Today’s ski jackets are well made and built to handle many seasons of use in foul weather. They also can be big investments, with even entry-level jackets often setting you back a couple hundred dollars or more. With so many options to choose from, it helps to narrow your search right off the bat, and one of the most important considerations is whether you want a ski jacket with insulation or a non-insulated shell (or a mix of the two). All can be good options—it just comes down to what’s best for you. Below we break down the shell vs. insulated vs. 3-in-1 debate. For more information and our top picks, see our article on the best ski jackets.
Ski Jacket Types
Shell (Non-Insulated) Jackets
Shell jackets are essentially a solid outer layer that protects you from wind and moisture but without any insulation added. A shell jacket is there to keep you dry and block wind, and depends on you adding midlayers and base layers for warmth. There are large differences in price within the shell category. High-end hardshell jackets like the Arc’teryx Rush feature waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex with a tailored fit for excellent range of motion. Basic shells use thick fabrics and cheap waterproofing that don’t breathe as well. Beginning and intermediate skiers will be fine with an entry-level option, but experienced skiers or those that work up a sweat hiking will really appreciate the upgrade to a high-end shell.
Insulated Ski Jackets
Comfort and warmth rank highly for resort goers, and to help make cold chairlift rides more tolerable, many skiers opt for a jacket with insulation like the Helly Hansen Alpha. Choices with insulation come down to the classic down vs. synthetic debate. Down gives you premium warmth with less bulk, while synthetic insulation is cheaper and will outperform down should moisture make its way through the lining. For these reasons, synthetic insulation is by far the most popular choice for skiwear. Insulated jackets add a little bulk and impact range of motion more than when layering with a separate midlayer beneath a shell. But for those that run a little cold or ski in frigid climates, an insulated jacket is a great way to go.
A nice budget option is a 3-in-1 ski jacket like The North Face Triclimate. With this style you get a shell that is usually waterproof and a separate zip-in liner jacket. The liners vary from thin fleece to warm synthetic-fill and can be worn separately when you’re not on the slopes. Given the relatively inexpensive pricing of most 3-in-1’s, this makes them quite a deal. It may sound like the best of both the shell and insulated worlds, but for performance-oriented skiers, we typically recommend steering clear of the 3-in-1 style. Performance, fit and material quality fall short of most insulated and shell options. Casual skiers will love the convenience—and in fact, a 3-in-1 is a popular first ski jacket (this author included).
Warmth Advantage: Insulated Jackets
It’s a given that an insulated jacket will offer a higher degree of warmth, and if the conditions at your local resort usually are cold, an insulated jacket makes a lot of sense. But the answer isn’t always that simple. Other considerations to take into account include whether or not you find yourself standing around a lot. Are you teaching kids to ski or do you have long lift lines or chairlift rides? In these instances, the extra insulation may be helpful (it’s no surprise you’ll see a lot of ski instructors sporting insulated jackets). There are also individual factors such as whether or not you constantly run cold. If you’re the kind of person that wears a down jacket inside the house, we’ll recommend an insulated jacket for maximum warmth.
But what about the ski days where the weather report shows 35 degrees and sunny? If you’ve chosen the very warmest ski jacket you could find—for example the Patagonia Rubicon that’s stuffed with 150 grams of synthetic insulation—you’ll be opening up the pit zips before you even start your first run. This is where the adaptability of a non-insulated ski shell shines through. For most of us, the amount of warmth that you need can vary throughout the ski season. More, if you’re someone that is the first on the hill in November and the last off of it in April (or later), then having a shell jacket probably is the way to go. Those early or late season days can get warm towards the afternoon, so the flexibility to tailor your warmth more easily to changing temperatures (leave the midlayer at the lodge) is a valued feature.
Waterproofing Advantage: Shell Jackets
Even if you never venture beyond the ropes at your resort, you can find yourself in some pretty nasty and wet conditions. For ultimate protection, you’ll need a jacket that has a waterproof shell and seam taping around the interior. Dry and cold snow isn’t as prone to getting through your jacket, but the wet snow you’ll find at low elevations or in certain parts of the country (including areas in the Pacific Northwest) makes a fully waterproof ski jacket a smart buy.
In general, nearly all shell jackets are waterproof. More expensive models have a 3-layer shell, with a tough outer layer bonded to a waterproof/breathable membrane and interior lining. The more affordable construction is 2-layer, which often supplements the inner lining with loose mesh. Either choice is commonly seam taped and has a durable water repellent (DWR) finish on the outer layer to bead up and repel any moisture.
Insulated jackets, on the other hand, are not always fully waterproof. There are a number of high-end options that have a similar waterproof design as shells, but the more cost-friendly focus of insulated jackets leads to some compromise here. Although their outer fabrics will be made with a tough and water-resistant material, they will eventually give in to sustained moisture. They’re designed this way because the light and fluffy snow that falls in frigid conditions isn’t always all that wet. In addition, seam taping and waterproofing technology is expensive, and the combination of a DWR finish and a burly outer fabric are plenty to keep you dry most of the time. As a final note, it’s important to keep in mind that there are exceptions to these generalities, and you can find the occasional ski shell that is not completely seam taped. We always recommend checking the manufacturer’s specs to verify.
