Tested: The Best Versatile Midlayers
Any of these four jackets could save your skin
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Spring has me jonesing to get outside in warm weather again. But don’t let the balmy temperatures dictate your gear choices—spring days can swing from sunny and gorgeous one minute to cold and miserable the next. A good midlayer can save you from the worst of it—just keep in mind, versatility is key. The best jacks-of-all-trades pair breathability with insulation, so they’re comfortable in a broad range of conditions. I put several standouts through the wringer to find out which ones best hit that sweet spot.
I’ve been testing all of these layers for the past year (except for the Ghost Whisperer, which I’ve had since the winter of 2015). Of all of the jackets, these are in my permanent rotation. I’ve skied with each of them at least ten days at both the resort and in the backcountry, and I’ve worn them around town for everyday tasks.
Best Synthetic Insulator
Patagonia Nano Air Light hoodie ($249)
I’ve been smitten with Patagonia’s proprietary FullRange insulation since it first debuted four years ago, and this ultralight iteration of the Nano line is my favorite use of the technology to date. The version of FullRange that appears in the Nano Air Light is a single sheet of 40-gram insulation—plenty for working out in sub-20-degree temps—and won’t leak out of the jacket the way down can. But to keep the Nano Air Light breezy enough so you wouldn’t sweat through it, Patagonia built it with an incredibly breathable face fabric. I sweat like a pig but have found that I can keep the Nano Air Light on throughout dawn patrol ski-touring sessions without having to take it off as I crank uphill. (I did sweat through it once, though that was on a spring afternoon in the high forties, and I frankly should have been wearing a T-shirt.) The DWR treatment holds up to cold snow, but definitely opt for a shell over it if there’s wet precipitation in the forecast. And the Nano Air Lite is stretchy to boot. Lightweight synthetic cuffs ensure the sleeves move with my arms when I throw my skis over my shoulder for a boot-pack.
Given its adaptability, this jacket is useful throughout the year.
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Best Down Insulator
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket ($162)
Be warned, this is the least breathable jacket on this list, making it prone to overheating on nice days above high thirties. I’ve sweated through it several times, but without a doubt the Ghost Whisperer deserves a place on this list for its off-the-charts warmth-to-weight ratio. At less than eight ounces, its 800-fill hydrophobic down was plenty toasty on sub-freezing days. I wore it standing in the lift line while vying for first chair on powder days last winter, sometimes with temps in the teens. Granted, I was a little chilly, but I found myself perfectly comfortable when the lifts started spinning. And with the feathery weight and low profile, the Ghost Whisperer layers exceptionally well under a shell, never bunching up or feeling constricting. It’s been my go-to on trips up Mount Shasta, because the weight penalty is so small and I can stop to enjoy the view from the summit without freezing. And of course, down’s packability means you don’t have to stress about having room in your bag.
Best to wear the Ghost Whisperer in later winter and early spring, given its warmth.
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Black Diamond Deployment Hybrid hoodie ($180)
The Deployment Hybrid is like the lovechild of my favorite wool sweatshirt with my favorite synthetic jacket, halfway between thick base layer and featherweight midlayer. While most of my favorite crossover midlayers in the past have used 100 percent synthetic materials, the Deployment uses blended merino wool on the back and underarms, which lends it more breathability while maintaining its insulating power. As the name suggests, it has proven excellent for trips with alpine predawn starts, because its synthetic Primaloft Silver-insulted hood, chest, and arms kept me from completely freezing before the sun poked above the horizon, and the stretchy breathable merino body dumps heat as temperatures rise in the afternoon. The Deployment also has excellent range of motion—neck and neck with the Patagonia Nano Air Light, thanks to ample stretchy gussets under the armpits.
Like the Ghost Whisperer, I used this jacket most often when moving fast in late winter and early spring.
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Best Performance Fleece
Norrona Lofoten Alpha Raw Zip hoodie ($84)
Polartec Alpha Raw technically isn’t a fleece—it’s essentially the guts of Polartec’s premium Alpha insulation, with long, furry synthetic tendrils. Regardless of what you want to call it, Alpha Raw offers the best breathability-to-loft of any fleece I’ve tested, hands down. It’s so breathable, in fact, that you can clearly see through the Lofoten when you hold it up to the light. But the furry exterior has lots of dead space, too, trapping heat like a champ when layered under a shell. (Without an outer layer, the loose weave can let in gusts of wind.) I fell in love with this fleece on a trip up Shasta last July. I was comfortable, courtesy of the insane breathability, starting around 3 A.M. and not taking it off during four hours of solid exertion.
Reserve this layer for late-spring use unless you’re wearing it under something beefier.