As your outermost layer, ski jackets play a key role in keeping you comfortable and protected from the elements. The jacket market has expanded in recent years, covering everything from warm and cozy insulated resort pieces to light, breathable, and stretchy models for backcountry travel. Below we detail all the important considerations in selecting the right ski jacket for you, including types (insulated, shell, and 3-in-1), weather protection, durability, breathability, fit, and more. To check out our favorite designs for both men and women, see our article on the best ski jackets.
 

1. Resort and/or Backcountry? 

First up in choosing a ski jacket is thinking through your planned uses. If you’ll be in bounds at the resort, your needs will be fairly simple: staying warm and dry. There certainly are other considerations like pockets and build quality, but it’s mostly about managing comfort for the cold ride up and trip down. On the other hand, those exploring the backcountry need a jacket that breathes well, offers good mobility without restricting movement, and is light and compressible enough to throw into a pack. Finally, a growing number of riders want something that can be used for both resort and backcountry use, mixing high levels of weather protection with freedom of movement, ventilation, and comfort. The good news is that there are lots of quality options at a range of price points that line up with these uses.How to Choose a Ski Jacket (chair lift 2)


2. Pick the Right Ski Jacket Type

The next step is nailing down the ideal jacket type. The four styles below vary substantially: shell jackets are light and versatile, insulated models are cozy and warm, 3-in-1s offer a lot of bang for your buck, and softshells are stretchy and breathable. Backcountry users will want either a shell or softshell jacket in almost all situations, while the top three options are fair game among resort goers.
 

Insulated

For a healthy portion of resort skiers, an insulated jacket is the best choice. Their one-piece, substantial builds are comfy and do an admirable job isolating you from cold and wet conditions. In terms of insulation type, synthetic is the most popular as it’s more affordable and continues to insulate even when wet. You’ll see the occasional down piece, like Arc’teryx’s luxurious Macai, but even the Macai has synthetic insulation in areas most vulnerable to moisture (when down gets wet, it won’t keep you warm). It’s also worth noting that the amount of insulation can vary within this category. When paired with a quality baselayer, some lightweight insulated jackets are warm enough to only around freezing, while others like the aforementioned Macai can be comfortable down into the single digits Fahrenheit.  How to Choose a Ski Jacket (Snowbelle insulated)


Shell Jackets

As the name indicates, shell jackets are uninsulated and relatively thin and light. In general, they fall into two camps: resort-focused designs that have sturdy constructions, plenty of storage, and a generous fit, and more technical backcountry hardshells that are streamlined and packable. Both styles provide excellent weather protection and are well-suited for a wide range of conditions—you won’t overheat on warm days, and you can layer heavily underneath in the cold. But given their lack of insulation, shells are less appealing for comfort-oriented skiers who want a cozy set-up, and they’re not as good of a value overall as the two categories below since you still need an insulating layer. But they win out in all-around versatility and are a great option among serious riders.
 

3-in-1s

A popular option among budget seekers is the 3-in-1 style, which combines both an outer shell and zip-in insulated layer in a single package. The biggest argument here is value: you can get waterproof protection, sufficient warmth for most resort days, and the versatility to wear the insulated jacket as an around-town piece for under $200 (even a higher-quality design like The North Face’s ThermoBall Eco Snow Triclimate is pretty affordable at $349). Compromises include a pretty substantial jump in weight and all-around bulk, plus the budget-minded constructions aren’t impressive in terms of fit and finish. But the all-in-one solution simplifies the jacket buying process, offers nice versatility, and is a nice way to save money for those just getting into the sport.How to Choose a Ski Jacket (skiing closeup)


Softshells

Finally, softshells are the least common jacket type but have their place among backcountry skiers in areas known for dry snow (think Utah and Colorado). Their lack of full waterproofing drops them from consideration in rough weather or at the resort, but by removing the waterproof membrane you get a big leap in breathability. In addition, there’s a healthy portion of spandex in their constructions, which greatly increases mobility and comfort for high-output activities like touring. Again, these are niche products that lack the versatility of a standard waterproof build, but softshells serve as excellent secondary jackets for mild weather or spring missions.


