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How to pick a warm winter coat

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/6/2021 Angela Haupt
(iStock) © iStock/iStock (iStock)

In Eric Larsen’s world, minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit qualifies as “relatively warm.” He’s a polar explorer who regularly braves the coldest places on the planet — Antarctica, Greenland, the North Pole — where temperatures can reach minus-50.

“Having a good winter coat and using it properly is the difference between life and death,” says Larsen, based in Crested Butte, Colo. “It’s also the difference between being comfortable, which is my goal, and miserable.”

Larsen keeps a rotation of jackets in his arsenal. On polar expeditions, he wears only a couple of base layers and a wind shell; he’s working so hard that his body produces adequate heat. In Antarctica, where it’s dry, cold and windy, he adds a longer jacket made with a fabric called Supplex.

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Although you might not be heading into such extreme environments, you can still follow Larsen’s lead in your search for a winter coat by asking two questions: What kind of conditions will you be wearing it in, and during what activities? “That will dictate what’s the best jacket for you,” says Grant Lipman, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University. He directs Stanford’s Wilderness Medicine Fellowship and runs Global Outdoor Emergency Support, or GOES, which provides medical guidance for outdoor travelers. “If you’re going for a 20-minute run in the dry cold, that’s very different than shoveling your car out in a wet blizzard, or walking around the block to pick up some milk.”

Here’s a guide to what to consider as you shop for a winter coat that maximizes warmth.

Fabric and insulation

Choosing a winter jacket may seem straightforward, but there’s an almost dizzying array of styles, fabrics and insulations to sift through. Some people prefer a classic peacoat that’s made out of a woven fabric such as wool or a wool blend — which are solid insulators, says Deborah Young, a textile expert and author of “Swatch Reference Guide for Fashion Fabrics.”

“You want fibers that are thermal retainers, which means, historically, wool and — believe it or not — silk,” Young says, although those have largely been replaced by synthetic fibers today. Still, if you want to be warm, wool will do the trick. It’s lightweight, durable and water-resistant, which means you’ll stay dry if you’re caught in the rain or a snowstorm. Merino wool, which is grown by merino sheep, is softer than regular wool, Young says, and it wicks away sweat — making it a good option to wear on, say, morning walks in winter. Just check the tag to ensure the coat is mostly wool; some go light on it and include mostly other materials, such as nylon and spandex.

Coats made from animal fur also offer an excellent barrier against the elements, but people tend to prefer faux fur, which won’t keep you quite as warm unless it has a particularly thick lining, says Rachel LoMonaco-Benzing, an assistant professor in the fashion design and merchandising school at Kent State University in Ohio. Fleece coats need to have a good liner, too, or they’ll “allow wind to pass through pretty easily.”

One of the best options if your goal is warmth is a performance jacket. (Think puffer coats, such as those made by Patagonia, REI and Columbia.) They tend to be comfortable and ideal for winter activities. This category of coat is where “a lot of the innovation in outdoor clothing” has centered, LoMonaco-Benzing says. The outer shell of a puffer jacket is typically “a very tightly woven fabric that’s almost always made out of a synthetic, such as polyester or nylon,” she says. Many types, such as the popular Gore-Tex fabric, are waterproof, windproof and durable. It’s increasingly common for these materials to have been recycled, part of a push for sustainability in the fashion industry.

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Most puffer jackets feature either down or synthetic insulation, says Joseph Katz, a personal stylist and fashion expert in Los Angeles. Which type you choose will determine your coat’s warmth, weight and price. Down, made from clusters of duck or goose feathers, is a superior insulator while remaining breathable and lightweight. Before selecting a down coat, check its fill power: This number, somewhere between about 500 and 900, indicates the general quality of the down. The higher the number, the better the insulation, Katz says. “If you have 500, it’s still good, but there might be spots where there isn’t a little down, so the air can get through, making you feel colder.”

Synthetic down, meanwhile, isn’t as warm as animal down, and it’s sometimes bulkier. However, it’s made out of water-repellent fibers and dries more quickly than duck or goose down. It’s also less expensive. One of the most commonly used synthetic fillers is called PrimaLoft — “ultrafine fibers that keep you dry and warm,” Katz says. Synthetic insulation is measured in grams per square meter; most coats will have around 60 to 100 grams.

The aesthetic appeal of these puffer jackets is broadening, LoMonaco-Benzing says: “The ubiquitous nature of the performance look is kind of trickling down, and manufacturers are finding ways to make it look a bit more timeless. You’re seeing a lot of longer puffer jackets that are cut a little more stylishly, like an overcoat.”

Charlene Balick, a sales lead at the REI store in Seattle, often steers locals to coats with PrimaLoft insulation: “They’re lightweight, not that expensive, and cute,” and they work well in a city that rarely drops below 40 degrees. If she’s helping someone from the East Coast, where it gets colder, she might recommend a long coat that’s packed with down and has a waterproof shell to protect against the elements. Such a coat is also a good choice for commuters, “who may not be generating a lot of their own body heat.” But if you’re planning to be super-active, look for a coat with a high down fill power; in addition to offering the best warmth, it will be able to compress into a small shape for easy packing, then puff up again later, Balick says.

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Special features

Lots of small features can make the difference between a good coat and a great coat. Here are some to look for:

A hood. Your head will lose heat quickly if it’s not covered properly, Lipman says, so prioritize a coat with a warm, insulated hood, even if it’s removable. Ideally, “something with a thick rim around it to keep your face warm,” he says.

Two-way zippers. “You can unzip it from the bottom and unzip it from the top, so it’s only connected where you want it connected,” Balick says. If you’re sitting down, for example, you might want to open the bottom to make the coat roomier. More generally, consider Larsen’s motto: “Bad zipper, bad coat.” “Zippers need to be durable, easy to close — even with gloves on — and a little on the bigger side,” he says. They should also be waterproof.

Drawstrings at the hemlines. These are a must, Larsen says: “That way, I can customize the fit depending on conditions.” Ideally, you’ll be able to pull your jacket tighter at the bottom, at the cuffs and around your face to prevent heat from escaping. Check your coat’s label to see whether it’s “fully seam-sealed,” which means all the seams are sealed tight to protect against moisture, or if it’s “critically seam-sealed,” in which case only certain areas, such as the shoulders and back, will be sealed.

A color that suits your activities. If you plan to spend a lot of time in the snow, consider a bright color that pops, so you can easily be spotted, Balick suggests. If you know you’ll be walking your Chihuahua after dark, skip the black coat, which would make you less visible. “Everybody wants the black, but I try to get people to branch out a little,” she says.

Shopping tips

When trying on coats, “make sure to wear a sweater or something a little bit bulkier,” Katz says, to ensure your coat will fit even if you layer up. Don’t, for example, try on a coat while wearing a T-shirt, or you may later realize it doesn’t fit well.

While you have the jacket on, “actually zip it all the way up, and then try to move around in it and do different things,” LoMonaco-Benzing says. If it’s going to be your all-purpose coat, “you certainly want to be as mobile as possible” — and if something’s too tight, it will restrict your movement.

One final tip for your shopping checklist: Don’t forget to spin around and admire the coats you’re considering in the mirror. “We’re not supposed to care about this, but I don’t want to discredit ‘How cute is this jacket?’ ” Balick says. “Is it going to make someone feel happy to wear it?”

Larsen supports the sentiment. “On most of my trips, there’s no one else around for hundreds of miles,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t still look good.”


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