Gear ReviewsLiving the Dream: The Gear Review You’ll Actually Enjoy Reading (First, Lifestyle Puffies)

Brainspiral BrainspiralDecember 23, 2015
LTD Gear Review: Lifestyle Puffies (by Fast Big Dog)
LTD Gear Review: (Part I) Lifestyle Puffies

Introduction

Welcome to FasterSkier’s newest series, “Living The Dream” (alternate working title is, “Why are we doing intervals again today?”). LTD will be a somewhat regular feature offering nordic skiers of all levels insight into many of the elements that make our sport great: I’ll be offering up advice/recommendations/observations/reviews on gear, training, travel and “other stuff TBD” as I generally don’t like rules, restrictions or guidelines (not to mention authority, deadlines, or good grammar). I’m coming off the line hot, too, with the inaugural column being a gear review of puffy coats — after all, what skier doesn’t like a good puffy coat?

Selection Criteria

Fast Big Dog's dog,.
Fast Big Dog’s dog

Picking the right puffy coat is a lot like picking the right skis, dog or spouse (listed in order of importance). This process is personal and unique, with different traits being important to different people and several factors impacting the ultimate decision.

(As a quick aside on topic number two, if your significant other happens to talk you into the acquisition of a Great Dane puppy, be prepared for months of house breaking, a general indifference toward acknowledging their name — the dog, not the significant other — and a voracious appetite for light bulbs. You’ve been warned.) 

So as we prepare to embark on this wonderful journey together to outfit you, the reader, in just the right jacket, let’s lay down some ground rules:

  1. Nothing is more important than looking good. Never forget this. Ever.
  2. If you’re one of those dudes who wears race suit bottoms into the coffee shop or grocery store after a workout, you should probably stop reading now — there is nothing we can do for you here. Oh, and stop doing that. Stop it right now.
  3. If you’re an athlete, coach, parent or generally interested bystander who is looking for the “ultimate puffy” — the warmest jacket know to man for hours of standing around the race course in sub-zero temps — have no fear, we have you covered for this, too, (no pun intended) in next month’s column.
  4. This first review is for a category I deemed “lifestyle puffies,” coats that are all about being warm but also looking good. If you’re looking for one winter coat, this is it. If you’re one of those skiers that has two light beers at a wedding and is bombed, then proceeds to tear up the dance floor for two hours with your one move, the only tool you own is a Leatherman or you’ve always secretly admired Batman’s utility belt, well this is your lucky day, as today we are going to get you in your perfect “all-in-one” jacket.
  5. The last rule is also the first rule, when in doubt, always refer to rule #1.

The Process

For the test jackets, I reached out to all of the usual suspects, most of whom were kind enough to provide both men’s and women’s jackets. This was greatly appreciated, as I believe that many reviewers come up small in their analysis as it is often a dude reviewing products for both men and women and from what I can remember from my high-school biology class, there are some important anatomical differences between men and women, although many of the specifics escape me at this time.

To help combat my complete and utter lack of understanding of the fairer sex, I recruited a crackerjack team of female coaches/skiers/bad asses to provide their perspective on each garment. In addition, to keep these reviews as balanced and bias-free as possible, I also asked a few other male nordic coaches to help me with the testing. This entire testing team ranged in age from early twenties to an undetermined amount over-50 and collectively has well over 100 years of experience nordic skiing. Was this a double-blind, prospective, longitudinal peer-reviewed study? No. But I did my best to bring in perspectives from both sexes and several ages to provide as balanced and complete of an analysis as possible and reasonable for a winter-jacket review.

