Usually, when winter is not being a cowardly little bitch, you need a warm jacket to keep from freezing to death. But if you live in a city, like more than half the world's population, you need something something more versatile—and stylish—than just a sealskin or a pillow with sleeves.
No, a solid winter jacket is arguably the most important piece of winter gear in your anti-cold arsenal, and there's never been a better time to level up. Down may still be the king of the insulators, but between technical fabrics and smart design, they're not all the same marshmallowy overcoats of yesteryear. All of the jackets we tested were seriously good; but all had tragic flaws as well. So which is the Bestmodo?
In order to be considered, the jacket had to meet these four preliminary qualifications:
• Fuck layering. There can be only one. Layer.
• Down. For warmth-to-weight, there's still nothing better.
• Waterproof. Once down is wet, it's useless. It must be shielded, see?
• $400 max price. There are plenty of amazing jackets out there for more, but the economy sucks.
• Coolness. This is the Internet Age—a video of you could end up on YouTube at any time, and you don't want to look like the Michelin Man's goofy younger brother.
I wore the jackets. A lot. For something as personal as a jacket, you've got to live in it for a while. Some days I would switch between all four to objectively compare them in the same weather conditions. At times, each of them were tested with just a t-shirt (no hat, gloves, or scarf) to see how it did in a grab-and-go situation. To test water-proofiness I literally stood in a cold shower, wearing each of them for 20 minutes. It was weird.
This is arguably the best-looking of the four jackets tested. The 2-layer waterproof polyester shell has an attractive texture to it. The jacket is short cut, which frees up mobility and makes it look more urban, but it leaves more of your legs/butt uncovered. The hand pockets are deep and have a very thick microfiber lining which actually makes them reasonably warm, but they are outside of the down, so you'll still need gloves when it gets really cold. It has two additional outer chest pockets, and one inner stash pocket. It held up well in the waterproof test, but you will probably want to reapply some waterproof sealant at least once or twice per winter as it seems to wear off easily.
Unfortunately, this jacket doesn't hack it in real winter weather. Once the mercury hit the mid-30's (Fahrenheit, duh) it got quite chilly. The arms are seriously understuffed, and the hood-design causes wind to rush in around the neck. The cuffs offer only two snap positions and neither were tight enough despite my very big wrists, allowing in both drafts and water. Speaking of snaps, the flap that covers the zipper uses snaps all the way up, which is a hassle when you're wearing gloves, and one snap is right over the throat, which makes for a chokey experience. It's also not as comfortable as the others. The collar has a soft micro-fleece lining but it inexplicably stops in front of your chin. That, combined with a very stiff zipper, makes it really dig into the underside of your jaw in an very displeasing way. The whole torso is also very baggy. The jacket seems to be out of stock most places right now, so it's either extremely popular or being discontinued. $280-$350
From a design perspective this is hands-down my favorite. It's impossibly light and incredibly comfortable. While it was clearly made for sporty outdoor activities, it's handsome enough to fit in in the big city. Actually it looks terrific. The outer shell is made of a nylon ripstop fabric, which is what lightweight tents are made of. TNF further cut bulk by eliminating flaps everywhere and just went with waterproof zippers. The main zip actually veers off center as it approaches your neck, making it super soft and comfortable on your chin (though it is very stiff and tough to pull). It absolutely killed the waterproof test; water skidded right off and the fabric dried almost instantly (although the non-adjustable elastic cuffs let water into the sleeves when I held my hands up). It has four pockets: two hand, one chest, and one inner water-bottle pocket. The hood is not removable (the only one of the group), and the brim could be a little stiffer. It's a short jacket, and it looks nice n' trim. It can compress down to the size of a football and weighs just over a pound and a half.
