A Newcomer’s guide to “Staying Warm under $200” in Canadian Winter (Toronto edition)

Since I moved to Toronto in summer ’16, the only thing that’s been playing on my mind is how to face the legendary Canadian Winter. From the freezing cold to the woeful wind, Canada has been successful in offering the most notorious winters for years in succession.

Of course, you hear about snowstorms and bone-chilling wind in other parts of the northern hemisphere but Canada is perhaps the next best to being in the arctics in person. In fact, half of the country enjoys an almost Artic-like winter already.

While I resorted to the usual Google Search for “Winter clothes in Canada”, one name kept flooding the results; Canada Goose. The almost-legendary “Made in Canada” brand has enjoyed a loyal fan following over the years and has recently become a fashion icon for the rest of the world. Themed around functional premium winter wear, Canada Goose’s success has made way for more fashion-themed premium brands like Nobis, Moose Knuckles, Rudsak and so on. But being a new immigrant without a job in a country where just about 90% people live paycheck-to-paycheck, $900 just didnt seem like a feasible investment.

Apart from price, another crucial part of the game was the length of your outerwear. In Asia for example, a jacket runs up to your waist and a coat up to your hip (or shorter in modern cuts). Since overcoats or topcoats are rare in this region, I naturally only brought the standard-sized items from home.

Once in Canada though, it’s a different story. You get parka, fishtail parka, bomber jacket, mid-length jacket, jackets that sit below the hip to jackets that run down to your knees. There are literally endless combinations depending on how much coverage you are looking for and what look you are after (utilitarian vs. fashionista). It’s delightful and dizzying.

Since I love getting to the depths of any topic, my research on winterwear was no different. The next three months were spent gleefully on buying and trying almost a dozen jackets. And while they all contributed to my understanding of winterwear, almost all of them were returned back to the stores.

Why were they returned? And which one finally made it to the closet? Read on.

First, the list of jackets/parkas I ordered, tried and returned before finalizing my winterwear for 2016-17.

  1. Columbia Bugaboo Interchange Jacket A 3-in-1 jacket system with synthetic insulation. Runs larger than its mentioned size. I am one of those critiques who think the 3-in-1  shell and insulating layer quality is compromised in some way or other to ensure you get 2 jackets for the price of one in an affordable package. Columbia pricing varies greatly across retailers and during SALE events so keep a watchful eye out if buying. Their Regular Fit (which is just about everything they make) is bulky and definitely not my cup of tea. Returned
  2. Columbia Mount Tabor Insulated Jacket Very affordable option for a winter jacket (the only close competition I could think of is MEC Frostbreaker at almost twice the price). Synthetic insulation and typical Columbia design (boxy and boring). Fits surprisingly well (with space for a mid layer). Its jacket-sized length won’t cover anywhere beyond the waist. Got it at a super bargain of $71 at Sears. Didn’t get the color I was looking for, so Returned
  3. Gap ColdControl Max Snorkel Coat First true parka I tried. Primaloft synthetic insulation (which is gold-standard in synthetic insulations), long enough and has the right set of features. The term”snorkel coat” was added to my winter vocabulary (more in detail about it later). The hood can run a bit large. Order your regular size as there is enough space for mid-layers built in. Please note, every Gap product, best to wait for a Gapcash event as they easily offer up to 40% off without any BIG SALE event (not worth buying at MRP level). Got mine at $142 when MRP was $208. Returned
  4. Forever21 Hooded Utility Jacket Whimsical purchase but a very sleek design after all. Bomber style arm pockets with a useful hood and water repellent zipper. However, the quality of Forever21 products is a big no-no for me. Their stiching, zips and material can be very below acceptable standards as they are more a budget fashion retailer at the end. Prices vary greatly over time so be wary of buyer’s dissonance. I bought this at $60+ only to see it become $30 in a month’s time. Returned
  5. MEC Wicklow Jacket First experience with the Canadian superbrand MEC. Used the 3-in-1 jacket experience to order a separate jacket for Fall/Spring season. Loved the cotton-like polyester feel. However, the hood cannot be removed and the lack of any insulation failed to keep it sold eventually. A good field jacket wannabe if you are on the lookout for that style at an affordable price (Clearance price $70). Returned
  6. MEC Steadfaster Jacket A true multi-season and multi-occasion jacket – waterproof, light insulation, long, removable insulated hood with a minimalist urban-ready design. Somehow the zips are too difficult to operate, but everything else is in its right place. Excellent waterproofing and windproofing throughout. Can be coupled with a down mid-layer for winter operation (did exactly that in -19c the other day and was just fine). Do wait for MEC‘s Annual Clearance Event for buying it though. Got the $195 jacket at $120. Loving it
  7. MEC Berring Parka Synthetic insulation parka. Great quality. However, like Gap, sizes run big with MEC as well. Hands would inevitably run longer than usual (which may not be a bad thing as it works as a cover between the gloves and cuff). Had difficulty finding the right fit for myself and more importantly black wasn’t on sale. It’s their best synthetic insulation outerwear (much better than Frostbreaker). But just like other MEC products MRP is too high ($285 vs. $170), so wait for CLEARANCE.  Returned
  8. Uniqlo Warm Tech Down Coat (called Ultra Warm Down Coat in Uniqlo Canada) First of my Japanese winter wear experiments. Uniqlo partnered with a 3rd party winter gear specialist to develop this bad boy. Very very warm feeling. The fit is clearly a size larger than what it says.  For me, even the SMALL was looking bulky after wearing a blazer inside. Styled after the infamous N-3B military parka (which is not a bad thing for classic fashion enthusiasts). Runs up to the waist. The buttons in front are a nightmare to operate with gloves, though. Has down but I am not too sure about the quality of down. Important to note – although it retails for $249, you can get it at $149 during BIG SALE events like Boxing Day or Black Friday. Used it a few days but wasn’t too pleased with the length, front button arrangement and the hood. Returned
  9. Muji Water Repellent Down Coat Muji is a brand I like associating with. Although I barely have bought anything from them over the years, I am somehow drawn to them just like a Tomica car. A random discovery while window shopping. Retail price was too much for me so I waited for a SALE. Got it at 30% off and still felt too expensive (came around $208). Was down to 50% in a few days during the year-end SALE (without any Black ones though). 90% duck down, long, snorkel-style hood (reduces visibility but excellent wind chill protection), typical Muji minimalism in design. Stitching could be better but the material and build feel solid. I feel it will be serving for years to come. The only thing I dislike is the hood being non-removable and a pointless tie down inside gaiter that serves no purpose. Loving it

