Review: 6 Super Versatile Layering Pieces
By Michael Lanza
Whether climbing peaks, taking an ultra-dayhike or trail run, Nordic or backcountry skiing, or backpacking, the more time I spend in the backcountry, the more I value and wear lightweight jackets and vests that pull double duty as middle and outer layers. Unlike with heavier, warmer, and less-breathable jackets, you can often wear this type of garment while on the move—while your body is producing heat, but you still need some warmth. That makes you more comfortable and, ultimately, safer in widely ranging mountain weather. Plus, you get more bang for your buck from versatile layers like these because you use them more.
Here are six of the very best.
I’ve tested the jackets and vests reviewed here in all four seasons and the gamut of temperatures and weather conditions one encounters in mid-latitude mountains and high desert. All are top performers; they vary in design, materials, and weight—from seven to 14 ounces (men’s medium)—giving each of them unique strengths. But they are comparably compressible, packing down to the size of a cantaloupe.
I think at least one will suit your adventures, climates, and body type—and you’ll find deeply discounted prices on them right now, just as we’re getting into a time of year when you’d wear any of them a lot.
Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody
$229, 9 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XS-XL
This partly insulated, lightweight, and very compressible wind shell may be the most seasonally versatile jacket you’ll ever own: I’ve probably worn it more than any other layering piece I have over the past several months, for virtually everything I do outdoors, in every season, from backpacking in August in the Canadian Rockies and in October in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains to hiking and scrambling 10,000-foot peaks in September, and numerous times skate-skiing in late winter.
The secret sauce is that it delivers just enough warmth for being active in cool temps without causing you to overheat, thanks to fleece under the arms and 40 grams of synthetic insulation in the torso—but no insulation in the adjustable hood or on the outside of the sleeves, where there’s just windproof shell fabric. And it breathes well: At the end of even the sweatiest outings on Nordic skis, the inside of the jacket was hardly damp. The fit is trim—you can layer a couple of lightweight or midweight tops under it, and even pull a jacket over it; but wearing two layers of jacket sleeves really compromises breathability, so this won’t have the layering potential of, say, a vest.
See my full review of the Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody at backcountry.com.
L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Sweater Vest
$159, 8 oz. (men’s medium-regular)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
You can get so much mileage out of a vest that I’ve relied on various models since the Dark Ages when they were all made of bulky fleece. Having liked the L.L. Bean Ultralite 850 Down Jacket, I was glad to see Bean introduce a vest version of it, which I’ve worn in temperatures ranging from the 50s to the teens Fahrenheit, from backpacking in southern Utah’s Dirty Devil River canyon in late March to backcountry skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains and Galena Summit area.
With lightweight, water-resistant Downtek down feathers stuffed inside a water-resistant nylon mini-ripstop shell, the vest was unfazed by light rain and mist and falling snow. And those are high-quality, 850-fill feathers, making this piece more compressible and thermally efficient, ounce for ounce, compared to down garments with lower fill ratings. The vest stuffs easily and quickly into a zippered inside pocket, and has three zippered, external pockets, one on the left chest with an inside porthole for an electronics cord. The fit is loose but not too bulky, the collar stands tall around your neck, and the hem has a drawcord adjustment to keep out drafts. Smart detail: All of the zippers have a cord and plastic tab for grabbing with gloves on.
While nylon and down aren’t all that breathable, a vest naturally offers a lot of ventilation and versatility as an outer or middle layer when active from fall through spring or in the mountains in summer, and adds some warmth to any layering system in camp. Bonus: It comes at a good price.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Sweater Vest at llbean.com.
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Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody
$185, 10 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
I’ve done something while wearing OR’s Deviator Hoody that I’ve rarely done in any insulation piece: I went from standing around in camp inactive to hiking in it without making any layering adjustment. That fact speaks to the temperature and activity-level versatility of this next-generation, hybrid insulation piece, which functions as a middle or outer layer for everything from cool-weather hiking to skate skiing in winter. Its potential is limited only by your creativity in thinking about your layering system.
