Picking layers for a day of skiing or snowboarding in the backcountry or sidecountry isn’t all that difficult, as long as you figure out two things: 1) Always pack an insulated down or synthetic piece, and 2) Know what style of shell—hard or soft—to wear, and when.
Hard shell jackets have great qualities—they're relatively lightweight, super stashable and come with a hood. Even so, if you're in the backcountry earning your turns, your hard shell will spend more time buried in the depths of your pack than you'd think. No matter how slow you move, skinning or boot-packing uphill is a sweat fest, and a hard shell (no matter how "breathable") is simply too hot for the job. So, unless it’s extremely windy or storming, I prefer a soft shell jacket until I turn my skis downhill (if you live and ski in the Pacific Northwest, though, all such reasoning goes out the window).
Most soft shells, after all, are much more breathable and comfy for general, day-long use. The synthetic materials they employ are more permeable, and wick moisture away from the body, allowing you to maintain a consistent core temp while exercising. They’re also more abrasion-resistant and stretchy, which makes them more durable and less likely to tear when skiing through glades or alpine climbing. And though they're not typically waterproof, quality synthetic soft shells will dry out over time. I heard a rumor years ago that world-class alpinists Mark Twight and Scott Backes, while working with U.S. Special Forces on mountain travel, marched a squad armpit-deep into an alpine lake to demonstrate that soft shell fabrics will still keep them relatively warm (and will eventually dry out) if they keep moving. It was a bit extreme, but made a good point, nevertheless.
But hard shells have their place in your pack, too. My best story happened one time in the middle of a tremendous snowstorm at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, with wet, quarter-sized snowflakes coming down at two inches an hour. The snow was filling in faster than we could ski it out, getting deeper with every run. On the chairlift, snow piled up on my shoulders and in my lap. Anyone who wasn’t wearing a waterproof, breathable jacket that day was completely soaked after one turn on the lifts. Despite the elation of a wonderful storm dropping fresh pow, soft shell-wearing skiers quickly became waterlogged and began dropping like flies, despite their best efforts to stay warm. By mid-afternoon I was skiing alone, reaping the rewards of hard shell protection.
The bottom line is that soft shells are ideal for everyday, high-output activities that require more active participation, but hard shell jackets are just as important to give the necessary protection when you need it most, whether you're caught out in a sudden rain storm, wind event or worse. And it's so light and packable that you'd be foolish not to have it with you. Layers are key in the mountains. Below is a sample of hard and soft shells that work in concert to provide complete, top-notch coverage for unpredictable winter weather on the lifts and in the backcountry.
Sierra Designs Stellar Jacket
Using their own proprietary waterproof laminate, Sierra Designs delivers a well-built, (and totally affordable) year-round hard shell that protects against rain, snow and wind—the ideal insurance policy for inclement weather.
Arcteryx Alpha SL Jacket
The Alpha SL is a technical alpine hard shell that's all business. Spare in features, save for two chest pockets specifically placed so they won’t interfere with a waist strap, the Alpha SL is a light, durable jacket designed to deal with extreme weather.
Westcomb Focus LT Hoody
This jacket reminds me of the secret crew Ahab kept belowdecks for when shit got really serious. This minimal hard shell is very light, offering a single Napolean pocket, Event® waterproof/breathable fabric and an ergonomic cut for maximum articulation without excess fabric.
Columbia Key Three II
Columbia’s elegant Key Three has an athletic cut, and utilizes their Omni technologies to stave off the wind and mitigate body heat in a svelte, easy package. The two way stretch allows for maximum dexterity, and the clean design layers well.
Mountain Hardwear Principia
This simple hooded soft shell is an everyday backcountry tool. With enough wind resistence, the Pricipia works well as a high output barrier between you and the elements. Handwarmer pockets are built above the waistline so they don’t get trapped under your pack’s waist belt.
Marmot Pro Tour
This versatile mountain jacket is made with Polartec Powershield, which makes the Pro Tour breathable but has enhanced wind protection for gusty environments. The athletic cut layers well under hard shells, but works most days as a stand-alone jacket.