Since I pretend to be a scientist when I’m off duty from FasterSkier, I can’t help but throw in a staple of every good scientific paper or presentation: a disclosure statement. I’m a Steamboat boy from way back, as are a few of the other coaches, though certainly not all. One of the companies, Big Agnes, is based in Steamboat. I am also involved with the U.S. Ski Team and unless you’ve been living in a cave (in which case this review will be perfect for you, as caves can be quite cold and drafty) you likely know that L.L. Bean is the new official gear supplier to the U.S. Ski Team. In addition, I’ve either been on teams or been personally sponsored by Arc’teryx and Mountain Hardware in several different pursuits and activities. Several of my good friends are sponsored by Swix, Salomon and L.L. Bean. So in short, almost the entire review team has or had relationships with almost all of the companies. Having said this, I think everyone did an excellent job of evaluating the coats based on their merit  — we all love skiing and we all love gear. The old adage, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear” rings true to all of us every day so we did our best to provide honest, accurate recommendations with the hope that each and every one of you reading this can be as comfortable as possible out there doing the sport we all love.

On the other side of this disclosure, it is also very important to point out that these are straight-up legit reviews: I know firsthand that other “outside” magazines and web sites require companies to pay money to be considered for reviews, which is appalling in my opinion, as this crosses the line from review into gloried advertisement. I can assure you that this was not the case here — companies were not asked to provide any remuneration whatsoever, nor were we pressured or offered enticements in any way from any of the companies.

Finally, almost all of the coats in this review are in the “good to excellent” range, but what made this process very interesting is just how different many of them were out in the field. One of our main objectives is to therefore describe the circumstances in which each piece will perform optimally and help guide skiers to the jacket that will best meet their needs.

Criteria

In terms of how each particular jacket was picked from the vast array of options, I provided identical selection criteria to each company and asked them to send the product that they felt best met these standards. Representatives from the companies picked the products, so if you’re an over the top fan boy for a particular brand and your “go-to” coat wasn’t picked, email the company, not me.

My entire team did their best to assess as many of the more objective factors (warmth, bulk, fit, etc.) as possible, as well as the more subjective factors (style, use scenarios, etc). We tested all of the jackets in a wide variety of different conditions and environments, from the very usual (loading skis and scraping van windows) to the more unusual:

Based on several meetings and just the right amount of beer, we then came together to create consensus on which coats performed the best in all of the scenarios and based on this meta-analysis, I faithfully and thoughtfully scribed the following review.

The Reviews:

Arc’teryx

Arc Teryx women's Atom LH Hoody (All photos: FBD)
Arc’teryx women’s Atom LT Hoody (All photos: FBD)

For this category of the lifestyle puffy, Arc’teryx sent us a men’s Koda parka and the women’s Atom LT Hoody. Arc’teryx sent different models for men and women due to the fact that they do not make a women’s Koda jacket, but they believe these two models to be very comparable, so for the purposes of this review, we are using the two somewhat interchangeably. I am comfortable with this generalization, but please keep this in mind if you read this and want to go running off to the Internets to make the ultimate X-mas gift purchase — don’t yell at me when you can’t find a women’s Koda.

West Yellowstone's weather Thanksgiving week 2015.
West Yellowstone’s weather Thanksgiving week 2015.

The Koda parka was the warmest of all of the men’s lifestyle puffies, with the women’s Atom LT Hoody in a virtual tie for the top spot in the warmness category as well. Each of them are very, very good coats. Buy this for yourself and you’ll be stoked. Buy it for someone else and you’ll be a hero for years to come. Coming back from breakfast in West Yellowstone, Mont., a few weeks ago, the weather looked like this (see photo at left), and the jacket performed admirably.

The outer layer feels very abrasion-resistant and it held up well for nine intensive days of skiing and coaching in West Yellowstone. If that doesn’t sound like very rigorous testing, you’ve never seen me load and unload wax tables from the team van.

A few of our more fashion-conscious reviewers (both male and female) found both the coloring and styling a little flat and “looked as though it could be going on a mountaineering expedition.” Perhaps since I’ve been on a number of mountaineering expeditions I found this a strength, not a weakness, but it is a fair point. So if you’re looking to ride your fixie home from the tracks to stop and drink PBR with your hipster friends and their ironic facial hair, this may not be the jacket for you. If you are low-key, subtle and have some $$$ to spend (at $449 for the men’s version, this was the most-expensive jacket reviewed in this category), this is the coat for you.

