Winter hiking is a fantastic way to get through some of the coldest months of the year. However, you’ll need the best hiking jackets for cold weather to keep extreme temperatures and storms at bay. Without proper winter clothing, you could get frostbite, hypothermia, or any number of health-related issues from prolonged exposure to the elements.
In this guide, I’ll dive into the types of winter jackets and the all-important process of layering. Then, I’ll list my favorite winter jacket options along with the things that make them great. I’ve also put together a buying guide to help narrow down your search for the perfect hiking jacket.
My Review Process
I’ve been winter hiking for decades. Winter is a dynamic and wonderful season for outdoor activities, but it comes with a lot of weather-related risks. After years of searching, I’ve found the best winter hiking jackets to help you chase your outdoor goals all year long.
Winter hiking relies on layering, so an ideal jacket is actually a few different items. There’s an outer shell for cold weather protection and a soft shell for insulation underneath. When the temperature really dives, a third layer, called a mid-layer, can also be added.
My favorite winter hiking jacket is the marmot ROM Hoody. It's not a rain jacket, so heavy rain will eventually soak it despite its excellent wet weather performance. However, the ROM Hoody has a rugged design and a large, adjustable hood. It’s ready to handle cold temperatures and a passing snow squall, light rain, or shorter sleet event on the trail.
There isn’t a ton of insulation, but it’s easy to layer with some insulation underneath and a shell overtop. The ROM Hoody binds together a successful layering setup and will deliver reliable performance for years. When wet weather isn't threatening, it can also be used as an outer layer.
While other models may specialize more in one category (weather prevention, insulation, etc.), it's the versatility, comfort, and durability that set Marmot's ROM Hoody apart from other winter jackets.
The Arc’Tery Beta AR is a juggernaut. This winter hiking shell is a fully waterproof jacket that comes with an easily adjustable hood and its tall collar prevents wind from getting to your neck. Plus, it’s a lightweight rain jacket for other seasons and a sleek-looking shell that you can wear around town after a hike.
Arc’teryx products are generally at the top end of the price range, but they make high-quality jackets. Similar to the Marmot ROM Hoody, insulation is a bit lacking, but in combination with other layers, the Arc’teryx will keep heat in and cold weather out. It also comes with two high-volume zippered hand pockets that can keep hands dry and safe.
If the price of the Arc’Teyrx gave you fits, the much more agreeable Torrentshell is a great value buy. This well-priced shell comes also with great weather resistance and handy ventilation zippers under the armpits. The jacket is also made from recycled materials.
The basic design is functional but doesn’t offer much else. For example, there are only two front pockets, which is annoying if you want a place to put your hands and a phone or a headlamp. However, the Torrentshell is large enough for a layer underneath, and it blocks cold wind and wet weather for about a third of the price of an Arcy’Teryx shell.
Sliding down to the mid-layers and soft shell categories gives us the excellent Trango Jacket. This bad boy is windproof, ridiculously warm, lightweight, and packs down well for storage. In combination with a shell, you’ll be able to get through cold and wet weather while staying nice and toasty.
Unlike the shells above, the Trango is certainly not waterproof. It can handle a bit of misty weather and a dash of light rain at a campsite, but you certainly want to layer over it if inclement weather is coming down. However, staying warm with the Trango Jacket as a soft-shell or mid-layer is an easy exercise in temperature management.
Utilizing sustainably sourced wool to supply plenty of warmth, the Keb Wool Padded Jacket is another one of my favorites. The lightweight jacket is lightweight, comfortable, and quick-drying. This will help get you through snow flurries, light rain, and sleet.
This soft shell is not waterproof and shouldn’t be used as an outer layer if wet conditions are forecast. There are also no venting zippers, which means it may get too toasty on warmer days. However, the ease of use, warmth, and great jacket breathability means the Keb Wool Padded Jacket is easily one of the most durable winter hiking soft-shell jackets available today.
The Arc’Teryx Atom LT Hoody is my favorite lightweight winter hiking jacket. It’s a great, comfortable winter jacket that’s surprisingly warm and is an effective mid-layer. It’s also a durably made jacket that lives up to Arc’Teryx’s lofty product lines.
Because it is an Arc’Teryx-made jacket, the Atom LT hoody is more expensive than many similar products. It’s also not 100% waterproof, but it can be an effective outer layer to combat cold weather. While this is more expensive than other options on our list, you get what you pay for. With proper care, the Atom LT hoody will last for decades.
Puffer jackets are fantastic for cold winter weather hikes and spending time at a campsite when the temperature drops. The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 is warm and lightweight and compresses down to a small size for easy transportation. It checks a lot of boxes, which gives you a very versatile mid-layer.
Because it is a puffer jacket, the emphasis is on warmth, not weather protection. The Ghost Whisperer 2 has minimal cold wind or moisture protection, and it can rip easily if it gets caught on a tree branch. However, the warmth and outrageous comfort make it an incredible mid-layer or softshell jacket.
Patagonia’s Nano Puff Insulated jacket is another great mid-layer option. The Nano Puff is also a little less bulky than the Ghost Whisperer 2, which makes it easier to layer over in wet conditions. Like most puffers, it's a warm jacket that combines heat retention with a lightweight design and can be packed down to a small size.
Because puffer jackets emphasize warmth, breathability takes a hit. On sunny winter days, when there isn’t any wind, you could get warm very quickly. However, the Nano Puff’s style-forward design and comfort make it the best mid-layer for winter hiking.
Mid-layers can include more than just puffer jackets. If you value something with a bit more water resistance while remaining comfortable, I recommend the Helly Hansen Elevation Shield Fleece Jacket. You can easily layer over or under the jacket, and the three zippered pockets are great for keeping valuables safe.
