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.