We’ve all been there: Winter is just around the corner and it’s time to buy a new outer layer to help you stay warm in frigid temperatures.
But, do you need a parka, a jacket, an anorak, or perhaps just a classy coat? Is there even a difference between a jacket and a parka, or is this just semantics?
Unfortunately, the outdoor industry is full of technical jargon, which gets thrown around and misconstrued in advertising, making things difficult for you as you research your newest piece of gear.
To ensure that you get the right gear for your upcoming adventures, we’ve created this guide to settle the debate about what is a parka once and for all.
Up next, we’ll explain the difference between parkas, jackets, coats, and other popular types of winter outerwear so you know what to look for as you shop for your next adventure.
What Is A Parka?
Okay, first things first: what even is a parka?
According to the Canadian Museum of History, a parka is a type of clothing that is traditionally worn by the Inuit in the high Arctic. In Inuit culture, parkas traditionally refer to any outer layer of clothing made from naturally water-repellent materials.
Most of these coats are made from traditional materials, such as marine mammal intestines and skins, which provided warmth and protection from the elements. Some traditional parkas are also highly decorated with beads and designs that express the rich cultural history behind this critically important piece of clothing.
These days, however, the word “parka” is used fairly loosely and it often refers to any very warm jacket. In particular, commercially-produced parkas tend to be long and well-insulated, though typically with down or synthetic fill, rather than traditional materials.
How Are Parkas Different From Other Types Of Jackets?
With so many different terms out there that are used to describe outer layers for hiking, backpacking, and winter camping, it can be hard to know what to pack for your next adventure.
So, here are some need-to-know clothing terms to keep in mind.
Coat vs Jacket
It turns out that the words “coat” and “jacket” are used fairly interchangeably in both formal and informal English.
According to the venerable Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a jacket is just any type of garment that covers the upper body and arms. A coat is also an upper body layer, but, if we want to get a bit nit-picky, we can say that the term “coat” is generally used for more fashionable items.
So, the word “coat” is more often used to refer to something you might don for a fancy dinner than to a big puffy layer you might wear while camping.
Parka vs Jacket
Technically speaking, a parka is a type of jacket. However, the term “parka” is generally used to refer to a long, well-insulated jacket that’s designed specifically for cold environments.
The term “jacket,” on the other hand, can be used to talk about pretty much any type of upper body layer that’s meant to protect you from the elements. This includes everything from rain jackets for hiking to sport jackets that you might wear to work at an office.
Thus, if we want to be more specific, we can say that all parkas are jackets, but not all jackets are parkas. Ultimately, if you’re talking about a big, puffy jacket that extends below your waist, you’re probably referring to a parka.
Parka vs Coat
Since there isn’t much of a practical difference between jackets and coats, technically speaking, parkas are also a type of coat.
But, as we’ve mentioned already, the word “coat” is generally used to refer to more fashionable, lifestyle clothing than to gear you might take on a camping trip. Although you’ll find plenty of people who talk about their puffy coats and raincoats, these phrases aren’t as common in the outdoor industry.
The main difference, then, between a parka and a coat, is that parkas are always going to be big, puffy, and well-insulated. Meanwhile, a coat can be quite thin and minimally insulated.
Anorak vs. Parka
An anorak is a very specific type of pullover jacket with a hood, such as The North Face Fuseform Cesium Anorak. Traditionally, they were almost always waterproof, though you can find modern anoraks that are mostly crafted for insulation and warmth rather than rain protection.
If we want to dig into the history of these two types of jackets, things get pretty interesting. In fact, while the word “parka” is believed to be derived from Nenets, an Indigenous language of Siberia, the word anorak comes from the Greenlandic word annoraaq. So, there’s a clear connection between these 2 types of jackets and the frigid Arctic.
Even though they’re both made for insulation and weather protection, parkas are almost always thicker and larger than anoraks. If you’re going to spend a lot of time standing around in cold environments, a well-insulated parka might be the better choice. Alternatively, anoraks are usually thinner and lighter, so they’re more popular for nordic skiing and other active pursuits. Parka, jacket and anorak are all considered an outer layer of clothing. If you want to learn more about it, here is a guide to dressing in layers.
How Are Parkas And Other Types Of Jackets Similar?
Parkas and other types of upper body layers share a lot of similarities. This is because they’re all designed to keep you either warm or dry in inclement weather.
All jackets feature durable fabrics that are meant to protect you from the elements. While the precise materials that are used in parkas and other types of jackets, such as anoraks or rain jackets, might differ, in the end, they all have a similar overall design.
Here are 2 of the key features that you’ll likely find in a parka or another type of jacket designed for outdoor use:
- Upper Body Coverage. All jackets cover your upper body and parkas are no exception. They all have sleeves, and often hoods to keep you covered up in the wind, rain, snow, or cold.
