The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose the Best Ski Jacket

The Editors' Choice winning Arc'teryx Macai in action in the Eastern Sierra backcountry. Though a very useful in-bounds piece  it is one of the lightest products of our test  so its application in the backcountry was welcome.
Monday December 3, 2018

There are so many ski and snowboard jackets on the market that it can be hard to keep track of them all. The multitude of options doesn't make it easy to find the one that's right for you. They change in style from one year to the next, and the model names manufacturers use seem to be constantly in flux. To help you wade through all the choices, we reviewed some of the current top performers, and you can read about those in our Best In Class review.

When researching jackets, product terminology and technology can be thoroughly mystifying. There are, however some constants we can rely on. So, first of all, in dispensing advice on the decision-making process, let us explain the important variables. These first few topics can be taken as fundamental assumptions. The easy choices, if you will.

Anatomy of a Ski Jacket


A good ski jacket is a combination of two important features: weather resistance and warmth. Perhaps the more important of those two is weather resistance. For something to keep you warm, it needs to keep you dry. The key components concerning weather protection and warmth are insulation, outer shell fabric, construction and design, and fabric coatings.

Insulation


As a general rule, more of any insulation will be warmer than less of the same kind. Goose down insulation will be more expensive, lighter per unit of warmth, more durable over the long term, though its performance suffers when wet. Synthetic insulation, manufactured from one of the various human-made polymers, is less expensive, at least slightly heavier than down, and loses its insulating loft more quickly over time, but does better in wet conditions. A more detailed discussion on the pros and cons of different insulation types can be found in our Down Jacket Buying Advice.

The bulk of the insulation in the Arc Teryx Macai is down. These fluff filled tubes provide a great deal of warmth.
The bulk of the insulation in the Arc Teryx Macai is down. These fluff filled tubes provide a great deal of warmth.

Shell Fabrics


For normal ski resort use, all modern ski jacket fabrics do the job of keeping outside wind and precipitation out. Manufacturers will make lofty claims and spout impressive numbers about the waterproofness of their garment. In our experience, all fabrics on the market sewn together in effective jacket designs will keep the elements out reasonably well. The most recognizable name in waterproof breathable membranes is Gore-Tex, but there are a handful of other competitors on the market, and many brands make and use their own version. A good example of this is Omni-Tech which is Columbia Sportswear's proprietary waterproof membrane technology. Waterproof breathable membranes and fabrics are generally treated with a DWR, more on that below, to enhance the water repellency of the face fabric. You can read more about different types of weather-resistant fabrics in our Hardshell Buying Advice.

Weather Resistant Construction and Design


Under the assumption mentioned above that all modern ski jackets offer shell fabrics that are adequately weather resistant, we then have to look more closely at each jacket's construction. Most quality waterproof jackets will have taped seams throughout their construction that seal up this potentially compromised junction of fabric. Beyond the seams, another critical element is finding a hood and collar closure that works for you. We prefer high collars and contoured hoods with multiple, simple-to-operate elastic cinch cord arrangements. Next, long sleeves and generous cuff circumferences allow gloves to be tucked in quickly and stay there for the day. Bonus points; if it works for you, check out jackets with internal, stretchy, thumb-looped cuffs. Finally, weather resistant construction takes zippers, pockets, and vents into account. Jackets virtually explode with pockets and zippers, and for true weather protection each one must be either covered with a flap of fabric or constructed to be inherently waterproof.

DWR Coatings and Breathability


A Durable Water Repellant (DWR) is typically applied to the exterior of any waterproof fabric with the goal of beading water off the face fabric and preventing "wet-out." The durability of the DWR coatings varies, and water repellency is always best when the jacket is new. These coatings, though helpful, do wear off eventually. These can be enhanced somewhat by applying additional chemical washes to your jacket after a couple of seasons of use. Quality DWRs are expensive, and consequently, more expensive jackets tend to bead water for longer than less expensive models.

