Best Synthetic Jackets for Backpacking of 2020

While down insulation still owns the field for thru-hiking jackets, synthetic-filled layers are making a dent in the category. As synthetic technologies continue to be more eco-friendly, have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio, and maintain insulating properties even when wet, there are dozens of options for synthetic-filled jackets on the market. Synthetic jackets can also transition from an active layer to a warm layer for camp. Many models are built with breathable, wicking materials in the face fabric, lining, and insulation, allowing the wearer to use it as a breathable mid-layer without drowning in a puddle of sweat and decimating the insulating properties.

Specs to Look For

Weight: Under 16 ounces
Fill: Blown insulation is the closest to down—PrimaLoft has a variety of fill levels and weights, as well as plenty of eco-friendly options. Look for something breathable and wicking.
Fit: A medium fit is your best bet for this layer. You should be able to fit a base layer and/or a fleece layer underneath, and a shell on top. It’s common to hike / be active in a synthetic jacket, so be sure you can move freely in the garment and the shoulders don’t restrict range of motion.
Shell Fabric: A durable, DWR-treated shell is optimal, as are reinforced cuffs and hem.
Features: At least two hip pockets, which should be placed high enough to be accessible under a hip belt. Look for a model with a form-fitting hood that won’t eliminate your peripheral vision.

Note: This list is A) not in order and B) will continue to evolve as more products are released and tested.

-Maggie Slepian
Managing Editor

Best Synthetic Jackets for Backpackers of 2020

Enlightened Equipment Torrid Apex Jacket
MSRP: $170
Weight: 7.75 ounces
Fill: Climashield Apex synthetic insulation

Enlightened Equipment dialed down the ounces while still packing this jacket with enough synthetic insulation to make it comparable in warmth to down models like the Patagonia Down Sweater and the Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody, both of which I have taken on many chilly trips. This jacket weighs several ounces less than my down-insulated jackets, while still maintaining warmth when damp. The Torrid Apex fits true to size while being roomy enough for layering underneath, and comes with two zippered hand pockets, a high collar, and a deep hood. The face fabric is tough and has a DWR finish, and the Torrid Apex clocks in with the greatest warmth-to-weight ratio on this list. Somewhat amazingly, it’s also the least expensive jacket on this list. -Maggie Slepian

Patagonia Micro Puff
MSRP: $299
Weight: 8 ounces
Fill: 65g PlumaFill polyester fibers

At 9.3 ounces the Micro Puff is lighter than many down jackets. The jacket is extremely pared down, with no drawstrings for the hood or the waist and no chest pocket. The Micro Puff has two zippered pockets at the waist and two zipper-less pockets on the inside… that’s it. The shell is DWR-treated Pertex Quantum, and the unique baffle patterns keep the insulation in place with minimal stitching and minimal cold spots. The hood is snug, with elastic taking the place of drawcords. while the face fabric is treated and durable, this is definitely better as a mid layer instead of an outer layer when the weather gets wet. Read our full review here.  –Editors

Arc’Teryx Atom LT Insulated Hoodie
MSRP: $259
Weight: 12.7 ounces
Fill: Coreloft synthetic fibers

This jacket is super light for not being down fill. It has all of the usual weather-related benefits of synthetic insulation plus sustainability considerations. It is an excellent layering piece, but can also stand alone as an outer layer thanks to the weather-resistant materials. The fleece side panels are breathable, perfect for venting without sacrificing warmth. -Anne Baker

Patagonia Nano Air
MSRP: $249
Weight: 11.6 ounces
Fill: 40g FullRange® polyester stretch

The Patagonia Nano Air fits into its own pocket, with a wicking face fabric and breathable insulation—ideal for wearing during higher output activities. It weighs less than 12 ounces, with durable construction and synthetic sheet insulation that makes it easier to wash and care for in the long term. The Nano Air’s insulation and 60-g FullRange fabric provides warmth without overheating, and dumps heat to avoid moisture buildup. Stretchy side panels help with range of motion as well as avoiding sweat buildup under your arms. –Editors

Rab Xenon Jacket
MSRP: $194
Weight: 12.7 ounces
Fill: 60g Stratus recycled polyester

This baffle-free construction on the Rab Xenon Jacket has a sheet-like insulation, helping eliminate cold spots. The Stratus insulation is covered in a DWR-treated, durable ripstop fabric. This jacket stands up especially well to wind, with an insulated baffle protecting the zipper where wind can sneak in. The internal zippered pocket acts as a stuff sack, and the insulation is recycled… bonus points for environmentally friendly material sourcing. While this jacket is warmer than others on the list, the face fabric and insulation is less breathable than others on the list, which makes it a better choice for camp and less so for activity.  –Editors

Arc’teryx Proton LT Hoody
MSRP: $299
Weight: 11.3 ounces
Fill: Body: Coreloft Compact 80 polyester fibers

The Arc’teryx Proton LT Hoody is another jacket that gets top marks for breathability. This is a piece you can feel confident hiking in and throwing on for an insulation layer at camp. Jacket is built with Fortius Air 20 face fabric that works to balance air permeability along with weather resistance, and is packed with Coreloft Compact 80 insulation to keep you warm at camp. The Proton can stand up to light snow and dampness, and the slim fit is an ideal mid layer. –Editors

Rab Nimbus
MSRP: $215
Weight: 21 ounces
Fill: Cirrus blown 3M featherless insulation

