Best Overall Insulated Ski Jacket
Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft
: 2-layer stretch polyester | Pockets
Warm and waterproof
Fair price considering top performance
Snug fit isn't for everyone
The Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft barely edged out our previous favorite to become this year's Editors' Choice winner for insulated ski jackets. The Alpha LifaLoft provides plenty of warmth and weather resistance for all types of weather and takes home top honors for comfort, style, and ski features. This jacket excels in every category of our review. By using synthetic insulation and a proprietary waterproof/breathable membrane, Helly Hansen keeps the cost of this jacket comparatively low while maintaining its warmth and weather resistance. Its well-designed fit, excellent features, and svelte Scandinavian style and color options help this jacket rise above the rest of the competition.
The Alpha LifaLoft doesn't provide as much warmth as the down-insulated (and previous Editors' Choice winner) Arc'teryx Macai, nor does it protect from the elements as much as other jackets that use a Gore-Tex membrane. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. While a super warm jacket is at home only in sub-zero temps, the Helly Hansen performed well in a variety of temperatures and precipitation tests. The result is a more versatile jacket at nearly half the price. For this, the Alpha LifaLoft takes the crown.
Read review: Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft
Best Resort Shell Ski Jacket
Arc'teryx Sabre AR Jacket
N80p-X Gore-Tex | Pockets:
Burly, durable, and protective
Soft, "flannel" lining
Great freeride style
Powder skirt is not removable
Doesn't transition all that well to touring use
Shell-only ski jackets have become increasingly popular, and if you ski in a warmer climate, you might see more shell jackets on the slopes these days than insulated jackets. With the right layering system underneath, a shell jacket provides more versatility than an insulated jacket, allowing for use in a greater range of temperatures. The Arc'teryx Sabre AR is awarded the Editors' Choice for shell ski jackets because of its best-in-review weather resistance and excellent ventilation and comfort, all reasons why skiers might opt for a shell jacket instead of an insulated one. This jacket will keep you dry and sheltered from the wind, period. It brings a loose, freeride cut and style to a field otherwise dominated by traditional jacket designs.
As with any shell, keeping the user warm is the responsibility of insulating layers worn underneath. If you are looking for a jacket that will allow you to head to the slopes without any further thought, choose an insulated jacket instead. If you are intrigued by the idea of versatility and are willing to invest in a variety of layers to wear under this shell jacket, the Sabre AR is the best that money can buy. Expect to pay a lot for it, but not any more than other Gore-Tex shell jackets.
Read review: Arc'teryx Sabre Jacket
Best Bang for the Buck
Columbia Whirlibird IV Interchange
Nylon | Pockets:
Shell: 4, liner: 3
Clumsy weather protection
Style and fit
The Columbia Whirlibird IV Interchange retains its title as our overall Best Buy Award winner. As usual, Columbia brings exceptional value to the table in a versatile 3-in-1 ski jacket. Being of the modular 3-in-1 design, there is immediate value in the fact that you get two jackets (and three ways to wear them) for the price of one. This jacket provides decent weather protection and warmth at a fraction of the price of other models in the review. Otherwise, there is nothing special about this jacket, but it gets the job done with an Omni-Tech waterproof membrane, adjustable hood, powder skirt, and plenty of pockets.
Our biggest gripes with the Whirlibird IV are minor. It has a loose and boxy fit, its bulky, and its style leaves a bit to be desired. This jacket is best suited to occasional skiers; hardcore skiers will be better off looking at higher quality and higher performance options. That said, we were pleasantly surprised by the overall performance of this versatile 3-in-1 jacket system, especially for the price.
Read review: Columbia Whirlibird IV Interchange
Best Buy for a Shell Jacket
Outdoor Research Skyward II
88% Nylon 12% Spandex | Pockets:
Very breathable and huge vents
Great weather protection
Nice pocket layout
Lacks a powder skirt
Fabric wets faster than others
Our competition includes several shell-only ski jackets, and the Outdoor Research Skyward II performed as well as most of them. Testers found that it offers a similar level of weather protection and all-around performance as its more expensive competitors, and for this reason, we award it with our Best Buy Shell Jacket Award. This highly weather-resistant model is great for skiers who prefer a do-it-yourself layering system, and it wards off the harshest of weather to keep you warm and dry. This jacket also scores highly in the ventilation category, due to its highly breathable AscentShell fabric and massive side vents. The outer fabric also repels water very well.
