties it offers.

However, the importance of weight reduces when you compare it to the importance of protection from the weather conditions. Staying warm and dry should always be the most important, even if that means wearing a heavier jacket.

Usage

Both hardshell and softshell jackets have advantages and disadvantages in different conditions, therefore knowing when to use each type is important. Hardshell jackets are best suited for harsh conditions like rain or snow where their extensive protective properties come in handy. It is important to note, however, that not every hardshell jacket will come with insulation.

Softshell jackets are versatile and can be used in many different ways. These jackets tend to be thin, making them a great choice for layering. They can act as a layer to provide extra insulation, perhaps under a hardshell jacket. Softshell jackets are best suited for cool, mild days. They have some water resistance, making them suitable for light showers.

With both options having benefits for various circumstances, many hikers own both options. This is great for avid hikers, choosing the jacket to wear based on the hiking conditions on any given day. This is also useful for combining jackets on especially harsh hikes.

Features Of A Hiking Jacket

As with any other type of hiking gear, hiking jackets offer various features that should be considered. Understanding the features that are most important to you will help you decide what exactly you should be looking for in a jacket.

Level Of Protection

First, there’s the level of protection a hiking jacket can offer, and this is something you must be aware of before you make your purchase. Understand that not every hiking jacket offers the same protection, so they are not all suitable for the same situations.

One aspect of protection to look at is how waterproof a jacket is. Some, like softshells, are only suited for light rain, whereas others, like hardshells, can protect against torrential rain. It is important to stay warm and dry on hikes, therefore you must find a jacket with this kind of protection.

You should also consider wind protection. Some hikes expose you to cold wind and when unprotected, will penetrate through to your core, leaving you cold and uncomfortable. There are many hiking jackets that protect against wind, so be sure to look for that aspect.

Insulation

All hiking jackets should offer some insulation, however this is a feature that can vary by degree. Some hiking jackets are designed to withstand up to three seasons, whereas some focus solely on winter conditions. Even in pleasant weather with a jacket designed for light use, you should have some insulation.

A Hood

A hood is an essential feature, but not every hiking jacket comes with one that is visible. Instead, they may be detachable, rolled up into the neck, or may not be included at all. However, it is certainly recommended to purchase a hiking jacket with a hood. Hoods offer more protection and you never know when it may come in handy.

Pockets

Most hiking jackets will have pockets, and they will certainly prove useful. How many pockets there are will vary from jacket to jacket. Pockets offer the space to carry some important items along with you. Snacks, your cell phone, gloves, or GPS are just a few examples.

Durability

Durability is important and is the key feature to look for. When investing in a hiking jacket, you want one that will last for a long period of time while still offering the same level of protection. It should be able to withstand plenty of exposure to conditions without being damaged. It should also maintain the same degree of waterproofing.

How To Choose A Hiking Jacket

When it finally comes down to choosing your hiking jacket, you should consider the type of hiking you’ll be doing, the purpose of the jacket, the features it offers, how you easy it is to store, and of course your personal preferences. Checking these boxes ensures you choose a jacket best suited for you.

What Type Of Hiking You Will Do

The first thing to consider is the type of hiking you will be doing most often. This is because you can purchase jackets designed for specific activities or purposes, such as climbing or versatile jackets that can also be worn around town.

You should also think about the weather you will encounter most often. Whether you plan on going out no matter the weather conditions, or if you only hike in nice weather. This will determine the degree of waterproofing and insulation that you need.

The level of waterproofing can also make a difference in the price of your jacket. One with a Gore-Tex outer layer, which offers exceptional protection from the rain, will tend to be more expensive than one covered in a water-resistant layer designed more for protecting against light showers.

What Is The Purpose Of The Jacket

Consider the purpose of the jacket before you purchase it. This will help you avoid spending additional money on a particular type of jacket when you may not use it to its full potential. Looking for specific features on the jacket and thinking about your personal experience and preferences will make a difference.

Be honest with yourself regarding your hiking. You can always add to your jacket collection in the future if you venture into other types of trails or conditions. Ask yourself questions such as, does it need to keep you warm? Does it need to keep you dry? Do I need a multi-purpose jacket? By understanding the purpose of the jacket, you can narrow down your options making your decision easier.

