Hardshell – We define a hardshell as any waterproof / breathable jacket that features waterproof membrane construction like GORE-TEX®. It’s essentially a sandwich featuring an outer face material, a waterproof/breathable membrane and a backer material. Hardshell materials have come a long way in recent years to offer softer, less hardshell feeling materials. High-end three-layer hardshells like GORE-TEX® Pro and Active are now often lighter weight and more packable than softshell designs.
Softshell – The term softshell covers a wide category that represents jackets made of woven or knit fabrics without a waterproof membrane or waterproof coating. Most offer superior breathability at the expense of waterproof characteristics. Softshells rely on dense knits to repel moisture but some, like Gore WINDSTOPPER® and Polartec® PowerShield Pro, use a membrane to block wind. Softshells typically offer softer, more natural feeling fit and movement than hardshells.
Three Backcountry Ski Jackets
The hardest thing about finding the best jacket for backcountry skiing is wading through the all of the options. Pick any of the big companies and you’ll find a small handful of options from which to choose – all with varying versions of hardshell, softshell and hybrid elements. If you look at several manufacturers, you’re faced with a dozen plus jackets to sort out. With this in mind, we’ve handpicked four models that we believe are great backcountry ski jackets.
It’s easy to find a jacket that protects you from the elements thanks to the many high-quality waterproof / breathable fabrics available today. The more difficult task is choosing a jacket that offers true up-hill breathability and enough weather protection to manage storm skiing in your climate.
The following jackets all offer various combinations of uptrack breathability and storm protection: Outdoor Research Trailbreaker, Patagonia Kniferidge and the Arcteryx Procline Comp.
The Outdoor Research Trailbreaker is a hybrid backcountry ski jacket that’s more softshell than hardshell and offers a great balance of breathability, flexibility and storm protection. The Trailbreaker is a nice example of a jacket designed by and for backcountry skiers who understand that, more often than not, uphill breathability is more important than full-on waterproof storm protection when it comes to backcountry skiing.
At first look, the Trailbreaker is a simple, lightweight softshell. Look more closely and you’ll notice that the shoulders and hood are made with waterproof / breathable Pertex® Shield. The beauty of the Trailbreaker is that Outdoor Research (OR) did not overuse the hardshell material. It’s placed in high impact zones only, leaving the full body and arms to use a lightweight stretch woven material with great breathability. Minimizing the waterproof / breathable material maximizes breathability and the feeling of a natural range of motion. And if you happen to run hot and need added ventilation, it actually has pit-zips to help manage your temperature. It’s rare to see pit-zips on a softshell jacket, and they add a new level of flexibility to an already breathable ski shell, making it great for skiers who run hot on the uphill. The zips are additional tool to reduce jacket changes during a day of ski touring. The Trailbreaker is the kind of jacket you put on at the start of a tour and wear all day long, stopping only to add a layer over the top when transitioning or descending.
Outdoor research includes several small touches that add to the jacket’s functionality and appeal – a single-separating front zipper, which means you can unzip from the bottom (or top) to reach pockets or adjust pants; an adjustable wire-brim hood for customizing coverage; and a chest pocket with a media port and built-in glass/goggle cloth. Add two oversized internal Shove-It™ pockets for storing goggles, snacks, gloves, sunscreen, etc., and the Trailbreaker is well-tuned backcountry ski jacket priced below most of the competition.
Fit: Standard Fit is more slim than loose, layers well under a puffy.
Materials: Pertex® Shield+ 3L, 87% nylon, 13% spandex 20D stretch woven face with 100% polyester brushed tricot backer shoulders and hood // 96% polyester, 4% spandex 50D double weave main body and sleeves
Weight 16 oz; 454 grams
The Arc’teryx Procline Comp Jacket is a hybrid jacket that uses waterproof / breathable Gore-Tex® on the shoulders, hood and front body and a highly breathable, lightweight softshell on the back and under the arms. The Gore-Tex® is lightweight (40-denier) and reminiscent of Gore-Tex® Pro shells we have tested – though Arc’teryx does not label it as Gore Pro but refers to the fabric as “N40p.”
The Procline Comp has alpinist roots but goes a step beyond bare alpine minimalism. It includes Velcro cuff adjusters, two large chest pockets and a small inside pocket. Of course it includes all of the small details that you’d expect from Arc’teryx including zipper garages, effective zipper pulls, techy hem/hood cords, harness friendly design and precise patterning for a trim fit.
What really sets the Procline Comp apart from other high-quality GORE fabric jackets is the lightweight, stretchy softshell – called Fortius 1.0 – that covers about two-thirds of the back, extends down the sides under the arms and makes up the underside of the arms themselves. The material significantly improves breathability over a full waterproof membrane jacket and enhances the stretch and feel of the coat. You still know you’re wearing GORE-TEX®, but the overall feel is softer than a full-on hardshell. The Fortius softshell material has proven to be incredibly durable, as we’ve put it to use in other Arc’teryx products with great results.
The Procline Comp offers significant waterproof protection over straight softshells and improved breathability over a full hardshell. This is a great jacket for those who are unwilling to give up significant waterproof membrane protection but still want increased breathability for the uptrack. It’s a good match to Cascade winters where wet snow can test a straight softshell design.
Fit: Trim fit is slim and designed to move with body; layers well under a puffy.
Materials: N40p GORE-TEX® fabric with 3L tricot technology, Fortius 1.0™—84% nylon, 16% elastane, 160 g/m².
Weight: 14 oz; 405 grams
Patagonia unveiled several backcountry ski specific pieces this season. The KnifeRidge Jacket is, in our opinion, the truest ski touring jacket in Patagonia’s new lineup. It’s a softshell jacket featuring Polartec® Power Shield® Pro fabric, which is a windproof and highly water-resistant material that relies on a dense knit to repel weather. What separates it from a waterproof hardshell jacket is it does not have a waterproof membrane. We really like it. It’s not going to keep you dry in steady rain but, hopefully, you’re not skiing in the rain.
The KnifeRidge is reminiscent of the Knifeblade jacket, a shell from Patagonia’s alpine climbing line that also used Polartec® Power Shield® Pro. We tested and liked the knifeblade a couple years ago, summing it up saying; “simplicity is one of its greatest assets; Polartec® Power Shield® Pro fabric is its other.”
The KnifeRidge is stretchy, soft and very windproof. It’s not quite as breathable as a less windproof softshell, but it’s also more weather resistant thanks to the tight weave of the Power Shield® Pro. It handles normal storm days with ease, while maintaining great breathability on the skin track. We believe it’s as close to stormproof as most skiers need for midwinter touring. However braving the white rain all day or a true downpour will test its limitations for sure.
The relatively minimalist design provides three pockets: two vertical hand pockets high enough for easy access with a pack or harness, plus a smaller chest pocket. In line with Patagonia’s clean style come low-profile Velcro cuffs, functional hem/hood cinches and quality construction.
The KnifeRidge excels in cool and cold temps where precip is of the frozen variety. Layer correctly on a storm day and you can wear the Kniferidge all day, uphill and down. Add an insulation layer over the top at rest stops or for your last run of the day and the KnifeRidge jacket has you covered for midwinter ski touring. It also includes a RECCO® reflector – read more about RECCO® here.
Fit: Regular fit is looser than athletic or slim fit, still layers ok under a puffy.
Materials: Shell: 3-layer, 5.6-oz Polartec® Power Shield® Pro 90% polyester/10 spandex plain weave with jersey backer and a DWR finish
Weight: 18.75 oz; 531 grams