Simplification is the promise of most would-be revolutionary hybrid pieces of outdoor gear. The marketing taglines read like paradoxical hyperbole: “the quiver-killing ski that goes everywhere” or “the performance hiking boots you can wear to your next board meeting.”
For multi-hobby individuals with small gear closets, the idea can seem dreamy, and paring down is usually in sync with the ideals held by those who spend lots of time outdoors. The only problem is, this type of simplification — the one-thing-does-everything type of simplification — is largely a myth.
The multitool is just one example of this fallacy. As an idea, it’s a good one: get rid of the need for an entire toolbox by packing multiple instruments into one small, pocketable apparatus. The issues arise when you actually go to use the thing, only to find that the Phillips head is too short to reach the recessed screw you need to twist, or that the tiny knife blade is not quite up to the task of butchering a leg of wild boar in the backcountry (that one comes from personal experience).
Don’t get me wrong, a multitool can come in handy, but it can often be a jack of all trades and a master of none, leaving it to gather dust in the toolbox you hoped to eliminate in the first place.
The situation is markedly more futile when it comes to the so-called 3-in-1 jacket. For those who need a refresher, the 3-in-1 is a winter jacket that comes equipped with an additional zip-in insulating layer, usually a fleece or hoodless puffy. So you get 1) A fully insulated ski jacket for cold temperatures; 2) A waterproof, breathable shell for warmer days; and 3) A fleece or puffy mid-layer that can be worn on its own. Sound like the last jacket you’ll ever need? It isn’t.
The 3-in-1 goes against the fundamental concept of how to stay warm and protected from the elements outdoors: layering. At its core, layering is the ability to wear and swap different articles of clothing in order to fine tune your kit to whatever the weather conditions call for. Sure, the 3-in-1 jacket does this, but in a limiting and inefficient way; it adds an extra, highly unnecessary zipper into the mix and leaves the wearer stuck with whatever mid-layer comes attached to the jacket.
Furthermore, the way in which 3-in-1 mid-layers secure to their respective outer shells presents some serious design flaws. The inner jacket zips into the outer jacket just behind the main exterior zipper that seals the whole thing up, which creates two large inefficiencies. First, with only one point of connection located at the front, the two jackets are bound to bunch and pull on each other in awkward ways creating discomfort (insulated ski jackets are made with many points of stitching).
Secondly, and more importantly, this strange zipper configuration means that the mid-layer jacket is never fully closed, and unless the external zip is fully taped, air (and cold) will penetrate the system in a vertical line up the wearer’s core. The only way to avoid this is to wear the mid-layer on its own, unzipped beneath the shell, which sort of defeats the claimed purpose of the 3-in-1.
Finally, 3-in-1 jackets are just sort of... dorky. Okay, maybe that’s unfair, but they do call back to the equally dopey — yet unquestionably more functional — zip-off pants/shorts designed for hiking. They’re clumsy, and definitively lacking in style. (I wore them all the time as a kid, so I have no problem ragging on them).
Admirably, 3-in-1 jackets are built to be efficient, affordable apparel. For some, they’ll pack enough functionality to get by (Patagonia’s $449 Downdrift is a decent choice for those looking). But while they are marketed as a buy one, get three solution, it’s really more like buy one, get two halves.
We live in an age when the technology and materials that go into shells, waterproof membranes, synthetic insulation, down insulation and every other facet of outerwear advance on an annual basis. Aesthetics and styles do too. There’s no good reason to deny yourself the ability to mix and match gear from various brands and be stuck with one inflexible (and inefficient) system.
Building and fine-tuning the perfect outdoor kit is a very personal process — I’ve rotated through numerous shells over the years but for the most part still pack the same sort-of-grimy puffy because it was the first one I ever owned, and it still keeps me plenty warm. That personalization is part of the fun of it! Because while it’s mostly our actions that define us in the outdoors, it’s also just a little bit what we wear.
With that in mind, check out some of our favorite shells and mid-layers below, and pair accordingly.