How to pick the perfect parka

Winter walk

Die-hard winter fans know that there’s no such thing as bad weather—just poor clothing choices. And here in Canada, with winters that swing crazily between deep freezes and slush-fests, a good parka is your first line of defence against cold, wet, wind-whipped winter misery. Here’s what you need to know if you’re going to bundle up properly and attempt to enjoy winter.

Know what a parka is and isn’t

Unlike a lot of gear that’s specifically meant for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, a parka is designed to keep you warm and dry even when you’re not moving, and even if you don’t have layers underneath. (Keep in mind that “parka” isn’t exactly a technical term, so you can find lightweight parkas and parka-like winter jackets.) While you should be able to move comfortably in one (think snow shovelling), a parka will likely have less range of movement than something that’s meant for consistent activity. Parkas tend to be heavier than winter athletic gear, since warmth and dryness, not mobility, is their first priority.

Know the difference between down and synthetic fill

Down is highly compressible, meaning it can trap lots and lots of warm air, making it an excellent insulator. It keeps its volume well, meaning a down coat will keep you warm over many years. Good thing, because down can also be expensive, and difficult to clean. It also doesn’t perform well when it gets wet—so make sure your down jacket has plenty of waterproofing. Synthetic fill, on the other hand, tends to pack down eventually and not keep its “loft”—meaning less warmth over time. Nicely, though, synthetic performs better than down when wet, and can keep a jacket on the slimmer side.

Think about your climate

Are you somewhere that’s freezing and dry? Or is your climate damp and chilly? Whether or not you need protection from moisture is going to make a difference to what kind of parka you choose: better waterproofing and synthetic fill if you’re in a wet locale, a longer length, and down fill if it’s really cold. Wet-weather parkas also need to be waterproof, rather than simply water resistant, so look for a hard-sided shell as the exterior of the coat. For really chilly areas, choose a parka that incorporates baffled construction, meaning the inner and outer shells are separated by baffles filled with either down or synthetic fibres.

Think about your activities

Are you commuting? Shovelling? Wearing your jacket while hiking, then wearing it to work? If you’re going to be using your parka for athletic activities, choose a technical one, which will incorporate athletic features like water bottle pockets, helmet-compatible hoods, and more durable materials. A casual parka, on the other hand, will emphasize style, warmth and weather protection over athletic functionality, and may end up being too bulky to do much more than wait at the bus stop and be warm. If you are going to do a lot of standing around outside, choose a longer parka over a shorter one—or be prepared to stock up on extra layers of long underwear. One thing we’d advise you to choose on any parka is a hood (detachable if you like)—just for those wet snow days where a scarf just won’t stop your neck from getting slopped on.

Consider the little details

You don’t realize how important well constructed pockets are until you’re fumbling around for your phone in the freezing cold with no gloves on. Make sure you can get your phone (or anything else you keep in your pocket) in and out easily, and that the zipper is usable with or without gloves. Another nice touch? Fleece lining inside the pockets. Cuffs are also important—they should be tight enough to keep heat in and cold out, but not so tight you can’t fit your mittens on underneath.

Check in with your ethics

If you’re worried about animal cruelty but you still want the warmth of down, look for a manufacturer that uses ethically sourced down—meaning no live plucking, no force-feeding and, potentially, down that has come solely from birds raised for meat. If you’re not up with down, vegan-friendly synthetics often incorporate recycled materials.