An Expert Guide to Ski Jackets

From insulation type to shell type to features and more, Ski Expert Tory Dobyns details everything you'd need to know when shopping for your next ski jacket!

Four skiers stand in a snowy area. They are all wearing ski jackets and helmets.

Photo by Tory Dobyns

Tldr: There are many different categories of ski jackets to choose from. The main types of jackets include shells, insulated jackets, down jackets, and 3-in-1 jackets. They all have pros and cons and are suitable for different weather conditions and types of skiing. There are also many features to look out for when buying a jacket, including ventilation, waterproof ratings, breathability ratings, zipper types, pockets, and more.

If you have ever struggled trying to stay warm or dry on the hill it is likely due to not being properly dressed. I have been skiing for my entire life and finally have learned how to properly dress for the weather and now can have fun skiing in any weather conditions, even those super cold and stormy days. Picking the right jacket type and understanding when to wear what clothes is the first step towards feeling comfortable and warm on the slopes.

What Is a Shell Jacket?

Shells are perhaps the broadest category of jackets. Within this category, there are hardshells, soft shells, and technical shells. What classifies a shell jacket is that it does not have insulation. These jackets can be worn in a wide range of weather conditions if you know what to wear underneath.

Hardshells

The Obermeyer Men’s Chandler Shell (left) and the Flylow Vixen 2.1 Women’s Jacket (right).

The Obermeyer Men’s Chandler Shell (left) and the Flylow Vixen 2.1 Women’s Jacket (right)

Hardshells are the most basic type of non-insulated jacket. These types of jackets serve to protect from wind and water but do not have any insulating materials for warmth. A waterproof shell is typically made from polyester. Shell jackets are great due to their versatility. On warm days, you will not get too hot. However, you can easily layer underneath to provide adequate warmth when the weather gets cold. Typically, hardshells will have a lower waterproof rating when compared to technical shells.

  • Obermeyer Men’s Chandler Shell: The Chandler is an example of a basic hardshell jacket. It has a waterproof rating of 10,000mm. This would be a great choice for someone who wants a more affordable, good-quality, waterproof jacket. This jacket is great for warmer days or cold days if you have some insulated layers to wear underneath.
  • Flylow Vixen 2.1 Women’s Jacket: The Vixen 2.1 is another example of a hardshell jacket from Flylow. This jacket has a slightly higher waterproof rating at 20,000mm. In addition, it is a higher-end shell that will keep you dry and protected from the wind.

Technical Shells

The North Face Men’s Summit Verbier FUTURELIGHT Jacket.

The North Face Men’s Summit Verbier FUTURELIGHT Jacket

A technical shell is similar to a hardshell with higher-end features and, most often, a higher price tag. Think about buying a car. Your hardshell would be your base model with no fancy bells and whistles. It gets the job done.

A technical shell would be a luxury model with heated seats, a sunroof, cruise control, etc. Frequently technical shells are made with a higher quality fabric such as GORE-TEX or laminated nylon. These jackets are designed to be very durable and are great for skiers in extreme weather conditions. They are also a top pick for mountaineering and backcountry ski touring.

In addition, technical shells typically are lighter in weight. The main advantage of a technical shell over a basic hardshell is the breathability and waterproofing combination. They are designed to be ultra-waterproof and have enough breathability to let moisture from the body out. This is important for high-intensity activities when you are perspiring, such as ski touring.

Softshells

The Outdoor Research Men’s Refuge Air Hoodie.

Outdoor Research Men’s Refuge Air Hoodie

Softshell jackets are ultra-breathable and typically made of a stretchier material. They are the most breathable ski jacket, great for warm days and high-intensity activities. The tradeoff is that soft shell jackets tend to be less water and windproof. There is typically a waterproof coating on the outside of the jacket, but this may not hold up for a long stormy day on the mountain. Water will likely penetrate the fabric over time. Soft shells sometimes have a small amount of synthetic insulation, but not always.

  • Outdoor Research Men’s Refuge Air Hoodie: This is an example of a soft shell with some light insulation. This jacket will be very lightweight, breathable, and stretchy, making it great for higher-intensity activities, such as ski touring. It will provide adequate waterproofing for most days; however, it will not be as waterproof as a technical shell.

Not sure which to pick? Check out Hardshell vs. Softshell Jackets: Which Is Best for You?

What Is a 3-in-1 Ski Jacket?

The North Face Men’s Thermoball Eco Snow Triclimate.

The North Face Men’s Thermoball Eco Snow Triclimate

3-in-1 jackets are a great versatile option for those who want one jacket for all conditions. They typically have a hardshell outer layer with some removable insulation. It can either be synthetic or down insulation. On a warm day, you can zip out the insulating layer.

  • The North Face Men’s Thermoball Eco Snow Triclimate: This is an example of a 3-in-1 synthetic jacket from The North Face. The inner layer of the jacket has a synthetic polyester fill. The outer layer is a highly waterproof and breathable stretch shell. On warm days you can easily zip out the inner layer, leaving you with a shell.

What Are the Different Types of Insulated Ski Jackets?

Insulated ski jackets are a great choice for skiing or riding in colder conditions. They have a layer of insulation built into them to reduce the number of layers you will need to wear underneath. The type and amount of insulation in a jacket can vary. Jackets can either have synthetic or down insulation.