Arc'Teryx men's Koda Parka (ArcTeryx.com)
Arc’teryx men’s Koda Parka (Arcteryx.com)

The fit on the men’s jacket is a little more generous than most of the others tested: the FBD is a large, powerful man, so this also was a plus, not a minus, but if you are a little more diminutive, you may find the jacket a little too loose. Interestingly enough, the women’s version seemed to have the opposite fit: two of the reviewers are on the shorter side and found the sizing to be perfect for them, but noted that it may not be ideal for very tall women or those with longer torsos. Overall, this is a very, warm, subdued but sophisticated jacket that looks like it will hold up well to years of serious use.

Strengths: Warm, comfortable, fleece-lined pockets, “quiet style” and durable zippers and outer layer.

Weaknesses: A bit spendy, a few younger reviewers thought the style was a little plain, fit might be too roomy for smaller male frames.

Buy it if: Performance is your top consideration and money is less of an issue, you want to be warm and stylishly understated.

 

Patagonia

Patagonia Air Nano Air Hoody
Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody

The fine folks in Ventura, Calif., provided us with a Nano-Air Hoody. The selection of this particular garment surprised us all a bit, as you can’t swing a smoked-up lift op around a mountain town without hitting someone rocking a Patagonia Down Sweater or Nano Puff (this reviewer has one of each), so we fully expected to be sent one of these models. We were not. What was sent however, quickly became of the favorites of the entire team.

Even though this review is focused on jackets to wear to and from skiing, the Nano-Air is so soft, stretchable and lightweight that you can wear it nordic skiing, as well as on the ride to and fro. Two of us also tested it on a killer back-country alpine ski and found it to perform flawlessly, but please note, we were skinning up the hill and working hard on the way down slaying deep powder (yeah, I know, first-world problems…) so we were not only moving the entire time, but also doing so with reasonable intensity.

Patagonia women's Nano-Air Hoody (Patagonia.com)
Patagonia women’s Nano-Air Hoody (Patagonia.com)

In all of these use-cases, the coat was basically perfect. Would you ever want to wear it for lift-serviced terrain? Probably not until the mercury tops 30 or so. For spring-party skiing, it’d probably be awesome, but we had a powder day in Steamboat recently and the temp at the top of the mountain was a balmy -2 degrees and I didn’t even consider grabbing this jacket when I left the house.

Overall, this is a killer piece for around town on sunny winter days and it will surely crush it in the spring, fall and cool summer nights in the mountains. Probably one of the best summary comments from the testing feedback forms was, “I love this jacket. It feels more like a hoodie than a jacket and I think I could do all sorts of activities in it or just wear it around as long as it wasn’t super cold.”

Strengths: Incredibly warm for its weight, stretchable, stylish and extremely versatile. Can be worn to the tracks and straight to coffee afterwards or even on the town as a nice hoody. Also a great layering piece.

Weaknesses: Still not as warm as a few of the heavier coats. Probably not the best choice if you live someplace very cold and are looking for a one-coat solution for all of your winter needs.

Buy it if:  You are a direct descendant of Nanook of the North, you normally only wear a T-shirt outside all winter, you can thermoregulate like a lizard or you want an incredibly versatile stand-alone or layering piece that will kick ass and take names all year ‘round.

 

L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Hooded Jacket
L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Hooded Jacket

The newest supplier to the U.S. Ski Team did not disappoint with their offering. The jacket sent to us was the Ultralight 850 Down Hooded Jacket, which is part of the official kit for the U.S. Ski Team and it was rapidly apparent why this is the case: the coat was light, warm and functional. Our version was blue with a contrasting yellow liner that one very fashion-forward female review said made me look “less repulsive than usual.” (Bless you Greta).

L.L. Bean women's Ultralight 850 Down Hooded Jacket (LL Bean.com)
L.L. Bean women’s Ultralight 850 Down Hooded Jacket (LL Bean.com)

This jacket also features fleece lined pockets which were a huge hit with the entire coaching staff. Anyone who has spent hours in the cold loading and unloading skis, fiddling with bindings, straps, van keys, video cameras and the myriad of other things that seems to always require removing your gloves, is going to love this feature.

Strengths: A good, solid, all-around coat. Very light and packable. The fact that they support the U.S. Ski Team is also a plus.

