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The North Face Free Thinker Review
Cons: Expensive, heavy, bulky, poor hood design doesn’t work well in rain, crinkly and loud fabric
Bottom line: A downhill skiing specific hardshell that we did not enjoy as much as the similar Fuseform Brigandine 3L.
The North Face Free Thinker Jacket is the type of clothing one might expect to see the riders wearing in the newest Alaskan heli-skiing film. Indeed, this jacket is designed specifically for big mountain descents, and that is where it will thrive. It pairs super burly 70-denier face fabric with a GORE-TEX Pro waterproof breathable membrane to offer only top of the line protection — at a cost. Not only was this the heaviest and bulkiest jacket in this review, but its retail price of $599 also made it the most expensive. We found the pattern of its design, as well as its skiing- specific feature set, to be almost identical to that of The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L, which we recognized as our Top Pick for Resort Skiing. Since this jacket was so heavy and bulky, and really isn't at all practical as an outer-layer for climbing, mountaineering, backpacking, or even uphill skiing, it was one of the lowest ranking jackets in our review.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
This jacket is very similar to The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L, a jacket that we preferred to wear more often. The main difference between the two jackets is their look, but also the fact that this one uses GORE-TEX Pro, while the Fuseform uses The North Face's proprietary DryVent membrane. There is no doubt that GORE-TEX Pro is one of the most breathable membranes available on the market today, but the net effect in this jacket was a more expensive jacket that was significantly less mobile to move about in.
While the fit itself was perfectly fine, wearing this jacket made one feel as if they were wearing a large overcoat, insulated and cut off from the outside world. While we need a hardshell to protect us from the weather, it is also critical for the mountain and outdoor sports that we play that our clothing works with us, moving as we move, something this jacket didn't do very well, and in stark contrast to our Best Overall Hardshell, also made with GORE-TEX Pro, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL.
We loved the long, low hem of this jacket, combined with the internal powder skirt, for how well it performed keeping out the deep powder. However, in our shower test, we noticed that this jacket suffered by far the most wetting out of the face fabric of any jacket after our test period. This means that the DWR coating applied to the outside of this jacket had mostly worn off, making it perhaps the poorest quality DWR coating of the review.
More problematic, however, was the fact that just like the Fuseform Jacket, and the Patagonia Triolet, the hood was ineffective at channeling the water from a severe downpour off the sides of the head. Instead, water poured over the brim of the hood, and also ran down the edges and easily washed down the inside of the collar and jacket. As a skiing specific jacket, heavy rain should not be a top concern, but you never know… We couldn't give this jacket more than 6 points for weather protection, despite its top-quality membrane.
Weight and Packability
On our scale, this jacket weighed 24.7 ounces for a size men's medium, making it the heaviest jacket in the review. It was also the largest jacket in the review when all rolled up and packed away, meaning it was the least packable. Like the Fuseform Brigandine 3L, if you are not wearing this jacket, you certainly don't want to be carrying it with you.
Mobility and Fit
The large, free flowing fit of this jacket, exemplified by the low hem line, was one of the positive features we loved. Like the Fuseform, and also the Outdoor Research Furio, we felt that the sleeves were simply too short. However, this is not such a big problem for a skiing-only jacket as it is when you are planning to go ice climbing. We thought the fit was larger and more spacious than just about any jacket we tested, but in a good way, and we were always able to comfortably layer beneath it. What we didn't like was how stiff, crinkly, and immobile feeling the combination of the GORE_TEX Pro membrane with the 70D face fabric was. A jacket like the Arc'teryx Beta AR was able to use the same membrane in conjunction with face fabrics just as durable while still retaining fluid and easy movement, something that was missing with the Free Thinker. 7 out of 10 points.
Venting and Breathability
We appreciated that The North Face's marketing claims about this jacket told the story as it is, and didn't throw around a lot of words like "lightweight" or "skinning uphill" when describing this jacket. The truth is, despite using a highly breathable membrane, this jacket is heavy and hot, great traits for keeping warm at a ski resort, but terrible attributes for the backcountry enthusiast. While this jacket does have pit zips, they are much smaller than the average found on the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell, and only have one zipper instead of the ubiquitous two. The venting options on this jacket almost seem like an after-thought, and are nothing like the very well designed options found on the Outdoor Research Furio or Rab Latok Alpine Jacket. In the end, we gave it a low 5 out of 10 points for venting and breathability.
This jacket has very nearly the exact same feature set as that found on the Fuseform Brigandine 3L, clearly designed with downhill skiing in mind. The only noticeable differences were the location of the chest pockets (lower and wider on the body) and the design of the wrist cuffs. We loved the forearm pocket with goggle wipe, integrated powder skirt, internal stash pockets, and internal zip pockets with media port. What we didn't enjoy as much was the difficult-to-adjust front hood draw cords and the gigantic Velcro wrist enclosures.
These wrist enclosures are clearly designed to wrap the wrist over the top of the ski glove, but we tend to like ski gloves with wrist sleeves, which make it easier to keep the snow out. We had a very hard time fitting the wrists of this jacket into our gloves, and feel that a much smaller and simpler wrist enclosure, like our favorites found on the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and Beta AR, work much better to accomplish the same thing. Our battles with these wrist cuffs inspired us to give one less point than we awarded to the Fuseform, 8 out of 10.
This jacket is designed with skiing in mind and would make a great coat for riding at the resorts, or if you happen to be lucky enough to have a heli drop at the top of some remote mountain range that we all dream about. It is not designed for alpine climbing, mountaineering, or skinning uphill, but we still wanted to see how it compared to the all-around jackets we typically test in this review. While it was one of the lower scorers in our comparison review and based on the metrics we value, we still think it is a worthy jacket for downhill skiing.
This jacket retails at an astronomically high $599, making it the most expensive in this review. Being frank and honest, we enjoyed skiing in the Fuseform Brigandine 3L more, and point out that it is $100 less. Also, our favorite jacket, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, uses the same GORE-TEX Pro membrane and costs over $200 less. The point is while this is a well made and durable jacket, there are far more cost-effective options out there that ranked much higher in our comparison testing.
The North Face Free Thinker Jacket is a top-end skiing jacket best used at the resorts when the weather has turned truly apocalyptic. It is not a good choice for trying to climb mountains in, and should be considered only if you need a high-end hardshell for skiing. While it is a well-made jacket that has some worthy features, many other jackets in this review are likely to serve the reader better.
— Andy Wellman
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