The Patagonia Descensionist is our favorite backcountry skiing pant, but barely. Of those we've tested, these take the cake, but only by a small margin and for reasons that may not be that important to you. The closest comparison is to the Outdoor Research Trailbreaker. They both have great vents, dedicated avalanche transceiver storage, backcountry mobility, and good durability. The Trailbreaker is more comfortable, slightly more breathable, and has more pockets. The Patagonia Descensionist is lighter and protects better in severe conditions. The weight difference is what we hone in on the most in this subcategory. This is the primary reason we grant our Top Pick Award to the Descensionist.
Patagonia Descensionist Review
Cons: Limited insulation, limited pockets, limited durability
Our Analysis and Test Results
Our overall scoring matrix is developed mainly for resort skiing. Most skiers go resort skiing, so we tilt in that direction. Of course, an increasing number of skiers are heading to the backcountry. Human-powered skiing rewards lightweight, breathability, and freedom of motion in pant design. These things are far less important in your resort ski pants. The result of all this is that the Descensionist doesn't really stack up very well on our overall scoring rubric. Among the backcountry specific pants, though, the Descensionist has the highest score. It is our Top Pick for backcountry skiing. Except in certain specialized circumstances, these are the pants we recommend for human-powered skiers but recommend others for resort days.
We did an especially thorough job on these in our shower test. We assess everything thoroughly, but we were curious to see if we could get water through these "soft shell" waterproof pants. In many minutes of direct spray and scrubbing, we could not get liquid water through. We like this. Similarly, on a super long and deep day of touring in Grand Teton National Park in late December, we soaked all our upper layers but didn't breach the pants. Patagonia doesn't make lofty claims of the water resistance of these pants. But the pants deliver. Under promise and over deliver is a refreshing marketing strategy. We would count on these in wet skiing situations.
As noted above, we never got water to go through the fabric of the Descensionist. Nonetheless, knowing that the waterproofness is compromised intentionally, we have to temper our enthusiasm. It is conceivable that, in extended East Coast rainy skiing, or on many days of wet expedition skiing you could wet through these pants. For that reason, in the absolute wettest and gnarliest of conditions we recommend hardshell pants, even for ski touring. Something like the Editors' Choice Arc'Teryx Sabre will keep wet out better than the Descensionist. The Outdoor Research Trailbreaker definitely wets out, especially along the upper legs, faster than the Descensionist.
Fit and Comfort
The Descensionist seems to fit true to size. Our lead tester is as medium as medium gets, and the Descensionist fits just like all other medium pants. The fit a little closer than your typical resort pants, but that is by design and valuable for backcountry skiing. Less fabric is lighter and swishes against itself less. These pants are made of soft, quiet, and draping fabric. Only full stretch-woven softshell pants are more comfortable. For the level of protection they offer, the Top Pick is incredibly comfortable.
These are super comfy as compared to virtually all resort ski pants. When we compare them to the Arc'Teryx Rush LT, we like that the Descensionist is quiet, soft, and features no high waistline. The Rush LT and the Descensionist are both waterproof pants built for human-powered skiing, but the Descensionist is way more comfortable. The Outdoor Research Trailbreaker is softer and stretchier and less confining than the Descensionist. Relative to all the other pants we tested, the Trailbreaker feels like a pair of sweatpants.
The Descensionist has external leg zippers with no mesh backing. If your pants have only one set of vent zippers, this is the best configuration to have. Especially with legs pumping on the uphill, air is exchanged freely enough to make a real difference in internal comfort.
The only way to improve on external, mesh-less vents is to add more vents. The FlyLow Chemical Snow Pants and FlyLow Baker Bibs both have two vents per leg. This allows cross ventilation that none of the other pants match. All of the backcountry specific pants we tested have the same vent configuration as the Descensionist. The OR Trailbreaker and the Rush LT both also have external leg zippers that are not backed by any sort of mesh.
Aside from the way they drape and hang, the Descensionist almost looks like a ski resort pant. The cut and texture have more in common with resort gear than it does with typical "alpine style" softshell touring pants. As is trendy now, the color selection of the Descensionist* is pretty muted.
The Outdoor Research Trailbreaker has tailoring that is more "classic" for soft shell mountain pants. The Trailbreaker looks like climbing pants while the Descensionist looks more like ski pants.
Backcountry skiing generates more body heat than resort skiing on average. When it is really cold, though, you can't go inside the lodge in most backcountry ski settings. Striking the perfect balance of warmth in touring ski pants is a challenge. We found that the Patagonia Descensionist strikes that balance. In all but the hottest of summer skiing situations, the Descensionist without long underwear will be perfect. Having two different weights of long underwear for cold and really cold conditions will round out your entire lower leg backcountry set up.
Basically all the other pants we tested are more insulating than the Descensionist. Only the Arc'Teryx Rush LT Offers less insulating value. The Rush LT is only marginally less insulating, with a slightly thinner overall fabric construction.
There are three pockets, a Recco reflector, and a belt built into the Patagonia Descensionist. These are all the features you should need. The front right pocket has a sleeve inside it to hold your avalanche transceiver still, and the same pocket has an elastic loop to clip your transceiver tether to.
The Arc Teryx Rush LT has fewer features, while the OR Trailbreaker trades the Recco reflector for an extra couple pockets.
We recommend these pants for all-around, human-powered backcountry skiing. With a wind- and waterproof membrane built in, they are also serviceable as a lightweight "springtime" resort pant.
The increased performance attributes of the "3-layer" construction of the Descensionist comes at a cost. These are significantly more expensive than your typical woven softshell climbing or ski pants. We like the additional protection, but can't overlook the added cost.
It was a tough task to grant a Backcountry Top Pick Award. The Descensionist and the Trailbreaker both have certain very excellent, and divergent, attributes. In the end, the lighter weight and greater protection of the Patagonia model, with little compromises associated, edges it ahead.
— Jediah Porter