Carefully consider the climate you will be skiing in: how warm or cold is it? How wet or dry? Do you ski mostly in the Canadian Rockies or the North East where temperatures are frequently in the negatives? Or are you skiing in California where temps are moderate and the sun makes frequent appearances? If you are in these colder climes you will want to buy a jacket with more insulation and wind resistance. In warmer environments you may be looking for a jacket with lots of ventilation potential like the Patagonia Untracked - Women's or a 3-in-1 type jacket so you can separate the layers and leave the insulating layer behind on warmer days.
Do you ski somewhere with a wetter maritime climate like Costal British Columbia, or do you stick to regions with dry powder and less rain like Utah or Montana? If you will be in an area with a lot of wet precipitation and warmer temperatures you may want to consider getting a jacket with higher water resistance, such as Gore-Tex. Water resistance is slightly less important in colder, dryer climates.
Hardshells vs Insulated Jackets
When choosing your ski jacket you should consider its intended use. Hardshells are lighter weight, more versatile, and more technical jackets that are typically used for high-output activities such as backcountry skiing and mountaineering. A hardshell is an outer layer that is waterproof, breathable, durable, and usually has the ability to vent. It is also typically much lighter than an average insulated ski jacket since it is not insulated whatsoever and usually has no ski-specific features. We tested 3 ski specific hardshell jackets this season that all came with features like powder skirts and goggle pockets –but no insulation. This gives you the ability to tailor your insulation underneath to the weather outside, making the jacket more versatile for different weather and conditions. Hardshell jackets can be very expensive because they tend to incorporate higher-end membrane technologies. Reference our Hardshell Buying Advice for more information on waterproof fabrics.
Insulated ski jackets are made specifically for keeping you warm while riding the lifts and going downhill. Manufacturers have put a lot of thought into how these jackets can best serve their users in this specific function. They include features like goggle pockets, pass pockets, and powder skirts. These jackets (like most of the jackets in this review) come with some type of insulation, either down or synthetic insulation, such as Primaloft, to keep you warm while sitting on the lift. Because of these features, they are heavier than a hardshell, which is acceptable since you're not carrying it around while hiking uphill.
Softshells should also be mentioned briefly in this section. They are made out of a stretchier, less waterproof material that tends to be more comfortable and significantly more breathable, but are intended for dryer days of use. Softshells are usually heavier than a hardshell. For more information on softshell jackets read our softshell jacket review.
Down vs Synthetic Insulation
This question comes down to climate and intended use again. If you're in a dryer, colder climate, down is number one for warmth. It has a much higher warmth-to-weight ratio but loses its insulating power if it gets wet. The Patagonia Primo Down Jacket - Women's use entirely down insulation, but is also uses a waterproof outer material which allows it to function even in a wet environment. Whereas the First Tracks jacket should be used with caution in wetter climates as its shell material is less water resistant than Gore-tex and leaves the down insulation vulnerable. The Arc'teryx Andessa uses a body-mapped combination of down and synthetic insulation in order to achieve high warmth and durability. If you are interested in learning more details about the benefits of down insulation, check out our down Buying Advice article.
Most ski jackets use synthetic insulation because it is slightly more versatile and less expensive than down. Synthetic insulation is a bit tougher and will keep you warm if your jacket gets wet. It is however, heavier than down insulation, though weight is not as important of a concern for a resort-specific jacket.
When skiing at a resort, you spend a majority of your time riding lifts and sitting still, not working up a sweat. However, on a cold day when you work hard while skiing, on a deep powder day for instance, then you have to sit still on a cold chair lift on the way back up, ventilation and breathability become more important. If you work up a sweat in a stifling jacket, being wet will make you chilly as soon as you are no longer moving.
It can be hard to determine the breathability of an insulated ski jacket since typically you are wearing a few layers underneath, or the jacket is lined or has an inner jacket. For these reasons it is more important to look at the ventilation possibility of the jacket, such as pit-zips, or if an inner jacket can be removed. Most of the jackets we tested in this review had some type of ventilation features, with the exception of the Spyder Radian. Jackets that allow for additional airflow during times of hard exertion will be the most comfortable during the most circumstances.
If you're buying a jacket specifically for skiing or snowboarding, you want it to have the features that will work best for that purpose. The main features we look for are pockets, hoods, RECCO technology, powder skirts, and wrist gaiters.
