The Variant is a modern, hybrid design jacket that uses both fleece and synthetic insulation. Is this the best of both worlds or a compromise between the two?
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Snowshoeing in the Variant
© Toby Archer, Feb 2012 The Marmot Variant is an interesting jacket and a bit tricky to review, in the sense that what might be its strong points to some, could be weaknesses to others. So I will start with just a basic description.
The shoulders, arms and back of the jacket are made of stretchy Polartec Powerstretch fleece, a fabric that has been around for a long time mainly because it does what it does very well. The front of the jacket is quilted windproof nylon filled with a thin layer of synthetic insulation, in this case Marmot's own Thermal R Eco which, being recycled, can keep you morally smug as well thermally snug. Fundamentally, the Variant is the front half of a synth puffy vest sewn onto the back and sides of a Powerstretch jacket. It is finished with a nicely fitting warm, high collar, two hand pockets, one small inside pocket, and thumb loops.
The first observation might be incredibly obvious but is worth stating: with the insulation on the front, your back doesn't stay as warm as your chest. Whether this is good or not is of course dependent on what you are doing in the jacket. If you are wearing a backpack it is an advantage. When cycling or XC skiing without a pack on, the Variant also works well, with the fleece back letting sweat evaporate quickly.
With its thumb loops, long fitted torso and windproof front, the Variant actually works well for biking and other similar 'fast' activities; a friend uses his for winter running for instance. What is noticeable though when doing such exercise is that the insulated front insulation is not as breathable as the fleece. I can build up moisture behind the insulation to the extent that it make my base layer damp on the front when it's not on the back. Any cyclists who use a windproof vest with a mesh back will probably know the phenomenon, but with two layers of nylon (either side of the insulation) it is perhaps accentuated here. Nevertheless, once you slow down the sweat will dissipate and I've found this doesn't happen when I'm just hiking.
"...The first observation might be incredibly obvious but is worth stating: with the insulation on the front, your back doesn't stay as warm as your chest..."
In terms of warmth, if you are wearing a pack that keeps your back covered, then the Variant under some sort of hard or soft shell feels equivalent to a furry fleece but without the bulk or bunching associated with them. This is particularly good when ice climbing where your arms are up a lot of the time.
I love thumb loops and am really glad that more and more manufacturers are adding them to their mid layer pieces. Particularly when you are not using gloves, the thumb loops on the Variant are great – like having a pair of fingerless gloves with you. In winter they are slightly less successful because, despite the rest of the jacket being a trim fit, the Variant is quite loose around the wrists. When using the thumb loops it becomes hard to then get your hand into your gloves because of the loose fit around your wrist/hand. Of course you don't need to wear the thumb loops, but they would be more of an asset in winter with slightly tighter lower arms on the jacket.
"...The Variant under some sort of hard or soft shell feels equivalent to a furry fleece but without the bulk or bunching associated with them..."Summary
Overall, I find the Variant to be lighter and better to climb in than a similarly warm fleece but not as breathable on the front. The windproof nature of the jacket's front when used alone will be fair compensation for the slight deficit in breathability for many. Finally, the jacket looks unusual but, at least in this reviewer's opinion, rather hip in a 60's-vision-of-the-space-age sort of way. Now where did I leave my jetpack...?
Cold night climbing. The Variant makes a super snug mid-layer.
© Toby Archer, Feb 2012
Marmot Variant Jacket
More info on the Marmot Website
About Toby Archer
Toby is based in Finland. He describes himself as: "a writer and researcher specialising in international security politics; finally no longer a PhD student; hopeless but enthusiastic climber; part-time gear reviewer; keen multi-role cyclist; idealist and cynic"
Climbing keeps him from getting too depressed about politics. He blogs about both at:
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Toby Archer: