The coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 may adversely impact alpine ski resorts and skiing travel this winter, but the same crisis is widely expected to fuel big increases in Nordic skiing (cross-country), alpine touring (aka uphill skiing, AT or skinning), split-boarding and snowshoeing. In the past week, the New York Times alone did three stories on this dramatic growth, covering the alpine touring boom, citing increased snowshoeing, and once again noting alpine touring’s newfound pandemic popularity. The Snowsports Industries America (SIA), winter sports’ trade group, projected increases of 48-65% across snowshoeing and backcountry, uphill, and cross-country skiing. So, whatever your reason for getting out on the snow this winter, you’ll want to stay as warm, dry, safe and comfy as possible.
I have been covering ski and winter gear for two-plus decades, and personally put a lot of it to the test each year, in bounds, out of bounds, and around the world, in terrible weather and bluebird days, from sea level to high elevation. I can say with experience and certainty that the materials, designs and features for high-tech snowsports outerwear are the best they have ever been, and a handful of top specialty manufacturers are harnessing these advances to roll out an incredible crop of feature laden, cutting edge, cold weather apparel.
Mountaineering and skiing were both sports invented in Europe, and not surprisingly, European gear companies have been the leaders in pushing the innovations envelope since the 19th century and continue to do so today. What’s “new,” at least to us, is that some of these brands were once unknown and almost impossible to find here, but have ridden the wave of globalization into better ski shops, their own boutiques, and of course, through e-tail. So, while you will find few of the widely recognizable American and Canadian brand names below, you will find names that are synonymous with alpinism and have long venerable histories of world class products. At the opposite end of the gear spectrum are a handful of niche newcomers who typically arrived on the scene after detecting some failing or missed opportunities in the outdoor pursuits their founders were passionate about, and have stepped up to fill the gap. So while I saw little of interest that was new this year from the biggest, most ubiquitous outdoor gear brands, I found plenty of impressive innovations here and abroad that can help you more thoroughly – and safely – enjoy everything this unpredictable winter throws your way.
It’s worth noting that you do not have spend a fortune to equip yourself for winter, and there are plenty of worthy bargain and value products out there, many of which I have written about in the past. But today we are not looking at the best buys, just the best. That being said, many of these are available at significantly less than the suggested full retail prices listed below.
Helly Hansen Elevation Infinity Shell Jacket: I’m starting here because Norway’s Helly Hansen is one of history’s consistently best and most innovative outdoor gear companies, and a longtime favorite of mine. The eponymous founder, Hansen, was a Norwegian fisherman faced with bitterly cold and wet conditions. He made his own oilskin outerwear, and it worked so well that in the late 1800’s he began making more for other anglers. As the company grew, it always innovated, and thanks in large part to the creation of the very first revolutionary waterproof, synthetic jackets (PVC), the brand became widely known among sailors, who regarded it as the best ocean worthy foul weather gear available (many still do). The founders’ son, also Helly Hansen, oversaw an avalanche of additional technological advances that completely changed the way we dress for outdoor sports, including the first performance base layers, or long underwear, polypropylene LIFA, and one of the first polyester based fleeces. These were worn below the waterproof shells, and as such, Helly Hansen invented what we know today as the widely used layering concept, the best way to dress for cold weather sports. Since becoming a top tier star in clothes for skiing – also invented in Norway – the added innovations (especially carving out a niche in adjustable, zipper venting and airflow for constant, precise temperature regulation) may not have been as radically game changing but they have kept coming. And all of the latest and greatest can be found in the new Elevation Infinity Jacket ($750) though you can’t go wrong with anything from the brand, from long underwear to pants to my all-time favorite under shell skiing mid-layer, the Lifaloft Insulator ($200,).
