There are approximately a bazillion ski and board jackets currently on the market. They change style from one year to the next, and the model names manufacturers use are ever in flux. 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 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: warmth and weather resistance. These are the aspects that make a jacket excel at these two important jobs.
More of any kind of 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, and suffer when wet. Synthetic insulation, manufactured from one of various man-made polymers, is less expensive, at least slightly heavier than down, loses its insulating loft over a season or two, 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.
For normal ski resort use (if you are a committed New England skier, forging out on those miserable 32f and raining days, good luck with that…), 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 decently well. Read more in depth about different types of weather-resistant fabrics in our Hardshell Buying Advice.
Weather Resistant Construction
If we can assume that, basically, all modern ski jackets offer shell fabrics that are adequately weather resistant, we have to look more closely at the construction. Look for a jacket, first of all, that offers a hood and collar closure that works for you. We prefer high collars and contoured hoods with multiple, simple-to-operate drawstring 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, go to jackets with internal, stretchy, thumb-looped cuffs. Finally, weather resistant construction takes zippers and 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
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. A good DWR improves initial appeal and keeps the shell fabric dry. 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. 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.
Styles of Ski Jackets
After the primary functional considerations are the style, fit, and comfort considerations of a jacket intended for skiing.
Modular or Single Piece?
Insulated ski jackets come in two major construction styles. Most are all one piece: lightweight lining, insulation, and shell are essentially quilted together. Some appealing styles, however, come 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, traditional construction, for lack of a better term, will be more comfortable, lighter, and more purpose-built, though the modular styles allow for better temperature regulation and more wear options. The modular jackets that we reviewed were Patagonia 3-in-1 Snow Shot and the Columbia Whirlibird Interchange.
Some users, especially those coming from hiking or climbing backgrounds, will be attracted to layering systems built around a waterproof shell. 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
Fit is very personal but very important. In the internet age, when we purchase even the most intimate of products sight-unseen, confirming fit is a difficult proposition. When possible, try your jacket on before purchase. 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 have found that the best collars are simple. In foul weather, little influences the wearer's comfort like the face/jacket interface. If this zone is bulky or rough, you will 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 plethora of jacket options on the market, consider these additional questions. Does the hood work with and/or 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, 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.
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? Options exist on the market for both dramatic or understated statements. Many skiers make light of the style of their clothing, while others take it as deathly serious. 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. If one looks good and feels good, athletic performance increases. We enjoy ourselves more when we perform well, and we are safer when we perform well. It is only half joking that we propose that the way you look can influence your likelihood of injury. Choose your clothing well!
We found the most dramatically styled jackets in our review to be the Spyder Leader and the Flylow Gear Genius, while the Patagonia Primo and the Helly Hansen Alpha 3.0 were more neutral and understated. The market is broad and diverse. Our testing represents the top of that market, and our selection attempts to represent the range of styles.
Ski Specific Features
What makes a ski jacket a ski jacket is usually the small details intended to make a day of riding at the resort more comfortable. Each model in our review offered a different combination of handy extras.
Bells and Whistles
Do the pockets do what you need them to do? You may carry sunglasses and goggles for the day. Can you stow one while you wear the other? You may be required to securely carry your ski pass in its own pocket, ready to deploy at the request of lift attendants. Does your jacket help or hinder? Most models have dedicated pass pockets for easy access. Can you mate the jacket with your ski pants to keep drafts and snow out? Can the powder skirt be removed or stowed away for around town use?
Does the jacket come equipped with an integrated and easily deployed goggle wipe? Does it have a RECCO reflector? We found that some of the jackets that had the best ski and board specific features were the Helly Hansen Alpha 3.0 and the Spyder Leader.
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.