Your ski or snowboard jacket selection is an important choice. Having a jacket protect you from the elements and help you appropriately moderate your body temperature will allow you stay out slaying pow longer. Your ski apparel also becomes your identity when on the slopes. Under a helmet, goggles, and thick layers, your friends will spot you based on your jacket style and color, so the look of your jacket is not insignificant. To help you choose the best product from a slew of pricey options, we have broken down the purchasing decision to five simple steps. Work your way through these five choices and then read our detailed reviews to match up with the best ski jacket for your purposes.
1. Identify Skiing Style and Ideal Jacket Type
The first step when choosing a jacket for skiing is to determine what kind of jacket you need. Different styles of skiing and different climates demand different types of layers. So what type of skier are you? If you love skinning and sweating up to mountain summits and then skiing down peaceful backcountry runs, you are going to want a hard shell jacket and not an insulated jacket. If you charge hard at your local ski resort you are probably going to want some insulation to keep you warm on all the windy lift rides. Also consider where you ski most often. If you live in Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana where you may often be skiing in negative temperatures, a more thickly insulated jacket is in order. If you ski in California or somewhere that is more often warm and sunny even in winter, perhaps a lightly insulated jacket will be the most versatile piece for you. We have divided our ski jacket reviews into three categories based on style and intended use.
Backcountry Ski Jackets (Shells)
A jacket designed for backcountry skiing is essentially just a waterproof/breathable hard shell jacket, but with additional features tailored towards skiing. Since skiing in the backcountry involves a long approach that raises your heart rate and gets your blood pumping, most people will not want an insulated shell. Backcountry skiers frequently will bring a shell to protect from wind and storms plus an additional insulated jacket for eating lunch on a windy ridge. It is much more versatile to be able to wear these two layers separately rather than have them merged into a single layer. Sometimes lift skiers prefer shells to insulated versions because it is the most versatile outer layer and allows them to wear insulation appropriate to the temperature and weather underneath this waterproof layer. What differentiates a ski shell from a regular hard shell is the details: ski shells usually have lots of ventilation options, large pockets for stashing goggles, skins, and gloves, and hoods large enough to accommodate a ski helmet. The award winning Helly Hansen Elevation Shell has ski-specific extras such as a powder skirt, pass pocket specifically for keeping an RFID ticket, and stretchy wrist gaiters to keep your wrists warm underneath your gloves. Read our reviews to learn more about our favorite ski shell and to find the perfect shell for your backcountry adventures.
Lightly Insulated Ski Jacket
A lightly insulated ski jacket is perfect for lift skiing, and could cross-over to some backcountry or side-country use in cold climates. With a protective shell exterior and a thin layer of insulation, this configuration allows for versatility. On colder days you can add extra layers underneath, and on warmer days leave the layers behind. This allows you to modify your outfit dependent on the weather. Lightly insulated jackets will also be thinner and lighter than heavily insulated models, feeling more mobile. Read through our reviews of the lightly insulated options to find the perfect fit for skiing in variable climates and weather.
Heavily Insulated Ski Jacket
If you love lift skiing and you live in a cold climate, the heavily insulated ski jacket will be the most comfortable. These jackets will have waterproof exteriors and thick and warm interiors. This combination is designed to keep you toasty even when sitting still on wind-exposed lifts for most of the day. Though a heavily insulated jacket is less versatile than lightly insulated jackets, a thickly insulated jacket leaves the guesswork of layering out of the equation, and lets you just grab your jacket and go. Check out our detailed reviews to find the warmest and burliest ski jackets available.
2. Select Shell Material and Insulation
Look closely at what makes up the inside and outside of ski jackets. Keep in mind the climate where you spend most of your ski days and the types of weather that you prefer to go out in, which will affect your choice of shell material as well as insulation type.
Hard shell material is made with waterproof/breathable technology that keeps water from penetrating the jacket from the outside, and also lets moisture escape from the inside. This is the material that will be found on backcountry ski shells and is also the type of material most often used on the exterior of insulated ski jackets. For example, the award winning Arc’teryx Fissile features three-layer Gore-Tex over 750-fill down insulation. Especially if your ski jacket has down insulation, which is vulnerable to moisture, a hard shell exterior is required. If you like storm skiing and aren’t kept inside by a little falling snow, you will want a jacket with a waterproof hard shell exterior.