While many individuals in my place would settle for an all-purpose established brands like Columbia, North Face. Most actually end up with a Canada Weather Gear from International Clothiers (hearing of their gimmicky Super Triple Goose Down blend. A Canada Goose wannabe) or Alpinetek from Sears (IMO better than Canada Weather Gear but still another Canada Goose knock-off) or Canadiana from Walmart. There is also Firefly which seems to be extremely popular in the women’s segment. But since I settled for two as opposed to one (Muji and MEC) as my weapon of choice for this winter, the curious reader wonders why?

Firstly, I don’t understand why people are wearing their heavy-duty parkas every time there is a light cool breeze in Fall (yet to see Spring). Heavy jackets are heavily insulated for a reason and that’s for frigid winter and not a cool fall afternoon. A fall/spring jacket is a must for a Tronotonian’s wardrobe and mine is the MEC Steadfaster Jacket.

Secondly, a winter jacket (in my opinion) should have a few must-haves –

  • A decent-sized hood (best if removable). An absolute must if it’s in a city which has severe wind chill like Toronto. Beanies/toques are can do double duty but not enough on its own.
  • A workable fur lining (Coyote or Artifical = Animal lover vs. Tight budget)
  • A trustworthy insulation (best if goose down but a duck down will do too). If going for synthetic insulation, best to read up on it as there are many brands with different standards (e.g. Primaloft, Thermoball, Hyperloft, Thinsulate etc). Some useful reads on this are mentioned below.
  • Body coverage or length of the jacket. This really depends on your usage actually. A parka traditionally is longer than a jacket because it covers almost up to your knees (always in a women’s model). However, a lengthy top wear is going to be limit movement and seating (this where two-way zips come to good use, so do look out for this feature). For me personally, long jacket/parka is a must as I would want my legs to be equally protected since I don’t wear any snow pant or wind-blocking bottom layer.
  • Pockets and Hand warmers. With a thick warm glove (even more with a mitten) your mobility is greatly limited so please do make sure the outside-accessible pockets work for you. At least one inside pocket is required for phones or even wallet. Great if you get a hand warmer pocket as well cause then you might be able to make do with a thinner glove.
  • Lining. A useful tip on lining – make sure you try the jacket/parka on with both formal wears as well as a wool-blend mid-layer as the lining can be a make or break for many. A smooth polyester lining means easy on and off while a cotton or fur-lining would not only mean difficulty in putting it on but also runs the risk of leaving residue on your formals.
  • Price. At the end of the day, its all about the cost of ownership. I am not suggesting you buy nothing less than a Canada Goose but spending on a decent winter outerwear is a must in a cold country like Canada. All the models suggested here can be obtained for a less than $200 budget. As one shopkeeper kindly explained to me at Sportchek, a decent synthetic down jacket shouldn’t be less than $150-$200 while a workable down jacket isn’t below $300.

And I could find all of the above in my final selection, the Muji Water Repellant Down Coat.

That said I got lucky with my Muji but I strongly recommend The North Face McMurdo Parka at around $300-$350 and Columbia Barlow Pass Jacket between $225-$275 both with 550 down fill which is more than enough.

Now with the Fall/Spring Jacket and Winter Parka resting in my wardrobe, over the coming Winter months, I will try to post a few pictures of both my Muji Parka and MEC Jacket in use. And if time and patience permits, even do a piece on the other two essentials for a gentleman in Toronto – dress professionally with an overcoat and layering it right.

Till then, enjoy the chill at your will!


*All amounts are in Canadian Dollars.

Useful Reads

  1. Down vs. Synthetic at Sierra Trading Post
  2. Down vs. Synthetic at Backcountry
  3. Down vs. Synthetic at REI
  4. How to Choose the Best Down Jacket For a good idea on fill power/CUIN
  5. The Snorkel Coat (a type of Parka)
  6. Parka (Snorkel, Fishtail etc.)
  7. Splurge with a Canadian Winter-ready Premium Jacket Sneak peek of the very best