Weaknesses: Another coat that is not super flashy. Again, for me, this is a strength, not a weakness, but this is probably not the best choice is you want to go clubbing in New York City, Berlin, or Oslo. Pretty much square in the middle on the warmth/weight ratio scale.

Buy it if: You want to help a company supporting the U.S. Ski Team, you are cost-conscious and you want a very versatile puffy that’ll look good around town and in your race bag at the Birkie. Or if you’re a person who forgets their gloves often.

 

Big Agnes

Big Agnes Women’s Shovelhead Hooded Jacket
Big Agnes Women’s Shovelhead Hooded Jacket

This one is a little tricky, as Big Agnes did not send an entry for the best men’s lifestyle puffy. They did send a women’s coat, the Women’s Shovelhead Hooded Jacket, so while I have no data to report on the men’s side, I can pass along our female reviewers comments.

Big Agnes men's Shovelhead Hooded Jacket (BigAgnes.com)
Big Agnes men’s Shovelhead Hooded Jacket (BigAgnes.com)

Overall, this was a popular coat. All of the women found it to be very warm yet not too bulky or cumbersome. It was more form fitting than the other jackets in this category, which most found to be a plus, though a few female reviewers did note that larger-chested women may not find this cut as comfortable.

Strengths: Best warmth/weight ratio of any women’s jacket. Very packable. Retains warmth well when wet. Very wind resistant. Good for skiers who are always cold.

Weaknesses: May not be good for certain female body types

Buy it if: You are a woman who wants a very lightweight yet warm jacket and your body type fits in the criteria outlined above.

 

Swix

Swix Romsdal 2.0
Swix Romsdal 2.0

This iconic name in nordic skiing provided exactly what we thought they would — a solid, reliable garment, the Swix Romsdal 2.0. It looks very “Nordic,” which is to be expected given the lineage of the brand. Given the audience of this periodical, I’m guessing this will also be a positive in most instances.

Swix men's Romsdal 2.0 Down Jacket (Backcountry.com)
Swix men’s Romsdal 2.0 Down Jacket (Backcountry.com)

The look of this jacket is a bit of the tale of two cities (maybe all Twin Cities residents should therefore go buy one of these immediately), as the men’s version is styled very traditionally, but the women’s coat seems to have just the right amount of flash for all of the female reviewers. Our women’s test jacket was pink with a white band across the upper back and a few snowflakes placed strategically in the banding, which everyone loved. One guest reviewer (a former elite skier and current nordic-store employee) noted, “Oh yeah, we KILL IT with this jacket in the shop. It is one of our best sellers.”

Strengths: Styling of the women’s model seems to be spot-on, not only based on the universal approval of our team of female testers, but also on anecdotal reports of sales. Very economical. Great value.

Weaknesses: Neither the men’s or women’s jacket was incredibly warm, though neither was terrible. The two-tone color on the men’s model looks somewhat traditional and certainly can’t be described as “fashion-forward,” but it that’s not your jam anyway, you’ll be fine.

Buy it if: You’re the type of person with wax stickers on your car. You ski daily. You are a cool mountain-town mom (MTM) or a single dude looking to find a hot, single MTM. Great custom team jacket.

 

Mountain Hardwear

Mountain Hardwear's Ghost Whisperer
Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Whisperer

We received a men’s Ghost Whisperer from Mountain Hardware (again, only a men’s) and this was another one of the coats that made this very elaborate process fun. I’ve owned Mountain Hardwear soft goods for years and have always been impressed with their very pragmatic approach. Their products work well and while they may not have been at the leading edge of the fashion curve, the gear did its job and did it well. So when I opened up the box, I was a bit surprised as this was clearly the most aggressive styling I have ever seen in one of their coats. Fascinated by this apparent change in direction, I set off to the tracks to annoy innocent skiers with my seemingly endless and odd stream of coat questions.

