If you’re in the market for a new jacket and you’re wondering whether to go insulated or non-insulated, then this is the article for you. We’re going to explain the key differences to help you make the right choice this season.
When you’re on the hunt for a new jacket, making the decision to go insulated or non-insulated is perhaps one of the biggest calls you’ll face. There are many reasons to choose one or the other, depending on the type of riding, your personal preference, the climate you’re riding in, and a few other factors. As such, we put together a nifty guide to help you learn the differences between, advantages, and disadvantages of choosing an insulated or non-insulated jacket.
Insulated jackets are still the most popular kind of jacket you’ll see on the mountain. Insulation is usually a given for ski or snowboard jackets and most stores or brands will stock more insulated jackets than non-insulated jackets.
But if all ski jackets and ski pants should be insulated, then why stock two types at all? Cold weather jackets should be insulated, right? Well, if it was that straight forward we wouldn’t need this article!
Insulation by definition, is a layer that is sandwiched between the liner and the outer shell of the jacket which helps to trap heat. Insulating layers and insulation are a little different though, in that a layer of fabric will help to insulate you (trap your body heat) but insulation is a specific layer designed to do that most efficiently by way of its construction or makeup.
Without getting super technical, insulation generally uses trapped air to prevent the easy movement of heat. In very basic terms, body heat is transferred by way of conduction.
Conduction is the movement of heat through a material by the direct transfer between atoms. As heat energy is given to an atom it begins to vibrate, which then vibrates the next one along, and the next, and the next, and so on. Once the heat reaches the other end of the material, it then transfers to the air. Conduction also occurs in the air, but the kinetic energy an atom has when moving or vibrating is lost as it moves or vibrates. So with more space between atoms (as in a gas), it’s more difficult to transfer heat.
Materials which are poor conductors are known as insulators. As such, materials which have lots of air in them — like foams or intertwined fibrous layers — make great insulators. Inside a jacket, you’ll find a layer of long polyester fibres (usually) that are woven together to create a kind of ‘fluff’ that may mimic fur or down. This material traps millions of tiny air pockets, and as air is a good insulator (a poor conductor), it means that heat has a difficult time transferring through it. Heat that cannot be transferred to the material has to be reflected back in, meaning you stay warm, even on cold days!
There are a few different types of insulation to keep an eye out for, as they’ll determine mostly how the insulation feels. Compact insulation is what comes in most ski and snowboard outerwear, and will be a thin layer of insulation that doesn’t have much compression. Synthetic down insulation is going to be that really fluffy type of insulation that feels soft to the touch and really springy. These two types of insulation are both made from long polyester strands that are woven into different structures. Compact insulation is usually thin layers of polyester strands sandwiched together, whereas down insulation is more of just a mess of strands loosely tangled into a thick and springy layer. Neither is better, but both are excellent insulators.
The other type of insulation you’re likely to come across is actually down. Down insulation is goose feathers normally, and does the same as synthetic down in that it feels springy and traps air really well. However classic down insulation has fallen out of favour recently due to the ethical side of things and is being replaced by synthetic down much in the same way that vegan and synthetic leathers are replacing the real thing.
You may also come across wool insulation or fleece, but neither are strictly insulation layers, though they will add warmth to your jacket or outerwear!
When it comes to insulation in jackets and other apparel, you’ll often be faced with a weight or gram value. This may look like 100g or even 100gsm, and what this is shorthand for is grams per square metre. This denotes the weight of the insulation, which usually equates to the thickness as well as the inherent warmth it affords! Insulation not only keeps heat in, but also the cold out, too, so the more you have, the more protected you’ll be from the cold air outside.
But how much is enough? Most snow wear uses some type of synthetic insulation fibre, so we’ll use that as a guide here!
Less than 40gsm of insulation is classified as a very light amount. You may find this level of insulation in thin midlayer jackets or even pants. It will offer a small amount of warmth but won’t feel bulky, either. As such, it may be suited for a layering set up to add a little extra insulation under your jacket, or in pants where you need the warmth but can’t afford to be bulky!
Most general purpose jackets tend to fall within this range. 40-60gsm is usually plenty for snowy climates, especially if it's good quality insulation. It offers a solid amount of warmth without adding too much bulk, and will definitely be noticeable in terms of its protection. You’d probably use this level of insulation in place of a midlayer under your ski jacket — ie. if you didn’t have any, you’d use a fleece to achieve this level of warmth instead.
