The Best Backcountry Ski Jackets (Shells)

Ski jackets come in roughly two types – those with insulation, and those without. Uninsulated jackets are shells, like a raincoat, but usually come with features that make them more suitable for winter, like cuffs that can fit over bulky gloves or small forearm pockets to store a ski pass. Insulated jackets can range from totally waterproof down puffies for the coldest days to coats outfitted with a thin skein of synthetic insulation meant to fortify a layering system. Of course there are hybrids that have both. They also range in type from lightweight and pared down, to those with a ton of bells and whistles, like tethered goggle wipes and oodles of pockets.

We tend to favor the more functional, lightweight models than those with lots of fancy features, but there are a few exceptions. We looked at about 50 different models from roughly 30 companies in order to narrow it down to the five best in the insulated and shell categories. A test crew of three guys – two sized mediums and a large – skied dozens of days at Jackson Hole Mountain resort, in the backcountry in the Tetons, and at resorts in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Japan. Conditions ranged from well below zero, to dumping snow, to blistering winds, and finally, in spring, some sweet sunny corn-skiing days. In other words, a few ski-season’s worth of conditions.

Review Year
Best in Class
Overall Rating
Price
Name Overall Rating Ratings The Good The Bad Price
Helly Hansen Elevation Shell Jacket
96
Best in Class
2015
Durability 10
Weatherproofness 9
Bells & Whistles 10
Function 9
Breathability 8

Bombproof

Innovative ventilation system

RECCO equiped

Stiff fabric

Kind of heavy

Expensive

MSRP
$650.00
BEST DEAL
The North Face FuseForm Brigandine 3L Jacket
95
Durability 10
Weatherproofness 10
Breathability 6
Bells & Whistles 9
Function 10

Stretchy

Bombproof

Great pocket placements

Heavy

Expensive

Small pit zips

MSRP
$499.00
BEST DEAL
Outdoor Research Skyward
93
Durability 8
Weatherproofness 9
Bells & Whistles 8
Function 9
Breathability 9

Stretchy durable fabric

Pit zips go clear to hem

Large mesh interior pockets

Main zipper too light

Pit zip management

MSRP
$350.00
BEST DEAL
Strafe Cham2 Jacket
92
Durability 8
Weatherproofness 9
Bells & Whistles 7
Function 10
Breathability 8

Stretchy

Light

Great athletic fit

Low on bells/whistles

MSRP
$465.00
BEST DEAL
Black Diamond Mission
90
Durability 8
Weatherproofness 10
Bells & Whistles 6
Breathability 7
Function 9

Giant wrist cuffs

Quieter face fabric

Lots of pockets

Expensive

Hood too big

MSRP
$599.00
BEST DEAL
Mountain Hardwear Hellgate
90
Durability 8
Weatherproofness 10
Breathability 6
Bells & Whistles 7
Function 9

Chest/bicep vents

Good pocket placement

Soft face fabric

Fewer features than some jackets in the test

MSRP
$450.00
BEST DEAL
N/A
Obermeyer Capitol Shell
88
Durability 8
Weatherproofness 9
Breathability 6
Bells & Whistles 7
Function 8

Stretchy

Breathable

Warm

A bit heavy

Stiff fabric

MSRP
$399.00
BEST DEAL
Eddie Bauer Telemetry Freeride Jacket
83
Durability 5
Weatherproofness 5
Breathability 6
Bells & Whistles 9
Function 8

Good value

Huge chest vents

Lots of bells and whistles

Heavy

Not very weatherproof

MSRP
$299.00
BEST DEAL

by: Last Updated:

Review Results

Durability

Durability is more important for a ski jacket than a three-season shell – you are continually scraping up against trees, chairlifts, and shouldering skis to huff it from the parking lot to the chairlift on a powder day. Backcountry users also drag their jackets in and out of backpacks continually to thermo regulate between uphill travel and downhill skiing. In this test, the Helly Hansen Elevation Shell won by a mile –the shell is made of the burliest stuff we’ve seen this side of a Carhartt canvas coat. Their zippers were also industrial-strength. Props also go to the Outdoor Research Skyward and to the Strafe Cham, which are cut from stretchy material. That stretch increases durability because the fabric will give a bit when it’s under duress, helping it avoid tears. We were a little less impressed with the Skyward’s smaller gauge (and therefore lighter) center zip. While the Columbia down puffy is the least durable in the test due to its lighter fabrics, it shouldn’t really be penalized as down jackets require a lighter fabric so as not to compress the insulating loft the feathers provide.

