The REI Co-op First Chair GTX is a capable shell jacket with all of the bells and whistles of more expensive shells for a fraction of the price. Two-layer Gore-Tex fabric and a waterproof front zipper keep water out, and the jacket has pockets galore. It fits decently well, and although it lacks the refined and shaped fit of high-end shells, it still wins some style points on the mountain. Large armpit vents dump heat quickly, which complements the soft interior nylon liner fabric. Overall, this is a great ski shell with most refinements of much more expensive jackets. We think it offers standout value for folks who want a shell instead of an insulated jacket at the resort without spending too much money. Other models offer more breathability and backcountry-specific feature sets for those venturing out-of-bounds.Editor's Note: We updated this review for the REI Co-op First Chair GTX on March 6, 2022, with an additional assessment of value versus performance and a direct comparison to other jackets in this review.
REI Co-op First Chair GTX Review
Cons: Hanging liner makes it a bit warm for a shell, fit isn't perfect
Manufacturer: REI Co-op
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REI Co-op First Chair GTX
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|Pros||Weather resistant, good vents, plenty of features||Strong value, highly versatile, warm, loaded with ski-friendly features||Versatile, inexpensive, warm||Inexpensive, moderately weather resistant||Affordable, weather resistant, good set of features|
|Cons||Hanging liner makes it a bit warm for a shell, fit isn't perfect||Heavy, poor ventilation in combined figuration||Bulky, basic fit and styling, limited weather protection||Not warm enough for many winter days, bland style||Not stylish, no ventilation, boxy fit|
|Bottom Line||A high-performance shell at a great price||This versatile and reasonably priced jacket helps you customize your layers, whether you prioritize warmth, weather resistance, or both||A versatile and very affordable jacket for the occasional skier or snowboarder||An average-performance ski jacket with decent features at an affordable price||A good entry-level ski jacket for an affordable price|
|Rating Categories||REI Co-op First Cha...||The North Face Ther...||Columbia Whirlibird...||REI Co-op Powderbou...||Columbia Last Tracks|
|Weather Resistance (20%)|
|Comfort and Fit (20%)|
|Specs||REI Co-op First Cha...||The North Face Ther...||Columbia Whirlibird...||REI Co-op Powderbou...||Columbia Last Tracks|
|Main Fabric||2-layer Gore-Tex||100% nylon||Nylon||Nylon||100% nylon|
|Insulation||Recycled polyester lining||100% Post-Consumer Recycled Polyester||80g MicroTemp synthetic||60g polyester sleeves, 80g polyester body||Omni-heat thermal reflective|
|Pockets||2 handwarmer, 2 chest, 1 internal chest, 1 sleeve||Shell: 2 zippered hand, 1 zippered chest,1 internal media, 1 internal goggle, 1 internal zippered sleeve. Liner: 2 hand||Shell: 3 external, 1 internal. Liner: 2 external, 1 internal||2 zippered hand, 1 sleeve, 1 internal zippered chest, 1 internal mesh||Zippered hand, chest, and ski pass|
|Weight||1.76 lbs||2.86 lbs||2.94 lbs||1.96 lbs||2.14 lbs|
|Water Resistance||Gore-Tex||DryVent 2L||OmniTech||2-layer waterproof breathable laminate||Multi-layered waterproof construction|
|Hood||Adjustable||Adjustable||Adjustable||Adjustable||Adjustable and Removable|
|Pit-Zips||Yes||Yes (shell only)||Mesh-backed (shell only)||Yes||None|
|Cuff construction||Velcro||Velcro||Velcro||Interior wide hook-and-loop adjustments and external velcro||Velcro|
|Powder skirt?||Yes, removable||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Our Analysis and Test Results
The First Chair GTX performs well in most of our metrics. In general, this is a well-designed and well-built jacket that only lacks the minute details that other high-end jackets bring to the table. For most users, this shell is perfectly adequate.
Shell jackets are not known for their warmth, but rather, they are designed to provide all of the other attributes of a winter jacket. They assume that users who choose shell jackets prefer to layer insulating garments underneath the shell to match the temperature in the mountains. This design gives the user more control over their warmth level than an insulated ski jacket, but it also means that the shell alone is not very warm.
The thick Gore-Tex shell fabric keeps the wind out, helping the user stay warm. Additionally, REI includes a thin, slick nylon liner that hangs off the side of the shell fabric. Such liners provide warmth by producing a space in which this jacket can trap warm air, in this case between the shell fabric and the liner fabric. In general, we prefer our shell jackets to be unlined, as we chose a shell jacket in the first place because we want to be in charge of our warmth, and don't want the jacket to provide any warmth that we can't control. In this case, the hanging liner adds a small amount of warmth (and weight) to the equation, but not much.
The REI Co-op First Chair GTX does an excellent job keeping the weather out, which is a shell jacket's main purpose. It uses Gore-Tex waterproof and breathable fabric to ensure no water penetrates the jacket's fabric. It has a big hood, a long hem, and long sleeves, meaning that the shell will provide complete coverage through various athletic body movements. In our shower test, the jacket kept us dry and comfortable.
