Winter can be full of fun and snowy adventures—or it can be miserable and freezing. Your cold-season experience could all come down to choosing the right insulated jacket. Synthetic insulated jacket or down insulated jacket? Lightweight puffy or heavy parka? We break down all the options in this guide to helping you pick a puffy.
One of the first things to consider is whether you want a jacket insulated with down or synthetic material. Down insulation comes from goose or duck plumage—it’s the light and lofty layer underneath the outer feathers. The pros of down jackets? They’re super lightweight and packable, while providing excellent warmth and locking in heat.
In terms of the ~down~ sides, down’s kryptonite is moisture. When wet, down doesn’t perform as well. There are now water-resistant treatments that can be applied to the feathers to help them resist moisture, but it still may not insulate quite as well as synthetic material in really wet conditions. Here at Cotopaxi, we use down that has been treated with durable water repellent (DWR) to help improve overall performance.
The takeaway: A down jacket like our Fuego is a great option if you’re looking for:
- A very warm jacket
- A lightweight, packable, and therefore travel-friendly puffy
- A jacket for cold adventures that don’t involve wet conditions
Down Fill Power
With any down layer, there will be a fill number that indicates the loft and quality of the down. Higher numbers mean higher-quality, warmer down. Lower fill numbers indicate lower-quality down that won’t keep you quite as toasty. An 800-900 fill down jacket is considered premium—it will have a light and lofty feel. A puffy with 500-600 fill down requires more fill to create the same amount of warmth, which causes more bulk and is typically found in a jacket like a parka. If you like puffies that are, well, really puffy for that snug, toasty feeling, a lower fill number with more down packed in will do the trick.
Responsible Down Standard Certified
Another key consideration when purchasing a down jacket is the fact that the insulation comes from an animal. Many consumers will want to find a jacket with a Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certification to ensure the outerwear they’re purchasing doesn’t treat ducks or geese inhumanely. The goal of RDS is to use and promote humane practices when collecting down. For example, all Cotopaxi layers that use down are RDS certified.
While RDS is the most common certification out there, there are a few other ethical down certifications you might see like Downpass and International Down Standard.
If traditional down seems great, but doesn’t quite check all the boxes for you, synthetic insulation (also called alternative down) is an awesome choice. Synthetic insulation is made from polyester engineered to mimic natural down, so it’s still lightweight and packable, while providing warmth.
Synthetic vs. Down
The two big differences between down and synthetic? Breathability and water-resistance. Synthetic material is more breathable than traditional down, so it makes for the perfect trail buddy. It also performs better than down in wet conditions, so it’s great if you plan to get a little sweaty, hike on a misty morning, or go adventuring in snowfall.
Another thing to consider is where synthetic insulation comes from. Unlike down, synthetic insulation can technically be “vegan,” but polyester is a petroleum-based plastic, so it’s not exactly a free ride when it comes to sustainability. That’s why at Cotopaxi, we choose 100% recycled polyester for our synthetic outerwear.
The takeaway: A synthetic puffy like our Capa is a great option if you’re looking for:
- A breathable jacket for more active adventures
- A puffy that performs even in wet (or sweaty) conditions
- A jacket for cold adventures that involve wet conditions, whether that’s snowfall or freezing rain
Synthetic GSM Ratings
The synthetic equivalent of down’s fill power measurement is grams per square meter (gsm). For spring, fall, and summer camping trips, 50-100gsm is generally a good range. If you’re looking for something that can punch above its weight in winter, aim for a jacket that’s 100gsm+.
Insulated Jacket Styles
Now that you know the differences between down insulation and synthetic insulation, it’s time to pick a style.
Hybrid Jackets (like our Trico Collection): A mix of quilted insulation and fleece or baselayer material
- Have a similar effect to wearing a vest
- Quilted insulation (usually synthetic) keeps your core warm
- Fleece/nylon sleeves deliver breathability and range-of-motion
Ideal for: active adventures where you’re working hard, dog walking, shoulder season activities, and people who overheat easily
Lightweight Insulation (like our Teca Cálido Collection): A lightly insulated jacket (usually synthetic) with a polyester or nylon shell
- May include a durable water repellent (DWR) finish to improve water resistance while still offering breathability
Ideal for: traveling, spring and fall days, adventures where you’re counting grams (e.g., backpacking or ski mountaineering)
Midweight Puffies: A medium-level of insulation, typically featuring a nylon shell with a DWR finish
Can be insulated with down (like our Fuego Collection) or synthetic material (like our Capa Collection)
- Works well in cold temps, but still breathable enough for wear across seasons
- Occasionally includes an internal lining for extra warmth
Ideal for: winter hiking, camping, under a shell for skiing, and everyday winter wear
Insulation With a Shell: Midweight insulation under a waterproof hardshell
- Has enough insulation that you don’t need extra mid layers (excluding the coldest days)
- Shell is waterproof or near waterproof to keep moisture out and lock in heat
- Shell is also usually somewhat abrasion resistant
- Longer length helps keep snow out of your pants during active wintry adventures
- Quality in the insulation and shell can vary a lot, so consider whether the jacket’s specs can stand up to the conditions you intend to use it in
Ideal for: skiing, snowboarding, tubing, and sledding
Heavyweight Puffies & Parkas (like our Solazo Collection): Typically the warmest insulated jacket option available
- Longer in length for added warmth
- Usually insulated with down; lower fill power, but more of it to make for a big and puffy jacket
- Often includes a lining and hood or high collar for extra warmth
Ideal for: ice fishing, winter dog walks, cold city commutes, and mountain town living
Other Insulated Jacket Considerations
There are a few other features and design specs to consider when you’re searching for an insulated jacket.
Baffles: The horizontal stitching in rows across many insulated jackets isn’t a game-changer, but it can make a difference in terms of performance. The tighter the baffles, the more movement-friendly the jacket will be. Closely spaced baffles, however, also constrain how lofty (and thus toasty) a jacket can be.
Weather-Resistance: If you’re looking for an insulated jacket that will perform in the elements, choose one with exterior fabric that is wind-resistant, water-resistant, or waterproof, depending on the conditions you expect to encounter. You can also layer an insulated jacket under a waterproof hardshell.
Layering & Sizing: Speaking of layering, consider how you want your insulated jacket to work within a kit of layers. If you want to be able to wear a baselayer and fleece underneath, size up. If you’re thinking of using your insulated jacket as a midlayer under a hardshell, then size down and deprioritize a weather-resistant shell for the insulated jacket.
Hopefully, this equips you with the information you need to find the perfect puffy this season. For many of us, one puffy isn’t enough, so consider whether you want to invest in two or three insulated jackets to keep you warm on all your winter adventures.