Opinion about 3-in-1 jackets: less performance for the price?

The title might sound harsh but when it comes to 3-in-1 jackets, my personal feelings are strong. I just cannot find the reason 3-in-1 jackets exists.

As I like gear and I try to go outdoors as much as possible, I often get questions from my friends and family. They are starting to go hiking more and want recommendations on a new shell, boots, backpacks etc. Obviously most of them are not prepared to spend 500€ on a top shell. And that’s good, because they would probably not need a mountaineering stronghold made of Pro fabric. But I always try to show them options that are high quality, from respectable brands.

My personal view is that it is a better investment to wait a bit and buy a good piece of gear, rather than go for the cheap and basic option now. There is a real step-up between a 80€ “waterproof” jacket and something at the 160-200€ mark. More resistant fabrics, smoother zips, real weather protection and better fit / construction means a much longer lifespan.

Which leads me to the case of the 3-in-1 jackets. Whoever thought about the concept was a marketing genius. They sell you a heavy jacket of limited specs and mediocre quality on the sole point that it can adapt to different conditions. You can use the shell and the insulation layer, on their own or together, isn’t that amazing? What about buying a shell and an insulation layer separately, and put them on one on top of the other? Same result, but, you can actually choose each layer and they will be of much better quality / price ratio.

I will admit there is one small things you get with the 3-in-1: the zip to connect the two layers together. I can imagine the appeal when you think about it. But in practice, you generally need to add and remove layers during a hike, because conditions change or you warm up during a steep ascent. Those connecting zips quickly become a liability and you will most likely end up not using them at all, rendering the whole 3-in-1 concept useless.

Price is also a concern, which is why a lot of my friends show me 3-in-1 jackets asking if they will be warm enough for skiing and winter snow activities. You might think you are making a great saving by buying the combo and get enthusiastic at the advertised “versatility”.

Some examples from current collections

Patagonia sells a 3-in-1 jacket for winter called the Snowbelle. It weighs 1153 g all together. You get a waterproof 2-layer H2No shell and a 60g synthetic insulation jacket for 400€ (2017 full-price).

From the same brand you could instead buy a Stretch Rainshadow shell, 2.5-layer, H2No, stretchy fabric, waterproof zips. 260g, 250€ (2017 full-price). Layer under that a Nano-Air jacket, top-of-the-line insulation layer for active pursuits. Super breathable. 292g, 210€ (2017 full-price).

This gives you a better system that weighs less than half but cost around 60€ more.

Mammut has the Trovat Advanced, DRYTech 2-layer shell and a down jacket, 150g of 650 cuin duck down. 1300g, 400€.

But you could also go for the Kento shell, 2.5-layer DRYTech premium, stretchy fabric. 365g, 220€. Pair it with a Mammut Witherhorn down jacket, 120g of 650 cuin duck down. 685g, 200€. Total: 1050g, 420€.

Now if there is one brand committed to 3-in-1, it’s The North Face. And after a few permutations to see if the above results were holding true, I came to the conclusion that no, if you are buying TNF, you should probably go for a 3-in-1. It’s a clever marketing sell. Most of their pieces are 3-in-1 compatible between each other. So once you have a couple, it just makes sense to carry on buying from them, just so it is compatible with what you have. Great for locking people in but also not bad value.

That’s just doing the math with same brand pieces. I think if you factor in the possibilities with buying each layer from different brands, you will get even better value. But sometimes having too many options is counter productive and maybe that is what people are buying into: an easy layering system without all the research and reading.

What are you folks thinking about 3-in-1s? Marketing ploy or great value entry-level gear?