Like the puffers, standard fleece jackets are comfortable but don’t hold up well against a cold wind. However, with a hard shell over top, this option can easily handle some of the worst winter weather. Plus, on days when weather concerns aren’t top of mind, you’d struggle to find a more comfortable outer layer than the Helly Hansen Elevation Shield Fleece Jacket.
If you’re looking for a great value winter hiking jacket at a lower cost, the Columbia Men's Steens Mountain Fleece is worth a look. I love the lower price point, the comfort, and the ease of layering over top.
This fleece product doesn’t come with a hood, which may be an issue if you choose to wear it as an outer layer. Weather resistance is also lower with this model than with something like the Atom LT Hoody. However, it’s an inexpensive, functional jacket for hiking with insulation and comfort built in.
The Importance Of Layering
Because hiking is cardio-driven, you want the ability to add or take off layers as the weather dictates. This is called layering. Layering is critical to help manage your body temperature.
One large jacket wouldn’t be effective for winter hiking because it would weigh too much and could cause sweating issues. If you take it off, your sweat will freeze in cold weather. This causes your body temperature to plummet, leading to a higher risk of catching a cold or hypothermia.
Types Of Winter Jackets
There are three main categories of winter jackets. The outermost layer works like a rain jacket and is called a shell or a hardshell jacket. They are usually waterproof or weather resistant but don't offer much in the way of extra warmth or insulation. Our best lightweight rain jackets article covers fantastic options for spring, summer, and fall.
Below this layer are soft shells, which offer plenty of warmth but are not entirely weatherproof. This layer is pretty dynamic and helps retain heat on cold weather days. In extremely cold conditions, you can add a mid-layer to the mix, like a fleece jacket.
Winter jackets can be used for hiking, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, climbing, and trail running. Other activities like multi-day ski tours, ice climbing, and mountaineering require more gear, clothing, and planning than what’s listed here. Check out our companion article on clothing for winter mountaineering to learn more.
Hiking Jacket Buying Guide
Before settling on your ideal jacket, take a look at some of the considerations below. And remember, a good winter hiking setup includes mountaineering pants, footwear, and a pair of mountaineering gloves as well.
Winter hiking jackets can cost anywhere from $40-600, with an average price somewhere between $200-300. Arc’Teryx usually sits at the higher end of that range, while Columbia’s Steens Mountain Fleece is at the lower.
A good lightweight winter jacket will weigh around 1-1.5 lbs. You can find ultralight options below this range, along with burlier jackets that weigh more. However, a lightweight, layered setup can help you hike for longer. An added bonus is a packable jacket that can scrunch down to a small size when you’re not using it.
Hardshell jackets are made from nylon, polyester, or a synthetic blend. When a DWR or Gore-Tex coating is applied, along with a waterproof membrane, the jacket achieves its waterproofing status. While important, this type of shell is not always the most comfortable.
Softshell jackets and mid-layers rely on several fabrics to achieve their comfort and insulation. Puffer jackets use down or synthetic down to stay nice and toasty. Other softshell jackets use synthetic insulation made from polyester. Warm jackets like the Keb Wool Padded Jacket use wool to achieve the same result.
Down jackets rely on down feathers for insulation. Down isn’t effective if it gets wet, so they should never be used as an outer layer during bad weather. Synthetic insulation can handle a bit of inclement weather but will be heavier than down. Wool will still insulate when wet and helps keep stinky odors down. However, wool can take longer to fully dry.
How long your jacket lasts is a key consideration. In general, mid-layers are less durable because they focus on warmth as opposed to weather resistance. The most fragile but also warmest jacket is likely a puffer. One sleeve caught on a tree branch could easily rip a puffer.
A good hard shell can handle inclement weather and the rigors of outdoor adventures. Ripstop nylon or polyester, a tight weave, and thicker, sometimes double or triple-layered fabric will keep your shells looking fresh throughout the winter. However, hard shells can be uncomfortable to wear alone because they have minimal insulation.
Fleece jackets, puffer jackets, and most insulating mid-layers do not come with top-of-line waterproofing. Some models can be worn as an outside layer and do come with better-than-average weather resistance. However, if you want waterproof, you need a tough hard shell that’s been given waterproofing treatment.
Waterproofing treatment comes in a few forms, but almost every version uses a DWR (durable water repellent) coating to stop water molecules from getting the outside wet. DWR does fade over time, which means you'll need to recoat occasionally.
A breathable waterproof membrane tucked in between layers of fabric is what stops the water from getting through the jacket and soaking you. If the jacket is water resistant, it's missing the membrane and will eventually get wet.
A jacket that comes with a hood can help keep your head and neck warm. Some hard shells have adjustable hood sizes that can stretch over a skiing helmet, which is nice for ski resorts and backcountry trips. If the hood has a drawstring, you can cinch it down around a hat or a beanie to make sure the hood doesn’t blow back with the first strong gust of wind.
Pockets are great, but how they’re made matters. A regular pocket without a zipper or snap closure means you could have items fall out. Look for jackets that have at least a couple of zippered hand pockets. A zippered chest pocket is also nice for quick phone storage.
Hard shells should come with at least one or two zippered pockets. Puffers or insulated mid-layers come with pockets, but not all of them may be zippered. Remember to avoid putting valuable items in a non-zippered pocket because they could fall out.
My favorite winter jacket for hiking is the Marmot ROM Hoody because of its versatility as both an effective soft shell and an outer layer if rain or snow isn’t pouring down. For the best weatherproof hard shell, I’d recommend the Arc’Teryx Beta AR Jacket.
Budget shoppers will find lots to love in Patagonia’s Torrentshell, which is also waterproof. I’d also recommend the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 as the warmest jacket option for soft shells and mid-layers.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.