Some caveats include a hood that is barely helmet compatible and the lack of a powder skirt for deep days in the resort. These shortcomings don't detract much from the shell, because it performs where it needs to, in weather resistance and ventilation. Other shells use high-performance Gore-Tex fabrics, which can also lead to higher price tags. Overall, this jacket is a great option for those who need a high-performance shell at a bargain price.
Read review: Outdoor Research Skyward II
Best for a 3-in-1 Jacket
The North Face ThermoBall ECO Snow Triclimate
DryVent 2-Layer | Pockets:
Shell: 6, liner: 2
Solid weather protection
Price is right
Bulky and weighty
Doesn't ventilate that well
The North Face Thermoball ECO Snow Triclimate impressed our testers and takes home our Top Pick Award for a 3-in-1 ski jacket. Across the board, this jacket performed well. It offers plenty of warmth when worn in its full configuration, plus you can adjust the way you combine its components to match the current conditions. We found it to be very weather resistant, with a 2-layer DryVent construction, an excellent adjustable hood, and a powder skirt to help keep out the elements. It also comes with some nice features like a pass pocket and an attached goggle wipe.
Our gripes with the ECO Snow Triclimate are few, but testers found it to feel a bit heavy. This feeling is a result of the 3-in-1 design, common amongst this subset of jackets. Otherwise, the jacket has a long and somewhat roomy cut, clean lines, and an easy-going style. We loved the Thermoball ECO Snow Triclimate, and it's also offered at a reasonable price.
Read review: The North Face Thermoball ECO Snow Triclimate
Top Pick Shell for Backcountry Skiing
Outdoor Research Hemispheres Jacket
70D nylon Gore-Tex | Pockets:
Top notch weather resistance
Packs down small and light
Good ventilation and breathability
Technical style not for all
Many skiers are entering the backcountry in search of untracked snow and a serene experience. Backcountry skiing outerwear must provide the same weather protection and comfort as inbounds gear, but must also provide excellent ventilation and backcountry-specific features, all at a minimal weight. The Outdoor Research Hemispheres provides the same weather resistance and more ventilation than the Editors' Choice shell jacket, at a fraction of the weight. This jacket stands up to the gnarliest winter weather and then disappears into a backpack when the weather clears up. This is precisely what we are looking for in a backcountry shell jacket.
The Hemispheres doesn't provide any insulation and lacks some features, including a powder skirt, both of which are no big deal in a backcountry shell but might leave resort skiers wanting more. Further, the style and color options of the jacket do not match up to the competition, but the bright color options make you more visible in the backcountry, and thus safer. For backcountry enthusiasts, this is a great ski shell that can also be worn on the deepest storm days at the resort, but we would recommend other shells to pure resort skiers.
Read review: Outdoor Research Hemispheres
The Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft in its element.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our test team is led by Jeff Dobronyi, an AMGA Certified Ski Guide and OutdoorGearLab Contributor. Jeff lives, skis, and guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and leads ski trips all over the world, from Colorado and Wyoming to Canada, Alaska, Europe, and South America. Logging upwards of 150 days per year on skis, Jeff gets intimate with his ski gear and puts it through the wringer. When you ski that much, you know what works and what doesn't, and he is familiar with the small details that will make or break ski equipment.
Jeff is joined by skier and author Jeremy Benson and internationally certified Mountain Guide Jed Porter. Jeremy has been a sponsored ski athlete for nearly two decades and has skied around the world from Argentina and Chamonix to his backyard playground of the Sierra Nevada. Jed's adventures take him from his home range of California's High Sierra to the Chugach of Alaska and all points between with an impressive and growing climbing and skiing resume.