If you are planning to spend your day out on the ski hill, it is important to be able to stash everything you may need in your jacket. It is nice to have large interior pockets for snacks and goggles, as well as smaller pockets for keys and cell phones. If you're into listening to tunes while shredding, look for a jacket that has a media compatible pocket where your headphones can feed through the interior, like in the Flylow Billie Coat.
If you wear a helmet, make sure that your hood fits over your ski helmet! Otherwise what's the point of having a hood on your jacket at all? Being able to put up the hood when the wind kicks up keeps you far warmer than letting the cold seep in around your neck. We like the Primo Down's down lined hood.
Powderskirts are a type of interior waist strap that is meant to button tightly over the waist band of your pants and prevent snow from getting up your back or down your pants in the event of a wreck in the snow. We are huge skeptics of powderskirts. We found that most, if not all, of the powderskirts we have ever used end up riding up around our ribs and do nothing to keep the snow from going up our backs or down our pants. The most iappealing quality we find in a powderskirt in the jackets we review is when it is removable (in the Primo Down, Andessa, Billie Coat and Radiant). That being said, if you really want to stop that uncomfortable cold feeling of snow trickling down into your underpants, many manufacturers make jackets whose powderskirts are compatible with the ski pants of the same brand, like the Patagonia Untracked, allowing the jacket and pants to either zip or button together to stop the problem of powderskirts riding up. Look for that function and buy both pieces together for extra snow protection.
This handy feature — also known as sleeves with thumb holes, keeps your wrists cozy and warm when you're around town or on the ski hill. When worn under your gloves, they can also keep snow from going up your sleeves. We found that some wrist gaiters are better than others. We like the sleek nylon material used on the wrist gaiters of the First Tracks and Orage Nina as they fit under gloves more easily. Beware if they feel too tight, this could end up cutting off circulation and making your hands cold.
If you will be skiing at a big mountain, especially in the west, in-bound avalanches can still be a concern, especially if you are out there skiing right after a big storm. The RECCO avalanche rescue technology is becoming more widely used at ski resorts across the country, and therefore is becoming a more popular feature in ski apparel. RECCO is a reflector chip that is embedded in equipment or clothing and it does not need batteries or need to be turned on to function. Its sole purpose is to send out a signal that ski patrollers will be able to locate using a RECCO Detector if you are buried in an in-bounds avalanche. RECCO technology typically makes jackets more expensive, so consider carefully if this is a feature that you absolutely have to have. Although the relatively inexpensive Barnsie contains a RECCO reflector. The jackets equipped with RECCO in this review are the Patagonia Snowbelle, Untracked and Primo Down, the Barsie and the Arc'teryx Andessa and Sentinel jackets.
Fit and Comfort
If your ski jacket doesn't fit you, it can affect your comfort and warmth. If the jacket is too small for you it will feel uncomfortable and you won't be able to wear additional layers underneath. If it is too big, it will feel bulky and drafty. If you are buying your jacket online, be sure to check out the manufacturer's sizing chart and compare your own measurements to them. We found that some brands' sizing charts were on the small side (Arc'teryx) and we would recommend sizing up, while others were on the big side (Columbia).
Removable vs Non-Removable Liner Jackets
For all of the 3-in-1 jackets we tested in this review, we found that the individual pieces worked better on their own than when they were worn together. A 3-in-1 type jacket is a good value for the money and can be a versatile garment if you live in a place where the weather changes drastically from day to day. They can be very warm, or when you take the inside insulating layer out for warmer temperatures, cooler but still wind and water resistant.
We find when wearing both the layers together, generally these jackets feel bulky and more uncomfortable than the single layer ski jackets. But it is nice to get off the slopes, throw the outer shell in the car, and have a stylish, cozy, and warm jacket to wear for après ski activities, whether it is going for happy hour or running errands. Ultimately, we find 3-in-1's to be jackets of all trades, masters of none.
Though style is entirely subjective, we feel that skiing in particular is a unique situation where your choice of clothing becomes your identity. Remember, you will be wearing this jacket along with hats, helmets, and goggles, so people will no longer see your face or hair, but will recognize you primarily by the jacket you're wearing. Think carefully about how you want to represent yourself through your jacket — super steezy and colorful like the Nina, or classy, simple and understated like the Primo Down or Sentinel. Select a jacket that fits well and that comes in a color that you love.