Full Mental Jacket: Finding Your Ideal Touring Shell
Whether you’re a gear newbie or seasoned vet, the quest to find a new jacket for ski touring can feel daunting. Fear not; we’re here to share some tips to streamline the process of selecting a shell.by Austin Holt
Conquering the Quest for a New Piece of Kit
Pulling the trigger on a new jacket can feel like a daunting mission to gear newbies and veterans alike. Maybe you're new to ski touring and looking for your first, truly "bomber" shell, or you're a old pro upgrading from your withering old shell jacket. Either way, the options are seemingly endless. To add to this needle-in-a-stack-of-needles feeling, these days, even the cheapest technical jackets offer a surprisingly high level of protection matched with well thought-out features. Fear not, though; I recently embarked on a quest to find exactly the right hardshell jacket for my own personal touring needs, and here I explain, step by step, what I learned about narrowing down the options.
Gear choice is a highly subjective matter. When it comes to jackets, a powder skirt, insulation, wrist gaiters, and other features are a matter of preference. A large hood that appeals to a helmet-clad professional guide can be a hindrance to a fast-and-light weekend warrior who drops in with a hat only. And I know some die-hard backcountry skiers who wouldn't dream of going out on a deep day without a powder skirt, whereas I get by with bibbed pants and no powder skirt.
Take every review with a grain of salt; and rather than letting you buddy's half-cocked rants make or break your decision, take a moment to consider your specific needs and must-have features. After all, you're the only one who's going to be wearing that shell, so despite differing advice and opinions, it's best to focus on finding the option most fitting for you.
How I Started: My Requirement Breakdown
I write product descriptions full-time for Backcountry.com, and I also moonlight as a hack ski photographer. My latter role makes me a stickler for tough outerwear that is constructed simply, built tough, and offers plenty of space to store small pieces of camera gear on-the-fly. In the world of ski jackets this can be a steep set of features to require as a package.
I considered my general needs; skiing in the Wasatch is quite luxurious compared to skiing in many other alpine touring climes. Although the weather can get cold and nasty quickly, mild temperatures, ample sunny days, and dry snow leave your options relatively open when you're looking for a jacket—so you do want something packable, waterproof, and breathable, but many other features standard features such as built-in insulation or wrist gaiters aren't absolutely mandatory for me.
Ultimately, each jacket I considered must:
- Be packable enough to easily store in my 40L Arc'teryx Arrakis pack without adding too much additional weight (10-20oz maximum)
- Use a durable shell fabric and include a waterproof and breathable membrane technology like Gore-Tex Performance or Gore-Tex Pro Shell
- Have an attached hood and large, easily accessible underarm vents for cooling down during long ascents in gnarly weather
- Ideally have at least one, if not two, large chest pockets for temporarily holding lenses or other large accessories
- Fall to just about hip length and leave room for layering underneath, without adding too much material that would feel baggy
Process of Elimination: Breaking it Down Further
Prior to the start of my quest for a new shell, I saved my pennies wisely, and when the time came, I chose a price range in the $400-500 area. I stuck to this range with diligence. All of my preparatory research and shopping were done online. (Who has the time to try on 25 different jackets in various retail stores when faceshots await?) I then narrowed down my options to a few choices. Before I even tried on a single jacket, I settled on this process:
- Decide on a set of features I couldn't live without (see above)
- Pick a price range based on my budget (so, $400-500)
- Consider brands I may have tried in the past, and examine brand-specific features that worked, and what didn't
- Sift through reviews of jackets from said favorite brands, and then look at jackets from a few other manufacturers to round things out
- Compile a list of five to ten potential jackets online, then narrow that list down to three or four, depending on further comparison of features, fit, and available sizes
I added a variety of light-duty mountaineering, winter climbing, and technical alpine shells to my list, and began to hone the field. Having spent my fair share of time around products offered by some of the most popular and top-selling brands, I knew that there were many deserving options from those manufacturers, but ultimately I widened my scope to include brands I haven't tried before. As I investigated the products with features and specifications that met my initial shell requirements, a few offerings from Marmot, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia floated to the top of the list.
