There’s been a lot of upheaval in this category recently. The race to create the lightest, most breathable—but still bomber—jacket has destroyed longstanding paradigms. The lines that once divided soft and hard shells have blurred so much, they’re all but gone. Waterproof down has gone from pipe dream to commonplace, while new lightweight synthetic insulations keep you warm on the coldest days. Now, in another leap forward, mad-scientist engineers are using surprising new materials like corn (that’s right, corn) and rain-shedding wool. The upshot? There are more high-quality jacket options than we ever thought possible.
Outdoor Research Uberlayer
Gear of the Year
Companies have tried for years to make a puffy you put on and keep on, whether you’re at camp or on the hill. Patagonia pulled it off with the Nano-Air, a breathable insulator that won our Gear of the Year last season. Now OR has perfected the concept. Filled with Polartec Alpha (made to keep U.S. Special Forces dry during combat), and wrapped in a cozy face fabric, the Uberlayer sheds snow and moves moisture away from the body. The best puffy here for high-output activity, it worked for all our winter pursuits, from skiing to hiking. Bonus: inside pockets swallow gloves and a hat. 1.2 lbs
Price $300 Breathability 5 Waterproofness 3
Best For: Going fast and far.
The Test: You’re moving constantly in the backcountry, which means your shell spends most of its time in a pack. Read: you want it to be as light as possible. Here, it’s tough to beat the Refugative. Cut from Gore’s svelte new C-Knit-backed fabric, this minimalist jacket weighs less than a pound but still shields you in a storm and comes with niceties such as 14-inch-long pit zips and four roomy pockets. We pack it in our bag even on bluebird days as a barely-there insurance policy.
The Verdict: A sleek hard shell perfect for three-season use. 15 oz
Price $499 Breathability 3 Waterproofness 5
Dynafit Yotei GTX
Best For: Ski touring.
The Test: The Yotei—made from the same high-end fabric as the Patagonia—is built specifically for people who log lots of miles on all-day ski tours. Hence backcountry-specific features like huge chest pockets that accommodate climbing skins while still playing nice with pack straps. Vents over the triceps dump heat in a hurry, and even though the removable powder skirt and stretchy wrist cuffs add a few ounces, we appreciated those extra features on the coldest, deepest days.
The Verdict: “The perfect backcountry ski shell,” said one tester. 1.2 lbs
Price $599 Breathability 3 Waterproofness 5
Berghaus Baffin Island
Best For: Multisport play.
The Test: Sure, the Baffin Island looks like your classic trim-cut European hard shell, but it’s actually an extremely versatile layer suited to everything from ski touring to bike commuting. Stretchy fabric at the back and under the arms gives it the non-restrictive fit of a supple midlayer, while burly material at the shoulders and hips boosts durability without adding much weight. Berghaus nailed the details, too, including a drop hem that’s long enough to keep you dry even running rainy-day errands on a bike.
The Verdict: A do-it-all mountain parka at a great price. 1.1 lbs
Price $350 Breathability 4 Waterproofness 3
The North Face Summit L3
Best For: Extreme insulation without the weight penalty.
The Test: The 800-fill down L3 comes in well under a pound and scrunches down smaller than a grapefruit. Built with FuseForm, which combines various yarn types into a single material, it has fewer seams than its competitors, boosting durability while reducing weight. The fabric is three times as strong at the shoulders and hips as at the torso, making the L3 tough where you need it to be and breathable where you don’t.
The Verdict: A gossamer hoodie you can’t afford not to throw in a pack. 12.7 oz
Price $350 Breathability 4 Waterproofness 2
Ortovox Piz Boe
Best For: High-output action.
The Test: In the ongoing arms race to make an insulator that keeps you warm (but not too warm) in wet conditions, Ortovox came up with a surprising weapon: corn. It filled the Piz Boe with an absorbent blend of wool and a cornstarch-based polymer. It sounds like a Shackleton survival strategy, but it works brilliantly. We stayed toasty even during a 38-degree run in the rain. The nylon shell is windproof, while stretchy merino panels on the arms keep this piece snug without inhibiting movement. Nice touch: the mesh-backed pockets do double-duty as chest vents.
The Verdict: Ideal for skiing, running, climbing, and biking in the sleet. 12.7 oz
Price $350 Breathability 4 Waterproofness 3
Voormi Fall Line
Best For: Wool lovers.
The Test: Most shells are content to sandwich a membrane between two pieces of fabric to keep out water. The Fall Line, on the other hand, uses Voormi’s Core Construction technology, which weaves wool through a waterproof sheet. Result: a single-layer jacket with the wind- and snow-shielding abilities of a soft shell but the feel of fleece. The breathable top repelled sloppy cement, but without taped seams it didn’t keep us dry in a downpour.
The Verdict: A surprisingly stylish high-performance piece. 1.8 lbs
Price $399 Breathability 4 Waterproofness 3