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How to Choose the Right Ski Jacket

The 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.
Tuesday December 3, 2019
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There are so many ski and snowboard jackets on the market that it can be hard to sort through them all. To help you wade through all the choices, we reviewed the current top performers. But we understand that when researching jackets, product terminology and technology can be confusing. This article breaks down ski jackets into their parts and explains the different options available, making jacket selection easier for you.

Anatomy of a Ski Jacket


A good ski jacket is a combination of two important features: weather resistance and warmth. For something to keep you warm, it needs to keep you dry, but the good news is that water freezes and thus becomes a "dry" substance (snow), becoming dryer and dryer as it gets further below freezing. So, jackets designed for the coldest conditions might not have to deal with liquid water penetrating the jacket, whereas jackets designed for conditions around 32 degrees Fahrenheit will have to deal with liquid water protection.

The key components concerning weather protection and warmth are insulation, outer shell fabric, construction and design, and fabric coatings.

Insulation


Jackets keep us warm by capturing our existing body heat. This heat is captured in spacious, "puffy" insulation materials like goose feathers ("down") and human-made fibers ("synthetic"). Goose down is lighter than synthetic insulation per unit of warmth, and down is also more compressible, will last longer, and is thus more expensive than synthetic insulation. The major downside of down insulation is that those feathers will stick together and lose their puffy character ("loft") when they get wet. Synthetic insulation, on the other hand, will still retain its loft when wet, keeping you warm. A more detailed discussion on the pros and cons of different insulation types can be found in our Down Jacket Buying Advice.

As a general rule, more of any insulation will be warmer than less of the same kind.

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


The outer shell fabric is a jacket's first line of defense against the weather. Shell materials are classified as either "hardshell" (waterproof) or "softshell" (not waterproof). If you are going to be choosing one jacket for every day of the ski season, pick a jacket with a waterproof hardshell. If you are choosing a jacket for sunny days and spring skiing, or anticipate frigid temperatures well below freezing, a softshell jacket will protect you.

The most recognizable name in waterproof breathable membranes is Gore-Tex, which sells its fabric to jacket makers. Still, there are a handful of other competitors on the market, and many brands make and use their own version. We have found that when a manufacturer claims that their fabric is waterproof, it almost always is. However, water can sneak in through zippers and seams, where the sewing threads can become saturated and transport water to the inside of the jacket. When a company wants to use Gore-Tex in its jacket, Gore-Tex inspects the design of jacket before licensing its fabric for use, checking for waterproof zippers and fully sealed seams. As such, products with the Gore-Tex brand stamp are reliably weatherproof to the extreme.

Waterproof breathable membranes and fabrics are generally treated with a DWR to make water "bead up," and there's more on that below. You can read more about different types of weather-resistant fabrics in our Hardshell Buying Advice.

Weather Resistant Construction and Design


Besides the outer shell fabric, a jacket can be more or less weather resistant because of how it is designed and constructed. Most quality waterproof jackets will have taped seams throughout their construction that seal up this potentially compromised junction of fabric. Zippers are weak points that can let water in, and jackets can defend these weak points by covering the zippers with waterproof strips of fabric. The hood design is also important. The hood must have a high collar that reaches up to your chin or lips and pull cords that synch the hood down tight around your head or helmet. Next, long sleeves and generous cuff circumferences allow gloves to be tucked in quickly and stay there for the day. Some jackets have tight and stretchy cuffs with thumb loops that effectively seal out the weather from the sleeves.

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 fabric face and preventing "wet-out." A waterproof jacket that looks soaked will still be waterproof, but will lose its breathability. This means that all body perspiration will remain inside the jacket, making it feel wet on the inside and leading the wearer to question if water is indeed soaking through the shell.

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.

The problem with DWR is that it eventually wears off from scrubbing, scraping, and washing the jacket. Some DWRs (notably those from Patagonia and Arc'teryx) last a long time. Others wear off with little abrasion, so we always scrub our jackets in a shower test when reviewing them to see how durable the DWR finish really is. Wash-in DWRs are readily available so that you can add DWR to your jacket in the washing machine when you notice the shell fabric wetting out. Quality DWRs are expensive, and consequently, more expensive jackets tend to bead water for longer than less expensive models.

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. OutdoorGearLab tester Jed Porter in the Arc'teryx Macai in Jackson  Wyoming.
Big mountain, tiny skier. OutdoorGearLab tester 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.

A well-designed powder skirt helps the Sabre AR jacket earn a perfect score in weather resistance.
A well-designed powder skirt helps the Sabre AR jacket earn a perfect score in weather resistance.

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.

This jacket has plenty of pockets on the chest  which is a good thing  but it might take you extra time top remember where you stashed your car keys...
This jacket has plenty of pockets on the chest, which is a good thing, but it might take you extra time top remember where you stashed your car keys...

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.

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