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Shell vs. Insulated: 6 things to consider when buying a ski jacket this sale season

It's spring, not that it sometimes feels like it the way the weather has been of late. Its been so bad that even the Irish are complaining about the weather ...

Anyway, meteorology for another thread, spring means end-of-season sales and the opportunity to grab an absolute bargain to keep yourself looking fresh on the slopes when winter comes round again.

There are two distinct types of ski jacket available on the market - shells and insulated jackets. The difference between them is quite simple and indeed stated in the name; insulated jackets have warmth provided, whereas shells are just that, they provide the waterproofing and the windproof and you provide the warmth separately.

I'm going to run through some of the key things to consider when heading to the shops this sale season to make sure you get the right jacket for your needs, and offer my favourite picks of each at the end.


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Insulated Ski Jackets

1. Warmth

Insulated ski jackets are warámer. That might seem like a really obvious statement, consider we're discussing jackets that have insulation in them versus those that do not. But even similar levels of insulation as your mid layer, shell jackets just don't compete with insulated jackets for warmth.

This makes insulated ski jackets ideal for a number of different scenarios. First of all, if you are someone who feels the cold, you don't need to look any further. Normally I am one of the biggest advocates for a layering system, using between three and four different layers of clothing to alternatively provide warmth and sweat wicking. However, there are situations where I feel it is appropriate for this to be cast by the wayside, and this is one of them. If you feel the cold, sack off technical layers and throw on your favourite hoody or ... a nice, warm insulated jacket.

Lest we also forget that skiing takes place in cold climates, with some climates and some locations colder than others. I remember skiing in Eastern Canada, where temperatures regularly dropped to -20 degrees celcius and even hit -35 degrees on occasion. Nothing else will withstand those kind of temperatures other than a good quality insulated ski jacket.

2. Cost

Ski gear is quite expensive, and indeed, like everything else in this world, is getting more expensive. Insulated ski jackets are often pathways to really good value ski gear, something that cannot be overlooked when it comes time to update your winter wardrobe.

Are there negative reasons for this? Well, yes. Shells and standalone mid-layers are more technical and better performing pieces. But how much this is necessary for your own skiing adventures can vary, and, in combination with features such as the added warmth of an insulated jacket, saving a few pennies and missing out on these features is no bad thing.

Several brands specialise in more "casual" ski gear which will tend towards insulated jackets over shells. The North Face is a really good example of this. They've pivoted to producing a lot of casual wear over the last few years, and the quality of some of their technical gear has taken a hit as a result. However, they've re-focused their technical gear more in recent years, to the point where they now offer really high quality gear at really, really good prices.

3. Low Intensity Skiing

There's a recurring theme throughout this section, which is insulated jackets are better for "low intensity" skiing; that is cruising the blues, enjoying a nice long lunch in the sun, and maybe not heading out if it is blowing a gale or socked in with whiteout conditions. Which, to be honest, sounds like a perfect skiing week after some of the madness I usually get up to!

This is all kinda true. I'll dive into the whys and wherefores of why shells are better for high intensity skiing further down, but a lot of it comes down to getting the right gear for the right skiing. Low intensity skiing means you will generate far less of your own body heat, meaning that added "oomph" from an insulated ski jacket is needed when the mercury drops. Alongside this, because you are generating less heat (and therefore less sweat), you need to shed this heat (and sweat) far less than if you were sending a huge powder line or on a 30-minute bootpack.

Of course, you can also find plenty of examples where insulated jackets hit the wallet harder than shells. These are from really high-end brands that want you to make a statement (perhaps on their behalf, perhaps not) when on the hill; think Goldbergh or Montclair. But at the other end, insulated jackets offer the right jacket for the right skiing, for the right price. Not to be sneezed at.


A skier wearing a red jacket and green helmet is stood in front of a small chapel, high in the mountains surround by snow,
One of the last times I skied in an insulated jacket in Cervinia, Christmas 2015


Shell Jackets

4. Performance

What is it that you mean by the performance of a jacket, I hear you cry, perhaps not for the first time on one of my blogs ...

Simply put, the performance of a jacket, and indeed any piece of clothing whose primary objective is to keep you dry, is how well it keeps water out, but it also includes other factors such as allowing sweating to wick away. This last bit is just as important; a black plastic rubbish bag is one of the most waterproof items you can fined, but you wouldn't wear it for skiing or indeed anything. It's lack of breathability means you will sweat and sweat and sweat, and that sweat won't go anywhere, turning the inside of the jacket into a steam room. Dis-gus-ting.