Breathability Advantage: Shell Jackets
This category really isn’t a competition as high-end shell jackets have the clear advantage. The thin fabrics are much more efficient than insulated models at releasing hot air when you’re really working hard. The price of the shell jacket will generally correspond with its ability to breathe, and some of our favorites include the premium Patagonia PowSlayer, made with Gore-Tex Pro, and the FlyLow Gear Lab Coat 2.0, which features Polartec NeoShell construction. For resort skiing, breathability is less of a concern, and a set of pit zips on your insulated jacket or 3-in-1 can be a big help. In fact, if you only wear a baselayer underneath your insulated ski jacket, opening your pit zips can cool you very quickly with only one layer between your skin and the cold air. But for those that demand high performance, a lightweight 3-layer ski shell is the best waterproof choice.
Fit and Mobility Advantage: Shell Jackets
Ski clothing has sure changed since our first days on the slopes. Our bulky outfits were all about staying warm, which ended up resembling something close to the Michelin Man. Nowadays, freedom of movement has improved drastically even in bad weather, with advanced forms of lightweight insulation and ever-thinning fabrics. Even very warm synthetic insulated jackets aren’t excessively bulky, and offer a good fit for aggressive skiers. Shell jackets are designed for layering, but overall will have the most streamlined cut, particularly performance pieces from brands like Arc’teryx and Patagonia. In addition, we’ve found shell jackets to offer improved mobility compared with insulated jackets and particularly 3-in-1’s. By having your insulating midlayer independent from the outer shell, overall ease of movement increases. A nice fitting insulated or shell jacket can both be a great choice, but the thinner design of shell jackets gives them the edge here.
Cost Advantage: Insulated or 3-in-1 Jackets
It’s important to know that for casual use in mild conditions, nearly any ski jacket from a reputable brand will do. For resort days, the most important things are to be warm and dry, which leads us to the question: does purchasing an insulated ski jacket pencil out to save you some bucks?
To best answer the question, it’s important to get an idea of how much insulation you need. For big-time warmth, we can use the aforementioned $299 Patagonia Rubicon, which packs 100 grams of insulation in the arms and a whopping 150 grams around the body. This is more insulation than your standard lightweight synthetic midlayer, which is closer to 60 to 80 grams. Granted, this isn’t the cheapest ski jacket out there, but a comparable quality 100 to 150 gram synthetic jacket will easily cost $100 or more. That means the difference would have to be about $200 for the shell jacket, which is quite cheap. In this instance, the math looks good.
It’s worth noting that the case is not as convincing for jackets that have less insulation. The Outdoor Research Igneo, for example, only uses 60 grams of insulation around the body, which means you’ll need an additional midlayer on cold days. In the end while the answer isn’t crystal clear (don’t forget that a separate midlayer can be worn for around-town use), examples like the heavily insulated Patagonia can offer tangible financial benefits.
An alternative for budget seekers is the 3-in-1 jacket. With an outer shell and zip-in insulated layer, 3-in-1’s are extremely popular for casual skiers. The main advantage is cost savings: you can pick up a decent 3-in-1 jacket like the Columbia Bugaboo Interchange for well under $200. And unlike insulated models, you can leave behind the insulation simply by unzipping it. The design does add bulk and weight with the extra zippers, and integrating the shell and insulating layer negatively affects range of motion. Also, you often end up with an inferior product (as the price would suggest). These jackets are far from the best performers in high exertion activities—opting for one with pit zips is suggested. Nonetheless, for the budget seeker or skier that only makes it to the mountain a couple times a year, a 3-in-1 is a good way to get kitted out for a reasonable price. For those looking to keep the costs of their kit low, see our good ski gear on a budget.
Resort skiers are pretty divided between insulated and shell jackets, and the considerations that we’ve covered above should dictate what is best for you. Things like weather conditions and whether or not you prioritize absolute warmth over a more streamlined fit will lead you in one direction or another. For resort use, we still lean towards a shell jacket for the season-long flexibility as well as less bulk, but many people are still very pleased with their insulated jackets. It’s also not unheard of to have one of each. For dedicated skiers that put in 40 plus days a year in a variety of conditions, a shell and insulated option can make a lot of sense.
For backcountry skiers or those that value performance, the answer is clear: get the shell jacket. As we touched on above, breathability plays a big role when you’re hiking for your turns or skinning up to a ridgeline. Reducing weight is also helpful the farther you venture off trail, which also gives the clear edge to non-insulated pieces. To stay warm, you can easily carry a midlayer in your pack and throw it on once you point your skis downhill. And for backcountry specialists, we’ve seen some great new softshell tech like the Patagonia Reconnaissance (see our in-depth review) that is waterproof yet stretchy and breathable.
Completing the System: Baselayers and Midlayers
If you wind up selecting a shell jacket, you’ll need to start planning out your midlayer selection. And for both insulated and non-insulated jackets, a good baselayer is necessary. As the next-to-skin article of clothing, baselayers play an important role in your comfort level by pulling moisture away from your skin. On all but the coldest days, our go-to baselayers are lightweight or midweight merino wool or polyester for a good balance of warmth and breathability.
Regarding midlayers, the amount of insulation can vary dramatically, from a thin fleece to a puffy down jacket. Fleece jackets are the classic choice for skiing, and can be quite warm and lightweight, but warm models are bulky. Down jackets are the priciest option but unmatched in lightweight and compressible warmth (just make sure to keep it dry because it will stop insulating when wet). Synthetic jackets fall in the middle, and are bulkier than down but continues to insulate even if moisture creeps in. Combining a shell jacket with one of the midlayer types above gives you the most flexibility to tailor your warmth to the day’s specific conditions.