Some jackets aimed at colder climates, or those with lower quality insulation usually fall within the 60-100gsm range. At this weight, you’ll begin to feel a little bulky. Lots of casual jackets designed for cold weather or countries will be in this range, as heat is prioritised over function and freedom of movement.
As we get over 100gsm, you’re going to really notice the extra padding. If you’re intent on venturing somewhere really chilly, or you live somewhere where it regularly gets well below freezing, having a 100-200gsm jacket will serve you well! Ski gear doesn’t get this high for the most part, unless it’s a specialist or ‘puffer’ style jacket.
In the upper reaches of the insulation range, jackets packing 200gsm or more are designed for the harshest conditions. If you’re living inside the arctic circle, or are making an expedition to one of the poles you’ll likely be gearing up with a seriously insulated jacket like this. Some cold climate casual jackets also have this kind of insulation, especially if they are ‘puffer’ style jackets designed to be thrown on over a shirt without a layering set up. This makes it easy to go out somewhere without the faff of layering up!
Generally, an insulated jacket can be worn at any time. If the climate you’re riding in is going to be really cold, then an insulated jacket will definitely be a good thing. Thin layers of insulation can be replaced by an extra fleece underneath, so they’re pretty optional. Though for thicker layers of insulation, a fleece doesn’t cut it, so if the temperature is really low, a good layer of insulation is the best way to go!
This all depends on preference, though, as some people get a lot colder than others. As such it comes down to how you feel, what kind of warmth you need for your climate and your susceptibility to the cold. There’s no hard and fast rule in the middle, but we sure as heck appreciate the extra insulation when the temperature gets below zero!
Non-insulated jackets used to be simple. Now, not so much. With the snow wear and garment industry continually progressing, things aren’t so cut and dry. With lined shells, technical shells, and those offering pseudo-insulation in the form of foam-layered, fleecy, or even taffeta linings, non-insulated jackets have never been more complicated. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t get through this together, don’t worry!
A non-insulated or shell jacket can be defined as any jacket that doesn’t have a specific insulating ‘layer’. The reason for choosing one is a question of versatility. Above, we talked about climate and preference. It can be argued that a shell jacket is ‘colder’ than an insulated jacket. But a shell jacket with a fleece under it may be just as warm and feel the same level of bulky. And the bonus there is that you can always shed your fleece if it gets too warm, meaning your jacket is more comfortable across a range of temperatures.
But as we said, in those really cold temps, insulation is better than a single layer. And multiple layers of fleeces will feel more constricting than a single insulated jacket. So, swings and roundabouts, right tool for every job, etcetera, etcetera.
A shell jacket should be viewed more as weather defence rather than temperature defense. An outer shell to ward off wind and rain, rather than one to keep heat sealed in.
Some jackets do offer insulating linings, though, with additions like taffeta or foam layers providing some warmth without adding bulk. Definitely not a substitute for true insulation, however!
If you’re heading out for a day on the mountains, the usual layering set-up with a shell jacket is a base-layer, mid-layer, and the outer shell. This is a good ‘catch-all’ set-up and you can tweak the thickness of the mid-layer and base-layer for extra or less warmth, and remove the mid-layer altogether if you get warm.
If you want a shell jacket for the weather protection, style, or versatility, but you need the warmth of an insulated jacket, you can always add a down jacket as a mid-layer, too. Form-fitting down jackets filled with synthetic insulation are popular in cold climates and combine the best of both worlds — the warmth of insulation with the versatility of a shell jacket. This is a little more complex than a simple insulated jacket, but if ditching a simple two-layer (base-layer and insulated jacket) set up isn’t an issue, then a shell jacket offers a lot more options and flexibility across a wider range of conditions.
The beauty of a shell jacket is that you can use it anywhere, anytime. Your protection from the cold hinges specifically on your layering, which puts the power of body heat management in your hands. For the more experienced rider, this is a god-send. But for those just starting out, or who want to keep things nice and simple, it may be added head work!
All bad layering puns aside, the choice is yours. If you want simple, and you ride in consistent conditions and you know your body, there’s no reason that an insulated jacket can’t be the right choice!
But if you want to ride across a range of weathers and temperatures, and you don’t mind doing a bit of napkin math in the morning to get your layers right, then a shell jacket will always be the superior choice.
Convenience versus versatility — this is the toss up. The only question now is, heads or tails?