The downside? This jacket isn't nearly warm enough for a real winter. When it was 40 degrees F, I was a little chilly. When it was 20 degrees I was couldn't stop shivering. This jacket uses 800-fill down which should make it far warmer than the others (which are 600 to 650-fill). But it doesn't matter what the fill-power is because is grossly under-stuffed. The arms have virtually no insulation in them at all and neither do the hand-pockets. It's really too bad. I absolutely recommend it to anyone in a milder climate, but this thing simply cannot hack it in a New York winter (even in the wimpy one we're having). $400
UPDATE: As commenter btprice2001 points out, "fill power is a measurement of the fluffiness or density of the down. It has nothing to do with how much down is actually used in the product, and therefore, does not tell you how warm the product will keep you." This is true. In theory the higher the fill power the less down the jacket needs because it will provide more loft for with less material. However the 800-fill down was not nearly enough to compensate for the very low amount that was in there.
This is without question the warmest of the four jackets. If you live in MN, WI, or MI and enjoy ice-fishing, this is your pick (with caveats). It's no surprise. Marmot has a reputation of consistently living up to temperature ratings. The Yukon Classic is a thigh-length jacket and provides coverage down to two inches below the booty. That makes wearing jeans without long-johns pretty bearable. The insulation is thick throughout the entire jacket—including the sleeves and hood—so there are no cold-spots. The face-flaps lock wind out to the point where I was able to forgo a scarf and hat when it was 9 degrees with windchill. It has six exterior pockets and one interior pocket, all of which are huge. It even has a snow-skirt should you be inspired to make snow angels.
Now the bad. You absolutely must wear gloves with this jacket. The hand-pockets, instead of diving under the insulation, are on the outside of all the down. Your palms will be toasty-warm in the pillowy goodness while the backs of your hands literally go numb from the cold. Also, there are no zips on the hand-pockets so if it's raining hard they can literally fill with water. It's a gigantic oversight. This jacket is just not very attractive. It's big, heavy, and bulky. Pockets jump out at you from every direction, but the dorkiest thing of all is the face-flap (see photo in gallery). If it's crazy-cold you'll want it covering you, but most of the time you won't and you'll just have it, well, flapping around, getting in your way, being generally awkward and annoying. You can't snap it back or anything. There's also a weird sizing-problem. I'm 6-foot and 175 pounds, which is to say, not small. I got the medium and I am absolutely swimming in this thing. It's somewhat baffling. Also, it's not the comfiest jacket. There's no micro-fleece around the chin or neck which can lead to some chafing. But damn this thing is warm. Kinda too warm for NYC, actually, especially if you're dealing with the subway, but for the arctic, great.$400
I didn't think I was going to like a jacket called the "Downtown Coat". It sounded pretentious and I didn't think it would hack it. Turned out to be love at first wearing. It's a thigh-length coat that provides ample booty-warmth. It's easily the second-warmest (just behind the Yukon), but it has a more slender, fashionable cut. It has the Best. Pockets. Ever. The thin, micro-fleece pockets dive deep under the down and my hands were never even remotely chilly. This meant I could use this jacket when it was 19-degree F with no hat, scarf, or gloves. There is plenty of stuffing in the body and in the hood. You can cinch in the waist to give it a snugger fit (though you can't pull in the bottom, so there can be some updrafting), and the rib-knit elastic cuffs don't let in any wind. Aside from my favorite hand-pockets of all time, it has a small chest-pocket and a small inner-pocket (a larger interior pocket for a scarf/hat really would have been nice). It comes in black or in khaki. Khaki costs $105 less, amazingly.
Unfortunately, the Downtown coat was dead last in the waterproof test. Water just didn't bead off of it like the others; it started soaking in. At no point in the 20 minutes could I actually feel the moisture, but I suspect I would, eventually. Regardless, this led to the jacket taking hours to fully dry and made going outside in it much, much colder. The chest pocket let some water in, too, but it never had a problem in normal rain. Also, while the sweater-y rib-knit cuffs were great for keeping wind out, they sopped up water like sponges. Super uncomfortable. The sleeves are a little bit understuffed. They're not bad, but they're definitely cooler than the torso (I recommend sleeves when it's down in the teens). One of the snaps that attaches the hood keeps popping off way too easily, but that doesn't happen with any of the other snaps, so I'm willing to chalk that up as an anomaly. The water-problems are a real bummer, but a cheap waterproofing spray will probably go a long way to fixing it. Overall, though, this is definitely your winner. Grab-n'-go winter goodness.$245-$350