Winter Shell Jacket
Outdoor Research Skyward II Jacket
$350, 1 lb. 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
Winter Shell Pants
Outdoor Research Skyward II Pants
$299, 1 lb. 5.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
OR’s Skyward II Jacket and Skyward II Pants have demonstrated unique versatility as winter shells over numerous days of backcountry skiing in a full range of conditions. I’ve skinned uphill and skied downhill through hours of dumping snow in temperatures in the teens and 20s Fahrenheit without ever taking the jacket off (and obviously not removing the pants) and remained comfortable skiing in single-digit temps (with an insulation layer under the jacket) and weather shifting from falling snow to sunshine.
The fact that I rarely wear any shell jacket all day, especially 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 II Jacket over insulation and two base layers for on 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.
I wore the Skyward II Pants on several days of backcountry skiing in conditions ranging from partly sunny with temps in the 20s to dumping wet snow, skinning uphill and skiing downhill, and the pants kept me dry throughout. Areas that received a lot of direct snowfall, like the front of the thighs, appeared to wet out, but dried fairly quickly.
The secret sauce in both the jacket and pants 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.
These garments are hard shells that look, feel, and breathe like a soft shell. On days of backcountry skiing when the jacket never left my back—including touring in falling snow with the 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 climbing uphill, my next-to-skin top only got damp and it dried out in the time we took digging a snow pit to assess avalanche hazard. That’s purely a measure of the jacket’s breathability.
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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 II Jacket shrugged off hours of falling snow and 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 jacket’s 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.
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The pants have ventilating side zippers extending from hips to knees, which I unzipped only during warmest moments skinning uphill; but the pants breathe well enough that I usually didn’t have to open those vents, finding that only necessary in spring-like ski conditions. There are four zippered pockets, two on the thigh and two hand pockets, and a mesh avalanche beacon pocket inside the right hand pocket that’s easy to access while wearing gloves.
The waistband, adjustable using hook-and-loop straps on each side, has a soft fleece lining and belt loops. PowerSlot slits in the inside and outside of the internal gaiters allow passing a boot’s power strap through, so that the gaiter doesn’t have to be moved off the boot to adjust that strap; although feeding the strap through the gaiter when putting boots on proves a bit time-consuming, it’s a useful feature. The gaiters have solid nylon at the elasticized bottoms, to keep snow out of boots, and fine mesh for breathability above the boot tops, where calves produce a lot of heat. The pants are built for hard use, with 50-denier fabric throughout and 420-denier nylon scuff guards at the leg bottoms.
You can find lighter shells for winter mountain sports, but many lack the versatility and features of the Outdoor Research Skyward II Jacket and Pants. And they breathe so well that they feel and wear like lighter shells.
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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.