Visit a few outdoor equipment stores and you'll find two schools of thought on 3-in-1 jackets. Some sales associates sing their praises. Others say they can advise their customers on pieces to buy for smart layering and there's no need to buy a special jacket for that purpose.
Some point to outerwear separates that layer and call them 3-in-1 jackets. But unless these separates are made to interlock by zippers with a flip top or by a system of snaps, they're just handy separates, not 3-in-1 jackets.
That said, there are two main types of 3-in-1 jackets. Some jackets sold as a single unit. The outer, waterproof, hooded shell and the inner, insulating jacket go together and are sold as one. Others are sold as interchangeable separates, all with compatible zippers or snaps. The warm, insulating layer might be a vest rather than a jacket. Some people buy both. (Then they'd have a 4-in-1 jacket.) The separates offer features like pockets, vents and cuffs. Some shoppers buy separates to get exactly what they want. Others appreciate the ease of a ready-to-go package. Prices tend to come out about the same either way.
Another important choice is the material of the inner jacket or vest. Fleece is warm, but some involved in active sports think it doesn't move well [source: Russell]. On the other hand, synthetic polyester blend is warmer and doesn't add bulk. Down is the warmest material available, but it's worthless when wet and some people are allergic to it.
You can find all sorts of jackets labeled 3-in-1. They carry brand names that you know well and names you may never have heard of. They can be found in pricey outdoors stores and at discount outlets. There are units and separates, and there are a variety of materials and styles. Some don't even have hoods. You can pay from $50, to 10 times as much.
When you're considering a 3-in-1 jacket, think about your needs: Do you want something versatile when running errands or hanging out, or will you be doing serious outdoor activities? If it's the latter, you'll want a higher-end model with more features. While you're at it, take a good look at the inner jacket. Make sure that you like its looks as well as performance when you wear it alone. Some lower-price models are more like zip-out linings than stand-alone jackets.
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