3. Cost

Ski jacket prices vary widely, from budget-friendly options like the Columbia Alpine Action ($170) to the eye-wateringly expensive Arc’teryx Macai ($949). And the truth is that both the Columbia and Arc’teryx will keep you reasonably dry and comfortable for most days on the slopes. Downsides in choosing an entry-level design are that they are consistently heavier and bulkier due to the cheaper materials, won’t last as many seasons on average before starting to break down, skimp on features like pit zips, and don’t have nearly the same premium look and feel. Spending more gets you better mobility, improved weather protection, and increased breathability due to the higher-quality fabrics and waterproof constructions. In addition, the smaller pieces improve: zippers work more smoothly and hoods offer superior adjustability and coverage. In the end, beginner skiers or those that don’t make it out all that often will be fine with a cheaper jacket, while more serious riders will likely appreciate the upgrades that come with increasing the budget.How to Choose a Ski Jacket (powder skirt)


4. Weather Protection

With the exception of softshells, the vast majority of ski jackets are waterproof and offer solid protection from snow and wind. They have durable water repellant (DWR) coatings on the outer shells to shed moisture, seam sealing, and internal membranes that block water from getting through (we cover this in more detail in “Jacket Layers” below). Gore-Tex has been the standard bearer for years among top-end ski jackets, and it's well-known for being durable, long-lasting, and a reliable performer in harsh conditions. Moreover, many in-house designs hold up just as effectively, including Patagonia’s H2No and Helly Hansen’s Helly Tech. Even jackets at the cheap end of the spectrum like Columbia’s Bugaboo Interchange shed snow and block gusts pretty darn well. 

That being said, the cheaper you go, the thicker the constructions get to compensate for the entry-level materials. This leads to a fair amount of extra weight and bulk, which can be a nuisance for skiers that prefer to keep things light and simple. In addition, budget-oriented waterproofing doesn’t hold up as well over time and will start absorbing moisture earlier than pricier alternatives. As with a lot of decisions in choosing a ski jacket, your preferences in regard to weather protection will come down to budget and how often you plan to hit the slopes.How to Choose a Ski Jacket (waterproofing)


5. Jacket Layers: 2L vs. 3L

As you dive deeper into your ski jacket hunt, you’ll invariably see references to fabric layers and “2L” or “3L.” In short, these relate to how your jacket is constructed. A 2-layer build bonds an outer face fabric to a waterproof membrane, with a separate “hanging” liner along the interior (often made with mesh). 3-layer constructions, on the other hand, connect three pieces together: face fabric, membrane, and a smooth fabric liner.

Starting with 2-layer jackets, these are associated with budget and mid-range resort models, ranging in price from about $170 to $450. They provide good waterproof protection and durability, but the separate liner adds a fair amount of bulk and doesn’t breathe all that well. 3-layer jackets are more premium, start at about $400, and can reach $700 or more for top-end builds from brands like Arc’teryx. What you’re paying for is superior performance and less weight. They’re excellent at repelling all forms of wind and moisture, weigh substantially less and aren’t as cumbersome, and are the clear leaders in terms of breathability. In the end, 2- and 3-layer jackets are viable options for resort skiers, but 3-layer is king in the backcountry.How to Choose a Ski Jacket (skinning)


6. Durability

Everything from getting on and off the lift to skiing through trees can wreak havoc on your gear, and as a result, ski jackets are pretty durable overall. Denier, or “D,” is how fabric thickness is measured, and a higher number correlates with a thicker build. Reporting is a little inconsistent, but in general, resort skiers are best off with a burlier construction, and some of our favorites are about 100D and up. If you prioritize a lighter set-up for mobility but still want something tough, jackets with about 70D like the Arc’teryx Sabre AR are a great compromise. And finally, backcountry shells are often the thinnest for weight savings, with popular jackets ranging from 40D (Patagonia’s PowSlayer) to about 80D (Arc’teryx’s Sidewinder). And in the cases where a manufacturer doesn’t provide the specification, you can make some safe assumptions based on its intended use: expect a thicker build with a resort shell and a bit less durability for active and touring designs.