To compile this review, we spent weeks researching the current jacket offerings before selecting the 13 most promising jackets for hands-on testing. Then, we spent at least a day skiing in each model, from Mammoth to Tahoe to Jackson Hole. Our on-mountain testing featured the full spectrum of weather conditions and temperatures, and we took our weather resistance testing to the controlled environment of our shower for good measure.
Related: How We Tested Ski Jackets
Analysis and Test Results
To compare our selection of ski jackets, we scored each jacket across six categories. A good ski jacket must keep us warm, keep us dry, and be very comfortable, so we weighed these categories heavily. In addition, it's nice if the jacket has good ventilation, great style, and makes our lives easier on the hill with useful features. Of course, everybody needs something different, so keep your preferences in mind as you read through the performance categories.
Related: Buying Advice for Ski Jackets
The ski jacket market reflects a huge range of prices and levels of performance. Overall, we found that price does not correlate with performance, which is great news for skiers seeking a good deal on a good jacket. On one side of the spectrum, the Best Buy Award winner Columbia Whirlibird IV is very affordable and provides good performance and durability for the occasional skier. It also performs well as a general winter jacket, and has 3-in-1 versatility for exceptional value. For a little more money, The North Face Thermoball ECO Snow Triclimate provides the same 3-in-1 value with much higher performance. The Editors' Choice Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft is very reasonably priced, compared to the second place Arc'teryx Macai, which costs nearly twice as much. The Macai justifies the high price with long-lasting down insulation and durable construction.
In the world of shell jackets, great value can be found in our Best Buy Award-winning Outdoor Research Skyward II, which uses a proprietary waterproof/breathable membrane instead of Gore-Tex. However, it performs nearly as well as the other shells in the review that cost up to twice as much. In our opinion, only the most hardcore users need the performance of the most expensive shells in the review, like the Arc'teryx Sabre AR and Norrona Lofoten. Those who splurge for a high-end shell will be rewarded with great performance and multi-year durability.
The Alpha Lifaloft scored highly in every category and is our Editors' Choice overall winner.
Skiing is a cold weather sport, and to fully enjoy it, our jackets need to keep us warm. However, skiing is also an aerobic sport, and the better we get, the more aerobic it becomes. So, a jacket that is too warm for the given weather and activity level can actually be a bummer in certain situations. Furthermore, skiers often wear layers underneath their jackets to fine-tune their warmth levels. In general, we gave higher scores to the warmer jackets, but keep in mind the average temperatures where you ski most and your usual exertion level.
To test each jacket for warmth, we wore them in the cold early winter season in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where temperatures reach into the single digits by October. Once we had an idea of how they compared, we tested each jacket on the ski slopes, windy chairlift rides, and chilly nights out on the town to refine our ratings.
Our review included jackets with down insulation, synthetic insulation, mesh and fleece insulation, and no insulation. The scores in the warmth category generally follow that order. Down provides the greatest warmth-to-weight ratio, and the Arc'teryx Macai proves this to be true with incredible warmth at no increase in weight. Synthetic insulation is usually bulkier and less insulating, but products like the Editors' Choice Helly Hansen Alpha Lifaloft and Patagonia Primo Puff show that synthetic insulation can be almost as warm as down. It also comes with the added benefit that it can get wet without losing its insulating properties.
Other jackets attempt to trap air and thus provide some warmth with hanging mesh liners (as does The North Face Balfron) or thin fleece liners (a la Arc'teryx Sabre AR) while still keeping a shell-like feeling. Most of the shell-only jackets include no insulating features, like the Flylow Lab Coat and Outdoor Research Hemispheres, which require users to think about their layering system before hitting the slopes.
The thin, brushed fleece liner of the Sabre AR's shell fabric adds a small amount of insulating power, as well as great next-to-skin feel.
Equally as important as warmth, weather resistance measures a jacket's ability to keep the wind, snow, and (gulp) rain out of our inner environment. The best ski jackets can fend off the elements of a great day of skiing while keeping our bodies warm, dry, and content. Even on the deepest powder day of your life, if the snow keeps coming up through your waist, down through your neck, or soaking through the jacket's fabric, you're gonna have a bad time.