The Rab Nimbus uses blown synthetic insulation, which is about as close in feel and performance to natural down as it gets. This is a slim-fit insulation layer with narrow quilted baffles, a deep hood, and a high collar for wind protection. At 21 ounces, this is one of the heavier layers on the list, but also provides a serious hit of warmth when paired with an outer shell. Shell is made from the ubiquitous Pertex Quantum, which is durable and DWR-treated, and the lining is breathable and won’t saturate from sweat-induced exertion. –Editors

Patagonia Nano Puff
MSRP: $249
Weight: 10.8 ounces
Fill: 60-g PrimaLoft Gold Eco

The Patagonia Nano Puff is built primarily from eco-friendly materials, including a recycled polyester ripstop shell and packed with PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Eco, which is made from more than half post-consumer recycled content. This jacket isn’t the warmest on the list, but has a neutral fit for layering over and under. The hood is form-fitting, the face fabric is abrasion resistant and highly durable, and all materials are weather-resistant as well as being reasonably breathable for use as a mid-layer on the go. –Editors

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Comments 7

  • Avatar
    Rainwolf : Feb 6th

    Ahh you guys missed the Outdoor Research Ascendant! It’s my favourite synthetic active midlayer – it was developed for the army, since soldiers can’t just stop and easily shift their layering. I love it because it keeps me comfy on trail over a pretty wide span of temperatures, plus it is pretty wind resistant. It’s insulated with Primaloft Alpha which is VERY snuggly. Its sleeves are designed so that you can scrunch them up if you are feeling a tad warm, and the pockets have no zippers, but they are just soo cozy that you don’t mind – they are genuine hand warmer pockets.

    My Ascendant replaced my Arc’teryx Atom LT on trail – the Atom LT is a great jacket when on the move, but in camp the wind blows liberally through those stretchy fleece side panels, chilling you. I do also have a Patagonia Nanoair (I work at a gear store which I have been at for five years,) and I have not gotten to test it on trail, but it is comfy as heck and feels like a nice fluffy blanket when you wear it – love it!

    The OR Ascendant’ll be coming with me on my next thruhike. However, because I am cold as heck, I will also be bringing my Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer to layer over top in camp at night. (I have SUCH respect for people capable of taking just one midlayer, but I just can’t. I would freeze to death.)

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Shannon Ramsey : Nov 18th

      Thanks for the tip about the Outdoor Research Ascendant! And just to be clear you are recommending their hoodie, not the jacket? As I’ve gotten more into backpacking and am hoping to complete an AT thru-hike within the next year or two, I’ve been trying to upgrade my gear and have been going back and forth about what mid-layer I want to get. had my eye on the Arc’teryx Atom LT but after seeing what you said about it not being sufficient when at camp I’m going to check out the Outdoor Research Ascendant! I also had my eye on the Patagonia Nano Puff but that just didn’t seem warm or sturdy enough but I could be wrong. Do you have any recommendations for a quality rain jacket/shell? I had my eye on the Arc’teryx Zeta SL, not sure if you have used that but I’ve always been a fan of Arc’teryx and it seems to get consistently solid reviews. Thanks again!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Mike : Feb 11th

    The Marmot Avant Featherless hoodie should definitely be on this list. I think it’s probably similar to the Rab Nimbus but also toasty warm, lightweight 17oz and easy to find at a discount. I got mine for ~$140. Love it.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    CAPT Gary Andres USN ret : Feb 14th

    I have had the Rab Xenon for two years now…..used it on my first attempt (failed due to old Navy injury flare up) AT thru hike…and countless shake down and day hikes. When receiving it…..I was skeptical of its ability to keep me warm. However……it has proved outstanding. I’m 65 now….I run cold. But with a significant base layer (thermal Patagonia capilene, R1, or EMS Techwick), it has taken me through snow, hail, sleet, high winds In comfort. But what really sold me…..it “wetted through” one mid-30s day during sleet and downpours in the Berkshires. I was convinced the jacket had ceased to provide any warmth due to it being soaked, so I removed it and packed it away. A half hour later…..the wind came on strong. I was still 3 miles from a safe location….thought “what the hell….at least it provides something to break the wind and get me home to some bourbon!” I put that soaked Xenon on and instant warmth! I was amazed! Now I was pushing it and working up significant body heat…..but I kid you not…..soaked through, that Xenon was providing me the warmth I needed! Still, after two years, my only complaint is that “wrong side of the road” British zipper!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Rab Equipment : Feb 18th

      Great to see Rab in this list, thanks for the review 🤙 The comment by “CAPT Gary Andres USN ret on Feb 14th is golden and we feel it needs a repost:

      “I have had the Rab Xenon for two years now…..used it on my first attempt (failed due to old Navy injury flare up) AT thru hike…and countless shake down and day hikes. When receiving it…..I was skeptical of its ability to keep me warm. However……it has proved outstanding. I’m 65 now….I run cold. But with a significant base layer (thermal Patagonia capilene, R1, or EMS Techwick), it has taken me through snow, hail, sleet, high winds In comfort. But what really sold me…..it “wetted through” one mid-30s day during sleet and downpours in the Berkshires. I was convinced the jacket had ceased to provide any warmth due to it being soaked, so I removed it and packed it away. A half hour later…..the wind came on strong. I was still 3 miles from a safe location….thought “what the hell….at least it provides something to break the wind and get me home to some bourbon!” I put that soaked Xenon on and instant warmth! I was amazed! Now I was pushing it and working up significant body heat…..but I kid you not…..soaked through, that Xenon was providing me the warmth I needed! Still, after two years, my only complaint is that “wrong side of the road” British zipper!”

      Thanks Captain!

      Reply

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