Since amazingly I haven’t been fired by FasterSkier (yet), LTD is back with our undoubtedly eagerly awaited second installment of puffy coat reviews. In the first review, we tackled “lifestyle” puffies. These are the Swiss Army Knives of your closest — they do it all. You can wear them to and from the tracks, warm up in them for races, impress the ladies in the coffee shop Après-ski or wear them out to dinner, being warm and stylish the entire time.
This is the review of their big brothers. While the lifestyle puffies may be the Sugar Ray Leonards of your wardrobe, pound for pound the kings of the closet, these are the heavyweight prize fighters: the Mike Tysons, Evander Holyfields, the Muhammad Alis — big, bad and heavy. This isn’t your ‘go-to’ jacket for most days; this is what you pull out when you’re getting ready to slug it out for several hours out in the cold. We call these the “ultimate puffies.”
As you all should know by now, nothing is more important than looking good. Learn it. Know it. Live it. Now, having said that, you’re likely asking yourself, “Self, those ultimate puffies make you look like you’re heading off on an Everest expedition. How can I possibly look good in one of those monstrosities?” Great question, self, I am proud of you. You have been paying attention.
Now please listen (read), very, very carefully here, as this is the ONE instance in which I am willing to grant you special dispensation on the fashion front in the name of function. These jackets are utilitarian. They are work horses. They have a very important job to do — they were put on Earth to keep your whiny, needy, nordic ass warm when it is downright nasty, so here and only here, we are we going to make allowances in style in the name of not catching pneumonia.
You all know the scene — we’ve all been there — it is below zero and it’s race day, but you’re a team player, so you’re out there cheering on teammates/children/parents or friends, working the wax table for hours on end, or maybe you are even on-course, giving it your all in these brutal conditions.
Or perhaps you are sitting for what seems like an eternity with 70,000 of your closest friends at some seemingly pointless spectator event as a part of the soul-crushing office job that you hate, watching overpaid millionaire mercenaries give each other closed head injuries while horribly inebriated indigenous personnel scream obscenities at players they worshiped as recently as a week ago. This bizarre fleeting devotion is even more puzzling due to the fact that essentially none of these steroid-abusing, sexual-assault purveyors are actually from the city they are purported to be representing and they garner god-like status despite their often glaringly illegal and immoral acts. Drown dogs with your bare hands? Beat defenseless women unconscious? KILL other humans? No problem, we love you as long as your ball skills are solid. Where was I going with this? Oh yes, those stadiums can be quite cold, so you need a warm coat.
So, since no one loves you like we do here at FasterSkier, we went out and got ourselves cold so you don’t have to.
We covered this in excruciating detail in the first review, so in the name of brevity I’m going to skip all of the gory details this time around since all of the same terms and conditions exist in this review as well. If you’re a stickler for details or just love to read my beautifully crafted prose, give yourself a treat and dive back in to the last installment and bask in the awesomeness that is my detailed description of testing protocols, disclosure statements, and conflicts of interest.
I am going to repeat the description of how each particular jacket was selected though, as not only is is very important, but I want to take as many steps as prudent to avoid any angry mail. The companies picked the jackets, not us, so if you have an axe to grind, write them, not me. Or the executives at FasterSkier, as near as I can tell, all of those people seem quite lonely and most certainly need more to do.
I would also like to emphasize how carefully and extensively every single piece was tested. I love gear. My team loves gear. There is no place all of us would rather be than outside doing cool stuff, so this is a responsibility we take very, very seriously. So while we did beat the crap out of these jackets, we did so due to our commitment to you the reader, the skier, the parent, the coach, the person standing out there in the cold for hours. Jackets are expensive, so we did our best to ensure that when you’re ready to pull the trigger on a new “Muhammad Ali,” we know we’ve done our best to give you the intellectual ammo to make the best possible purchase for your specific needs.
In this “ultimate puffy” category, Arc’teryx sadly only sent us one jacket, a men’s Ceres. I say “sadly,” because this coat is amazing. Once again “The Bird” (they used that on the phone with me, so I therefore feel authorized to throw this out, plus it makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about and I like that) absolutely killed it. Essentially every (male) tester agreed that this was the warmest jacket in the test and it handled every challenge we threw at it with style and grace.
Warm? Check. Durable? Check. Stylish? Check. What’s not to love? Well, the only downside to this heavyweight champ is that all of these features come at a cost, as this was the most expensive jacket testing, but damn is it nice.
As was the case in the “lifestyle puffies,” the fit is a bit generous, so if you’re a 6’6”, 118-pound IT technician or web programmer, this may not be the coat for you. If you’re a big, strapping man like the FBD, you’ll grab this every time there’s a sub-zero wind chill and the coaching zone you’ve been assigned to cover at the World Cup is the farthest one humanly possible from the nice warm wax cabin.
Strengths: Very warm. Shell has a perfect mix of durability and flexibility.
Weaknesses: May necessitate a second mortgage. Fit might be a bit loose on the ectomorphs out there in the studio audience.