We wore each jacket in a range of weather conditions and inspected each jacket's important features like powder skirts, well-fitting and adjustable hoods, and secure cuff closures. Waterproof garments with thick outer shells to prevent wind penetration scored highly. To make sure we covered our bases, each jacket performed the dreaded "shower test," 5 minutes in the shower, to verify the manufacturer's waterproof claims.
Arc'teryx has their waterproof fabrics and DWR dialed. After several minutes of dousing in the shower, the water still beads off the Macai like water off a duck's back.
Two jackets received perfect scores for weather resistance. They are both shell-only jackets, and they both use Gore-Tex: the Editors' Choice Arc'teryx Sabre AR, and the Norrona Lofoten. These jackets will repel all precipitation, from liquid water to snow, and block all attempts by the wind to penetrate your inner peace on cold, windy chairlift rides where your chin is tucked deep into your neck. The Macai and it's burly Gore-Tex lost a point for using down insulation, which loses its warmth when wet, which can easily happen when skiing due to external water or internal perspiration.
Weather protection comes from both materials and overall design. The hood tailoring of the Norrona is among the best in our test.
Most of the jackets reviewed use waterproof fabrics and synthetic insulation, such as The North Face Thermoball ECO Snow Triclimate and Patagonia Snowshot 3-in-1, which is a classic combination for weather-resistant ski clothing. Most jackets scored relatively well in this category as a result. Disappointingly, testers noted that the Flylow Lab Coat seemed to have a thin shell fabric that was more easily penetrated by cold, driving winds, when other shells blocked the same wind in side-by-side testing on cold chairlift rides. The Balfron features cargo chest pockets that are useless if precipitation is falling heavily.
The chest cargo pockets only closes with velcro, making them susceptible to water and snow.
Comfort and Fit
Skiing requires us to use our bodies actively, and as a result, our clothing must be comfortable and well-fitting, without feeling restrictive. The cut of a jacket, materials used in construction, and attention to details can make a jacket a joy to wear every day, or they can leave you wishing the day was shorter. However, fit varies from one person to another. Second only to style, fit and comfort are subjective. What fits one person may or may not fit the next. For this reason, pay attention to our descriptions, not just the scores. It is worth noting that primary testing was done by thin, athletic, size medium and large men.
After wearing the jackets while skiing, we noted how well the jackets moved with our bodies. Some jackets have a baggy fit, including the Arc'teryx Sabre AR and The North Face Balfron, which allow for unrestricted motion and portray a certain style, but the extra material can be uncomfortable, depending on your taste. Some jackets have a "boxy" fit which does not contour to the body's curves, and can feel loose, bulky, and uncomfortable for skinny people. The Columbia Whirlibird IV, Patagonia Snowshot 3-in-1, and Patagonia Primo Puff all felt boxy and untailored to our test team.
Our testers weren't huge fans of the boxier cuts of some of the jackets we tested, but to each their own!
The Spyder Chambers has a snug, racer-like fit, and the Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft also features a slim torso design, but we liked how these garments stayed tight to our bodies without inhibiting motion. The soft fabrics and stretchy cuff openings of the Alpha LifaLoft also contribute to this jacket's top score for Comfort.
Stretchy mesh cuff gaskets seal in your body heat and keep your arms warm, as seen here on the Helly Hansen model.
A day of skiing can be filled with drastic temperature swings. Skiers might encounter a frigid morning starting the car, a hot and stuffy experience herding the kids into ski school, cold and windy chairlift rides to the top of the mountain, aerobic downhill skiing, and a sunny and warm afternoon of slush skiing in the spring. Good ski jackets allow the wearer to adjust to their conditions, often through the use of vents and breathable fabrics.
To test ventilation, we took these jackets out for aerobic hikes in winter conditions to generate some body heat and see how the jackets allowed us to dump the heat when needed. Some jackets feature highly breathable fabrics, like the Outdoor Research Skyward II and Flylow Lab Coat, which slow the buildup of internal heat. In addition, some jackets have huge vents that allow the user to open up to the outside environment in a flash. Other jackets feature vents that are not helpful at all. Jackets with insulation hold heat in the body of the jacket, even when vents are open, thus reducing ventilation potential. Shell jackets will dump all their heat as soon as the vents are opened up.
