Ask five people what they wear when they ski at a resort and you’ll get all kinds of responses: insulated parka, classic hard shell, lightweight soft shell. There are no wrong answers, as what you wear depends on how and where you ride. With that in mind, we skied in some 50 jackets, everywhere from frigid Wyoming to sunny and dry Colorado to wet and warm Japan. Here are our favorites.
The North Face Fuse Brigandine
GEAR OF THE YEAR
This burly freeride parka takes its name from medieval battle armor. It lives up to the billing, thanks to North Face’s new FuseForm construction method, which weaves varying durability zones into a single piece of fabric that’s folded and stitched into a jacket. It’s tough where it needs to be and minimalist where it doesn’t. The technique requires less seam tape, making the garment both lighter and more breathable than other hard shells with lots of features (powder skirt, helmet-compatible hood, media pocket). Off the rack it feels a little crinkly, but it breaks in brilliantly after just a few days. 2.2 lbs; $499, thenorthface.com
BEST FOR: Supreme function and fit.
THE TEST: A top-shelf Gore-Tex hard shell stuffed with high-loft synthetic insulation, the Stikine ($775) is as warm and waterproof as jackets that weigh nearly twice as much. (Of course, that ultralight performance—and perfectly tailored Arc’teryx fit—come at a premium price.) Testers loved the Stikine’s consistent coverage, without any cold spots, achieved by bonding the insulation directly to the shell fabric. The jacket is also optimized for resort turns, with a sleek powder skirt and huge mesh-backed chest pockets that double as vents, thanks to ingenious internal straps that hold them wide open.
THE VERDICT: “It creates a new paradigm for ski apparel systems,” said one tester. 1.1 lbs.
Columbia Parallel Grid
BEST FOR: Not freezing your cojones off.
THE TEST: Packed with synthetic insulation and tricked out with Columbia’s Omni Heat Reflective system, which uses metal microdots (think space blanket) on the lining to reflect warmth back at the user, the Parallel Grid ($250) is engineered to keep you from rushing to the midmountain café for a $4 hot cocoa after every run. The tough exterior shook off more than a few tester scrapes with Hokkaido’s scraggly birches, and the resort-ready extras—powder skirt and cuffs, removable hood, lots of pockets—upped comfort and convenience on long powder days. It all adds up to a heavier jacket but, surprisingly, not a heftier price.
THE VERDICT: “A solid ski coat at any price, and exceptional at this one,” said one tester.
BEST FOR: Spring skiing.
THE TEST: Milder weather usually brings out the breathable and comfy soft shells. Problem is, if weather rolls in you get chased off the mountain, cold and wet. Enter the Pumphouse ($475). It’s fully waterproof, thanks to a NeoShell membrane sandwiched between the face fabric and a thick, warm, fleecy liner. It’s not as breathable as a more air-permeable soft shell, but it’s weatherproof enough to provide protection all season long at sunnier, drier resorts. A high collar and oversize hood provided refuge from 60-mile-per-hour gusts on a cold day skiing at Jackson. Note: while the fabric is stretchy, the cut is trim, so check the fit if you’re barrel-chested.
THE VERDICT: A soft shell that can do it all. 2 lbs.
BEST FOR: Keeping it simple.
THE TEST: Constructed from a cost-saving two-layer fabric and backed by a hanging liner, the waterproof-breathable Bootpack ($275) vents well enough that Marmot dispensed with pit zips to save weight and bulk (and expense). We didn’t miss them—most of the time. It’s not nearly as breathable as the Flylow but costs $200 less, and as long as you’re not constantly redlining, the Bootpack does keep things cool. And when it starts nuking, you can batten down the hatches and stay dry, thanks to a four-point, helmet-compatible hood adjustment (three points is the norm). Microfleece-lined internal and front pockets are a nice touch.
THE VERDICT: A classic and versatile design that frees up some bucks for a lift ticket or two.
Helly Hansen Mission Stoke
BEST FOR: Early adopters.
THE TEST: The lightly insulated, waterproof-breathable Mission Stoke ($325) promises a nifty solution to keeping you warm and never letting you cook. Called H2 Flow, it’s an insulation system that starts by wrapping your torso in a sheet of fleece punched with holes, which are meant to store heat with no weight penalty. When you start to feel balmy, open two chest vents and those same holes in the fleece become channels for cool air to flow through. Does it work? Testers thought so, and they were impressed with how comfortable it kept them in a range of temperatures. The Stoke gets bonus points for a tethered goggle wipe, elastic wrist gaiters, a relaxed cut, and stretchy fabric that never got in the way.
THE VERDICT: A tricked-out rig at a decent price. 2 lbs.
Flylow Lab Coat 2.0
BEST FOR: Charging hard all day long.
THE TEST: If your ideal experiment is seeing if you can notch 20,000 nonstop vertical feet in a day, with the occasional Snickers and Red Bull on the chairlift, then this is your lab coat. What little moisture the Lab Coat’s ($480) waterproof-breathable NeoShell membrane doesn’t expel, the gaping 14-inch pit zips will. It’s long in the hem and tall in the collar to guard against invading wind and snow. The stretchy fabric is tough, and, as one tester exclaimed, “Holy pockets, Batman!” There are seven total, and we loved that you can access the two in the front—which are big enough to hold skins—from both the outside and internally. Bonus: just light enough to double as your hard shell for backcountry missions.
THE VERDICT: The most versatile coat in the test. 1.3 lbs.