When you test jackets — and other gear — for a living, it admittedly becomes increasingly difficult to feel wowed. It’s not that loads of awesome gear aren’t showing up; quite the contrary. But I’ve seen so many products, each claiming to outperform the competition in some way, shape, or form, that it takes a lot to make a big first impression.
Over the winter, the folks at KÜHL made it clear the hero product they were most excited about was the Aktivator jacket. A “truly multi-purpose … mid-layer or a standalone jacket,” the Aktivator marketing really didn’t call to me like the “world’s warmest parka” or wireless headphones “with nearly unlimited battery “ (which also arrived in the mail).
But after months in my wardrobe and testing rotation, the Aktivator has proven itself the gear equivalent of a favorite song you always find yourself humming. So much so that I wound up wearing it most days since it arrived.
Read on to find out why.
In short: The KÜHL Aktivator jacket exemplifies the axiom, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Dependably wind-proof, acceptably light, and just impervious enough to moisture to warrant wearing on most days, the KÜHL Aktivator really isn’t exceptional in any single category. But as a do-all, fall-winter-spring companion, it’s as trusty a sidekick as I’ve tested.
- Weight 492g / 17.3 oz. (men's XL)
- Insulation Synthetic
- Pockets 4 (2 chest, 2 hand)
- Material Nylon taffeta w/zoned spandex stretch
- Very windproof
- Warmer than it looks
- Works across wide range of temps
- Stretch in key areas
- Runs slightly small — size up
- Does not pack into its own pocket
- No hood
KÜHL Aktivator Jacket Review
My first impressions of the Aktivator were admittedly lukewarm. It’s not the lightest weight nor the most robustly insulated. It doesn’t boast next-level breathability, it isn’t waterproof, and its style is undeniably understated.
So, I wondered, what’s all the fuss about? It turns out the devil is in all the little details — and the attention paid to them. And that attention came from none other than KÜHL CEO himself, Kevin Boyle.
Boyle, I learned, makes a point of getting hands-on with at least one key product every time the brand begins work on a new product cycle. This time around, it was the Aktivator. And while Boyle steers clear of the spotlight (an increasingly refreshing concept for a CEO nowadays), he did confirm that he took “full 360 involvement” with the Aktivator — including concept, materials, and testing.
Quite honestly, it shows — once you’ve put a few months of wear on it.
Why It’s Great
The winning feature of this jacket is its versatility. I’ve worn it over a t-shirt on cool October nights, under a parka on frigid Minnesota mornings, and during a recent sleeting apocalypse in Texas. It served admirably in all those conditions — not because I needed to test it, but because it was just the right tool for each job.
This owes a lot to its construction. KÜHL employed a motley collection of materials to bring the Aktivator jacket together — and those all work in concert to provide a balance of comfort and performance. Most of the jacket is covered with soft nylon taffeta, which blocks wind and lends a nice against-the-skin feel (it’s the same material used in sleeping bags).
But panels of stretchy spandex and polyester fleece run down either underarm. This adds extra flexibility and breathability (not to mention a delightful dose of coziness) right where you most need it.
The result is a jacket that feels like your favorite chair — there are other options, but one inevitably gets the most use. I found myself snagging it off the hook as a reflex when puffies were too bulky, and sweatshirts were not enough.
The Aktivator also benefits from a strategic allotment of synthetic insulation. Over the torso, KÜHL packed 80 grams per square meter of insulation, putting it square in the mid-range of warmth (neither super lightweight nor incredibly warm).
But along the underside of each sleeve, it’s only 60 gsm. This makes sense, as that part of your body rarely faces the wind and is often tucked against your side. But it allows for some extra venting.
Overall, the Aktivator has just enough warmth to work on its own when temps drop to around the 40s. Much lower, and it’s time to layer over a warmer coat.
Two zippered hand pockets help keep those digits warm and add security for keys, gum, and any receipts you want to run across a week or so later. Two more zippered pockets at the chest add even more carry options. And all pockets are big enough for the largest smartphone.
Finally, two drawstring cords beset the hem, allowing you to cinch the Aktivator tight. All in all, a pretty no-frills piece.
What Could Be Better
I like this jacket because it’s reliable and versatile, not because it’s terribly impressive in any one category. As such, it’s not a proper winter coat, and it won’t withstand any serious weather. Though the nylon exterior is stout, it’s not equipped to manage rain or very wet snow — it will wet out if you try.
And let’s not forget the style. Some folks will undoubtedly love the Aktivator for its simple, no-frills aesthetic. Though it comes in six different colors across the men’s and women’s styles, they’re all riffs on muted, cool earth tones (think slate, olive, “mist,” and black). If you want a jacket that can fit in anywhere and garner nary a second glance, this is it.
Personally, I just think it’s a lot easier to lose. And as an active individual who recreates outside as much as possible, I would have appreciated some reflective hits on the body of this jacket.
A note on sizing: I typically wear a size large in most garments. But for proper sleeve length and fit over clothes, I needed to size up to an XL. It’s not so snug that it’s a Euro fit, but you should follow KÜHL’s sizing guidelines.
KÜHL Aktivator: The Summary
There’s no shortage of stuff in this industry. So I wouldn’t blame you if you overlooked the Aktivator jacket. And honestly, you’ll live if you do.
But for the $219 price tag, you could probably save some space in your front hall closet, as this jacket will replace a few items. By my accounting, if I start wearing it in late September and use it up into May, that’s more than 200 days of potential use. Sure, you can swap out some days when I opt for a heavy puffy, but you have to mix in some summer evenings when I’m camping in the mountains.
Even though it’s no fashion statement, it’s begging to be worn heavily and “puffy patched” if you abuse it. For taking virtually anywhere and wearing most months out of the year, the KÜHL Aktivator really is one to impress.