In our fourth and final installment in the best winter gear of 2013, we’re looking at probably your most important piece of equipment – a good multi-use jacket. From wool-insulated workout wear to the hardest hard shell we’ve ever seen, this year’s backcountry jackets are an eclectic crop. Material upgrades and smart design leaps have made outerwear a locus of innovation. (Molecular-level polymer coating, anyone?) But enough lab-speak. In a storm, a shell is your second skin and your most mission-critical piece of gear. If you go deep into the winter wilds, settle for nothing less than a full-on water-proof-breathable (a.k.a. hard) shell with a fully functioning hood, the kind with a wire-stiffened brim and multiple adjustment points that let you batten down the hatches, when necessary, and still see. Sidecountry and cross-country skiers need not suit up so seriously—comfort, weight, and breathability can be your top concerns when chairlifts or chalets are in the area. Want warmth in any weather? Look to the new types of insulation, including lofted wool and water-resistant goose down. Finally, for aerobic pursuits like running in the cold or racing on snowshoes, airy, midlayer-like tops are all you need when the sweat pours but the spit still freezes to your face.
La Sportiva Storm Fighter GTX
Who knew that an Italian bootmaker would be so proficient in the jacket game right out of the gate? The Storm Fighter’s Active Shell fabric—a new, lighter-weight version of Gore-Tex’s most breathable stuff—kept us bone-dry during three days of nonstop rain along Northern California’s Lost Coast Trail, and it breathed impressively well as we huffed along Lake Superior’s North Shore through sideways snow. Smart details like Velcro-less cuffs that slide into (not over) gloves and a tiny magnet at the hem that holds the zipper cover in place made us smile. All that, plus it’s better looking (love the asymmetrical detail on the shoulder) and just as light as every other hard shell in its class.
Arc’teryz Alpha SV
The revamped Alpha SV is cut from an up-armored version of Gore’s Pro 3L, which you’ll also find on Arc’teryx’s Gear of the Year-winning resort jacket. Put simply, it’s one of the most durable fabrics we’ve ever tested. Cut a bit looser than your classic Arc’teryx jacket to fit over bulkier winter layers, the SV is near artisanal in its construction, with miniature bellows on the chest pockets so they’ll lie flat when empty and foam tubing to keep the hem from riding up under your climbing harness.
Rab Stretch Neo
The key to its versatility is Polartec’s NeoShell fabric, which breathes as well as any waterproof material we’ve ever worn. The alpine-influenced design includes long arms, a helmet-compatible hood, and two massive pockets on the chest for stowing gloves, glasses, a hat, and a day’s worth of energy bars.
Mountain Hardwear Quasar Pullover
Designed by Swiss speed climber Ueli Steck, this ultralight (under 10 ounces) waterproof-breathable anorak is about as simple as it gets, with a small hood that fits best under, not over, a helmet (Steck prefers the close-to-head, under-helmet fit) and a single non-zippered pocket inside the chest. The only real creature comfort is the soft, thumb-hole-equipped cuffs, which are certainly cozy—until they get wet. On damp days, the fabric sponged up water as we climbed.
Photo by Lisa Widerberg