If you consider yourself a consistent hiker—a diehard—then the frigid winter temperatures don’t keep you confined indoors when the itch to hike takes hold. Depending on where you live, though, those temperatures can reach downright arctic levels, and any winter hiker would do well to invest in a quality insulated outer layer. With the different insulating materials available and so many brands out there, choosing on just one can be overwhelming. Today, I’ve broken down the different options available to provide you all with a better understanding of what’s on the market today in terms of insulated outerwear.

When it comes to insulation materials, there are three basic varieties from which to choose: down, fleece, and synthetic. Each material offers its own pros and cons, so it’s a good idea to gain a better understanding of them before making a decision.

Down is the lightest of the three materials and is the best natural insulator there is. It also happens to be the most compressible, excels in dryer conditions, offers the best warmth to weight ratio, and is very durable. Down does have its drawbacks, however. For instance, it tends to be more expensive, and if it gets wet, it takes a long time to dry and loses a lot of its effectiveness.

Fleece jackets tend to be softer and more breathable than others, and offer more stretch. They also dry more quickly and are significantly less expensive than other materials. Fleece tends to be more bulky, though, and doesn’t offer the same great warmth to weight ratio as down, which limits its effectiveness and role to more active hikes and activities.

Synthetic fibers are engineered to imitate the natural feel of down, but do so with water resistance and quick-drying capabilities. Synthetics also appeal to many due to their affordability. Potential drawbacks to synthetics include loss of breathability, more weight, and more bulk. Jackets made with synthetic materials work best when the conditions are wet.

Each material has its own ideal conditions to work effectively, so consider your region and your activities when choosing a jacket. Be sure to layer with thermal baselayers and take along other helpful items, such as rainproof shells, hats, and gloves to counteract increasingly cool temperatures. Your outwear will be your best defense against the cold this winter, so purchasing the right one can mean the difference between enjoying your brisk hike and complete frozen misery.