The Deviator uses lightweight, breathable, fast-drying, synthetic Polartec Alpha insulation in the front, sides, and shoulders; and Polartec Power Grid fleece, which stretches, breathes and wicks moisture very well, and is warm for its weight, in the back, sleeves, and the close-fitting hood. The combination provides warmth when you’re standing or sitting around in cool, typical three-season temps, and just the right amount of warmth with good breathability when you’re on the go in cool to cold temps. I also found it’s a super piece for high-energy activities like running or Nordic in cool to sub-freezing temps, because even when I’m sweating hard, it wicks and dries out quickly.
See my full review of the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody at backcountry.com.
Patagonia Nano-Air Vest
$199, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XS-XL
From summer and fall dayhikes and backpacking trips in Idaho’s Sawtooth and White Cloud mountains to a five-day whitewater rafting and kayaking trip in July down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the Nano-Air Vest spent many hours keeping my torso warm, without making me overheat—even while hiking with a full backpack uphill, off-trail—which is the strong suit of breathable synthetic insulation being used in some new layering pieces today.
Its breathable, synthetic insulation makes this vest ideal for on-the-go, cool-weather activities, but it functions as an insulation piece in any season. The fit is close, but the nylon ripstop shell fabric has four-way, mechanical stretch, making it feel like an outer layer of skin, as well as a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment), so it sheds light rain. Even the synthetic insulation has mechanical stretch, so the entire garment moves with you. The tall collar keeps your neck warm, and the vest has a functional feature set with one zippered chest pocket and two zippered hand pockets, plus a drawcord hem. The Nano-Air Vest offers a rare combination of core insulation and breathability, while keeping your arms uncovered so you don’t overheat.
See my full review of the Patagonia Nano-Air Vest.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Patagonia Nano-Air Vest at backcountry.com.
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Marmot Isotherm Vest
$175, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
I’ve worn this lightweight vest—the lightest and most compressible garment reviewed here—on local dayhikes in the Boise Foothills, backpacking in cool temperatures in the canyon of southern Utah’s Dirty Devil River in March, and backcountry skiing both uphill (as an outer layer) and downhill (under a shell). Filled with breathable Polartec Alpha synthetic insulation, this vest achieves a nice balance of warmth without causing me to overheat when on the move in cool to cold conditions. A mesh lining across the back helps move moisture out.
The 20-denier Pertex Quantum nylon ripstop shell sheds light precipitation and is fairly impervious to abrasion for its low weight and bulk. It has three zippered pockets, one on the chest and two hand pockets. As with the Bean vest, the zippers have a cord and plastic tab for grabbing with gloves on, and there’s an adjustable drawcord hem. Being a touch lighter and less warm than the four other pieces reviewed here, in addition to its breathable insulation, makes this an ideal choice for when your body is consistently producing heat in cool temps.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Marmot Isotherm Vest at moosejaw.com.
WoolPRO Helios Hoodie
14 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
First impression of the Helios Hoodie: Nice looking, very comfortable, but nothing new here. Then it stayed on me for six-plus hours of a mid-September, 20-mile trail run-hike and scramble of 10,651-foot Snowyside Peak in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. In late September, I wore it for large parts of every day on an 80-mile backpacking trip in the North Cascades. And then, in mid-October, it spent more time on my body than in my pack on a 34-mile backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had already worn it at times on a dayhike of the 32-mile, 10,000-vertical-foot Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, during four days of hiking and backpacking in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park in May, and on other outings. The more I wore the Fugawi Hoodie, the more I wanted to wear it.
In temperatures from the 30s to the 50s Fahrenheit, the soft, 250g Merino wool breathed very well and kept me warm even when damp with sweat. I frequently pulled the elasticized, close-fitting, wool hood over my head for just the right amount of warmth when I felt chilled from standing around, or in a cool wind on the exposed east ridge of Snowyside. Two zippered hand pockets and one on the chest hold three-season gloves, a map, sunglasses and the like, and warmed my hands when needed. WoolPro knits and dyes its own wool, which is only used in WoolPRO garments, and they offer a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. The Helios Hoodie offers a new take on old tech, creating a very versatile, four-season, middle or outer layer.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a WoolPRO Helios Hoodie at campsaver.com.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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