Mountain Hardwear women's Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket (Mountainhardwear.com)
Mountain Hardwear women’s Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket (Mountainhardwear.com)

The results of this highly unofficial but yet very unscientific trail/airport/coffee-shop survey? This coat slays it with the “in” crowd. It is very shiny and the color was definitely different but I have to admit, I really like it. To be clear, would I have picked this out for myself if I was alone at my favorite local outdoor retailer? Probably not, at least not right away, but would I go buy one now? Yes.

Mountain Hardwear has stuck to their roots and produced a fantastic jacket that is very warm for its size, portable and a great piece for both athletic and casual use. I guess what sealed the deal for me was when a group of female skiers said, “Oh yeah, that look is so hot right now,” and since I consider myself the Steamboat version of Hansel, this coat now seems like a must-have.

Strengths: Very light, best warmth/weight ratio for all of the men’s coats, fastest down the hill in penguin slides, “so hot right now”

Weaknesses: Style may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Outer layer feels like it could be prone to tears, but having said that, despite repeated penguin slides, none of us had any issues with rips, tears or snags. Plus, is it worth it to have a coat that might rip a bit easier but looks awesome? I hope you know the answer to that question by now. If not, please revisit Rule #1.

Buy it if: Style IS your jam, you don’t like being cold, you understand and appreciate >50% of these references.

 

Bjorn Daehlie

Bjorn Daehlie Easy Jacket
Bjorn Daehlie Easy Jacket

Another iconic nordic brand that we were delighted to review. This was another case in which we only received a men’s coat, the Easy Jacket, so please factor in accordingly the fact that we were only reviewing a men’s jacket. This jacket also took a page out of the independent-thinker handbook, as this was another garment that didn’t necessarily fit the criteria outlined, but we loved it nonetheless.

Bjorn Daehlie women's Easy Jacket (BjornDaehlie.com)
Bjorn Daehlie women’s Easy Jacket (BjornDaehlie.coml)

This is not really a “wear-around-town jacket,” but having said that, it was great at its core mission: nordic skiing. This particular coat was the most breathable and flexible of the entire group, so it was by far the best jacket in which to nordic ski. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Self, I thought the goal of this review was to find the best jacket to wear TO ski, not to ski IN,” and you’d be correct, but, we did like this coat a lot for nordic skiing.

It is very non-constrictive and perfect for athletes who chill easily or for us normal people on VERY cold days. Would I buy it? Yes, but probably not for around town. It’s a great jacket to have in the quiver for cold skis and still be able to wear in the grocery store without being asked to leave. This of course, begs the question that if you need to wear this jacket skiing, aren’t you therefore predisposed to being cold and would thusly want an even warmer jacket to wear off the tracks? Wow, look at you with the good questions… Fair point though, so if this is all ringing very true to you, you had better plan on buying this and one of the “ultimate puffies” that will be reviewed next month and you’ll be good to go.

Strengths: Very light, flexible and perfectly suited for nordic skiing

Weaknesses: Least warm of all of the jackets, you’ll be “that guy” in the grocery store still rocking his nordic stuff. Speaking of which, didn’t we clearly tell you earlier in this article to stop doing that?

Buy it if: You want a coat you can ski in, you have a Nordic World Cup fantasy team, the first thing you read every morning is Noah Hoffman’s blog and you’re going to ignore me and wear your tights around town for three hours after your ski anyway. This is your look. Own it.

***

Conclusion

Festivus pole
Festivus pole (Photo: Wikipedia)

Hopefully this information will help you make an even more informed decision on your next trip to the gear store, which if you are like me, is a regular occurrence — especially this time of year. Don’t forget either, you’ve probably been out training a lot this year (yes, yes, not as much as you’d like, you’ve been SO busy at work, this time of year is crazy, etc.) but still, think about all of those around you that support you in your pursuit of this ridiculous hobby.

Let’s just say that even if you are all set gear-wise (which is doubtful, but for the purposes of the last part of this discussion we’ll accept this premise), maybe you should take all of this newfound brain knowledge and use it for good instead of evil and hook up that someone special with one of the best presents you could ever hope to find under the tree, Menorah, or Festivus pole — a kick-ass “lifestyle” puffy.

Everyone loves a good puffy and remember, there is nothing more important than looking good.

***

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.

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