How Important Is Breathability

Breathability is an important aspect to consider when choosing a hiking jacket. You need your jacket to allow your body to breathe, avoiding excess sweating and overheating. This holds true when hiking in warm and cool weather. However, there will also be times when you need the jacket to stop cold external air from getting in, so versatility in this area is key.

Once again, this comes down to understanding when and where you will be hiking. Knowing your hiking conditions makes such a difference when buying equipment, as it will ensure you have adequate protection and keeps you from purchasing something you don’t need.

How Easy Is It To Pack?

Depending on when and where you are hiking, you may not need to wear the hiking jacket the entire time. This doesn’t mean you should consider going without one, instead you should consider bringing a jacket that is easy to pack away in your backpack.

Look for a jacket that is easy to put away and bring back out. This means considering the size and weight of the jacket, as you do not want to be left carrying around a heavy or bulky jacket. Most modern hiking jackets are generally made of lighter materials and should take up little space.

Comfort

Finally, you need to consider your comfort when wearing the jacket. Whether you are wearing it for a short period of time or for the duration of your hike, the jacket should fit comfortably and should not restrict your movement in any way.

This often comes down to choosing the correct size. Remember, you may have times when you will be wearing multiple layers below the jacket. Therefore, it is best not to purchase a jacket that fits snug. Choose a jacket that fits but has a little wiggle room.

While it is necessary to look at each of these factors, you should still consider your personal preferences. Choose sizes, materials, and styles that you find most comfortable and make sure they cater to your needs as well.

How To Choose A Winter Hiking Jacket

Choosing a winter hiking jacket is an entirely different process as it must provide specific protection from the elements. This means you need to pay attention to a few other areas when selecting a jacket particularly for winter weather.

Insulation

A key component of a winter jacket is the insulation. You will be exposed to intense temperatures, therefore, it is essential that the jacket can combat the cold and keep you warm. There are two options for insulation. Each provides protection but works best in different circumstances.

The first is down insulation. This option is better for cold weather with a dry climate. It is also the lightest insulation option. If you’re looking to decrease weight, choose down. The second option is synthetic. This is choice is better for cold and wet climates, like snow. Synthetic insulation is heavier but tends to be cheaper.

Protection From The Elements

Along with insulation, the jacket needs to protect you from the elements. That means it must be capable of protecting you from both rain and snow. For winter jackets you need something that will protect against more than light showers.

You need a jacket that can easily defend against anything winter weather will expose you to. This is even more important when hiking in an area where the weather can drastically change suddenly. Pay attention to the temperatures the jacket will be effective for. You do not want to be caught in winter weather conditions with gear that is ineffective.

Drawstrings And Buttons

Jackets with drawstrings and buttons are effective for keeping out the winter air. These features decrease the chance of cold air getting up through the cuffs and other parts of the jacket, which would expose you to the cold.

You may even wish to look inside the cuff. The cuffs can be elasticated to eliminate that wind from getting to your arms. Even the front of the jacket may combine a zipper and then buttons to give a double layer of protection.

The goal here is to ensure that the jacket stops the wind. That alone can make a significant difference to how warm you feel in your jacket, and it can completely change your hiking experience.

The Hood

You need a winter jacket with a hood that can be secured. This prevents the hood from falling out of place, exposing your face to the elements. A hood with barrels is a great option. This allows you to tie it down, protecting your head without requiring adjustment.

The Fit

The final thing to consider for winter jackets is the fit. Remember, this type of jacket is not designed for everyday hikes, therefore the fit will be different from what you may be used to. The fit will be different as you require many layers below the jacket. You want your jacket to fit while wearing base layers and the potential mid layer without being too tight.

Consider moving up a size. This will accommodate the additional layers and will make a major difference in your comfort levels while offering more than adequate protection. Overall, you must be comfortable in what you are wearing.

Final Thoughts

Choosing a hiking jacket requires you to consider the type of hiking you will be doing and what features are most important to you personally. The jacket should be able to protect you from the conditions you are hiking in while remaining comfortable.