The surface of this jacket wets out quicker than others. While the water doesn't make it to the inside of the jacket  having a jacket wet out inhibits its breathability.
The surface of this jacket wets out quicker than others. While the water doesn't make it to the inside of the jacket, having a jacket wet out inhibits its breathability.

A good DWR improves the initial appeal and keeps the shell fabric dry. Not only does it look and feel better, but if the shell fabric remains dry, the underlying waterproof/breathable laminate can transmit water vapor from your body the way it is intended to. That is a good thing. If the shell fabric gets soaked, it cannot breathe as intended. If it cannot breathe, your vaporized body sweat condenses on the inside of the jacket. That's right; the outside is soaked, and now there is water on the inside. In the vast majority of these cases, the water on the outside is from the outside, and the water on the inside is from the inside, not water soaking through. Trust us.

The soft exterior fabric of the Helly Hansen Alpha doesn't make a strong first impression  in terms of weather protection. However  in usage and in our shower test the DWR as well as the underlying membrane  seam sealing  and construction keep the wet stuff out.
The soft exterior fabric of the Helly Hansen Alpha doesn't make a strong first impression, in terms of weather protection. However, in usage and in our shower test the DWR as well as the underlying membrane, seam sealing, and construction keep the wet stuff out.

Styles of Ski Jackets


After the primary functional considerations are the style, fit, and comfort of a jacket intended for skiing.

Modular or Single Piece?


Insulated ski jackets come in two primary construction styles. Most are a single piece: lightweight lining, insulation, and shell are essentially quilted together. Many brands, however, offer jackets in a modular construction with a separate waterproof shell and a removable insulating inner jacket. Modular 3-in-1 style jackets offer greater value and versatility. For a given insulating value, a single-piece insulated model will typically be more comfortable, lighter, and more purpose-built. The modular styles allow for better temperature regulation, versatility, and more wear options. We tested and reviewed several of each style of insulated jacket.

Shell Jackets


Some users, especially those coming from hiking or climbing backgrounds, will be attracted to layering systems that are topped off with a waterproof shell. Shell jackets on their own offer very little in the way of warmth other than protection from the elements. It is up to the user to pick and choose the insulation that they will layer underneath. For those users, look for a generous cut for adding insulation and a helmet underneath, ski specific features like pockets and other accouterments, and great waist, collar, and wrist seals. The best shells on the market attach securely to matching pants for functionality that approaches that of a one-piece suit, with none of the drawbacks of a one-piece suit.

Fit and Comfort


The fit of a jacket is very personal but very important. In the internet age, when we purchase even the most intimate of products sight-unseen, confirming fit is still a somewhat difficult proposition. Whenever possible, try your jacket on before purchase to be sure. When trying on a jacket (or decoding internet reviews and descriptions) consider the typical comfort criteria like torso and arm fit and hem length. For skiing and snowboarding, it is key to consider range of motion. A jacket must remain protective and in place through all sorts of gyrations. Longer-than-usual sleeves sewn into the jacket really thoughtfully are the first key. Consider the crucial interfaces as well. Does the collar protect, stand up, and not rub your face raw?

In our extensive testing, we've found that the best collars are simple. In foul weather, few things have a greater influence on the wearer's comfort than the face/jacket interface. If this zone is bulky or rough, you may have a miserable day. If the forward part of the collar is smooth and svelte, with adequate insulation and a pleasing texture, your face will be happy. And a happy face makes for a happy rider. Further, as you check out the variety of jacket options on the market, consider these additional questions. Does the hood work with and without a helmet? Do the cuffs work with the gloves you like to use? Do the fabrics have a pleasing texture in the right places? In the end, the fit is pretty clear right away. Try the jacket on and note your first impression. Chances are, that tells you exactly what you need to know.

Big mountain  tiny skier. Lead test editor Jed Porter in the Arc'teryx Macai in Jackson  Wyoming.
Big mountain, tiny skier. Lead test editor Jed Porter in the Arc'teryx Macai in Jackson, Wyoming.