Weatherproofness

All of the coats in the test are cut from waterproof fabric and have taped seams to keep snow and rain out in all but hours-long downpours. They all also have large hoods that can cover a helmet, and tall collars to hide behind if the wind starts pushing snow into your face (or you wipe out). With lots of pockets or vents comes vulnerability – the more holes you cut in a coat, the more potential for leakage. With that in mind we liked the Strafe Cham and Helly Elevation as they keep pockets to a minimum. Best in the test in weatherproofing though, is the Dynafit Meteorite, which eschews pit-zips altogether. Bonus props to the Meteorite, too, for using synthetic insulation, which will keep the wearer warm even if the coat does get soaked.

Breathability

Breathability comes down to the fabric and the venting. All of the coats used waterproof-breathable fabric, so they are even on that score, though insulated coats are naturally a bit less breathable as there is just more coat for the vapor to travel through. The clear winner here is the Outdoor Research Skyward shell, which has pit-zips that extend all the way to the coat’s hem. A close second is the Helly Hansen Elevation, which uses a quartet of down pillows on the inside of the coat to keep the fabric away from the wearer, creating better circulation, especially when the chest vents are open. The Dynafit Meteorite doesn’t have vents (other than the main front  zipper), hence lower marks, though in fairness, it was a choice they made to reduce weight knowing that backcountry users would likely just remove the coat and stash it in their pack if they start getting sweaty.

Bells & Whistles

Ski coats are known for their niceties, stemming from the luxury history of the sport. Those can include things like small cloths tethered into the jacket to help people wipe off their goggles, or key clips, or even specially insulated pockets to help keep smartphones battery life up. In this test, the Helly Hansen Elevation Shell had the most extra features, starting with the H2Flow system. Those chest vents really do the trick to cool off the skier when things get warm, especially in concert with the down pillows on the torso. It also sports cozy elastic wrist gaiters. We also liked the very bright orange fabric on the brim of the hood, which can help you keep track of your buddies in a whiteout.

Function

This criteria means: does it work as it is intended to, and are those intentions on the mark? That can vary in a category like ski jackets, which exhibits a wide variety of types — from light, stretchy soft shells for mild sunny spring days, to insulated parkas for the coldest, most blustery days on slow chairlifts. We liked the pure function of the Strafe Cham, which keeps it simple, light and breathable, yet is plenty durable. We also liked the pure warmth and weatherproofing mission of the Columbia OutDry Ex Diamond Down Insulated Jacket.

Review Conclusion

As noted above, ski coats come in a very wide variety of intended usages, from riding lifts to skinning big peaks. They also come in a wide variety of intended temperature ranges, and even take fashion into consideration (we didn’t really consider the latter). Materials continue to evolve toward the lighter and more breathable and stretchier, but for skiing you are still going to need fairly sturdy coats, either shells, or insulated. One big trend is that ski jackets are getting longer. It’s not just fashion – people recognize that a longer coat keeps you drier. Hoods have gotten bigger, too, to accommodate helmets. Those trends are here to stay.

For sheer versatility, pick a shell. It’s easier to layer under a shell to match almost any temperature range. We liked the Helly Hansen Elevation shell for its bombproof materials and interesting features. That said, for skiing the backcountry we always have a puffy coat in the quiver. Wear a water-resistant soft shell for the uphill to keep perspiration down. Then on top slap on a waterproof puffy like the Columbia OutDry Ex Diamond Down Insulated Jacket or the Dynafit Meteorite. You’ll be toasty for the conditions on the summit as you pull your skins (and maybe have to wait for your buddy to catch up). It’s even nice to have the warmth on the ski down. Also, in case anything goes wrong and you need to spend some time in the cold getting rescued, you’ll be glad for the extra thick layer.