So how does a shell perform better than an insulated jacket? With an insulated jacket, the quality of some of the key factors, such as waterproofing, are compromised when you smash together the waterproof layer with the warm layer. The extra stitching you add to hold it all together or to shape is creates more weak points for leaks to spring from or to fail, and by trapping sweat, dirt and grease in the insulation you can impact the performance of the waterproof face fabric.

Without these limitations, shell jackets can afford to use more high-tech materials and manufacturing processes. Gore-Tex work closely with brands and only allow them to use their super-duper-waterproof-yet-breathable materials on designs and face fabrics they consider suitable. Therefore, Gore-Text jackets are a mark of a really high quality jacket in their own right. And guess what? You only find the iconic diamond shaped Gore-Tex tag on shell jackets, such is the limiting performance of adding insulation as part of the design of the jacket.

5. Flexibility On the Mountain

So, insulated jackets are great when it is cold or if you are cold. But what if it's not cold, or you are not cold? Perhaps you are skiing later in the season, around Easter, or one of the many unseasonably warm spells hits as you fly out to the mountains. In these situations, the warmth from your insulated jacket will be overbearing, so having the option to take this out is ideal.

This is where the flexibility of a shell and the wider layering system comes in handy. The same ski jacket can keep pace with you all year round, simply by swapping out the layers underneath. It also means when you strap your skis to your back for that gruelling 30-minute bootpack to the top of Pisteurs couloir you can quickly and easily shed the warm layer, but keep the jacket on to provide protection from the snow and wind.

You might also be in the process of growing your skiing, from low intensity to high intensity, ticking off bigger lines or steeper pitches that require more work and effort to stay on top of the snow, generating more heat as you go. Switching to a shell in advance can save you overheating further down the line as your skiing improves.

6. Flexibility Off the Mountain

This is a growing trend regarding shells that I remain somewhat conflicted about, but I am happy to cede the benefit of the doubt to for the time being.

Shells can also be used for keeping you dry off the mountain, or at least off the snow. Several revisions to industry leading pieces such as Arc'teryx's Rush jacket have removed some of the snowsports specific features and made them more usable if you're out for a hike, for example. It uses the same high quality Gore-Tex and materials as other more multi-purpose jackets that they make, so why can't you use it for hiking?

Trying to hike or stroll around town in an insulated skiing jacket is a non-starter. Outside of the freezing temperatures of the mountains, the insulation provided is just too much, causing you to overheat and sweat to build up inside. Not fun.


A skier wearing a blue jacket and burgundy trousers walking towards the camera, skis strapped to his backpack.
The (nearly) top of the 30-minute bootpack to the top of Pisteurs Couloir in Val d'Isere, France. I am not wearing my usual bright orange midlayer in this pic - it was a scorcher of a day, so I utilised the flexibility of my layering system.



So, I hear you cry, dear Reader, what would I recommend?

From an insulated point of view, I have long been a fan of the Salomon Brilliant jacket for men; brilliant by name, brilliant by nature, the Brilliant features Salomon's own high quality waterproofing technology, plus a really nice layer of synthetic insulation. As only the French can do, the jacket also features a brilliant (d'ya get it?) fit, flattering in all the right places and stylish as all hell.

Helly Hansen are a brand that have fallen off the map a little in previous seasons, but they've been quietly plugging away behind closed Norwegian doors producing still-excellent kit. The Imperial Puffy Ski Jacket for women is a great example of this, although the name could use a bit of work. A clean, stylish look with the perfect balance of colours and at a really good price, the down insulation will pack a serious punch warmth wise.

From a shell point of view, I have been skiing in the Arc'teryx Sabre for approaching eight seasons now. It has changed a bit in that time, but the fundamentals remain the same, with a high quality Gore-Tex membrane backed by a really gentle fleece lining that just provides an extra punch when the wind gets up or the sun dips behind a cloud, without impacting the breathability of the piece. As this is a thread inspired by end of season sales, I will also recommend their Rush jacket which can be found on sale, which is the same albeit without the fleece liner and, if I'm being honest, probably one of the best skiing shells currently on the market.

Finally, Norrona have quietly become one of the best outerwear manufacturers there is, their iconic alternating blocks of colour standing out on the mountain and in the backcountry. The Lofoten (for women) is the best of these, a classic hardshell that will fight tooth and nail to keep you dry in even the worst conditions.


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