7. Does Breathability Matter to You?

Whether or not a breathable jacket is a priority lines up directly with your planned uses. For dedicated downhill riding, staying cool is a pretty low consideration. It’s true you can work up a sweat on longer runs, but that can be easily fixed by swapping to a lighter midlayer or unzipping the collar of the jacket. If, however, you’ll be doing sidecountry hikes or full-on backcountry touring, breathability makes a big jump in importance. As mentioned above, the best breathers are softshells, although they’re also the worst performers in the wet. 3-layer hardshells are next up, and some jackets like Outdoor Research’s Skyward II are truly impressive.How to Choose a Ski Jacket (pit zips 2)


Pit Zips

A key component of staying cool at both the resort and in the backcountry are pit zips (also referred to as “underarm vents”). Opening them is a great way to quickly dump heat during a hike or especially long and challenging descent. And it’s fairly easy to zip them closed when you want to maximize warmth. The vast majority of shell and insulated mid-range and high-end ski jackets have this feature, but it is a notable exclusion among entry-level models. If you’re prone to running hot or plan to travel uphill in any manner, it’s worth putting pit zips on your must-have list.
 

8. Organization: Pockets

There are a surprising number of possible items you’ll need to store in your jacket, from a phone and lift pass to car keys and snacks. And that’s just for lapping the resort—backcountry skiers have other possible needs like storing climbing skins and an avalanche transceiver. How much storage you need is mostly a personal decision: do you have quick access to your car and leave most of your extras behind or at the lodge? Then a more minimal set-up with a couple hand pockets and a sleeve or chest pocket for storing small items will do. But if you plan to carry a fair amount of gear and want it to be organized and easily accessible, then make sure to choose a jacket with five or more total pockets of varying sizes. Last but not least, those with a lot of gear always can opt for a ski backpack to supplement the storage of their jacket. How to Choose a Ski Jacket (organization 2)


9. Additional Features: Hood and Powder Skirt

Two other notable features to have on your radar are hoods and powder skirts. Hoods provide an important additional layer of protection around the head and neck in rough conditions, and most designs on the market are fairly adjustable and large enough to fit over a ski helmet. Spending more typically gets you better coverage and more ways to tweak the fit. Powder skirts are connected to the jacket near the waist, and buttoning them up helps block snow from sneaking up in a crash or in deep powder. Most jackets include powder skirts, but they’re not mandatory (and leaving them unbuttoned doesn’t usually create any excess bulk or discomfort when skiing). And a final point here: if you’re thinking about using your ski jacket on occasion around town, look for a design that allows you to remove both the hood and powder skirt for a more streamlined look.
 

10. Weight and Bulk

A given jacket’s weight and bulk are closely related to its type (shell, insulated, 3-in-1) and price tag. Shell jackets are the lightest and least cumbersome, including everything from the 1-pound 3.3-ounce Patagonia PowSlayer to the 1-pound 12-ounce Black Diamond Mission. Insulated jackets are heavier, and commonly range from 2 to 2.5 pounds. Finally, 3-in-1s are the heaviest and undoubtedly the bulkiest, with the simplest designs starting around 2.5 pounds and going up from there. And within each jacket type, increasing the budget will most often get you more advanced fabrics that are lighter and thinner but no less protective.How to Choose a Ski Jacket (skiing 2)

We’ve alluded to this a few times above, but whether or not weight and bulk will be a big factor for you correlates with your skiing style. Throughout a day lapping groomed runs, it’s unlikely you’ll be annoyed by a moderately bulky 2.5-pound jacket (the walk to and from the lodge may be a different story, however). But active skiers that hit the moguls, jump in and out of the trees, or do a little traversing and sidecountry hiking will want to keep things streamlined. This is where 3-layer jackets thrive: they’re relatively thin and light yet provide solid weather protection and reasonable durability. And it almost goes without saying that backcountry skiers put a premium on weight and bulk. Saving ounces and being able to easily stuff away your gear in a pack are valuable considerations.


