Columbia has been producing affordable and versatile jackets like the Whirlibird III Interchange for decades. The combination of 3-in-1 versatility and very reasonable price make this a great option for the occasional skier or snowboarder on a tight budget. When worn in its full arrangement, it's relatively weather resistant and among the warmest in the entire test. The modular 3-in-1 design of also means you have the option of wearing the insulated liner or the shell separately depending on your needs or the weather conditions. It is generally a bit heavy and bulky, plus it lacks the style, fit, and refinement of the higher-end options, so if you spend significant amounts of time in your ski jacket you may want to look elsewhere. That said, it gets the job done admirably, especially considering the asking price, earning our Best Buy Award. If you do wish to step it up with a higher-quality model, The North Face Thermoball Snow Triclimate is a superior 3-in-1 jacket, reflected accurately in a higher price.
Columbia Whirlibird III Interchange Review
Compare prices at 4 resellers Pros: Versatile, inexpensive, super warm
Cons: Clumsy weather protection, bulky, basic fit and styling
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Our Analysis and Test Results
Columbia Sportswear has long been associated with value and the Whirlibird III Interchange is a versatile 3-in-1 jacket that is indeed an impressive value. This modular jacket is very functional and works well for ski resort use with reasonable weather resistance and impressive warmth. There's nothing especially exciting about the Whirlibird III (beyond the price), but it gets the job done. If you're an occasional skier on a budget who is more interested in function over fashion, then this is a great bargain that is worthy of consideration.
It may not cost nearly as much as most of the other jackets in this review, but that doesn't mean it isn't warm. In fact, the Whirlibird Interchange is perhaps the warmest model we tested. When all the pieces are worn together, you have an insulated jacket zipped into a weather-resistant shell, plus you have the added benefit of two additional layers of material (compared to a non-modular insulated jacket). Both the liner's outer shell and the shell's hanging lining add layers which helps make this jacket even warmer. Additionally, the outer shell of the Whirlibird is made of a thicker and beefier feeling material than most. Columbia has also incorporated their proprietary "Omni-Heat" thermal reflective technology into the insulated liner jacket which effectively works like an emergency blanket to reflect your body heat.
The Marmot KT Component, the North Face Thermoball Triclimate, and the Patagonia Snowshot all share a similar 3-in-1 modular design with the Whirlibird III. Each of these jackets is impressively warm and comparable to the Whirlibird III in this regard when worn as a complete system. However, the Columbia has a bit of an edge over all of these competitors. We believe this is due to the thicker/loftier liner as well as the Omni-heat thermal reflective liner. Not just a marketing ploy, the Omni-heat lining does actually feel warmer than jackets that don't have this feature.
The shell of the Whirlibird III alone also feels more insulating than the shell-only jackets in this test. The Norrona Lofoten Gore-Tex Pro Shell, the Outdoor Research Skyward II, the FlyLow Gear Lab Coat, and the Editors' Choice Arc'teryx Sabre are the shell-only jackets we tested, all of which are made with a "three-layer construction" that laminates lining, membrane, and outer fabric into one piece. While these jackets are lightweight and highly weather resistant, the Whirlibird III has a thicker and heavier outer fabric plus a hanging lining that enhances its insulating properties.
The Whirlibird III is highly weather resistant. To keep costs low, Columbia uses their own waterproof membrane, known as Omni-Tech, in the construction of this jacket. During both field testing and while standing in the shower for an extended period we stayed dry while wearing this jacket. A low priced jacket like this, however, uses a less expensive (read: lower quality) DWR treatment, and this is apparent in the fact that the outer shell is prone to "wetting out." This means that in very wet environments, the outermost part of the outer shell begins to absorb water and appear to be wet, though it is limited to the portion of the material that is on the outside of the waterproof Omni-Tech membrane, so you stay dry on the inside. This "wet-out" began to occur within about a minute of dousing underneath the showerhead.
The Whirlibird III has an attached adjustable hood that can be cinched down around the face in severe weather. This hood is just large enough to accommodate a ski helmet, though it's pretty tight, and its adjustments are relatively basic, but it works. It also has a powder skirt attached to the shell to help keep snow from going up your jacket when the powder is deep or in the event you crash. When compared to the other 3-in-1 jackets in the test, theWhirlibird III uses a less sophisticated fabric and has a clumsier hood. Overall, the Patagonia 3-in-1 Snowshot and the Marmot KT Component jackets are higher quality and more weather resistant.
