THE BIG TEST: In­su­lated jack­ets

Trail heads to the Lakes to re­view qual­ity kit that will keep you warm


Steam ris­ing from the cooking pot drifts up into the air around us – an air that un­til this mo­ment was with­out form. While our thoughts re­flect and our senses ab­sorb, our brains fil­ter the muf­fled sounds of the breeze that con­stantly flows be­tween our­selves and the moun­tain land­scape that spreads out all around us. I love these mo­ments!

It is in these mo­ments of slow­ness that there is time to re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence what the hills can pro­vide. Have we climbed to the sum­mit to take in the view? Is it nec­es­sary to reach the sum­mit? Is it nec­es­sary to bag an­other peak? Is the sim­ple an­swer that we should be sat­is­fied and just ac­cept with­out ques­tion­ing?

The great ben­e­fit of slow­ing down when we’re out on the hill is that it re­claims the time and tran­quil­lity needed to form con­nec­tions with the moun­tain, with your senses and with your­self. Some would de­scribe this as liv­ing in the mo­ment or liv­ing bet­ter, while oth­ers would sim­ply call it spir­i­tual.

But how­ever you want to en­joy your quiet mo­ment on the moun­tains – whether it be watch­ing birds, read­ing the map, pick­ing out a route, or just ex­plor­ing your senses as the world around you teases them – you need to make sure you’re re­laxed and com­fort­able, warm and dry, and of­ten that boils down to noth­ing sim­pler than pack­ing the right kit...

It is a well-known dic­tum that hill­walk­ers should al­ways pack a spare warm jacket in their ruck­sacks, as it will nearly al­ways be colder, windier and wet­ter on the top of the moun­tain than it is in the val­ley. Tra­di­tion­ally a woollen jumper was taken into the hills, but these are rel­a­tively heavy, not very warm when wet, and very slow to dry. So a syn­thetic fleece jacket has long been the go-to piece of ex­tra gear that walk­ers take on the hill to en­sure they stay warm and com­fort­able what­ever the weather.

Fleece is made from polyester and has the ben­e­fit of pro­vid­ing good in­su­la­tion and main­tain­ing rea­son­able per­for­mance even when damp. It’s also very breath­able, mak­ing it ideal for wear­ing un­der a wa­ter­proof jacket with­out cre­at­ing too much con­den­sa­tion. Fleece is also quite in­ex­pen­sive com­pared to al­ter­na­tives.

How­ever, fleece jack­ets do have some draw­backs, as while they are quite warm they are not as warm as down in­su­la­tion for ex­am­ple, and they are also quite heavy and bulky com­pared to down. Fleece gen­er­ally doesn’t resist wind too well ei­ther, so as soon as the wind gets up you need to wear a wind­proof or wa­ter­proof layer over the top.

So for many years down has been at the pin­na­cle of ad­di­tional in­su­la­tion. Down is ex­cep­tion­ally warm for its weight and bulk, mean­ing that even a very warm jacket can eas­ily be stowed in a ruck­sack when not in use. Down jack­ets are also pretty wind­proof, mak­ing them ideal for typ­i­cally windy con­di­tions on the hill. The ma­jor draw­back of down is that it car­ries a high price tag and also that its abil­ity to pro­vide in­su­la­tion drops off rapidly when damp. This means it is su­perb for re­ally cold con­di­tions and in snow, for ex­am­ple, but a great deal of care is needed to keep it dry in typ­i­cally chilly and damp Bri­tish moun­tain weather. Also down jack­ets are not as breath­able as a fleece layer, so they are not ideal for wear­ing un­der wa­ter­proof shell jack­ets when be­ing ac­tive, as you tend to get con­den­sa­tion build­ing up in­side the gar­ments.

Over re­cent years syn­thetic in­su­la­tion has been de­vel­oped that closely mim­ics the per­for­mance of down, but with some im­por­tant ben­e­fits. Syn­thetic in­su­la­tion has a lower price than down and it also main­tains its per­for­mance when damp bet­ter than down does. As it is housed in­side a ny­lon shell, like down, these syn­thet­i­cally-in­su­lated jack­ets are also very wind­proof. But there are still draw­backs, as syn­thetic in­su­la­tion is not quite as ef­fi­cient as down, so jack­ets us­ing this ma­te­rial tend to be slightly heav­ier and more bulky than a down equiv­a­lent. Also these jack­ets are not as breath­able as fleece, so aren’t ideal for wear­ing un­der wa­ter­proof shell lay­ers, although some thin­ner in­su­lated jack­ets do per­form pretty well in this sit­u­a­tion.


To find out which in­su­lated jack­ets are best for var­i­ous hill­walk­ing needs, Trail’s three gear testers (my­self, fell top as­ses­sor Jon Bennett, and hos­tel man­ager Tim Butcher) headed into the Con­is­ton fells for a day of rest and re­lax­ation. In our ruck­sacks we stowed a cross sec­tion of jack­ets – two fleeces for Tim, two down jack­ets for me and two syn­thetic in­su­la­tion jack­ets for Jon.

Our route from Con­is­ton car­ried us up the Walna Scar Road to the brow of Dow Crag, from where the hori­zon sud­denly bursts open to re­veal the heart of the Lake Dis­trict and mighty Scafell Pike ris­ing from the folds. There can be few finer places to pause and take in this ex­ten­sive scene, so here we stopped and set­tled into the soft grass.

With the wind hus­tling us to move along, we put on our in­su­lated jack­ets. We made a brew and we spot­ted birds with our binoc­u­lars to work out if they were sky­larks or meadow pip­its. Quite sim­ply, we in­dulged in the mo­ment.

We did even­tu­ally move on and con­tin­ued over Dow Crag, and out to Swirl How with pauses and breaks along the way, never rush­ing, al­ways con­tem­plat­ing and con­tin­u­ally con­nect­ing with the moun­tains. This is what it is all about – and while it sounds flip­pant, it’s made so much eas­ier with the com­fort of an in­su­lated jacket!

OC­TO­BER 2018

OC­TO­BER 2018

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