The Year’s Best Backcountry Shells

Lightweight, breathable, and packable, these jackets are equally at home on the skin track and in trenchtown

PHOTOS: Van Swae

T.J. Burke once said, “Skiing’s the easy part.” Damn right. The hard parts–like maintaining a solid relationship through a storm cycle in February, and not sweating too much on the skin track–drive us mad. But they certainly keep our sport interesting. Though relationship solutions for skiers continue to leave sociologists dumbfounded, garment designers have figured out how to help us in the backcountry, where skiers need supreme waterproof/breathability in a lightweight package. A true backcountry shell will allow you to exert physical energy, such as climbing a steep bootpack, protect you against the elements, and be breathable enough to not leave you feeling like you just stepped into a steam room. That’s a difficult proposition, but all the jackets here–tested by the Powder Order of Sartorial Splendor and Excellence, aka POSSE–meet those strict demands. All there’s left to do is ski, but you already knew how to do that. –Matt Hansen

SPYDER EIGER JACKET

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Spyder’s Eiger Jacket ($500) is both lightweight and durable. Designed with Chris Davenport’s feedback, this shell is made to withstand wind and water and whatever else one might find in the backcountry or atop Portillo’s Super C couloir. The POSSE was impressed by the ergonomic hood, comfortable material, and quality fabric, but found a few details that needed a bit more attention, like small zipper pulls. This jacket is loaded with features like taped seams and underarm vents that make it ideal for mountaineering. The Eiger puts function in fashion.

PATAGONIA REFUGITIVE JACKET

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The Patagonia Refugitive Jacket ($499) is so light and comfortable it feels like wearing nothing. Featuring a stretchy three-layer Gore-Tex fabric with Gore’s C-knit backer technology (think non-crinkly so it doesn’t bunch) and DWR (durable water resistance) finish, the fixed-hood POSSE favorite also includes two roomy pockets and fits like a resort/backcountry hybrid coat. Bottom Line: A super light, super tech coat with few bells and whistles that straddles the line between a backcountry-only shell and stretchy resort jacket.

LA SPORTIVA STORM FIGHTER JACKET

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A shell for fast and light days, the La Sportiva Storm Fighter ($379) is the backcountry skier’s new best friend. It’s especially lightweight, weighing just 334 grams, but packs a serious punch in wind- and water-resistance. The slim, alpine fit is great for big adventures that call for mobility, high breathability, and a streamlined kit. There is just one pocket, on the chest, meant to reduce weight, so pick accessories wisely. Breathable and easy to stuff into the tiniest pocket left in your backpack, the Storm Fighter, comprised of Gore-Tex Active Shell, is quiet, soft, and perfect for touring (and really any sweat-heavy, layer-necessary alpine activity). It runs shorter than most ski jackets, and the POSSE was divided on the technical, sporty look. Overheard on the lift: “It makes you feel fast!”

STRAFE CHAM 2 JACKET

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Most POSSE members would probably prefer to ski naked, but the Cham2 from Strafe ($465) is a great plan B. One of the Colorado-based company’s lightest and most breathable jackets, the Cham2 has been updated from last year to allow for more freewheeling movement, stretch, and comfort. A minimalist design means limited, but pack-friendly, pockets. The jacket features ultralight 3L Polartec Neoshell fabric and large 18-inch underarm vents.

FLYLOW GENIUS JACKET

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Finally, one of the most core brands in the biz now offers a true lightweight backcountry shell. The Genius ($425) consists of three-layer Polartec Neoshell, a worthy Gore-Tex alternative that provides 100 percent waterproof/breathability. Weighing just 470 grams, the Genius can be worn up the skin track without making you all clammy, something lacking in previous designs. There’s also zero bulk and it packs down easily—but layer up on cold days. With a helmet-compatible hood and big pockets to stash skins, the Genius has the low-pro Flylow style we’ve come to trust, meaning it’s just as suitable for the resort as it is on hut trips. Last but not least, the easy-to-reach pocket below the backpack waist belt is the ideal spot to store essentials like sunscreen and a lighter. Weighing just 470 grams and made out of Polartec’s reliable Neoshell, this is a tough, technical jacket intended for backcountry missions that can also hang in the resort any day.

STRAFE BOOMERANG W JACKET

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Strafe made its grand entrance into women’s outerwear this year with the Boomerang ($465), a solid, lightweight shell. Designed with Strafe’s highest level of protection against the elements, the three-layer eVent jacket weighs just 132 grams, is breathable enough for the sweaty skin tracks, and, thanks to a brushed tricot backer, warm enough for blustery storm days. Details like the large hand-warmer pockets, pass pocket on the sleeve, and zippered interior pockets were greatly appreciated by the POSSE, but it was the asymmetrical front zipper that veers away from the chin and adjustable hood we loved the most. Women looking for a solid, well-fitting jacket from Strafe should opt for this women’s specific design.

ARC’TERYX SENTINEL W JACKET

PHOTO: Van Swae
PHOTO: Van Swae

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Well then, what exactly do you get for a $625 piece of outerwear? A bomber jacket that doesn’t want to be left behind—ever. The Arc’teryx Sentinel jacket is ready for action, be it inbounds or out. A relaxed cut and ergonomic shape give you the freedom to move (and space to layer at will for extra-chilly days) making it perfect for anyone from fancy freeriders to your average Jane. Built from three-layer Gore-Tex, the Sentinel shell is windproof, waterproof, and durable, so you’re comfortable on first chair or throughout the backcountry. An integrated powder skirt connects to the Sentinel pant with snaps that slide and lock into place, keeping snow out on deep days. Our favorite details include a helmet-compatible hood that’s adjustable with one hand, water-tight front zip, and perfectly placed pockets.