Active Puff Review

Active Insulation. Is it an oxymoron, a play on words, or a play on us as consumers? In the past, we adhered strictly to the “Layering System”. We wore a stinky polyester base layer followed by a bulky fleece mid layer and a sweaty hard shell over it all. “Puffies” or as they are sometimes called now, ‘Puffers,’ conjure up images of penguins. They used to be mostly bulky down jackets and eventually, synthetic insulated belay parkas worn only when desperately needed and taking up most of the volume in our packs.

Today, we have a plethora of puffy choices. Different weights, brands, and multiple types of synthetic and down insulations bombard us in ads telling us they are the latest greatest on the market. It’s hard to figure out what is just fashion and what is functionally relevant for your pursuit.

There is plenty of hype out there. But one thing is certain, ‘active insulation’ is undoubtedly a game changer in the mountains and a critical layer for your kit as a climber, skier or seriously active outdoor winter enthusiast. A stretchy, active insulation layer eliminates bulky fleece mid layers and often the outer hard shell. This creates a lighter, more breathable, drier, and simpler system you can rely on in a wide range of conditions. It’s a puffy you put on and keep on all day, whether you are climbing, skinning or working hard on any cold weather pursuit.

In terms of the technology, the definition of an ‘active insulation’ jacket - if there is one - is the sandwiching of a stable (continuous filament, i.e., not ‘feathers’) synthetic insulation between two light (preferably stretchy) shell fabrics that breathe – allowing moisture to escape and a modicum of wind to enter to keep the jacket and you dry when you work up a sweat in cold conditions. Traditional puffies have windproof outer shells and inner shell linings that do not allow vapor to escape easily, but keep you toasty standing still.

Unfortunately, this term and layer have been vastly miscommunicated, misunderstood and therefore, undersold and currently underdeveloped by outdoor companies, leaving us with fewer choices than we deserve for such a critical layer.

We’ve reviewed every currently available active insulation jacket for women we could find, and they’re not many. Some are hybrids that combine different weights of insulation for active use, like the Rab Xenair. Others use the same level of insulation for all around use, but lack enough stretch for climbing, like the Patagonia Nano Air.

Insulations in this review are fairly similar in performance. Nearly all of them have a stretch synthetic polyester construction, with the exception of the Black Diamond Vision Hybrid, which uses Aerogel. Some are “unbranded,” while others use high quality Primaloft Gold Active, which has great stretch and is light. The more critical difference in these jackets to look out for is the inside and outside shell fabric performance and weight.  Whether they stretch, how soft they feel, and how well they breathe will make or break the performance of the jacket.

Best Active Insulation Jacket


Proton FL Hoody

Price: $260

The Arc’teryx Proton FL Hoody is our top pick among the active insulation jackets we tested this month. It is by far the lightest, most breathable active insulation jacket we wore. It keeps you dry and warm, but not hot, during the most active cold weather pursuits. The insulation is similar to Polartec’s Alpha, which looks like an airy fleece, but acts like a puff insulation. The Proton FL’s advantage is that it’s stable enough to not need an inner lining fabric so it fits directly against your base layer to enable it to move moisture way faster and more effectively than a traditional insulation, yet it’s durable and traps heat to be effective as an active puff jacket worn as a mid layer or an outer layer. This is the pinnacle of active insulation for climbing and skinning in super cold conditions. Absolutely worth the price of entry!

Mountain Hardwear

Kor Strata Jacket

Price: $200

This is a simple and versatile active insulation jacket with top level insulation, stretchy breathable shell fabrics and good pocket locations. It’s constructed with lightweight and breathable 20D stretch ripstop Pertex® Quantum Air™ fabric and is insulated with stretchy Primaloft® Gold Active insulation.

Black Diamond

Vision Hybrid Hoody

Price: $280

While this puffy does not use an “active insulation” it panels in breathable, stretchy fabrics on the back and under the arms. This body-mapped construction adds breathability and stretch to the underarms and back panels, while keeping the core warm with 60g PrimaLoft Cross Core Insulation with Aerogel. As such, it is bulkier and a little heavier than other jackets in this review and is not as breathable as a mid layer and not as versatile for highly active use. The fit is a good athletic one.


Nano Air Jacket

Price: $299

This is a sleek, silky soft and super functional puffy for all around use. It is made up of a 100% polyester (mostly recycled) construction and a 60-g FullRange® 100% polyester insulation. Unfortunately, its trim cut lacks enough stretch to work well for climbing as a midlayer. It is also quite expensive in comparison to others in our review.


Xenair Alpine Light

Price: $200

This puffy’s use of different weights of Primaloft Gold+ makes for a great combo of warmth to flexibility for active use. All the fabrics and materials used in its construction are top quality, stretchy and breathe really well. Though the previous renditions (Alpha Flux jacket) used Polartec Alpha, (see Arcteryx’s similar insulation here) which is still far superior for warmth to dry time, this new combination makes this jacket great for all skiing to climbing pursuits and levels. All the features are spot on and dialed with the exception of a lack of an external chest pocket. This takes runner up to Arcteryx’s FL Hoody.

The North Face

Ventrix Hoodie

Price: $220

More of a hiker/towny active puff than that of a climber or skier, this jacket’s unbranded use of fabrics and general boxy cut and lack of climbing located pockets, keep it from being high on the recommended scale for climbers or backcountry skiers.

Header photo courtesy of Chantel Astorga

Disclaimer of Liability: Technical rock and ice climbing is inherently dangerous. Neither Broad Beta, LLC., nor any of its employees, shall be held liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information described and/or contained herein, and Broad Beta, LLC. assumes no responsibility for anyone's use of the information.
Any person using our gear in any manner is personally responsible for learning the proper techniques and good judgment. We strongly recommend that every climber seek instruction by a qualified professional.

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