Patagonia M10 Light as a feather and packs down to next-to-nothing
Reviews praised the M10's weight, versatility, and packability, so I gave it a whirl and found this to be true. Quick-cinching hem adjustability gave me the confidence that I could easily cinch this jacket at the waist on deep days, and the length fell right at my hip; not too low or too high. One professional guide's review mentioned using this jacket regularly as a main shell, and I would have no reservations about doing so. Well-placed underarm vents also provided adequate ventilation.
However, given the jacket's lack of large chest pockets, I looked towards options with more storage space. Often, I find myself bushwhacking through scrub-pines or low hanging tree branches in order to explore new slopes, so I wanted a fabric that felt a little thicker as well.
Marmot Exum Simple design, included all my required features, but the fit was a touch short
Marmot provides insane amounts of space in its chest pockets for gear and skins. The backs of these pockets are welded in for lighter weight and greater durability. I can fit an entire 70-200mm 2.8 telephoto camera lens in one pocket and a Canon 7D SLR camera body in the other. The high collar is great for those who like to tuck their chins in when cold, whipping wind rolls in.
But, the high collar was just high enough to bother me, and the pit zips started and ended a little higher than I liked when I put on my Arc'teryx Arrakis pack. Also, the fit was a bit too short when I layered with my Stoic Luft Down Sweater and Marmot ROM softshell.
Marmot Troll Wall Highly durable feel, giant chest pockets, and easy adjustability
Truth be told, although I tour, I also like to be able to wear my shell jackets as street jackets when I travel. Being a younger guy who likes a roomier fit, I stepped up to a size extra-large from the large I had tried on previously, just as a test. The extra-large jacket's collar was just as high as the large's collar, and there was certainly extra room and a touch of extra length that I liked. With a zip-out waist gaiter, this would probably be the ideal ski jacket.
I was sold on everything about this jacket except for the tall collar. Although some may appreciate the extra face coverage on cold days, I discovered that this would bother me during the ski down. This is a perfect example of how vital it is to try on and compare your potential options in the "real world."
OR Mentor Jacket My final pick due to combination of large chest pockets, pits-to-waist underarm zips, and a roomy but athletic fit that fit my body shape well
Although I wasn't wild about the color scheme at first, I gave the Mentor a shot because of the massive underarm zips. Since I carry a heavy pack and sometimes have to skin with my shell on in less-than-favorable weather, venting can make or break a day. The Mentor's fit was spot-on for my 165lb, 5'11 frame, leaving a touch of length below my hip and enough room for a softshell and hoodless down jacket underneath. Gore-Tex Pro Shell is a little stiff to roll, but the fabric is reassuringly tough in terms of texture. I have no doubt I could run this jacket through some thick brush without it tearing or fraying. After running through the jacket's features, I put it on, opened up the chest pockets, and fit two professional lenses in one chest pocket and a camera body in the other-all I needed after that was a celebratory cold one.
Count the Mentor as my final pick and the one jacket that struck a vital balance between features I wanted and any potential compromises; I only discovered this through comparison against three other extremely deserving choices.
All Wrapped Up
So, once you've done the dirty work to determine the features you can't live without, the tech you must have, and a fit that accommodates layers and your Spartan physique, take one final assessment. Comfortably and calmly try on each option in the low-pressure zone of your own home. Take a breath—no sales person is breathing down your neck, and no one is waiting in line for the mirror, forcing you to make a snap judgment. Make sure the jacket feels right under your backpack's straps, double-check the underarm zips, and stuff those pockets with anything you might want to carry in them. Zip and unzip the collar, raise the hood, and examine price as a potential deciding factor between two similarly awesome options. Select your new shell and dive in with both feet. Then, bask in the ultimate glory of a carefully selected piece of gear.
Ultimately the decision is yours alone, entirely based on your personal set of needs for touring, and you'll end up with a shell that'll go the distance season-after-season. And should you meet a friend struggling on the skin track with his stylish-yet-not-quite-right jacket, feel free to take a moment to pat yourself on the back for choosing your gear with the trained eye of a seasoned vet.
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