Armada has made a full function, insulated ski jacket at a bargain basement price. The Carson insulated has all you need, nothing you don't, and is literally hundreds of dollars less than any other insulated jacket we tested. The only less expensive product we assessed is the Top Pick Columbia Whirlibird Interchange 3-in-1. Granting a Best Buy award to the Armada Carson was an easy choice.
At a low price comes low scores, at least in this case. The Carson does what you need, provided what you need isn't super warmth or excellent weather protection. This is a budget product, and the scores show that.
Whether skiing or riding, the young and young-at-heart will dig the Armada style. Jeff here is actually young.
Among the insulated jackets, this is the least insulating. This may be appealing to you, but we had to score it accordingly. It has enough insulation for keeping the typical user warm with a typical layering scheme at temperatures in the 20s and around freezing. The good news is that the generous fit allows for layering underneath in colder conditions.
The next step down in insulation value would be to one of our reviewed shell jackets. Some prefer a layered system, topped off by a shell jacket. For those, the lack of insulation in the Editors Choice Arc'teryx Sabre is more than forgivable; it is desirable. In an insulated jacket, we look for something like the protection of the Stio Shot 7 or the super warm Editors Choice Arc'teryx Macai. The Armada Carson is approximately half the insulation value of the Macai. The Spyder Leader and the Helly Hansen Alpha 3.0 are both warmer than the Carson.
In moderate temperatures the Armada Carson is all you need. Here, chalky skiing well after the last storm.
Armada brands the Carson for "east coast" resort use. Generally, this means variable conditions that can be very very wet. It isn't out of the ordinary to ski and ride in the rain in the US Northeast. Our testing for 2018 did not include full days in East Coast style rain, but we can simulate that with our shower testing. Our testing suggests that the Armada will have some issues in the worst of the worst, but that it has all the protection that most will need. True diehards that need all day rain protection should look elsewhere. Anyone else can expect all the guarding from wind and wet that you will need. The issues we had with weather protection are in the DWR and overall construction. The waterproof/breathable laminate that Armada uses will ultimately block water. However, waist, hood, cuff, and zippers are more vulnerable than that all-day-rain skier can afford. Notably, not all the zippers are waterproof, and the hood and waist drawcords are a material that collects and wicks water and ice.
For the price, and for most users, the Carson protects like you need. Of course, in something like the Editors Choice Arc 'teryx Macai you get both more insulation and greater weather protection. The Macai is made with Gore-Tex fabric, which is more proven than the unbranded stuff Armada uses. However, the bigger difference between these is in the aforementioned details and interfaces. The Macai has all waterproof zippers, for instance.
The hood of the Carson covers a little less of your ski helmet than some other jackets we assessed. The bigger issue, though is the cotton-y drawstrings that flap in your face and collect snow and ice.
In terms of ventilation in an insulated jacket, we look at just a few things. The best venting insulated jackets have a dual-separating front zipper, and pit zips that are long, open wide, and have two zipper pulls. Of these, the Armada Carson has pit zips, but they are short, mesh-backed, and have just one zipper pull. The good news is that the lesser insulation of the Armada means that you are less likely to overheat and require great ventilation.
If ventilation can be defined, for a ski jacket at least, as the ability to regulate temperature, we have to give special consideration to 3-in-1 jackets and jackets used as part of a flexible layering system. Our 3-in-1 jackets and shell jackets almost automatically score higher in ventilation. The insulated jackets, then, are the best comparison to the Armada Carson. The Spyder Leader has essentially the same venting configuration as the Armada, and therefore earns the same score. Among the insulated jackets, the Stio Shot 7 is the top scorer. The Shot 7 has a dual-pulled main zipper and pit zips that are long with dual pulls. The only questionable part of the Stio venting is that they cover the vents with mesh. It is the experience and opinion of the OGL test team that uncovered pit vents are overall better. Each covered and uncovered have their pros and cons, but the result of "in-house" debates tips in favor of non-meshed zips. The good news is that, if one agrees with this, one can cut the mesh out of their pit zips.
We scan each product for the presence and execution of a handful of ski-specific features. Our ideal ski jacket would have a lens wipe, a pass pocket, interior routing for headphones, would attach to matching pants, feature a Recco reflector, and have a healthy pocket selection (say, more than 6, total) that includes insulated hand warmers, lined with fleece. Of these, the Armada has headphone routing, attaches to Armada pants, and has some of the best hand warmer pockets in the test. The hand warmers deserve special mention. They are fleecy on the inside and insulated from both sides. They're the best hand warmer pockets in the review.
If you're looking for all the "bells and whistles", the closest we got is with the Helly Hansen Alpha 3.0. Of the "master list", the Helly Hansen is only missing the attachment to matching pants and insulation over the outside of the hand warmer pockets. No other product comes close to checking all the boxes. The Armada is about halfway there, so we scored it 6 out of 10.
Lead Test Editor and IFMGA mountain guide Jediah Porter trying the Carson Insulated on a backcountry tour. In this context, where exertion is generally higher, the lessened insulation is actually kind of nice.
Fit and Comfort
The Armada Carson is the longest jacket we tested. There is plenty of range of motion in the arms. In fact, the cut of the arms and shoulders is great. It performs better there than many other jackets we assessed. The sleeves and other proportions are all good.
Interestingly, the style of the Carson is "loose", but the fit is comfortably close. It fits closer than the Patagonia Primo Down, for instance. It doesn't have the body-hugging cut of the Macai, the Helly Hansen Alpha, or the Stio Shot 7. It is a good fit, we found. And we found it true to size.
The sleeves and shoulders of the Armada belie the inexpensive design. The wearer retains a remarkable range of motion.
The Armada Carson, with its blocked colors, large logo, long cut, dangling strings, and pocket coloration is designed to evoke your favorite hoody. It pulls off that style. It is a youthful style.
The Armada Carson is the boldest styled jacket in our review. Even the brightly colored version of the Helly Hansen Alpha 3.0 is actually more understated. There isn't a perfect correlation between age and style rating of the Armada, but there is definitely some sort of correlation. We didn't lightly use the term "youthful" to describe the style.
Armada styled the Carson to look like an oversized cotton hoody. We say they pulled it off. Thankfully it protects from the weather better than a cotton hoody.
For the occasional rider in gentle to average conditions, the Armada is a great value. The coldest and wettest conditions both will exceed the capabilities of the jacket. These conditions often exceed the capabilities of skiers and riders anyway.
This is the least expensive integrated, insulated jacket we tested. It is least expensive, in this sub-category, by a long shot. Only the Top Pick Columbia Whirlibird Interchange 3-in-1 is less expensive, and that comes with its own performance compromises. In short, the Armada is a great value.
We are often impressed by the utility of budget equipment. The Armada Carson isn't perfect, but it offers unique styling and adequate performance. Though we didn't test long enough to be sure, it is likely quite durable.