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!