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October 2007 Soft Shells

Puffy Jackets

Made with down or synthetic fibers and paper-thin shells, these puffy jackets weigh less, loft higher, and pack much smaller than fleece.

Is fleece obsolete? Not quite, but it’s seeing less use among serious backpackers. While the fuzzy stuff still makes sense in very wet climates, weight-conscious hikers are increasingly turning to lightweight insulated jackets for three-season warmth. Made with down or synthetic fibers and paper-thin shells, these tops weigh less, loft higher, and pack much smaller than fleece. Our testers started with more than a dozen models and whittled the field to six top performers.

PUFFY JACKETS

Is fleece obsolete? Not quite, but it’s seeing less use among serious backpackers. While the fuzzy stuff still makes sense in very wet climates, weight-conscious hikers are increasingly turning to lightweight insulated jackets for three-season warmth. Made with down or synthetic fibers and paper-thin shells, these tops weigh less, loft higher, and pack much smaller than fleece. Our testers started with more than a dozen models and whittled the field to six top performers.

SYNTHETIC


Most Compact [35–50°F]
Rab Generator (m)

This Primaloft-insulated jacket is so light and packable (it squishes to grapefruit size) that we had to check the tag to make sure it wasn’t down. The reason: a streamlined design with no hood, no drawcords, and minimal zippers. Instead, simple elastic bands seal the cuffs, bottom hem, and hand pockets. The lining and shell are Pertex Quantum, a silky ripstop nylon that sheds light precipitation and dries quickly. Yet the thin fabric isn’t wimpy; it held up to bushwhacking through scratchy manzanita and juniper in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest. Likewise, the insulation rebounded after being mashed for days at the bottom of a pack. Only complaint: Testers wanted a higher, draftproof collar to compensate for the lack of hood. $150; men’s only S – XXL; 13 oz. (L) rab.uk.com.


Most Versatile [35–65°F]

REI Spruce Run (m) / Nevis (f)

This affordable twofer is a great choice if you want the most flexibility for the smallest investment. One tester took the Nevis, which has zip-off sleeves, on a weeklong spring hike in the Grand Canyon, where temps ranged from 30° to 60°F. "On the trail, I wore it as a vest,” she wrote. "At night, I zipped on the sleeves to crank up the warmth.” It has the same fill and fabrics as the RAB Generator, but many more features: zippers on the three pockets, an iPod portal, and a stuff sack. The trade-off is an extra 5 ounces, but this chameleonlike jacket still packs as small as four bagels, and it fits women better. $149; S–XL; 18 oz. (women’s L). (800) 426-4840; rei.com.

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