Most ski and snowboard jackets are going to be designed with fully waterproof hard shell materials. Occasionally some are designed with water resistant soft shell materials, such as the Patagonia Rubicon Windstopper Jacket. This model combines synthetic insulation and a windproof soft shell exterior. A soft shell jacket will be softer, stretchier, and more breathable, however it will not keep you dry in a sloppy snowstorm. If you only like to ski in bluebird weather, a jacket with a soft shell exterior would work just fine and in fact may be more comfortable.
Insulated ski and snowboard jackets come with two types of insulation. Jackets with down insulation will be lighter weight for the warmth provided, which is arguably more comfortable. Down insulation loses its loft and insulating properties when it gets wet, so any jacket for skiing that has down inside needs to have an immaculate hard shell exterior to protect the down and keep the jacket warm all day. Many of the higher-end ski and snowboard jackets come with down insulation, such as the Mountainforce Park Down Jacket.
Synthetic insulation, though with a heavier warmth-to-weight ratio than down insulation, has the advantage of retaining its shape and therefore its insulating properties even when wet. This makes it a wise choice for a jacket that is likely to get wet in winter weather. Our award winning Dynafit Meteorite features synthetic Primaloft insulation which keeps it warm and weatherproof in all situations.
Companies are getting more creative when it comes to insulating jackets. In order to maximize both the lightweight insulating potential of down and the water resistant properties of synthetic insulation, many products now feature a combination of both fill types. For example, the lightly insulated Arc’terx Macai features 750-fill down throughout the jacket and has a thin layer of synthetic insulation surrounding the feathers to keep them from getting damp. Other manufacturers will use mostly down insulation but place synthetic insulation in strategic places such as at the hem, sleeve cuffs, or under the arms.
3. Choose the Style and Fit You Prefer
Now that you know what type of jacket that you want, the appropriate shell material, and ideal insulation, choose how you want your jacket to fit and look while you are wearing it. Skiing and snowboarding are very style-centric sports, and there are definite trends in snow wear. Keep in mind that the color and look of your jacket will be the primary way that your friends pick you out from the masses on the slopes.
The style favored by snowboarder and freestyle skiers trends towards loose and baggy. This gives you more room to move around inside your clothes and allows for plenty of layers underneath your outer jacket. It also looks a little more hip, if you are into that.
This type of fit will hug your body and be a little more aerodynamic. It will be more difficult to fit more layers underneath a close fitting jacket, making it slightly less versatile.
3-in-1 Modular Jackets
Another common type of ski jacket that is worth mentioning is the 3-in-1 jacket. These jackets feature a shell with a removable insulating liner. This insulation can be down, synthetic, or fleece. The interior layer can be worn on its own as a light jacket for around town and the shell can be worn on its own for warmer ski days or for days in the backcountry when you plan to sweat and only want a shell. Then the two layers can be combined for a waterproof and warm jacket for cold days on the lifts. This type of jacket can be inexpensive and also be the most versatile of all ski jackets, but usually comes with compromises in quality for both the shell and insulation layers.
4. Consider Features
Next, consider the ski features available and decide which ones are the most important to you. Some features, like a hood that fits a helmet, are fairly universal to ski and snowboard jackets. Others, like a RECCO reflector, will only be found in jackets made by certain manufacturers. Look for a design that has the features most important to you, and more importantly, features that fit with your other gear, like your helmet, gloves, and pants.
While all ski jackets have hoods large enough to accommodate a helmet, not all hoods are built the same. Some will be roomier than others, and some will be easy to adjust while wearing gloves while others won’t. It is important to be able to tighten your hood onto your helmet if it blowing snow. Look to see if the hood can be adjusted two ways: around the face opening and the circumference of the overall hood. Usually the more adjustments the hood offers, the better you can get it to fit your specific helmet.
To address the jacket/pants interface, most ski jackets have a powder skirt. This is a stretchy section of fabric that can be buttoned snugly around the waist to prevent your jacket from riding up if you fall and prevent cold snow from getting up inside the jacket. Sometimes these skirts fit better than others. Sometimes they can attach to ski pants designed to go with certain jackets, making a seamless, protective connection. Some powder skirts are removable.