- Pockets. The vast majority of jackets built for hiking, camping, climbing, and any other outdoor pursuit will have pockets. In general, you can expect either hand warmer or chest pockets on jackets and other types of upper body outerwear.
Other than that, jackets come in a wide range of different shapes and sizes, each designed with a specific use in mind, whether that’s to keep you dry in the rain or to block the wind when you’re hiking in the alpine. Therefore, it’s critical that you know what to look for as you shop.
What Makes Parkas Better Than Other Types Of Jackets?
While parkas are quite similar to other types of jackets, they have some unique features that set them apart. These include:
- Lots Of Insulation. The defining feature of a parka is insulation, so you can expect any jacket labeled as a “parka” to be quite warm. In fact, parkas are often the warmest jackets available. That being said, you can find parkas that are made with both down and synthetic insulation, so be sure to check the specifications of any model that you buy to ensure that it’s the right option for your needs.
- Longer Length. Another thing that you’ll notice with parkas is that they usually have quite a long length. Traditionally, parkas extend well below the waist, often as far down as the middle of the thigh. While length now varies quite a bit from model to model, you can generally expect a parka to at least be longer than your hips.
- Hood. While this isn’t a universal feature, the majority of quality parkas that you can find on the market today do come with a hood. Why? Well, we tend to lose quite a lot of heat through our heads, just because it’s the only part of our body that’s not fully covered up with clothing. So, hoods are helpful for keeping us warm in very cold conditions.
Additionally, you can now often find parkas that are fully waterproof, which is quite helpful if you’re looking to venture into cold, wet environments. But, this isn’t guaranteed with parkas, so if you need a waterproof model, you’ll want to shop specifically with this feature in mind.
Who Should Get A Parka (and why)?
In reality, parkas are designed for very specific use in the outdoors, namely, for winter camping and other types of cold weather activity.
Parkas can also be useful as a warm layer for walking around town if you live in a very cold place. But, the take home point here is that parkas are best used in frigid temperatures because their plentiful insulation and bulky nature limit their functionality in warm locales.
When Are Other Types Of Jackets Better Than Parkas?
The type of jacket that you should buy all depends on what you plan to use it for. While parkas are great for frigid environments, if you’re not planning on doing a lot of winter camping or winter adventuring in a cold locale, a parka might not be what you need.
When deciding if another type of jacket is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I primarily looking for a jacket to keep me dry in the rain?
- Will I be camping in the spring, summer, or fall?
- Do I expect nighttime temperatures to drop below 20ºF (-6ºC)?
- Is my main concern that I will be cold in a windy environment?
- Do I have minimal pack space for bulky gear?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are pretty high that you might be better off with a different type of jacket, such as a wind jacket, rain jacket, or just a standard mid-layer puffy jacket, like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisper 2 Hoody.
Here are our answers to some of your most common questions about parkas and other types of jackets.
How Should A Parka Fit?
The ideal fit of a parka depends on what you plan to use it for. If you’re purchasing a parka for walking around town, you can probably size it so that it fits over just 1 or 2 layers of upper body clothing.
However, for outdoor pursuits, you’ll want to make sure that your parka is large enough to fit over multiple mid layers and base layers. Since your parka is likely to be your outermost layer, it needs to be comfortable enough to wear on top of all your other clothing.
Can You Wear A Parka In The Rain?
It depends. Some parkas are designed with waterproof outer fabrics, like H2No or Gore-Tex, that can keep you warm and dry, even when the weather won’t cooperate.
However, the vast majority of parks that you might buy for winter camping or a similar pursuit are water-resistant, but not fully waterproof. These parkas are best for use in slightly snowy or rainy environments, but won’t hold up well in a rainstorm.
Do Windbreakers Keep You Warm?
Windbreakers help to keep you warm simply because they block the wind, but they’re not insulated enough to be used in cold conditions on their own.
On a sunny, yet windy, summer’s day, a windbreaker might be all that you need. For colder environments, though, you’ll certainly want to layer that windbreaker on top of a fleece or puffy jacket for added insulation.
Is A Down Jacket Worth It?
Down jackets can be worth it, depending on what you plan to use them for. In particular, down is a fan-favorite for cold environments because it has an excellent warmth to weight ratio. That means that you can save weight in your pack without sacrificing warmth in the mountains.
Keep in mind, however, that down loses all of its insulating abilities when wet, so it’s not ideal for use in rainy locales. It’s also substantially more expensive than synthetic insulation, which is always an important factor to consider.
If you’re trying to keep your pack weight to a minimum, down is a solid choice. Alternatively, if you’re on a budget or you usually camp in rainy places, you might want to consider synthetic instead.