Buy it if: You’ll pay any amount of money to be warm while you’re sitting in the Eagles stadium watching angry, drunken, shirtless guys from Philadelphia throw beer at angry, drunken shirtless guys from New York, wondering how you life went so wrong. Or if you attend races anywhere in New England or Montana. Or Greenland. Who knows if there are actually nordic races in Greenland, but it seems like if there are, they’d be really, really cold.
While maybe not quite as warm as the Arc’teryx, the offerings from Patagonia were quite close. They provide the test team a men’s and women’s Fitz Roy. In short, everyone loved these jackets. Both of the puffies were puffy, but not too puffy (all of my English professors just committed suicide after reading that sentence, sorry Mrs. Dixon et al.).
One of my favorite comments from our testing log was, “I love this jacket, is it so soft and warm it feels like I’m wearing a sleeping bag that moves with me perfectly.” I agree with this assessment, as the jacket really does feel that soft and unrestricting. Is it too soft? Well, thankfully the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club cross-country ski team has essentially boundless energy and a near-total immunity to cold, so we repeated our patented “Penguin Slide” testing protocol and I’ll say this, none of the Patagonia garments had the slightest snag or tear, despite repeated runs down the very steep face of Howelsen Hill (as a point of reference, there are ski jumps are about 30 meters from our slide test area, so that should give you some idea of the steepness of the slope).
So is this a guarantee that these coats will never rip? Of course not, but what it is intended to do is provide some assurance that if you’re standing in your favorite local outdoor retailer thinking, “Man, the material on this coat looks thin,” it is, but it is durable. Very durable.
We’ve now been testing these jackets daily for over two months without a single problem. If you’re working on monster trucks or an offshore oil derrick, could you damage it? Maybe. But if you are doing any of those things, you’re probably not reading this review and you’re most likely firmly in the Carhartt camp anyway, so stop wasting my time with all of these stupid questions.
Strengths: Warmest coat for its weight, very compressible hence very packable, also very soft and flexible. Cool colors, nice style for both fraüleins and bros.
Weaknesses: MAY tear more easily than some of the other coats, but this is just a theory, so no angry letters, Patagonia, and again, we tested this extensively and had no problems.
Buy it if: You want a very versatile, warm puffy and you don’t work on monster trucks or offshore oil rigs.
As they did for the last review, L.L. Bean provided us another official model of the jacket they are supplying to the U.S. Ski Team this year, the Wind Challenger. The FBD testing crew was almost as divided as the Bloods and Crips in the L.L. Bean vs. Patagonia debate (as much as this metaphor could ever possibly fit a bunch of mountain-town nordic ski coaches), as the approaches of these two brands are almost polar opposite.
Patagonia’s garments are warm, light, colorful, fashion-forward and very soft. L.L. Bean took the opposite tact and developed jackets that are also very warm, but much thicker, subdued and beefy. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as heavy = durable, and understated is a plus for people who don’t want to “pop” when they hit the town.
I love any sort of attention and generally live my life by the philosophy of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but if flying under radar is your M.O., this coat is for you.
It’s a great coat and it feels like it can take a beating, a concept for which we are all quite fond.
Strengths: Heavier outer layer likely more abrasion resistant. Official supplier to the U.S. Ski Team. Not too flashy.
Weaknesses: The hand on this coat is not nearly as soft or pliable as the others, in particular the Patagonia. Not super colorful. Not quite as packable, which is important when Grover says you can only bring one bag to Europe for your four-month trip.
Buy it if: You channel your inner Andy Newell on your ski every day, you own a non-declawed cat, or you are thinking of buying a monster truck and/or are applying for oil rig work.
(Ed note: our team of researchers is currently investigating whether monster trucks are allowed on oil rigs).
Big Agnes sent their apologies, but not a women’s coat, which is a shame as the men’s coat, the Dunkley Belay Jacket is excellent. It was the only jacket in the test with synthetic insulation (for women’s synthetic-jacket options, click here), and the down vs. synthetic is a debate that has ravaged mankind since the dawn of time.
Much has been written on both sides, so I won’t bore all of you with the details again here, but the executive summary is that this coat out-performs all of the others in the wet. I just happen to personally own last year’s model and like it a lot, but I had two serious issues with the zipper, one of which required an exchange. Big Agnes was very gracious about this, but even the replacement garment wasn’t perfect. Unfortunately our test garment also had a bit of a finicky zipper, which was real drag (no pun intended) when trying to put the coat on with cold hands after a race.
Strengths: Stacked up to the “downies” when dry. Warmest coat when wet. Perfect buy for people who recreate the ALS Challenge all winter and athletes who bathe their pets outside regardless of conditions. Or anyone who owns a Labrador Retriever, an animal that somehow manages to magically attract cold, wet conditions year-round, particularly in your car.
Weaknesses: Least packable of all of the coats. Zipper issues seem more common than they should be, in particular for a coat in this price range.
Buy it if: You work at a winter car wash or ski places where the dreaded snow/rain transition is all-too-frequent.
The friendly folks at BD flipped the script on us on this one and sent a women’s ultimate puffy, the Shelter Jacket, but not a men’s, so this review is for women, by women. The garment sent was also the same version used by the U.S. Ski Team last year, so it’s got plenty of street cred.
This jacket was one of the best “all-arounders” for the ladies. It is warm, stylish and feels durable. One of our testers was an elite skier and subsequently received her fair share of team jackets and this was one of her favorites. Despite being from Alaska, she is surprisingly prone to getting cold, so she could be found busting out some of her AK coaching knowledge in this beauty even when out on skiing.
I don’t think I’d actually do a workout in it, but it has nice mobility which means it is perfect to wear out to coach or any other start/stop activity. It is also ideal if you ski like one of our other testers Josh Smullin, in that in an effort to inflate your training hours, you take frequent breaks mid-workout for water and to make long phone calls. If you meet any of these criteria, BOOM, this jacket is for you.
Strengths: Great all-around coat for women. Good weight. Good warmth. Great mobility. Great style. Extremely economical. Best value in entire test.
Weaknesses: People will ask you if you’re Josh Smullin (never a good thing) or if you lie a lot in your training log. Coaches may attempt to activate the “auto-stop” feature on your heart rate monitor.
Buy it if: You think your genealogy somehow traces back to Norwegian superstar Bjørn Daehlie, you’re a fan of this very stylish, iconic nordic brand, or you’re currently a little light on your yearly training hours.
One of the many things that makes this job fun is watching companies blatantly ignore my ridiculously simple instructions. People don’t send stuff they are supposed to send. People do sent stuff they’re not supposed to send. No one sends stuff on time and everyone yells at me when the reviews are late and weird. What I’m saying is I’m the victim here.
Having said that, business is a full-contact sport — I get that. I have an alter ego that is out fighting a good fight in the corporate world right now and no one understands better than I that corporate goals may not always mesh with my goofy editorial goals. Perhaps even more importantly, as noted in the lifestyle puffy review, no one hates rules more than the FBD, so when L.L. Bean sent two jackets that seemed to defy all categories, the Baxter State Parka, I appreciated the gesture. The question became however, “What the hell do we do with these things?” So since Bean was aggressive, clever and innovative enough to send a special category of jackets, who am I to stifle this creative energy? So here’s a very special bonus review.
What are these mysterious category-defying garments? Well, that depends on when you grew up. There was a time when these pieces were called “snorkel jackets” and “back in the day,” you ruled the playground if you had one. I still remember poor Mark Woods having to sit on the playground in third grade in Michigan in mid-winter without any jacket or shirt to prove his worthiness for inclusion into the “Snorkel Club.” (Mark later passed away with complications from pneumonia and will be missed greatly. Very sad story.) Well, apparently, what’s old is what’s new again and these babies are making a comeback.
This styling on these “snorkels” is a bit controversial, but generally well received. One young, hip female reviewer absolutely loved this jacket and rocked it hard on a team trip in Aspen. In perhaps the quote of the year, she noted, “I’m not a trophy wife, but I’m dressed like I could be and I kinda like that.” And that’s saying a lot in Aspen.
On the other side of the coin, probably our most conservative male coach also loved this jacket and regularly wore it around town, having never looked better.
Strengths/Weaknesses: Fabric feels like it can stop a bullet. Hood features synthetic-fur trim and makes you a dead ringer for Kenny when fully deployed. More pockets than a fishing vest on steroids. Coat weighs more than me, folds to approximate size of my Great Dane. Will likely survive a nuclear blast.
Buy it if: You rock Ray-Ban aviators in the winter, you drive a Range Rover to races, or you live alone in a backwoods cabin and trap your own food all winter. Or you fear an assassination attempt.
We’re at that time of year when it can be very cold at many nordic venues and we’ve already covered that it’s really no fun to be cold. Since all of you over-trained nordic nerds out there already have compromised immune systems from the white blood cell-suppressing combination of a high-training volume, never going easy (as hey, there’s no way I’m letting THAT guy pass me up this hill on a training day) and getting up at 4:30 am to watch the live coverage of the World Cup, you deserve to treat yourself to a nice, warm puffy to throw on after the Land of Lakes Loppet so you can finally lick that nasty cold that’s been dogging you for months. Don’t forget, the Birkie is just around the corner and you need to be healthy if you are going to dominate wave 5.
Base layers and/or wind briefs (Yup, we are going THERE), or maybe the world’s coolest training monitoring system, or maybe something else. Or maybe nothing else, as I’m convinced that these columns are slowly killing me. And my Great Dane almost started a fire in my house the other day, so it seems as though I now attempt to cheat death on a daily basis and someday this just has to catch up to me.
On a completely unrelated note, if anyone is interested in adopting a Great Dane “puppy,” please contact me offline: low miles, one owner, never been crashed.
About the Author: Jon Schafer, known in U.S. nordic circles as Fast Big Dog, is a cultural anomaly: part man, part myth. He spent the better part of a month hitchhiking from Costa Rica to Alaska, carrying his skis the entire time, with only his quick wit and love of tequila to keep him going. … He skis, he rides, he writes and he paddles.