How advanced is the Elevation Infinity? It was a 2020 ISPO Award Gold Winner in the Snowsports segment, voted as the best product in the Hardshell Jackets category. The most prestigious such competition, Germany’s ISPO annually seeks out the best made, engineered and consumer products on earth. The model is the signature of their new lineup featuring the highest performance material Helly Hansen has made to date, LIFA Infinity Pro, 3-layer outerwear with inherent and permanent weatherproof attributes. It’s a fully waterproof, highly breathable, totally windproof fabric that is manufactured with zero chemicals, topical coatings or solvents, so unlike some rivals, will never need reproofing. To stop leaks where they occur in lesser outerwear, all seams are ultra-sonically welded, and it uses top of the line YKK AquaGuard zippers. LIFA Infinity Pro performs inside and out, fending off the wettest conditions during the highest output activities. Built to keep the snow, wet and cold out of the all the vulnerable connection points – waist, wrists, neck and face – even in the deepest backcountry powder, it has a long freeride fit and detachable powder skirt to fully protect the waist, can be connected directly to pants to create a modular one piece system, adds a uniquely innovative built-in removable balaclava and has wrist gaiters with thumb holes. What else? It has a built in RECCO Advanced Rescue system reflector for added safety in avalanches, a highly fitted and adjustable helmet compatible hood, HH’s signature underarm ventilation zippers, articulated sleeves for maximum range of motion, dual hand warmer pockets plus dual secure chest pockets plus internal pockets for goggles and electronics plus a sleeve ski pass pocket. Last but not least is one feature you will find on no other brand – the Life Pocket. A new HH signature, this uses NASA-engineered Primaloft Aerogel insulation to make your phone and electronics batteries last longer in cold weather. Most insulation doesn’t work on such inanimate devices, but Aerogel was developed to keep sensitive electronics protected in the cold of space.
Aether Stealth Bibs: I personally prefer bibs when skiing, for two reasons, They can’t slide or sag down, exposing skin, and models that are higher waisted effectively black snow and weather no matter how deep – or how big a fall you take. But by virtue of fitting over hard boots with lots of pointy projections (buckles), constantly moving through abrasive snow, being sat on, and so on, pants take a lot more abuse than jackets. Yet even from otherwise top brands, I’ve been surprised how many design flaws I’ve found in bibs, from terribly designed suspender straps to stupid front fly closures to poorly thought out zippers to general flimsiness. In the past few years, I’ve put pricey models from Arc’teryx, Backcountry and Dynafit into “early retirement” due to flaws. But after a full hard charging season, with a lot more left to come, the Aether Stealth Snow Bibs ($650) have become my downhill favorite for features, materials, quality and sheer bulletproof beefiness. It expertly combines three different top shelf Gore-Tex fabrics, using abrasion-resistant hard-shell material where it’s needed for preventing wear, on the back and lower legs, even beefier heavy duty fabric for the bottom scuff guards, and stretch Gore-Tex everywhere else for great freedom of movement, all with total waterproof, breathable, protection from the elements. It’s got just a touch of Primaloft Gold (my favorite insulation) in the knees and seat, which is great for the chairlift or sitting or kneeling in the snow, but it doesn’t bake you the way fully insulated bibs (usually overkill) do. All the zippers are high quality waterproof ones and it’s got plenty right where they are needed: zippered secure hand pockets, back pockets, a very secure chest pocket (passport, keys, etc.) that is under everything else your wear and vents on the inner thighs for when the action heats up. It’s even got waterproof zippers for the ankle closure, where many bibs go with snaps or hooks that often break or wear out. These are paired with internal gaiters to make putting boots on and off a snap, and then keeping all the snow out. Velcro tabs allow easy, customizable, precise adjustment of inside both waist and leg openings, and for extra safety, it has an integrated Recco rescue reflector. This is a substantial, well thought-out, highly protective piece of outdoor clothing.
Interestingly, Aether was created to bring outdoor gear function and technology to more stylish city folk, and with shops in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, three quarters of its pieces are meant for the urban jungle, but built for the wilds, with lifetime manufacturing guarantees on everything. The snowsports and motorcycle outwear lineups are a smaller part of the overall brand, but still top shelf, and they have a full line of men’s and women’s ski jackets and pants.
Mammut Nordwand Pro HS Jacket: If I had to go out on a limb and proclaim one outdoor mountain focused company “the best,” it would be Switzerland’s Mammut, which has been killing it in the world of elite climbing, skiing, trekking and all things mountain gear for over 150 years – and doing it with unwavering Swiss precision and always current state of the art technologies. They make a very wide range of clothing but also hiking and climbing boots, packs, avalanche beacons, even ropes. If it has to do with mountains or adventure, Mammut probably makes it very well. I’ve had a lot of the brand’s gear over the years, and nothing has ever let me down. But my new favorite is the Nordwand Pro ($825), which in typically understated Swiss manner is described simply as a “Hardshell jacket for extreme alpine expeditions.” The name is German for then North Face of the Eiger, one of the world’s most dangerous, difficult and too often fatal climbs.
