Four years ago, only three manufacturers made soft shell jackets?the much-hyped, stretchy, and weather-resistant new breed of outerwear. Now everyone does, even traditional skiwear companies like Marker and Obermeyer. We test-drove a sampling of this year?s crop to gauge their chairlift-riding warmth, ridge-hiking breathability, and their knack at batting aside snow, rain, and wind. They?ve come a long way. Many are now loaded with a bevy of ski-friendly features (things like powder skirts, fleecy innards, and hoods). But contrary to what some manufacturers may claim, we didn?t find a soft shell top that can do everything well. To cut through all the bull, we ranked each jacket according to how it performs in the backcountry, at the resort, and overall. The lighter-weight jackets are versatile enough for long uphill spring grunts, while the heavyweights are ideal for all-weather, lift-serviced skiing. Now it?s up to you: Get the jacket that best suits your skiing style, and then get out there.1) Salomon Covalent $319; salomon-sports.comWhile breaking trail uphill in the 41-ounce Covalent would be a mistake, it?s ideal for the lift-skiing crowd. A wet storm at Mt. Baker didn?t penetrate the Covalent?s powder skirt or detachable hood, and the jacket sealed out wind equally well. The buttons that cinch the waistband and hood are hard to manipulate with gloves on. Otherwise, the Covalent is flawless and bomber. The jacket?s Schoeller WB-400 fabric?a stout blend of flexible polyester and Cordura? deflected tree branches with ease.2) Obermeyer Alpha $200; obermeyer.comThe laurel for warmest jacket goes to the Alpha, a 36-ounce shell with the contoured fit of a motorcycle jacket. While the Alpha is completely stormproof?Obermeyer sandwiched a waterproof film between a microfleece lining and a nylon shell?it didn?t breathe as well as the other fabrics we tested. But open the pec zips and chest pocket vent and you?ll cool off on the downhills. Zip everything back up, and the Alpha?s fleecy innards form a furnace that keeps cranking to last chair. Unfortunately, it only comes in black. If you?re looking for color, look elsewhere. 3) Cloudveil Cascade $240; cloudveil.comFashioned of supple but extremely tough material, the 24-ounce Cascade fought off light snow and the nicks of ski edges (alright, the tester took a beater) during a mild day at Lake Louise. Just don?t bring the Cascade to Sugarloaf in January: This shell is not designed to insulate you on long, frigid lift rides. But if you like to tour, two large chest pockets double as vents and a buttery-soft liner wicks sweat like a champ, making it the best backcountry jacket in the bunch. 4) Marmot Quantum $270; marmot.comThe Quantum contains no fewer than three newfangled fabrics stitched together in a complex pattern. The result? A burly 23-ounce jacket that?s surprisingly warm and windproof for its weight. Unfortunately, it doesn?t breathe that well, and all that added stitching means more places for water to enter. Fleecy hand-warmer pockets and a hideable hood that stretches to fit a climbing lid are good news for skiers who want a jacket that works equally well on a headwall or a rock wall. 5) marker Power Shield Jacket $199; markerltd.com Power Shield, the windproof but breathable wünderfabric from Polartec, is the standout feature of Marker?s unimaginatively named jacket. Although it only weighs 25 ounces, the Power Shield deflected 30 mph winds and snow squalls on Snoqualmie Pass with ease?though melted snow did eventually seep into the shoulders. During fair weather, this snug-fitting top shines thanks to discreet upper-chest vents that let you regulate body temperature with a few quick zipper yanks. 6) Columbia Mountain Mobility Sweater $190; columbia.comThe lightest jacket (20 ounces) reviewed here, the MMS is the perfect choice for bashing spring bumps or ski touring. Need more cold weather versatility? Zip it into one of Columbia?s sstormproof Titanium hard shells. You?ll need that shell, because the MMS is made of the same stretchy, but not stormproofing, stuff as the Cloudveil?just without the liner. Smart design: The front pockets are the perfect size for climbing skins.SIDEBAR:Ultralight InsuranceBecause All soft shells are not created equal.The jackets that ranked well in the lift service category should best even big squalls. But if you head out on a gray day in a lighter-weight option, stash one of these three feathery hard shells in your pack.REI Ultra light / $125; rei.comThe 13-ounce Ultra Light is hands-down the most hard shell for your money. Somehow REI crammed in a host of features?a microfleece-lined collar, zip-off hood, and pit zips?that typically push jackets well into the $200 range. The Ultra Light can feel clammy, but throw it over a soft shell when a storm hits, and you?ve got nothing to complain about. Mountain Hardwear Backcountry Recon / $250; mountainhardwear.com By stripping their popular Recon Jacket of all non-essentials (do you really need that welded-on radio pocket?), Mountain Hardwear has birthed the 18-ounce Backcountry Recon. With a roll-away hood, taped seams, and sleek, watertight pit zips, it has everything you need and nothing more. It?s also made of Mountain Hardwear?s proprietary Conduit SL laminate, which is exceptionally breathable and almost impervious to pine trees?so don?t hesitate to take it out-of-bounds.Lowe Alpine Elite Jacket / $359;lowealpine.com Lowe crows about the stretch fabric, asymmetric design, and shaped panels built into the 21-ounce Elite. All of which would be ripe for ridicule if the damn thing didn?t fit so well. It?s pricey, and you may find the wrist closures a little hokey, but it performs well on the hill. That?s mostly due to the fact that the Elite?s made of eVENT?one of the most breathable, waterproof fabrics on the market?and has ample chest vents. You?d have to link a lot of turns to overheat this shell. ?Ben Hewitt
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