Test Methods

Durability

With 50 coats to test, it’s impossible to put a season’s worth of abuse on a coat. Instead, we base durability on the types of materials the coats are built from. Thicker fabrics are inevitably more durable. Fewer pockets tend to make a coat more durable as there are fewer zippers to malfunction, and fewer stitches to come unraveled. On the other hand, durability is a tradeoff if the primary consideration for a coat is lightness. Most ski coats won’t make that trade too large.

Weatherproofness

To be truly waterproof, a coat must have taped seams. Even a waterproof fabric (via the membrane or a DWR treatment), must have taped seams or it is considered merely weatherproof. Sometimes companies make that trade-off to improve breathability in a coat. Sure, we run the coats under a shower, but who the hell wants to go skiing in the rain on purpose? Nevertheless, it happens. Other considerations are the length of the hems – longer is generally drier – and length of the sleeves. A coat with short sleeves will incur moisture in the cuffs. Tall collars help keep out blowing weather, and prevent snow from tumbling down the neck in a wipeout. Bottom line is the better the coverage on a coat, the more weather (or crash) proof.

Breathability

We like to ski hard – we’re in Jackson Hole after all. Building up perspiration from exercise is usually enough of a test for breathability. Waterproof/breathable fabrics are important, particularly in a shell. But the types and sizes of venting – whether pit-zips, chest vents, or mesh lined pockets – matters just about as much.

Bells & Whistles

This test is somewhat more subjective. The more unique features a coat has, the higher the score here. A zip-off powder skirt would get higher marks than simply a powder skirt. Elastic wrist cuffs are a nice feature (and can simply be lopped off with scissors if the wearer doesn’t like them). We consider pockets above and beyond four to be a bell-and-whistle. For example, pockets on the forearm to hold a ski pass or lip balm. Of course, some companies deliberately cut down on extra features in order to save weight.

Function

This is another fairly subjective category. Essentially we look and see how well the coat does what it is intended to do. If it is meant to be a lightweight shell, how light is it? If it is meant to be a weatherproof puffy, how weatherproof is it, and also warm and light? Also, do they get the details right? Are the cuffs designed so they fit over a pair of gloves, but also trim enough to slip underneath a gauntlet-style mitten? If the hood isn’t big enough for a helmet, can you zip it off? Do the zippers work without getting snagged? Lastly, does it fit most people well? Is it roomy enough, or stretchy enough, for the dynamic movements people make when skiing? Subjective though it may be, after wearing a bunch of different jackets it’s pretty obvious which ones make the mark.

Ski jackets are made with skiing and snowboarding in mind. You could certainly use a raincoat or a three-season parka on the slopes, but it may lack the details that make these jackets winter-specific and ski-specific. Those details include longer hems and higher collars and powder skirts to keep the billowing snow out. They include cuffs and zipper pulls that work well with bulky gloves and mittens. Ski jackets often have more pockets to keep stuff organized, especially for those skiing in bounds and don’t want to wear a pack. Stretchy fabrics are a boon to skiwear because they tend to give a little, which means they are more durable, whether scraping against a metal chairlift bar, a tree branch or being crushed beneath a pair of shouldered skis. The downside is that stretchy fabric can be a bit heavier, and is usually more expensive. In general, when shopping for ski jackets, look for models that use thicker fabrics, because ski jackets take a lot of day-in, day-out abuse.

Ski jackets range from $200 on up past $1,000. Coats less than $300 are usually inadequate, however. Be suspicious of coats costing over $1,000,  it’s usually overkill or simply a designer luxury brand. If you are buying a coat that costs $700 and up, it had better be exceptionally made. That detail will usually show up in the fit. More expensive coats often fit better because the manufacturers spend more time dialing it in, and/or hire more talented workers.