The “puffy” jacket is one of the most important pieces of apparel in the winter gear closet.
It can be layered between base layers and a shell to block a chilling wind or work alone for sitting on an après patio. The choice has always been between down and synthetic fill jackets (both with their respective pros and cons), but recently Icebreaker, the world’s most recognizable merino wool brand, has thrown its hat in the puffy jacket ring with MerinoLOFT. Over the last few weeks I’ve been testing the flagship jacket in the MerinoLOFT line — the Stratus Long Sleeve Zip Hood.
The first thing I noticed when putting on the Stratus was its feel. The next-to-skin backing fabric is a light layer of wool, giving it that natural, cozy sensation compared to polyamide and polyester linings found in down and synthetic jackets. Heat became instantly trapped against my body, much more than I would expect from a jacket with this little loft. Putting cold hands in the waist pockets felt like wearing merino mitts.
It’s that MerinoLOFT that is the secret sauce here. By sandwiching merino wool fill between a polyester shell and a thin wool backing fabric, the Stratus is able to outperform both down and synthetic jackets in terms of insulation. That means on those cold days, you can probably get away with wearing one jacket, assuming you layer properly on the base and mid-layer.
But warmth and comfort isn’t necessarily everything I want in a winter jacket. While Icebreaker might call this garment “technical” (it certainly looks the part), I don’t think I would take the Stratus into the backcountry. The one trump card the alternatives have over merino is their packability, especially down. Being able to cram an 800-fill down jacket into the space of an oversized beer can is the sole reason I take it on multi-day ski trips and expeditions. As much as I would love to have the Stratus out there, that MerinoLOFT does not compress into my already crowded backpack.
However, for the daily ski town application such as walking the dog or spectating a ski race — at any temperature below freezing — the Stratus has become my favourite piece of apparel. Not satisfied with it being used simply as a “town jacket,” I did take it up the mountain for some resort laps in -10 C to -15 C conditions in Whistler with strong winds. The Stratus shone, cutting the bitterly cold wind and doing its part on the chilly chairlift rides to keep me out of the lodge and on the slopes. It probably helped that I kept my upper body Icebreaker-themed with a 200 Bodyfit baselayer and Realfleece mid layer.
One of the benefits of merino insulation is its ability to insulate when wet. While I didn’t drown the Stratus for the sake of this review, I did take it out in the rain several times with the water resistant polyester face fabric managing to keep me dry after 30 - 40 minutes.
Breathability was a bit of an issue — whenever I began to hike uphill I would find myself overheating in the jacket, with the exception of a short hike during my day in the resort in -10 C conditions. If you’re looking for something a bit more versatile that can handle aerobic activity, the Helix Zip Hood has breathable panels and lighter insulation. My only other quibble was the insulated (and somewhat bulky) zipper flap occasionally jammed the zipper when closing the jacket.
Having initially viewed the Stratus with a ski mountaineer’s skepticism, I can honestly say that for day-to-day use during a Canadian winter, I now reach for this jacket before all my other puffies in the closet. At $299 it’s at the premium end of the gear spectrum, but if you are always battling cold in
the mountains and tire of Michelin Man-style layering, the Stratus is probably the option you’ve been looking for.
Vince Shuley enjoyed being wrapped in sheep’s clothing for this review. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @vinceshuley.