Style


A jacket's style is also very personal. What sort of statement do you wish to make with what you wear? How will the jacket appear in photographs? Where, how, and how often do you hit the resorts? Will you wear the jacket for reasons other than skiing at the ski resort? Options exist on the market for both dramatic or understated looks. Many skiers have little concern about the style of their clothing, while others take it very seriously. Simple vanity is indeed both comical and very real. On the other hand, the way one looks is connected inherently to the way one feels, and we all like to feel good.

The style of ski jackets is incredibly diverse, and there is something to suit absolutely everyone's tastes. There are jackets that look technical, casual, and some that scream "I'm a skier/rider!". Whatever your aesthetic, there is a jacket and color to match. The jackets in our review represent a sampling of this range of different styles.

Ski Specific Features


One of the things that makes a ski jacket more suitable for the act of skiing is usually the small details intended to make a day of riding at the resort more comfortable. Each model in our review offers a different combination of handy extras.

Weather Resistance Features


There are several features on most ski jackets that help to enhance their weather resistance and your overall comfort. A powder skirt is one such feature that helps to seal up the bottom of the jacket to keep snow and wind out and warmth in. Some powder skirts are fixed to the jacket permanently, others can be removed to suit your needs or preference, and some jackets have no powder skirt at all. The majority of ski jackets have wrist cuffs that can be adjusted to open or close them with a velcro strap. This is an important feature to help seal up the sleeve opening whether you wear your gloves on the outside or the inside of your sleeves. An adjustable helmet compatible hood is also very appreciated. Like powder skirts, some hoods are permanently attached while others are removable. Either way, the best hoods are big enough to fit your head while wearing a helmet and adjustable enough to fit it if you're not.

The powder skirt on this Arc'teryx jacket is visible here. Its a layer of fabric with an embedded elastic band to stretch around your waist to seal out fresh snow (powder) from entering through the bottom of the jacket.
The powder skirt on this Arc'teryx jacket is visible here. Its a layer of fabric with an embedded elastic band to stretch around your waist to seal out fresh snow (powder) from entering through the bottom of the jacket.

Pockets


How many pockets does a jacket have, and more importantly, how functional and useful are those pockets for skiing? Are they easy to access, and do they have weatherproof zippers or storm flaps? Certain pocket layouts are better than others and ski specific pockets like a pass pocket on the sleeve or a goggle pocket on the inside of the jacket may be very useful for certain users.

Detail shot of the interior of an older jacket.  Black tabs along the powder skirt are designed to mate with loops on matching pants.
Detail shot of the interior of an older jacket. Black tabs along the powder skirt are designed to mate with loops on matching pants.

Goggle Wipe


Some jackets come equipped with an attached goggle wipe. This is a convenient feature that allows you to wipe your goggles clean whenever and wherever you are, assuming you're wearing your jacket, of course. Often these goggle wipes are attached but removable for cleaning or to suit your needs.

The sleeve pocket is great for a ski pass  plus it has an attached goggle wipe.
The sleeve pocket is great for a ski pass, plus it has an attached goggle wipe.

RECCO


The RECCO reflector is an integrated avalanche rescue system. Some, but not all, ski jackets include the RECCO reflector system. The RECCO system can potentially help ski patrol find a buried person, so long as the buried person is wearing RECCO reflectors, which are facing the surface, and the ski patrol has the expensive and bulky RECCO receivers (most ski areas with avalanche hazard do). It is worth noting that at most ski areas with avalanche hazard, ski patrol will first do a traditional avalanche transceiver search before a RECCO search.

Having a RECCO reflector does not mean that you should increase your risk margins while skiing in or out of bounds.

Conclusion


There is a lot to consider when choosing a new ski jacket. Do you want a shell, and insulated model, maybe both? There are lots of options on the market to suit everyone's needs, style, and budget. We hope the information presented here helps you make a more informed decision.


  • Share this article: