Winter Shell Jacket
Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket
$350, 1 lb. 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
From the moment we left our car, through several hours of backcountry skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains—uphill and downhill, in dumping snow and temperatures from the teens to the 20s Fahrenheit—until we got back to the car, this soft shell never left my back. Not once. The only layering change I made all day was to twice pull an insulated jacket on over the shell. The fact that I can’t remember the last time I wore any shell jacket all day, through a huge range of exertion levels in winter conditions, speaks to this shell’s superior breathability. But it proved superior by many performance measures as a shell for backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, mountaineering, and ice climbing.
Besides days of backcountry skiing, I also wore the Skyward over insulation and two base layers for two cold, December days of resort skiing, in single-digit temps and weather varying from falling snow to sunshine. It has space for warm layers, and cut wind while releasing heat and moisture when I telemark skied off-trail bumps. The jacket’s secret sauce is the high breathability of OR’s stretchy, proprietary AscentShell fabric—the same fabric that’s used in OR’s three-season Realm Jacket—which moves moisture fast. The waterproof-breathable Electrospun membrane creates a web of microscopic, polyurethane fibers that keep water out and is permeable to vapor.
It’s a hard shell that looks, feels, and breathes like a soft shell. On the day of backcountry skiing when it never left my back—and another two-hour ski tour in falling snow when I wore it, hood up, the entire time—the two base layers I wore under the Skyward were basically dry most of the day. Even though I sweated whenever we climbed uphill (at a moderate pace), my next-to-skin top only got damp on our first, longest climb, and it dried out while we dug a snow pit to assess avalanche hazard. That’s purely a measure of the jacket’s breathability.
It also excels in ventilation, with unique, two-way, side-pit zippers that run from under the biceps all the way to the hem. You can open the entire sides of the jacket while keeping most precipitation off your body, even release snaps at the hem and flip the back of the jacket up over the top of your pack, to keep your back that much cooler while still having protection above from falling snow. The adjustable hem extends several inches below the waist—keeping snow out of your pants.
Fully seam taped, the Skyward shrugged off hours of falling snow, and it kept out cold wind whether I was skiing a backcountry slope or riding a resort lift. The helmet-compatible hood adjusts at the collar and in back and has a sturdy brim—it kept blowing snow and wind off my face, and with the jacket zipped up, the collar stands tall enough to cover the lower half of my face. The four waterproof, zippered external pockets—two on the chest, two at hand level—are mesh for better ventilation and to make them more useful in drying gloves and hats with body heat; the left chest pocket has a mesh media pocket inside. One demerit: A pack or harness belt overlaps the hand pockets. Two roomy, internal, mesh stuff-it pockets are big enough to hold climbing skins. Lastly, the elasticized cuffs adjust with fat hook-and-loop strips to ensure durability.
You can find lighter shells for winter mountain sports, but many lack the comprehensive features of the Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket. And it breathes so well that it feels and wears like a lighter shell.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the men’s or the women’s Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, outdoorresearch.com, or rei.com.
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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 a menu of all of my Gear Reviews at The Big Outside.