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic insulation is typically made of polyester and tends to be less expensive when compared to down. In addition, synthetic insulation dries quickly and does not lose its insulating capabilities when wet. A synthetic jacket's insulation is typically expressed in weight as grams. For example, a lightweight, synthetically insulated jacket will measure around 100 or 200 grams. A warmer jacket for cold conditions can have up to 1,000 grams of insulation.

  • Flylow Women’s Veronica Jacket: This is a great versatile, medium-weight, synthetically insulated jacket. It has 667 grams of synthetic insulation with a waterproof outer layer.

Down Insulation

Down insulation tends to be very lightweight and warm. The downside to down is that it will no longer be functional when wet. Down is great on cold, dry days and not so good in wet, humid conditions. Down is measured in terms of fill power. Fill power does not express the amount of fill in the jacket but rather the quality of the down. The higher the fill power, the better the warmth-to-weight ratio will be. Down fill ratings range from 400 to 900. A jacket with 900 fill will be super lightweight. Keep in mind the higher the fill rating, the more expensive the jacket will be.

  • Mountain Hardwear Men’s My Eyak Down Hoody: This is a great quality down jacket with 600 fill down. This jacket is not waterproof but is great for cold, dry days. You can also wear it underneath a shell jacket on wet days.

A chart showing differences between synthetic and down insulation.

Ski Jacket Features to Look Out For

Waterproof Rating

Most jackets will provide a waterproof rating which is important to understand. The rating indicates how resistant the fabric is to liquid. Ratings are measured in millimeters and range from around 5,000mm to 30,000mm-plus. The higher the rating, the more resistant the material is to water penetration. Something to keep in mind is the more waterproof a jacket is, the less breathable it will be. However, many high-end brands have developed new technology to provide a highly waterproof material that also breathes well.

Waterproof Zippers

The Flylow Women's Lucy Jacket.

The Flylow Women's Lucy 3L Jacket has fully waterproof zippers

Many high-end jackets and technical shells will have waterproof zippers. This ensures that moisture does not enter the jacket through the zippers. This is not a critical feature for many, but something to look out for.

Waterproof Seams

Waterproof seams are an added feature in many technical shells. These seams ensure the hems are fully sealed and add to a jacket's overall level of waterproofing.

Breathability

If you will use your jacket for high-intensity activities such as ski touring or if you live in a warmer climate, it is important to have a jacket with breathability. This allows sweat and body heat to escape, which helps keep you dry and warm.

Pockets

Looking at the different pockets in your jacket is always a good idea. Some jackets will have a larger pocket for an extra layer or a water bottle if that is important to you. Certain jackets may also have a pass pocket, a built-in goggle wipe, and more.

Cuff Design

Cuff design on the Obermeyer Raze Jacket.

Cuff design on the Obermeyer Raze Jacket

The wrist cuff on a jacket is important to look at before purchasing. You want to ensure that the cuff on the wrists is compatible with whatever gloves you have. Some cuffs are designed to go over or under the glove.

Hood Design

The adjustable hood on the Burton Helitack Stretch Jacket.

The adjustable hood on the Burton Helitack Stretch Jacket

Many ski jackets design their hoods to fit over a helmet. Keep this in mind when looking for a jacket if you are looking for a helmet-compatible hood. In addition, some jackets will have an adjustable hood like the one on the Burton Helitack Stretch Jacket.

Ventilation

Underarm ventilation on the Outdoor Research Carbide Jacket.

Underarm ventilation on the Outdoor Research Carbide Jacket

Many ski jackets will have vents under the arms, also known as "pit zips." Other jackets may also have additional vents on the chest or back. You can zip and unzip the vents to help regulate the temperature throughout your day. This is particularly important for less breathable jackets. For example, see the underarm vents on the Outdoor Research Carbide Jacket.

Powder Skirt

Powder skirt on the Flylow Men's Knight Shell Jacket.

Powder skirt on the Flylow Men's Knight Shell Jacket

A powder skirt is a cuff that goes around the waist to help prevent snow from getting under the jacket and into the ski pants. It buttons around the waist to help seal off this area to help keep you dry on powder days.

Down Fill Rating

When shopping for a down jacket, look at the down fill rating to understand the quality of the down. Remember, these range from 400 to 900 fill. The higher the rating, the more watch it will provide per cubic inch.

Synthetic Insulation Level

Synthetic insulation is typically measured in grams. If you are looking for a lightly insulated jacket, look for something with between 50 and 100 grams of insulation. If you are looking for a super warm jacket, look for something in the range of 100 to 300 grams of insulating material.

Comfort

You should never overlook the fit and comfort of a jacket. Having something that fits you right will ensure you are comfortable and, of course, stylish on the slopes. So I always encourage trying a jacket before buying.

Summary

There are so many options for ski and snowboard jackets that the options can be overwhelming. There is not one type of jacket that is superior to others. Just like any other ski gear, you should understand the important features to get a good value.

It would be best if you thought about the weather in your area. If you live in a wet climate with lots of snow and rain, you should stray away from down as it loses functionality when wet. If you live in a very cold climate, think twice before buying a shell unless you are ready to layer underneath.

If you are still unsure about what is right for you, try chatting with one of our Curated Ski and Snowboard Experts at no cost!

Meet the author
Ski Expert Tory Dobyns
Tory Dobyns
Ski Expert
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Written By
Tory Dobyns
Tory Dobyns
Ski Expert
I am origionally an east coast skiier, grew up ski racing in Vermont. Now, I am coaching the freestyle ski team in Aspen. I have been skiing my whole life and love helping others get into the sport and find the right gear!
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