Trying to find or choose the right jacket for your adventures can be an overwhelming task. Depending on the temperature, forecast, activity, etc., the decision on which jacket can be a make or break for success in the mountains. Pack too light, you could go home with hypothermia. Pack too heavy, you might not reach your goal (or you’ll be sweating the entire time). Those are just a few things that can go wrong if you chose the wrong jacket.
Have no fear, I’ve gone through every type of jacket that can be used in the mountains and how each of them stack up against one-another.
Best used on activities that require you to go light weight, need durability for rubbing up against rock and snow, and when there’s potential for windy days and some precipitation. A great Technical Shell is the Mountain Hardwear Exposure/2 Gore-Tex 3L Active Jacket. Technical shells do not provide the warmth of an insulated jacket, but is best used in combination with a puffy or insulated hoodie. The technical shell, usually vented, is a great option that keeps you protected from the wind on a ridgeline, yet rugged enough to take a beating on rock and skiing through trees. The highlight of a technical shell over a ski shell is its weight and packability. The technical shell, though only few ounces lighter, can make a big difference on a long day in the mountains. Not to mention, easier to toss in your pack for just-in-case purposes. All around, a technical shell is the best jacket you can buy.
Backcountry Skiing, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing
There’s really no description needed for when to use a rain jacket. If it’s already raining or going to be raining later in the day or trip, you better have one of these ready. A great rain jacket is the Backcountry Uinta 3L Stretch Rain Jacket . If it’s raining, by definition, the temperatures are not too cold. This also results in rain jackets being constructed of thinner, less durable materials. So if you don’t need durability, and you’re just out there to spend time in the wet mountains like New England and PNW, a rain jacket is you’re go to. Plus, the lightweight materials make a rain jacket easy to pack down and toss in any bag. If temps are falling and snow is in the forecast, combining a rain jacket with an insulated jacket is a great way to go.
Hiking, Rock Climbing, Mountain Biking, Cycling, Spring Skiing
The down hoodie has become my favorite, and go-to jacket on nearly every mountain adventure I go on! Whether it’s a backcountry ski tour or red rocks climbing trip, the North Face Ventrix Hoodie has been keeping me warm. So much so, I wrote an individual review of the jacket here. The down hoodie, which is relatively new to the outdoor/mountain market, is a variation of the puffy jacket. Rather than constructed of fragile polyester, the down hoodies have an Elastane Ripstop outer layer. This adds an unparalleled level of durability when rock climbing. The second benefit of these jackets are their venting abilities. No longer do you have to constantly unzip, re-zip, takeoff, put back on as your core temperatures rise on the climb. The venting features in these jackets keep your body temperature at a comfortable level on the up and down. The great breathability feature means poor performance in windy conditions like in high alpine environments. Combine this with a shell, wind breaker, or rain jacket to get optimal performance.
Hiking, Trail Running, Rock Climbing, Backcountry Skiing, Resort Skiing, XC Skiing
Similar to a technical shell, these heavy-duty jackets are there to be durable, abrasive resistant, and to keep you dry in the snowiest of conditions. A great ski shell is the Marmot Refuge Ski Jacket. Ski shells are not meant to keep you warm, but to keep your fragile insulated and mid-layers safe while skiing on the mountain. Take a tumble down a slope or rip through a tight tree section, you should be confident that the ski shell will come out unscathed. These shells are great to keep you dry in the snowiest of conditions, repelling snow and water. With this durability comes at a cost, which tends to be weight and packability. Using a ski shell for ski touring can result in a heavy day and little extra room in your pack when this jacket is in there. A ski shell has the benefit of having many pockets to store all your gear on the slope. Beers, cameras, extra gloves, you name it. Ski shells usually have pockets for everything.
Resort Skiing, Backcountry Skiing
The Patagonia Hoodini has been my go-to for all spring/fall trail runs and hikes. The beauty of the windbreaker is in its ability to pack down and be toss into any pocket or pack. The main purpose of this jacket, as its name suggests, is to protect you from the wind. So on those nice days, where it’s sunny and warm down in the valley, but windy and chilly up on the ridge, this is the go-to jacket. These jackets are so light weight that you’ll be stunned that they provide any protection at all. The material, to be light weight and windproof, means it doesn’t breath that well, so expect to start sweating underneath during a long run. With that being said, they trap a surprising amount of heat and keep you sufficiently warm on those breezy afternoon runs or hikes. It’s packability is the ultimate plus for this category of jackets, meaning I toss it in every fanny pack, bike pack, and hiking pack whenever I head into the mountains for those “just in case” moments. It’s water resistant, not waterproof, so it’ll keep you dry in an unexpected rain, but won’t keep you dry when it really starts coming down.
Trail Running, Hiking, Mountain Biking
If you don’t have one of these jackets yet, I think it’s a great first purchase. The puffy jacket is the most versatile jacket when it comes to weight vs warmth. I’ve been wearing the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 Down Hoodie for years now and cannot imagine my life in the mountains without a jacket like this one. Don’t be fooled by how light weight a puffy jacket is, these things keep you warm down into the 20-30s with ease. Not to mention, the nano-puffy jacket category can pack down into such a small space that it makes no sense not to throw it in your pack when headed up into the mountains. Some puffy jackets are waterproof, but most are not. The puffy, down/synthetic material tends to stop working when wet. So if precipitation is in the forecast, don’t forget to combine this jacket with a shell for the ultimate protection. These jackets are great for skiing, climbing, and sitting around the campfire at night when the sun goes down. Be warned though, the polyester outer shell of a puffy is very fragile. A protruding branch from a tree or a rogue ember from a campfire can result in nasty holes in your jacket. Luckily, this can easily be repaired with a strip of packing tape. But the warmth to weight ratio, as I mentioned before, cannot be beat. Puffy jackets are an absolute staple in mountain towns all over the west.
Backcountry Skiing, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Hiking, Mountain Biking, Resort Skiing
Insulated Ski Jacket
For the average, weekend resort skier, an insulated ski jacket is the way to go. Forget worrying about if you have the correct layers on or if you’ll be warm enough. An insulated ski jacket like the Helly Hansen Alpha 3.0 Jacket will serve all your needs at the ski resort. I’m not the biggest fan of an insulated ski jacket, as it really only has one efficient purpose, that being skiing. They’re too bulky to bring in a pack on a hiking trip. But, when it comes to being efficient when getting ready to go skiing at your local hill, the ease of tossing on one jacket and being ready is unmatched. These jackets, like ski shells, have tons of pockets for everything. Not to mention how durable these jackets are. They’ll never tear from overuse and tight tree runs over the years. These are the type of jacket that people buy once and really never have to buy again for a decade. That’s hard to say about any other jacket category on the list.
The down parka jacket holy grail when it comes to warmth. My Marmot Guides Down Hooded Jacket has saved me on a few days that were too cold for comfort. Because of their bulkiness, these jackets tend to only be used when efficiency and weight are not a priority. I primarily use this jacket when I do some winter hiking, winter camping, and walking my dog every morning. It’s a giant puffy jacket, so don’t expect to pack this down into every pack, but you’ll still be shocked at how small they do pack down. The down parka is a priority when the activity becomes non-aerobic. For example, when you’re stuck belaying a friend on a cold day and you don’t expect to be moving any time soon. The down park has one job, to keep you warm, and it does a great job at that. If I expect to be sweating or worried about the durability of a jacket on a climb or ascent, I probably won’t be bringing this jacket. But nothing compares to its warmth when we get back to camp and I don’t want to throw 3 warm layers on, I head straight for the parka!
Hiking, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Ice Climbing, Dog Walking
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.