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The REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket is an excellent waterproof, breathable shell jacket for skiing and snowboarding.
To get us a closer look, REI sent Man Makes Fire a review unit. After testing it during the tail end of the season while skiing, this is a first-look review about what we learned. We’re publishing our review now in case you want to nab it in the off-season if it’s on sale — for instance, the Copper Spice version was 50% off at the time of publication. Alternately, there’s a good chance REI will bring its entire First Chair GTX line back for a new season this fall (hopefully including the sold-out First Chair GTX Bibs).
First Chair GTX Jacket: ‘Excellent Value’
The first thing you need to know about the REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket is that it uses a 2-layer GORE-TEX fabric. This right away puts it into a high-performing category for snow shells. GORE-TEX fabrics are great because GORE-TEX is a leader in waterproof, breathable fabrics. (It’s almost impossible to get a bad GORE-TEX shell because GORE-TEX licensing is so strict.)
GORE-TEX is also expensive, and what’s cool about the REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket compared to the competition is that REI is offering it at a very competitive price point. By choosing the First Chair GTX Jacket, you can save quite a bit of money over the competition — which you can bank or put toward other snow gear.
Meanwhile, how’s the overall First Chair GTX design?
The First Chair GTX is surprisingly ready for action. Over the years, REI has produced lots of great jackets and snow jackets, but the REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket stands out for being a full-featured ski/snowboard shell. The styling errors more toward skiers than snowboarders, but a snowboarder to could certainly size up to get a looser fit. The drop-back hem helps a bit, too.
On sale, the REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket is an incredible value.
The REI First Chair series with GORE-TEX delivers competitive pricing.
Pit Zips, Powder Skirt, Helmet-Compatible Hood
The best waterproof/breathable shells include some sort of torso ventilation, a.k.a. pit zips. These under-arm zippers give you another tool to help you manage heat and moisture. Because they’re under your arms, they’re mostly protected from snow or drizzle. The First Chair GTX Jacket has easy to unzip/zip pit zips. As far as I’m concerned, pit zips are a must if you’re a hard-charging skier who manages to get some good back-to-back runs in on those precious short lift-line days.
REI also includes a powder skirt, which is handy if you ski a lot of powder — or have a tendency to crash. If you don’t want the powder skirt, it’s not removable, but you can snap the front closure behind part of the shell.
What about the hood? Every great ski shell has a helmet-compatible hood, and the First Chair GTX Jacket has one, too. What I found interesting is that it fit with my helmet surprisingly well with no adjustment. One issue with helmet-compatible hoods is the fit when you turn your head. Some jacket hoods and collars are sized and shaped oddly so that when you turn your head, your face will turn into the inside of the hood or bind up. The REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket hood delivered excellent side field-of-view for me while wearing my ski helmet.
There is one possible drawback to the hood’s fit, though: While it is definitely helmet-compatible, it seems to offer a bit less coverage over the forehead area than other shells in this class.
If you want to wear the hood without a helmet, which means you can more fully use the shell off the ski hill, you can adjust it front and back to reduce the volume.
High Collar with Fuzzy Tricot
One of the best features of the collar and hood is the high collar design. It lets you tuck your chin down to help shield it from cold wind. Most good collars are designed for this, but the REI design includes a comfortable fuzzy tricot lining. Sure, my beard mitigates the softness of the collar, but tricot reduces the scratchy sound of my beard scraping over bare shells. It’s a minor detail — but I like the tricot.
The Lining & Supple Exterior
Remember that mention of the 2-layer GORE-TEX? What’s interesting about the REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket over typical waterproof/breathable shells is that REI added a polyester lining. It’s super smooth when you pull it over midlayers. What it really does, though, is add a slim bit of heft to the shell — it’s not heavy, but it makes the shell feel more substantial than other lightweight shells.
What I found particularly interesting and compelling, however, is how supple the REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket is off the rack. Many other competing shell jackets are stiffer. The result on the ski hill is that the First Chair GTX Jacket feels comfortable and agile. Better yet, when you sit down outside for an end-of-day beer, the supple shell bunches up less around your torso and arms.
Plenty of Pockets
The REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket doesn’t have the most pockets, but it has enough to handle most everyone’s needs.
You get two hand pockets, of course, two midsize chest pockets that are big enough for a phone, and a lift pass pocket on your left wrist. Inside you get one stretchy mesh drop-in goggle pocket.
What about the zippers? The main zipper is a burly two-way zipper and is easy to use. The pocket and pit-zip zippers are smaller and still easy to use.
I tend to wear XL ski shells and REI sent over an XL review unit. It fits spot-on as expected — a bit roomy to allow for layering. You should be able to fit a solid base layer as well as a solid mid layer and have a good experience. The sleeve length will be great for guys with average length arms. (If you have extra-long arms like me, the sleeve length will be just good enough to stay workable.)
The Verdict: Excellent Short-Term Experience So Far
Because I didn’t get to test this jacket until the end of my ski season, I didn’t get the long-term experience I normally appreciate. However, because you might find this jacket on sale — or will need a new ski shell at the beginning of the season — I wanted to give you some first impressions that might help you make a buying decision.
All-in-all, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the REI Co-op First Chair GTX Jacket. The fit-and-finish is excellent and the supple implementation of the 2-layer GORE-Tex fabric is quite nice. I’m a fan. Very highly recommended.