News flash: the abominable snowman isn't real. Neither is the much sought-after do-it-all winter coat. Instead, jackets for the outdoors tend to have well-defined purposes—blocking wind, standing up to wet snow, keeping you warm, or providing ample breathability as you dash across untamed terrain in pursuit of the ultimate powder stash. This year we started with a field of more than 50 jackets. To narrow it down to our favorite seven, testers skied the backcountry in Oregon sleet, postholed while orienteering in dry, frigid northern Minnesota, and rode lifts, cross-country skied, snowshoed, bike commuted, winter camped, and clomped around town in just about every climate in between.
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol
BEST FOR: Nasty weather.
THE TEST: Testers pushed this rugged soft-and-hard-shell hybrid ($349) into the teeth of winter weather. Sleet and rain bounced off the shoulders and hood, which are cut from top-shelf waterproof Schoeller fabric. The back is made of stretchier water-resistant stuff for better freedom of movement and breathability—especially under a pack. Bigger pockets would be nice, but the helmet-compatible hard-shell hood is brimmed and has a three-point cinch system for total stormproofing.
THE VERDICT: A shell you can exert yourself in—even when the graupel is blowing sideways. 1.1 lbs
Quiksilver Over and Out
BEST FOR: Resort and sidecountry riding.
THE TEST: Far and away the most tricked-out ski jacket here, the Over and Out ($349) is purpose-built for riding the resort, with nearly every bell and whistle in the book, including mesh-backed pit zips, an earphone port, a powder skirt, pockets galore, and thumb-hole-equipped wrist gaiters. There's even a goggle wipe on a bungee cord. The reason it's here and not in resort jackets (page 40) is that it's just light and breathable enough, thanks to those pit zips and Gore's Pro Shell fabric, to keep you cool and moving quickly on shorter backcountry missions.
THE VERDICT: Well appointed and surprisingly versatile. 1.7 lbs
Adidas Terrex Advanced
BEST FOR: Ice climbing, mountaineering.
THE TEST: Cut from Gore-Tex's highly breathable new Pro membrane, the Terrex ($550) is basically a bomber uninsulated hard shell with a few nasty-weather tricks up its sleeve. At the collar, a perforated grid of tiny breathe-through holes performs as a built-in mask, allowing hot breath to escape while protecting your face from frigid winds. And then there's the merino-wool nosepiece, which you'll either love or hate, as it can get in the way when not in use.
THE VERDICT: Crinkles like an old-school hard shell but protects your face like no other. 1 lb
The North Face Regulate
BEST FOR: Skate skiing, winter running.
THE TEST: A hard 20K cross-country ski on urban trails in Minneapolis was no match for the sweat-wicking design of the aerobic Regulate ($130). More a midlayer than a shell, it has no hood and won't stand up to wet storms. Thin side panels helped our tester ditch excess heat while skating hard on the flats, and the front face blocks wind while you're tucking—vital when a gust hits you just as you overheat. Another nice touch: reflective accents raise visibility during after-work midwinter workouts.
THE VERDICT: Just enough protection to go full tilt in winter. 1 lb
Rab Strata Hoodie
BEST FOR: Frigid days, moving fast.
THE TEST: We tested the wind- and snow-resistant Strata ($225) during a blustery ten-degree snowshoe tour in Minnesota's North Woods. We typically wouldn't expect an insulating piece to breathe much, but the Strata employs new insulation from Polartec called Alpha. Developed for the U.S. Special Forces, Alpha is an airy, meshlike polyester that can be stitched or hung inside highly breathable face fabrics to create a midweight puffy that dumps excess heat and moisture when you're charging. As for fit, the Strata's cut is loose and comfortable, if a bit shapeless compared with most aerobic jackets.
THE VERDICT: Fits like a sweatshirt, performs like a champ. 15 oz
BEST FOR: Backcountry skiing.
THE TEST: The Gore Windstopper–backed soft-shell fabric is thin, breathable, and extra stretchy, making the Seraks ($269) ideal as a packable, highly water- and snow-resistant outer layer for moving fast in the mountains. Two huge vertical pockets are big enough for stuffing gloves on the way up or skins on the way down. The hood is stretchy enough to fit over a helmet but thin enough for under-helmet wear, too.
THE VERDICT: Impressive temperature regulation; behaves like a jacket that costs hundreds more. 1 lb
Next Up: The Best Resort Jackets of 2014