The model name has been around for a bit, but the 2020 version is all new, improved with a lot of input from sponsored Mammut Pro Team athletes who take on such challenges. It combines two versions of the newest highest performance Gore-Tex fabric, Gore-Tex Pro. Pro Stretch is used where mobility is key for maximum range of motions, and Pro Most Rugged everywhere else. The Nordwand’s main design impetus was to harness technology to offer the ideal combination of weather protection and durability, making this a serious backcountry worthy piece, one that is equally at home on extended tours, daylong uphill slogs, ski mountaineering or simple resort skiing. In its new iteration, all high wear spots have been beefed up, and it has a highly adjustable helmet compatible hood, two-way zippers on the oversized underarm vents for easy temperature adjustability on the fly, and removable snow skirt. Even the little features like the soft microfleece chin protector impress – for instance, many manufacturers seem to forget that during winter sports people wear gloves, but Mammut carefully kept this in mind, and added one-hand, glove friendly drawstring cords with plastic stoppers for easy, precise adjustment of hem and hood. It’s got pockets galore, inside, outside and sleeve, with the front ones designed to be accessible while wearing a climbing harness. It’s for taking adventure to a higher level.
Ortovox Piz Palu Jacket: Another Swiss outdoor gear specialist bred from the birthplace of mountaineering, Ortovox is best known as the gold standard leader for emergency and avalanche gear. If you have heli-skied, cat-skied, backcountry skied or invested in a quality airbag backpack, avalanche transceiver, shovel or probe, there’s a good chance it was an Ortovox. But they also make clothing, with a focus on merino and Swisswool, and I’ve long been a champion of wool in outdoor gear. It’s usually found in base layers as a (much better) substitute for synthetics, but here it is used as insulation in lieu of down, over which it has several advantages. Swisswool comes entirely from sheep living in Switzerland at altitude, the merino from New Zealand, and both offer excellent thermal properties and performance features, most notably for active outdoor use, a distinct lack of odor even if exposed to a lot of sweat, the fact that it still keeps you warm even if it gets wet, which feathers do not, and it’s a sustainable, non-controversial, natural material.
The Piz Palu is marketed as and was developed to be “the ultimate ski touring jacket,” but while it excels at uphill skiing, it has also become my go to cool weather hiking jacket, on its own or under a shell when raining or colder. In this vein, Backpacker Magazine rated it the Most Comfortable insulated winter jackets of 2019, and in addition, it has won a slew of European outdoor gear and design awards. It’s a mid-layer, it’s a jacket, it’s a sit around the fire bit of coziness, sort of like that hooded sweatshirt you love on high-tech steroids. It’s to winter clothing what comfort food is to eating. Treated with a durable water resistant (DWR) finish, the Piz Palu ($360) can handle light rain, mist, fog or snow, while maintaining the even better breathability you get when you don’t go fully waterproof. Designed for highly aerobic activities – i.e. sweating – it’s thin, light and extremely breathable. The main insulation is a lightweight layer of Swisswool in most of the body plus the shoulder and chin areas, along with a merino softshell liner everywhere else. One of the most unique design features is that the entire wrist and forearm area is extra-stretchy, heat shedding uninsulated Schoeller softshell fabric, complete with thumb holes, the best fitting of any jacket in my sizable stable. The rest of the exterior is light, windproof Pertex Quantum. As insulted jackets go, the Piz Palu is light, to me good for temps in the 40s and 50s without any help, or under a shell with a good base layer for downhill skiing. The real appeal is breathability, extreme comfort and mobility for alpine touring, cross country skiing, snowshoeing or any higher output winter pursuit. It is also highly packable for those “if you need it” days, and generally this is the perfect category-spanning “other jacket,” the one you will use even if you have a super high tech shell and heavy parka. It is sleek but still packs in well-thought out feature like a fully adjustable stretch hood, front pockets designed for access when wearing a backpack, and what really stands out are the uniquely asymmetrical color schemes, which makes this look different from everything else out there. Offered in men’s and women’s models and cuts.
Outdoor Research AltiHeat Heated Glove Collection: Ask skiers what problems they have with cold, and the most common answers are fingers and toes. Today there are a variety of add on or integrated in-boot heaters that take care of the feet, plus high-tech heated ski socks (though for multi-day ski trips there is a washability conundrum) and a widely increased range of electronic heated apparel for every other kind of outerwear. But frankly, I’ve never seen a need or appeal for heated vests, jackets or hats, while the technology is awesome in gloves. The problem with heated – or any battery powered tech mixed with outdoor recreation – is reliability, battery life and failure. That’s why you want gloves that would be warm even without the power, and that’s why no manufacturer offers a range like Outdoor Research, a longtime veteran manufacturer of mountaineering, climbing and backcountry gear. I skied loyally in OR gloves for more than a decade before the advent of heated models, and they have continued the rich tradition of warmth and durability in a lineup of different price points.