The vents on the Skyward II are huge. You can even open the snap at the hem and basically wear it like a cape.
The Outdoor Research Hemispheres jacket features vents that can be zipped open all the way from the rib cage to the hem of the jacket. This creates huge ventilation potential. On the other hand, the pit vents on the Spyder Chambers are relatively short and have mesh covering the opening, which inhibits air movement. Jackets like this will have diminished ventilation capabilities. The Whirlibird IV has pit zips without mesh, but the vent does not continue through the inner layer (like all 3-in-1 jackets we've tested), which inhibits ventilation from the warmest chamber of the jacket.
The pit vents in the Chambers jacket from Spyder are relatively short and mesh-lined, so they don't ventilate as well as other options.
Skiing is an aesthetic sport. The better we look, the better it feels, and the more fun we have. A good ski jacket has great style while retaining its performance. Style is the most subjective characteristic of a ski jacket, and our ratings in this category might be completely different than how you would rank them, depending on your style. Also, you might weigh style more heavily than we do, and many people rank style as the most important characteristic of their ski jacket.
Ski jacket styles range from baggy, "core" styling that evokes the ski bum lifestyle (and also expert abilities), to tight-fitting alpine racer looks that would feel at home on the podium of the World Cup. Some jackets are neutral in their styling, which can look good, if well-tailored, and can look bad if left uncontoured. We took our jackets to the slopes and asked around for opinions, as well as around town for aprés in the ski bars of Jackson, Wyoming. We also take into account the jacket's color options.
Top marks for style went to the Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft. It's svelte, Euro styling still hints at a core look, implying that the wearer is here to ski hard and look good. The Arc'teryx Macai is more neutral, yet classy, and took a close second place, but the color options are much more muted and earthy. The Flylow Lab Coat and Arc'teryx Sabre AR fall on the "core" side of the spectrum, which we like, but you might not. On the other hand, the Columbia Whirlibird IV is styled to fit in with the crowd on the gentler slopes, and seems more at home in a high school hallway than the haute montagne.
The style of the Whirlibird suffers from a wide and untailored cut, along with obvious fabric flaps.
Good ski jackets incorporate features that make your day on the slopes easier. We're talking about big pockets that hold lots of snacks, extra gloves, a facemask, trail maps, tissues, etc. Ski-specific features aren't as important as our other metrics, but they can augment a jacket that is already good.
Most ski resorts use full-body electronic ticket scanners, so a ski pass pocket on the sleeve allows you to wave your arm at the scanner and prevent any delays. Well-fitting hoods are a must for stormy days, and powder skirts can help keep the snow out as well. We like jackets that include a RECCO reflector, which can aid in rescue in the case of an in-bounds avalanche.
The most heavily featured jacket in our review is the Helly Hansen Alpha LifaLoft, which boasts seven pockets, RECCO, a high visibility hood brim that folds away, powder skirt, removable hood, and a back vent. The Patagonia Primo Puff is also well-featured, and includes a powder skirt that integrates with Patagonia pants via a button and loop system. The 3-in-1 jackets also score highly for features, because you'll take home two separate jackets with all the individual features of each, plus the ability to integrate the layers seamlessly. Many of the shell jackets in the review are light on features, like the Norrona Lofoten and Outdoor Research Hemispheres.
Protection for Your Bottom Half
A solid ski jacket should be complemented by excellent ski pants. The Best-in-Class Arc'teryx Sabre AR Pants or the more affordable North Face Freedom Insulated Pants are some of our top recommendations. The lower body has different requirements than the upper body, and our comparison of ski pants reflects this. For example, ski pants must be absolutely weather resistant, but our legs need less heat to stay warm, so we weigh warmth and weather resistance slightly differently.
Related: The Best Ski Pants
Whatever you need from a ski jacket, we have something in this review for everyone. With all of the options available, we know it can be hard to choose, which is why we strive to create the best side-by-side gear comparisons on the planet. So take a deep breath, and remember, gear shopping is supposed to be fun! We'll see you out on the slopes.
On-snow testing at Sugar Bowl ski resort.