Wrist Gaiters and Cuffs
To address the jacket/glove interface and prevent cold air and snow from seeping into sleeves, ski jackets use two tactics: wrist gaiters and adjustable sleeve cuffs.
Many ski jackets will have stretchy, soft wrist gaiters with thumb loops that can be worn underneath your gloves or just keep you hands warmer while walking around without gloves. At the very least, these add comfort.
Also take note of the cuff adjustments. You will want your cuffs to either tighten and fit into your gloves (if you wear gloves with long gauntlets) or you will want the cuffs to be wide enough to cinch over top of your glove cuff (if you prefer shorter gloves). Make sure that your jacket will work with your specific handwear.
Since skiing involves time spent sitting still in cold weather alternated with short bursts of intense activity, over the course of a single day a skier will experience a wide range of temperatures. A jacket has to adjust for this. The best solution is ventilation. Most ski jackets will have pit-zips that can be opened to let in some fresh air when you are working up a sweat, and then can be zipped shut when the snow flurries start and you want to keep all of your warmth inside. Sometimes these pit-zips can reach from under the arm all the way down to the hem. Other times they will be short and small. Some will be open to the interior, which provides the best air-flow. Others will be mesh-lined to keep snow from getting in your jacket, but which also makes it harder for fresh air to get in. Consider which style you are more likely to prefer.
Ski jackets often have many pockets, and really, you can’t have too many. When you head out for a day at the resort you usually need to carry a multitude of things with you, and you will not want to carry a backpack, which means pockets need to contain it all: phone, headphones, wallet, snacks, chapstick, keys, sunscreen, ski pass, goggles, sunglasses. Look for jackets with lots of pockets and ones that are large enough to tuck goggles and neck gaiters into when you aren’t wearing them. Many ski and snowboard jackets will have pass pockets, handy small pouches on the sleeves that put your RFID pass in a convenient place to be scanned.
MP3 Pocket and Headphone Channel
While on the subject of specialized pockets, some jackets will have a specific pocket to tuck your phone for music-player into with a channel designed to thread your headphones through. This keeps your phone or device warm and protected from the cold and wet, but lets you comfortably listen to your pump-up playlist.
All waterproof shells come with a “Durable Water Resistant” coating that protects the outer layer. This is what makes water bead up on the outside of your jacket. Each manufacturer has their own version of this coating. Some are better than others, but not with enough difference to affect a purchasing decision. This coating inevitably will wear off with frequent use. If you notice your jacket looks like it is starting to wet out, you can purchase a special tech wash or spray to reapply the DWR at home and extend the life of your waterproof ski wear.
The RECCO system is a safety feature employed by many ski resorts. It allows mountain employees to search for people that may have been caught in an avalanche or lost on the slopes. The system detects small reflectors that can be built into clothing. These reflectors usually increase the cost of apparel. Having this reflector in your clothing is a small added safety feature, but shouldn’t be thought of as foolproof. Using a RECCO system is time consuming, and may not be fast enough to save a person with limited airtime underneath a pile of snow. It should be noted that a RECCO reflector is in no way a substitution for wearing an avalanche transceiver, which is a much more reliable way of locating a person buried by a slide, and many resorts encourage the wearing of transceivers even after they have done avalanche control work.
Goggle Wipes and Other Extras
Lastly, many ski jackets include all sorts of bells-and-whistles to make your life easier and more comfortable. Some, like the Obermeyer Oxnard, include extras like key-clips and tethered goggles wipes inside the pockets to keep you fog-free and seeing clearly. These features are just a bonus in an already well-made jacket, and won’t elevate a poorly designed jacket in our scores.
5. Consider Price
The price of ski jackets varies widely. If you select a jacket with top-of-the-line shell materials such as Gore-Tex, plus high quality down insulation, you are looking at a jacket ranging between $600-$800, which is not insignificant. If you are on a budget, look for jackets with synthetic insulation—which tends to cost less—and shell materials that are proprietary to the manufacturer and not the Gore-Tex or eVent name brand. A quality ski jacket should last you for multiple seasons, so think of your purchase as an investment. If you find a product that meets your needs exactly and fits you well, don’t be afraid to go for it, it will make your ski days more enjoyable. Read our reviews carefully and choose a jacket that will meet all of your needs and be versatile enough for different weather conditions.