The North Face Balfron Review
Cons: Polarizing style, some unrefined features
Manufacturer: The North Face
Our Analysis and Test Results
The Balfron is a unique jacket because it is neither a shell-only jacket nor is it heavily insulated. Its freeride style and long cut further separate this jacket from the competition.
Without any puffy insulation, the Balfron does not seem like a warm jacket at first. However, it features a thin hanging fleece liner in the torso, which adds some insulating properties. Still, in winter temperatures, we needed to layer up underneath this jacket to wear it while skiing, and we would generally classify this jacket as a shell. The velcro cuffs create a tight seal over gloves or mittens, and the hood collar easily zips up over the skier's nose so that you can nuzzle in during cold lift rides. The hood does not feature the same fleece liner as the body of the jacket, so the hood component is just a shell.
On the whole, the Balfron provides average weather protection and is nothing special. Using TNF's DryVent waterproof and breathable membrane, the jacket fabric repels water and snow, while cutting wind as well. We also found the DWR treatment to work well. After a long soaking in the shower, including scrubbing, the Balfron's fabric continued to bead water and never "wetted out." Our main gripe with this jacket's performance in inclement weather is due to the cargo chest pockets. They close with velcro, which is not waterproof, meaning anything you put in there, including your phone, can get wet. The handwarmer pockets close with zippers, which are not waterproof either, but do provide a more effective barrier than the velcro pockets.
Comfort and Fit
Overall, the Balfron is a comfortable jacket with a specific fit and design that may or may not appeal to you. The hanging fleece liner makes the jacket comfortable on the torso, but this liner does not continue through the arms, which feel plasticky. The outer shell fabric is relatively soft and supple compared to other hard shell fabrics that we have tested. The Balfron also features a fleece panel to protect your chin from the top of the zipper.
The fit and cut of this jacket are not for everyone. The hem is relatively long and loose, which completes the "freeride" look of the jacket, and there is also an option to purchase a longer cut for modern terrain park styling. Despite the long hem, the sleeves are just the right length and don't feel baggy or inhibiting, which is great. In general, our testers found the cut of this jacket to be less appealing than most other traditionally styled ski jackets. However, if you spend a lot of time in the park or on the freeride competition circuit, this jacket fits the bill.
Overall, the Balfron has good ventilation. It features armpit vents that are longer than most of the competition, extending from the elbow down to the ribcage, with a large zipper pull tab for easy operation and mesh covering the opening. The vent zippers are a breeze to pull up and down and don't get hung up or require someone else to assist you. The main body of the jacket breathes fairly well, but the fleece liner inhibits some water vapor motion. Still, the Balfron breathes far better than traditionally insulated jackets.
In this subjective category, the Balfron is polarizing. Either you like it or you don't. Some testers loved its "freeride," "park," or "steezy" design, while others wouldn't be seen wearing it. One comment suggested that it would fit right in with a college crowd, and the jacket definitely seems styled for that demographic. Those that like the style of this jacket might also appreciate the option to purchase this jacket in a longer size, but to most skiers, the cut is already quite long. The two-tone color panels convey an edgier style than most players in the ski jacket market.
The Balfron includes a handful of features that will keep skiers happy. Two front handwarmer pockets are spacious and fleece-lined. The two chest cargo pockets close with velcro, which makes them easy to use, but raise durability concerns (velcro wears out over time) and weather resistance problems. One chest pocket has a headphone port for a cord to travel inside the jacket and up to your ears, but that means your phone would have to live in a velcro pocket, which water and snow could easily penetrate, and isn't as secure as a zippered pocket for your valuable phone. There is one large internal mesh stash pocket, but we'd appreciate a small internal zippered pocket for a phone. The lower sleeve ski pass pocket is low profile.
One major issue with this jacket is the hood rear tightening strap. The Balfron uses a nylon cam strap to tighten the hood, which produces a loop of relatively strong material that could get caught while tree skiing or snagged up on a chairlift. We know that this is an unlikely scenario, but some of our testers did not want to wear this jacket in the trees, and made sure to check that they weren't hooked before unloading from the chairlift.
The Balfron is a great value. It provides everything you need in a shell jacket for skiing, from weather resistance to useful ski features to good durability, at a fraction of the price of other high-performance ski shells. We are confident that this jacket will last for multiple seasons, making this product an excellent investment.
The North Face Balfron is a lightly insulated ski shell with a freeride fit and edgy style. Across the board, we found this jacket to deliver average to above-average performance at an excellent value.
— Jeff Dobronyi