Packing: The Perfect Travel Coat 

Tour season is almost upon us again and my thoughts have turned to...wait for it...packing! I have about three weeks before I head to Sicily, so I've been slowly laying the groundwork for packing my bag and I'll be writing a lot about it in the next few weeks. March is a great time to travel. The cities are empty of tourists, the locals are fresh and ready to welcome visitors. The only downside is that it can be cold, especially when you are outside for a large part of the day. It is certainly not as cold right now in Italy as where I live, and that's the problem. I don't really have the perfect travel coat.Finding the perfect travel coat is tricky, and the requirements for March are different from December or June. My winter coat is far too bulky for March in Sicily, although I was surprised it was perfect for Turkey in November. I have a down parka with a furry hood, and the Internet told me the temperature in Turkey was about 50, balmy by NW standards. I was going to bring a mid-weight fleece coat that's relatively warm, but my mother convinced me to bring my warmest coat. I was so very glad I did. Being outside in 50 degrees for 10 minutes is a very different thing from 50 degrees in windy archaeological parks for 3 hours. I'd have been miserable without that coat. I've learned this lesson again and again: in the off-season, always bring a travel coat that is warmer than you think you will need.My dilemma with this trip is that I just can't tell how warm it will be. March is fickle. It can be freezing. It can be mild. It can pour rain every day. Add geographical changes, from the beaches of Sicily to the base of the Alps, and it is almost impossible to find the perfect solution. The weather forecast for this week isn't helping me much. The highest temperature of places I'll be going is 72 in Catania, the lowest is Venice at 37.I made a list of desires to start my shopping trip off right.

  1. I tend to run cold, so I will err on the side of warmth.
  2. I'd like a waterproof coat, ideally with a hood.
  3. I like longer coats in cool weather, parka length if possible.
  4. It needs to be as light as possible, and potentially packable. I'm thinking that down insulation is what I need.
  5. I'm very tall, I'll need something with sleeves that reach my wrists without problem and a longer waist.
  6. Style counts too, sorry to say. I don't want to walk around Venice looking like I just came from an expedition to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, many of the Gore-Tex camping jackets are out for me.
  7. As for color, I like all colors as long as they are black. I'd like to say I'm inspired by gondolas or Coco Chanel or something fabulously elegant, but I like black because I'm a messy eater.

Now that my requirements are clear, want to go shopping with me? Of course you do! Andiamo!REI Our first stop was at the REI headquarters in downtown Seattle, the great bastion of granola and survival gear. You can tell I'm not a native, this was only my second visit to REI ever. This is a great time of year to score a jacket at a reasonable price, most stores are having decent sales. The huge selection of colorful coats was almost too much, but I narrowed it down quickly. I was imagining something so soft and comfy that I would keep it on in the airplane like a cocoon. The Gore-Tex shells were off the list immediately. Even if they are the only thing that's really waterproof, they are too stiff and heavy, and offered very little insulation. They are also ugly. I was attracted to the softer puffy coats, in Italian we call that a piumino. I decided to go that direction and tried on several, with varying results. I'm from Ventura, California, a beach town that also happens to host the headquarters for Patagonia, maker of warm coats for cold places...which Ventura is not! I grew up wearing their coats because everyone else did, and we also benefitted from their warehouse sales. I haven't had a Patagonia in years, so I thought I'd start there. Their Nano Puff jacket ($190) is ultralight and soft, and seemed fairly warm. The fit was ok, nice sleeve and body length, but the XL seemed too big and the L too small. It was ok, but not stellar and a bit pricey. The quilting pattern made me feel like I was wearing a picnic blanket. I'd also prefer a hooded jacket and down fill. Overall, it was just sort of blah.After describing my needs to a salesperson, they suggested the REI Revelcloud jacket. It's essentially the same as the Patagonia, same ultralight synthetic fill, water/wind resistant fabric, but a more flattering cut and friendlier price. It scrunched down to a ball and weighed little, but still lacked a hood. I was also not pleased with the sleeve length.The hood aspect was important to me and I did find a good prospect with the Aria jacket by Outdoor Research. It was cozy, light and fit nicely, including long sleeves and a nice hood. This might have been the winner, except that the super puffy look and the strange quilting pattern made me feel like I was channeling Joan Collins on Dynasty, circa 1983. The puffiness might be helpful in disguising a bulging middle after a big dinner though.....The big winner at REI was the Nuri Coat by Archteryx, a company I'd never heard of. It was all of the things I wanted-soft, light, down-filled, hooded, flattering, cute and BLACK! It even made me look thinner! As I was wondering if it would massage my feet and make me coffee in the morning too, I found out why it will not be mine, the price. Of course the jacket that fits perfectly and fulfills all of my requirements is also the most expensive one in the store, coming in at a cool $425. I'd like to say that I'm worth it and buy it anyhow, but I know how this goes. I'll lose it within the first week, guaranteed.

North Face

 North Face has a good selection of what I am looking for, but nothing that really shined for me. They are also at the high end of what I wanted to spend and don't carry tall sizes, unfortunately. I liked the Thermoball Hoodie, it was light and seemed warm, although I find these synthetic down fillings suspicious. I'm old fashioned, I guess. Biggest downside here is the shiny logo. I don't really like being a billboard for anyone.

Eddie Bauer

 Eddie Bauer is always where I find myself in the end. They make tall sizes and their prices are reasonable, especially if you can get it on sale. I think that every single coat in my closet is from Eddie Bauer, so I wasn't surprised when I found some good options here. I do find their sizing to be inconsistent and their clothing a bit on the frumpy side. And don't even get me started about their alleged "Travel" clothing line.ignitelite reversible jacketAfter trying on every single jacket in the store, I settled on my two favorites and ordered them both in tall. The Ignitelite Reversable Jacket seemed to be my dream come true. It's very light and packs down into its own pocket. It's water repellent and hooded, and the length seemed pretty good. It's not particularly flattering, but super practical and even flips inside out to be a blue jacket. I was really happy with it...until I wore it outside. The fake down filling is not nearly as warm as advertised, it feels flimsy and cold. It's very soft, but makes a noise when you move that makes me feel like I've wrapped myself in plastic bags. The size seemed good at first, but with a sweater underneath it felt tight and restrictive. It's ok. I might keep it to use in the summer season. It's not going to work for shoulder season.My last option is the Alpine Express Down Parka. I ordered this on a whim, not really thinking I'd like it since it lacks a hood. As it turns out, this is a surprisingly stylish jacket, not something I'd expect from Eddie Bauer. The zipper is offset diagonally and ends at a wrap collar. The water repellant fabric has an elegant shine to it and feels substantial. It's heavier and not as compact as I would like ideally, but it is definitely warm. There isn't a hood, but the reality in Italy is that rain is actually rain, not Seattle mist and a hood often won't keep you dry. I will need to bring an umbrella no matter which jacket I pick. I really did want something more packable, but let's face it, at this time of year I will probably be wearing it all day anyhow. It doesn't hurt that I got it for a steal on sale, for about $100. Like a cat who has brought a bird in the house, the  bargain hunter in me is very pleased with herself.The winner, after much gnashing of teeth, is the Alpine Express Parka by Eddie Bauer. It doesn't have it all but it does have great qualities: low price, warmth, water repellant, down filled, tall size, and elegance that an Italian would appreciate. That may be as close as I will get, but I'll keep dreaming about the perfect travel coat.