The front zipper is waterproof, but only small storm flaps protect the pocket zippers. This design isn't a problem in most winter environments, but if you regularly encounter rain or wet snow on the ski slopes, this jacket will slowly let water in through the external pocket zippers. REI uses a DWR coating to bead water off the exterior shell fabric, and we found this DWR treatment to be moderately durable compared to other brands.
Comfort and Fit
The First Chair GTX has a remarkably comfortable feel for a shell jacket. The interior lining contributes to this, protecting your skin or mid-layers from running against a coarse and stiff shell fabric. The exterior fabric is relatively soft compared to other crinkly hardshell jackets.
The jacket's fit is also pretty good, and while it doesn't match the tailoring of the most high-end ski shells on the market, it fits just fine. If anything, the jacket is a bit loose, but it still comes with an athletic cut that looks and feels like it is made specifically for skiing. On the slopes, we never felt hindered in our movements. The shoulders and elbows are loose without being baggy, and even when we layered heavy down sweaters underneath the shell, it never felt too tight.
Another reason we sometimes reach for shell jackets over insulated ski jackets is that we want more ventilation. Shell jackets usually have longer armpit vents to make up for the occasions when we get our layering wrong underneath. The First Chair GTX features average-length armpit vents compared to other shells on the market.
Another major component of ventilation is the shell jacket's fabric. The First Chair GTX uses Gore-Tex, a perennial favorite for its high air permeability. Other jackets use proprietary waterproof and breathable membranes to keep costs down, usually at the expense of performance. Still, this jacket incorporates Gore-Tex without boosting the price of the shell into the stratosphere. One barrier to breathability, in this case, is the interior nylon liner. While breathable, it presents a major obstacle to airflow, which was noticeable when we worked hard on inbounds boot packs. Compared to shell jackets without a liner, the First Chair GTX feels less breathable.
Style is subjective, and everyone likes something different. We generally prefer ski jacket styles specific to the sport, minimalistic and sleek, yet refined and classy. It is ideal if a jacket can be at home in the lift line on an expert chair at the top of a mountain and in a classy ski bar at the base. The First Chair GTX does a good job striking this balance. The cut and fit suggest athletic use, but the lines are minimalist and sleek. The jacket is relatively classy, understated, and doesn't stand out, except perhaps on the green slopes.
The jacket comes in only two colors – while this style is safe, we sometimes like to step out of classic color schemes and take some risks. Modern ski styles are moving towards more interesting colors, while the First Chair GTX lags and offers safe color options that will blend in with the crowd on the groomers. If you are looking for a ski jacket that will show off how much of an expert skier you are or that you live right in town at the base, we'd recommend going for a different jacket in terms of style.
The First Chair GTX includes tons of features that make your day on the ski hill easier and more convenient. It has a full suite of four zippered pockets on the jacket's front, two at waist level and two at chest level. The waist-level pockets are lined on both sides with a soft fleece liner, and the chest pockets have this same soft liner on the back-of-the-hand side. There is an internal chest pocket with a headphone port for easy listening and an internal drop-in pocket for goggles, extra gloves, or other large items. The shell also features a small sleeve pocket above the left wrist that holds an RFID ski pass so that your pass is close to the scanner, and you don't have to do the Macarena to get the machine to recognize you.
The fixed hood is adjustable at either side of the face and in the back to customize a tight fit over the helmet on stormy ski days. A powder skirt keeps snow from entering the jacket from below during deep powder days and, more often, during unexpected wipe-outs. When not in use, the powder skirt clips away behind flaps and doesn't get snagged on anything when not in use. The hem is also adjustable with a drawcord to seal the bottom of the jacket around your ski pants. In general, the First Chair GTX has all of the features we have come to expect from a good ski shell.
Should You Buy the First Chair GTX?
While not exactly cheap, the REI Co-op First Chair GTX is the most affordable yet high-performance ski shell that we have found. It performs almost as well as shell jackets that cost twice as much, and it does so without compromising on materials, design, features. Some advanced and hardcore skiers will want an even more well-tailored and impermeable ski shell, but for most regular skiers who get out onto the hill 20 or 30 days a year, this jacket is a great deal. REI has an excellent warranty policy if anything should go wrong.
What Other Ski Jackets Should You Consider?
Overall, the First Chair GTX is a great resort shell jacket at an excellent value. But if we split hairs, this shell could do a bit more to be weather resistant, and the style could be better. High-end shells like the Arc'teryx Sabre AR Jacket or Norrona Lofoten Gore-Tex Pro Shell offer better weather resistance. Backcountry-specific shells – ones without a liner – like the Outdoor Research Hemispheres Jacket or Arc'teryx Rush are more breathable and more appropriate for uphill endeavors. But none of these shell jackets are warm just by themselves. For added warmth and convenience, insulated jackets like the Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft or modular The North Face ThermoBall ECO Snow Triclimate are a better standalone option for colder climates.
— Jeff Dobronyi
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