If you want the max output, their top of the line Capstone breaks now technology ground as the first model that can take one or two batteries per glove, effectively doubling the heat offered by OR’s already impressive AltiHeat system. In addition, it is fully insulated with PrimaLoft, the top synthetic out there, fully lined with Gore-Tex membrane for total waterproof protection, and has full gauntlets to completely cover your wrist. New for this season, they have upgraded the power button, making it easier to see the current heat level and to use with gloves on. It also features the company’s sensor technology, fingertips compatible with your touch screen devices to avoid pulling gloves off in the cold to use a phone. Available in five sizes for perfect fit, the Capstone is the top of the OR heated line ($500) but the bestseller is the more reasonably priced Lucent ($359), very similar but with a single battery system, also upgraded with sensor touchscreen friendly fingertips and the new better power button. For those who favor mittens (warmer but less finger dexterity) the Lucent is also available in a mitten version. Good gloves are too pricey and too vital to lose, yet you see them laying under chairlifts all the time. That’s why I am fan of wrists cords that make them impossible to drop even when you take them off to open a pocket or such, and both Capstone and Lucent have these. The AltiHeat lineup includes two lighter weight models, the Stormtracker ($265), using the newest windproof and highly breathable (not waterproof) Gore Infinium, aimed at ski touring, ice or alpine climbing with less insulation and more dexterity, and the Gripper ($199), a heated work glove style, both with touchscreen sensor fingers. It may be overkill, but these two thinner models are also great for jumping in your car and grabbing the wheel on freezing cold days.
Aztech Mountain Hayden & Ajax Jackets: Aztech Mountain is an Aspen-based brand launched in 2013 to fill the niche between designer luxury and serious technical ski gear. There are plenty of fashion brands making ski clothes, but they have never been anything I’d be interested in trusting with my health and comfort. Aztech is an anomaly, a brand that embraces cutting edge technology and materials that you can buy at Bergdorf Goodman. They take performance seriously enough that they sought out technical insights from the most awarded men’s U.S. ski racer of all time, Bode Miller, with half a dozen Olympic medals, another half dozen World Championship wins, and two overall World Cup season titles. Miller bought in and is now partner and Chief Innovation Officer, and told me that, “I did a lot of work on the design. Your jacket has to be right and I want one that works every day and can handle the biggest mountains and the toughest weather conditions, because otherwise you need to pack four jackets, and no one has the room for that. Your ski jacket is one of those pieces of gear you can’t get away with doing a crappy job on.”
I mostly recommend shells and layering and that’s how I roll, but the Ajax ($1,400) is my top pick for an insulated ski jacket for anyone who gets cold easily or visits extreme conditions. It’s also the one ski jacket I never wear skiing, because frankly it’s too warm for me. However I do wear it when I when walk around cities in winter, because it looks way nicer than other winter jackets, and it’s the one I packed when I went to Geneva for work in the middle of last winter, staying at a 5-star hotel and hitting Michelin-starred restaurants. As Miller said, “We wanted something you would look good walking around New York City or going out to a nice dinner in that still works as well as any ski gear out there.” The Ajax is all that. While most American and European gear companies embrace either US-made Gore products or Europe’s Schoeller, the designers at Aztech favor the cutting edge Japanese technical fabrics, which often combine performance characteristics with better drape and hand. The Ajax uses Toray Dermizax EV 4-way stretch nylon, which is totally waterproof but claims higher breathability than competitors, with all seams thermo-welded. For insulation (lots!) it uses a combination of top shelf PrimaLoft Gold and PrimaLoft’s newer synthetic down replacement, Black ThermoPlume, which gives it that puffier “down jacket” feel without the real feather issues. It has a removable helmet compatible hood, removable powder skirt, all the right zippers and pockets, but mostly it is super warm and waterproof. Same deal with pants – I don’t like insulated models but if you get cold easily and want them, checkout the PrimaLoft Gold lined Team Aztech Ski Pant, which I have tried and is toasty.
