All-Season Shell Jacket
Montane Ajax Jacket
$380, 16 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: US men’s S-XXL, women’s 6-14
As the wind-driven snow came down heavily while a partner and I backcountry skied in Idaho’s Boise Mountains, I cinched the hood of my Montane Ajax Jacket closely over my head, looked around, and thought: “beautiful day.” We were skiing untracked, light powder, and despite wind chills around zero Fahrenheit or below hammering us for hours, I felt dry, warm, and almost completely sealed off from the inclement conditions in this all-season shell. If your usual mountain playgrounds often turn meteorologically unfriendly, the Ajax’s performance and price warrant a close look. Here’s why.
A four-season shell for extreme conditions, it’s one of the toughest jackets on the market, made with 40-denier fabric reinforced with 70-denier fabric in high-abrasion areas: the shoulders, arms and chest. The Gore-Tex membrane repels any precipitation and wind; it kept me dry even through sustained wet snowfall. And yet, at one pound, this shell’s weight penalty for significantly greater durability is about two ounces compared to other high-end shells that are made for severe mountain weather, but lack the more-durable fabric reinforcements. It also packs down to the size of a liter bottle.
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The fit strikes a nice balance between having space for layering light insulation (over a midweight base layer) underneath while remaining trim enough to not inhibit movement. Articulated shoulders allowed me to lift my arms straight overhead with only minimal bunching of the jacket front.
The helmet-compatible hood is one of the best-fitting you’ll find, embracing and moving with your head, with a stiffened brim that keeps blowing snow and rain out of your face. Zip up the jacket front and cinch the hood tight, and you can bury your face up to your nose behind nylon. The two zippered hand pockets are each large enough to swallow a climbing skin, and the zippered chest pocket is fairly spacious, holding a hat and map. Although some Americans might not love the left-handed front zipper, it moves smoothly, never snagging, and has a beefy internal storm flap. Zipper pulls and hook-and-loop tabs are all designed for grabbing with gloves. Like any all-weather shell, of course, it sports adjustable cuffs and hem.
The Ajax Jacket lacks pit zippers for venting, and like most shells made for extreme weather, it offers moderate breathability—and neither of those facts should dissuade you from buying it. It’s comfortable for hiking, climbing, or skiing up or down with a pack on in cool to sub-freezing temps, so you won’t easily overheat, and more zippers only add superfluous grams. It breathed well enough that when my base layer got damp with sweat from skinning uphill, it dried out in minutes while I skied downhill. Worn over base and insulation layers while resort skiing, it was similarly a bulwark against pelting from horizontal snow and graupel and bone-chilling winds.
This is not the shell to get for lightweight dayhiking or backpacking in generally warm, fair weather—you would overheat, it’s just too much jacket for that.
But for backpacking, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or hut treks in mountains where you can face a full range of weather conditions—think northerly ranges like the North Cascades and Olympics, northern Rockies from the Tetons and Wind River Range to Glacier National Park, Alaska, or the northern Appalachians (like New Hampshire’s White Mountains), especially in late summer, spring, and fall—the Montana Ajax Jacket delivers full protection at a good price for this level of performance and durability.
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See “The 5 Best Rain Jacket for Hiking and Backpacking,” “5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket For the Backcountry,” and all of my reviews of rain jackets, winter shell jackets, and outdoor apparel that I like at The Big Outside.
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.