Fit and Comfort
The same design that helps make the Whirlibird III so impressively warm also causes it to feel bulky and less comfortable than much of the competition. The overall cut is relatively basic and boxy and the multiple layers have a tendency to bind up on one another. Unlike previous versions of the Whirlibird that we've tested, the Whirlibird III's hanging lining is more dialed and no longer hangs out of the sleeves. The collar is a moderate height and the opening is large enough to tuck in your chin or hide your face when the winds are howling. The zipper by the chin is covered with a soft material, although the 3-in-1 design of the jacket is a bit less refined around the neck than the single piece insulated models we tested.
The other 3-in-1 competitors are marginally more comfortable than the Whirlibird III. The Snowshot, Thermoball Triclimate, and the KT Component jackets all have slightly more streamlined designs and thinner liner jackets that result in a somewhat less bulky and more comfortable fit. The Whirlibird III is available in sizes S-XXL and is also offered in "Tall" sizes and in "Big" sizes 1X-6X.
The shell of the Whirlibird III has standard pit-zip vents that are 12 inches in length and backed with mesh. These are only vents on the shell, and the liner jacket itself does not have any ventilation. The mesh in the vents helps keep snow from entering the jacket through the vent holes, though it limits how far the vents can open and how much air can pass through them. The overall warmth of the jacket can also be adjusted by switching between the various components of the 3-in-1 system as weather conditions change. This range of adjustability does require a little effort but also helps to earn this jacket relatively high marks for its ventilation. So, not only do the pit vents help cool things off, but you also have the opportunity to adjust the amount of insulation depending on conditions. Regulating temperature isn't as easy as simply unzipping vents, but the variety of options outweighs the decrease in user-friendliness.
The ventilation of the Whirlibird III is almost exactly the same as that found on the other 3-in-1 style jackets we tested, which all have outer shells with pit vents plus removable liner jackets that allow for a vast range of insulating variability and ventilation. The single-piece insulated jackets in our test, like the Arc'teryx Macai, don't have insulation adjustability, but their ventilation is a little more direct than the 3-in-1 models.
We've tested several color variations of the Whirlibird over the years. Style has never been this jacket's strongest suit, but it has always been a reasonable looking jacket with a casual fit that is offered in a range of neutral and crowd-pleasing colors. Our current test model has a two-tone blue shell with a bright yellow insulated liner. Both jackets look fine on their own, but they certainly don't win any awards for their fit or style. Comparatively, the Spyder Leader shouts "I'm a skier" and the Patagonia Primo Down swaggers to the backcountry, while the Columbia jacket says, "I go to the mountains, but I don't take myself too seriously."
Additionally, when compared to its 3-in-1 jacket competition, the inner jackets of all of them have roughly the same aesthetics though they come in different colors with slightly varying cuts.
The Whirlibird III is light on ski specific features, but that doesn't set its performance back too far from the competition. It has an attached powder skirt that is great to use on deep snow days, along with a large mesh drop pocket on the inside of the shell that is big enough to accommodate a pair of goggles.
Beyond that, there isn't much about this jacket that seems to make it dedicated for skiing. With most ski jackets we tested, the ski features that are present are nice and those that aren't there are generally not missed. We think that features are a nice bonus, but at the same time, the lack of them doesn't really cost a jacket too much in our overall impression.
This is a good all-around ski jacket for the resort skier on a budget who only goes skiing a few times a year. The design and construction aren't the best, but the function and versatility are adequate, especially considering the price.
The Columbia Whirlibird III Interchange is undoubtedly an excellent value. It is one of the least expensive models we tested, and it still manages to perform well above its asking price. The 3-in-1 design helps add value with two distinct separate jackets that can be worn together for an incredibly warm insulated combination. It's not the most stylish or the most comfortable, but it is undoubtedly functional and a great bargain.
The Whirlibird III is an inexpensive and functional 3-in-1 ski jacket that is ideal for the casual resort skier. This jacket is a great value with two separate jackets that can be worn in three configurations. It will keep you warm and dry, but it lacks the refined fit and finish of its more expensive competitors. That said, the Whirlibird III gets the job done at a very reasonable price.
— Jeremy Benson