Q:

Is a soft shell adequate as ski outerwear?

I often ski in both the east, mostly Vermont, and the west at mountains in Colorado, Utah, and sometimes California. I've heard a soft shell, specifically Mountain Hardwear's Alchemy, is perfect for out west where it's fairly warm and wind is the only real concern. I was wondering if it would also work in the east where it can get much colder, wetter, and windier. If not, would a simple waterproof shell worn over it be enough? Brett Westchester, New York

Nov 3, 2004
Outside
Outside Magazine

Drizzle Anorak

A: Well, it's all relative. It can get wicked cold in the west—easily as cold as the minus-ten-degree temps you see at a place such as Whiteface Mountain. But I agree it's probably drier in Colorado and Utah—there the pattern tends to be big snowfall, then clear weather, big snowfall, clear weather... you get the picture.

So it's difficult to say one piece or another is the ideal solution. Certainly, Mountain Hardwear's Alchemy ($240; www.mountainhardwear.com) would be great for particular weather conditions. Made with Gore WindStopper, it's a light, breathable piece with a light fleece lining for some warmth. But I'm not sure how good a ski piece it would be. For one thing, it's fairly trimly cut, so you couldn't wear much under it beyond some heavy long underwear. And it lacks a hood, which may be a factor if the weather turns sour. Certainly it would be great on a dry day in the 20s, but in cold or nasty weather you might not be that happy.
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I tend to prefer a good all-purpose shell, under which I can add or remove layers to suit the conditions. For years I've been wearing an old Patagonia anorak—the thing isn't even made anymore—with Patagonia's H2No coating. It's just great; I've never gotten wet in the thing even in heavy snow, and I can adjust the layers for anything from minus five to a sunny day of spring skiing.

Now Old Faithful is getting a little threadbare, though, so last winter I was also wearing a Cloudveil waterproof-breathable shell. That item is also no longer made, but Cloudveil replaced it with the Drizzle Jacket ($200; www.cloudveil.com). Really, it would be just as good as a soft shell in drier, warmer conditions, but when the weather gets cold and nasty it has the flexibility to adapt, with a hood and a cut that's amenable to layering up. An even better alternative might be the Drizzle Anorak ($170), as I think an anorak style is especially well-suited to skiing.

There are other alternatives in that arena. Mountain Hardwear's new Groove Jacket ($260) is designed with skiing in mind. There's also Patagonia's Powderkeg ($299; www.patagonia.com), which is a very traditional sort of all-mountain shell. Either would work very well for you.

For more frontrunners in the jacket and soft-shell game, check out Outside's 2004 Buyer's Guide.

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