11. Fit and Sizing

Last but certainly not least is figuring out your ideal fit. Most dedicated resort designs like Patagonia’s Insulated Snowshot/Snowbelle have a roomy shape to allow for layering and a long cut with a drop hem to provide protection from frozen chairlift seats. On the other end of the spectrum are backcountry-specific builds like the Outdoor Research Skyward II, which are trimmed down to minimize bulk and improve range of motion. And a crossover option like the Arc'teryx Sabre AR lands in the middle: it’s large enough to not feel restrictive when wearing a midweight down jacket, but has excellent mobility for hiking and occasional uphill travel. An additional factor is whether or not a jacket is insulated, and those without the added warmth are sized larger to accommodate more layers underneath. Further, some brands are known to fit more snugly than others on average. Arc’teryx and Helly Hansen fall into this camp, while other big brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and Columbia are typically cut more generously. How to Choose a Ski Jacket (Arc'teryx Jacket)


12. Our Top Ski Jacket Picks

Now that we’ve broken down all the key steps, it’s time for the fun part: selecting the ideal ski jacket. We cover all of our top picks in our article on the best ski jackets, but below are some of our favorites broken into key categories for both men and women: 

Men’s

Best Overall Ski Jacket: Arc’teryx Sabre AR
Best Budget Ski Jacket: Columbia Alpine Action
Best Resort Ski Jacket: Helly Hansen Alpha 3.0
Best Backcountry Ski Jacket: Outdoor Research Skyward II
Best 3-in-1 Ski Jacket: The North Face ThermoBall Eco Snow Triclimate

Women’s

Best Overall Ski Jacket: Arc’teryx Sentinel AR
Best Budget Ski Jacket: Columbia Alpine Action
Best Resort Ski Jacket: Helly Hansen Alphelia
Best Backcountry Ski Jacket: Outdoor Research Skyward II
Best 3-in-1 Ski Jacket: The North Face ThermoBall Eco Snow Triclimate
See Our Top Ski Jacket Picks

Best Ski Jackets of 2020

Choosing the right ski jacket is all about managing the conditions that you might encounter on the mountain. This depends on the specific kinds of skiing you enjoy most—skinning up a sunny ridgeline in the North Cascades is far different than bracing...

Patagonia Ski Jackets: How to Choose

From resort days to deep backcountry missions, Patagonia’s 2019-2020 ski jacket lineup covers nearly the full gamut of possible designs. At the time of publishing, a grand total of eight different models...

Outdoor Research Hemispheres Ski Jacket Review

When it comes to choosing a shell, backcountry-goers often have to make the decision between range of movement and weather protection. However, the new Outdoor Research Hemispheres Jacket aims...

Ski Trip Packing List for 2019-2020

Despite the crowds, there’s something truly satisfying about skiing inbounds. Maybe it’s the fact that you can accomplish thousands of feet in a day, or just the convenience of a warm lodge nearby to thaw cold...

Arc’teryx Sentinel LT Ski Jacket Review

Arc’teryx is a leader in the premium ski shell market, and their Sentinel LT (and men’s Sabre LT) is yet another standout for resort-goers and ski tourers alike. The jacket includes all the trimmings we’d expect...

Best All-Mountain Skis of 2020

If you're searching for that elusive one-ski quiver, this is the category to find it. The definition of “all-mountain” varies by manufacturer and retailer, but generally includes skis from 85 to 105...

Backcountry Skiing Checklist for 2019-2020

Nothing is more satisfying or adrenaline-inducing than slaying fresh powder in the heart of the backcountry, but you’ll need the right gear to accomplish your ski objectives...

Best Ski Pants of 2020

Ski pants are a critical barrier between you and the elements, and there’s a pair to fit every type of skier and budget. Resort goers typically opt for a classic hardshell design with some light insulation to stay warm on the lift rides up. Backcountry...