The one I do use is the Hayden ($695), Aztech’s 3-layer softshell. Also made with the stretchy, waterproof, ultra-breathable Toray Dermizax EV 4-way stretch, it offers all the mobility and protection you could want in a shell, but is cozy enough again the skin to wear alone as spring ski touring jacket without the clamminess you find in many. It’s got venting, excellent pockets (inside, outside and sleeve), a great hood, removable powder skirt and more. Both these jackets also come in an array of colors most companies can’t compete with, and Aztech Mountain launched a full women’s line last year that looks even better.
Norrona Lofoten Gore-Tex Pro Jacket & Pants: Another time honored (90-plus years) manufacturer of the highest quality, high performance outdoor gear from the birthplace of skiing? Yep. Norway’s Norrona devotes a third of its workforce to R&D and is credited with everything from the first tunnel style tent for climbers to Europe’s first Gore-Tex jacket. The core focus remains active outdoor and mountain pursuits including skiing in all forms, mountain biking, hiking and trekking. The fourth-generation family owned company’s overarching philosophy is called Loaded Minimalism: “We build touchstone products, establish construction techniques, and redefine the meaning of fit, fabric, function, and finish, based on our design principle of Loaded Minimalism: great products made as clean as possible with all critical details.”
A versatile shell that is equally at home within ski resort boundaries or on backcountry tours, thanks to a lot of ventilation capability and breathability, the Lofoten Gore-Tex Pro jacket ($699), for men or women and also an anorak version, is made from the fabric legend’s top of the line 3-layer Gore-Tex Pro, waterproof, highly breathable and surprisingly durable. The 2020 Lofoten has articulated elbows for better range of motion, high mounted chest pockets that facilitate use with a chest harness or backpack, large 2-way underarm ventilation zips that can unload excess heat quickly, a mesh front zipper vent for even more temperature regulating options, a time saving Velcro “rescue” entrance to a pocket for fast access to a beacon in emergencies, fully sealed seams, zip-off powder skirt, adjustable hood designed to be worn with or without a helmet, and integrated wrist gaiters for a snow-tight seal between gloves and jacket. It’s got an inside mesh pocket for goggles or water, and in a perfect example of how the small details make all the differences, while many jackets today have a zippered pocket on the forearm for an RFID ski pass, the Lofoten mounts it higher up near the bicep, where it still works just fine for passes while resort skiing, but also doubles as a perfect radio pocket for the easy access walkie talkies favored by backcountry travelers. Norrona also offers a pants version of the Lofoten, likewise of Gore-Tex Pro.
Rab Khroma Bibs & Jacket: So many of these top companies start with a story of an outdoor enthusiast overcoming the technical limitations of the marketplace, and Rab Equipment is no exception. Founder Rab Carrington’s adventures in the mountains of South America led him to want a better sleeping bag, so in 1981 he designed and hand stitched his first in the attic of his home in Sheffield England. Pretty soon other mountaineers wanted them, and forty years later, Rab is best known for its dozens of models of expedition worthy bags. They have also expanded with great success into tents, backpacks and all sorts of mountain adventure outerwear, including ski and climbing clothing. I started with the Khroma GTX Bibs ($550) in pursuit of the perfect off piste pants, something lighter than the Aether bibs (above) I use for resort skiing, ones that combined weather protection, fit and durability and these do just that. They are made with a hybrid of two new Gore-Tex Pro fabrics, Pro Most Breathable and Pro Most Rugged, and are totally waterproof. Zippers are all YKK AquaGuard, pockets are actually designed with the motion of skiing in mind, a common oversight, they have internal cuffs over the boots, with a unique power strap system for perfect fit, heavily reinforced areas around the boots and buckles, and the softshell bib top is totally removable when you don’t want it. When you do, the suspenders are easily adjustable and the minimalist soft top is more than high enough to fully protect your midsection, but not hot like other high bibs. 2-way side zips (AquaGaurd of course) run almost the entire length of the leg, perfect for handling the heat generated by uphill skiing. They’re built for touring and ski mountaineering but work just great for lift served resort skiing too.
I liked the pants so much I gave the Khroma jacket a try. But since I have some Gore-Tex Pro models, I skipped the matching GTX and went for my (relative) bargain pick for today, the Khroma Kinetic. It’s a softer take on the hard-shell concept using woven Proflex, a new fabric that is waterproof and very breathable but softer and stretchy. It’s got all the bells and whistles, AquaGuard zippers, adjustable helmet compatible hood, venting chest pockets for temperature regulation, adjustable cuffs and hem, and it packs a lot features, performance and most of all comfort into a backcountry-ready model costing half or less than most other jackets above ($350).