The North Face Free Thinker Jacket – Women’s
Stated Average Weight: 650 grams
Shell Material: Gore-Tex Pro; 70 denier weave, 100% nylon face fabric; woven ripstop backer
Reviewer Stats: 5’6”, 125lbs
- Active fit
- Waterproof, breathable, fully seam sealed
- Recco avalanche rescue reflector
- Adjustable, helmet-compatible fixed hood
- Polyurethane (PU) zip chest pocket with water-resistant insulated phone pocket
- PU zip chest pocket with radio-holder elastic
- PU pit-zip vents
- PU wrist utility pocket with goggles cloth
- Thumb-loop cuffs
- Velcro adjustable cuff tabs
- Two internal stretch-mesh pockets
- Stretch powder skirt with clip integration
- Adjustable hem
Days Worn: 10
[Editor’s Note: This review is of the 13/14 Free Thinker jacket, which was unchanged for the 14/15 season except for some of the pockets.]
The North Face Free Thinker is a technical Gore-Tex Pro hard shell with a freeride-oriented design. The Free Thinker has been one of the North Face’s most high-end jackets for several years now, with slight changes to the design each season. The Free Thinker is also offered in a men’s version. The North Face describes the Free Thinker as a durable, backcountry shell that provides “premier waterproofing and windproofing, and exceptional breathability.”
The Free Thinker is a freeride ski jacket, so it has a wider and longer fit than more alpine-oriented shells. The jacket’s fit is loose, without being overly baggy, and falls straight down my torso, flaring out just a little around the bottom hem.
I chose a size Medium in the Free Thinker, and I am really happy with how it fits. The Medium is very similar to other size Mediums I have worn, such as the Helly Hansen Verglas jacket, or the Arc’teryx Sentinel jacket. I probably could have gotten away with a Small, but the Medium provides a little extra room for layers and increased range of motion.
The Free Thinker has a drop hem in the back, and falls pretty low, just below my butt. The sleeves are fairly long and will reach the tip of my pinky fingers with my arms resting at my sides. If I tighten down the velcro cuffs a bit, the sleeves sit comfortably at my knuckles.
Even though the Free Thinker has a wider cut, I didn’t feel like there was too much bulk or extra material in odd places, which I experienced on the Verglas jacket. Occasionally when hiking with a pack, I had to rearrange some extra fabric under the straps, but I didn’t find this to be too much of an issue. The Black Diamond Sharp End shell has a slimmer cut, so it is a bit more comfortable for hiking and touring, but the Free Thinker can accommodate more layers on cold resort days. While I couldn’t comfortably fit my Helly Hansen Hooded Down Insulator under the Sharp End shell, it fits comfortably under the Free Thinker.
The Free Thinker has a number of features which, for the most part, all work well. The hood is large and easily fits over a ski helmet. Without a helmet, though, it constantly falls down over my eyes, even when I cinch it down.
The jacket has long, underarm pit zips. I had no trouble opening the vents, but the stiff, sealed zippers are slightly harder to close without assuming some awkward hand positions, or just getting some help.
The Free Thinker has a powder skirt that it is not removable. This isn’t a huge issue for resort skiing, but it would be nice to have the option to remove it for touring in order to cut down on some bulk.
The jacket has a lot of pockets: two large hand pockets, two fairly big chest pockets, a wrist pocket with a goggle wipe, and two large mesh pockets on the inner chest panels. Given the number and size of the pockets, there’s plenty of room to hold an assortment of things you’d like to carry: a phone, wallet, spare goggle lenses, or a small camera. I wasn’t as impressed, however, with the pockets’ design.
One of the chest pockets has an interior, fleece zippered pocket for a phone, but, I was not able to fit my IPhone 5S in it with a case. Smaller phones should work fine, but anything with a case is too bulky, and I definitely don’t want to leave my phone’s case behind while skiing.
I personally don’t listen to music while skiing, but neither chest pocket has an opening for a headphone cord into the inside of the jacket. You could put your phone/iPod in one of the inner mesh pockets, but they don’t have a zipper to secure anything. The 14/15 Free Thinker jacket does a slightly different pocket layout, however, including an inner, zippered phone/media pocket with a headphone port.
Fabric / Performance
The Free Thinker uses the new Gore-Tex Pro fabric, which we’ve already tested and discussed at length in other reviews. If you’d like to learn how Gore-Tex Pro works, and some comparisons between other fabrics, I would highly recommend reading our Outerwear 201 article, as well as Sam Shaheen’s review of the Mountain Equipment Tupilak jacket.
While in New Zealand, I spent time skiing and hiking around the club fields in both the Free Thinker and the Black Diamond Sharp End. While both jackets use the new Gore Pro fabric, they performed quite differently.
The differences in performance, which I’ll talk a more about below, can probably be attributed to the jackets’ face fabrics and the way they each fit. Since the Sharp End is a minimalist alpine shell meant for high output activities, Black Diamond chose a slightly lighter face fabric than what’s used on the Free Thinker. The Gore-Tex Pro membrane on the Free Thinker is paired with a thicker, heavier face fabric, which makes sense for a freeride jacket; it should provide slightly better durability. The Free Thinker’s fabric also feels a little stiffer than that of the Sharp End.
While I still need to get the Free Thinker in some adverse conditions, it’s proven to be a great jacket for all but the warmest resort days. The heavier fabric blocks the wind well, and will offer great protection in storms. I’ve been extremely impressed so far by the jacket’s durability; rubbing the fabric on some of the club fields’ high speed rope tows can do some damage, but the Free Thinker has no signs of wear after three weeks of rope tow abuse.
I wore the Free Thinker on multiple warm, sunny days in New Zealand where the temperatures rose above 40ºF. Although hiking in these warm temperatures would be uncomfortable in most any shell, I was quite impressed by the breathability of the Sharp End, which is made of a light face fabric. The Free Thinker’s thicker, heavier face fabric, on the other hand, definitely seems to affect the jacket’s breathability.
On average, I found I could wear the Sharp End on warm bootpacks for about ten minutes longer than I could the Free Thinker. I imagine that in cooler temperatures, I won’t have as much of an issue wearing the Free Thinker for shorter hikes.
The new Gore-Tex Pro fabric breathes better than previous iterations of Gore’s high-end waterproof / breathable laminate. And while Gore Pro is not the most breathable membrane out there (our reviewers Paul Forward and Sam Shaheen found Polartec Neoshell to be slightly more breathable than Gore Pro in back-to-back comparisons), the Free Thinker still breathed pretty well, despite its burly construction. On warmer days, with just a medium weight merino top underneath the Free Thinker, I never had an issue cooling down between runs.
If your first priority in shopping for a hard shell is breathability, then it may be worth taking a look at a jacket with Polartec Neoshell. And if you’re interested in the durability and waterproofing of Gore Pro in a slightly slimmer package than the Free Thinker, the Sharp End would be a great choice. However, if you live in a place where you’ll need protection from harsh, very wet conditions, and you want a fully featured freeride shell, the Free Thinker is a good option.
Considering the Free Thinker’s thicker fabric, I wasn’t surprised that it’s the least packable shell I’ve worn. If I’m using a smaller pack, or am more concerned about weight on longer touring days, I’d probably opt to bring a more packable jacket like the Scott Explorair shell or the Arc’teryx Sentinel jacket. However, for resort days when I don’t need to worry about stowing my jacket, the Free Thinker’s packability wasn’t a concern.
At $600, the Free Thinker is not cheap. While I do think the jacket is extremely high quality, in terms of durability, construction, and materials, it may be worth trying one on to make sure you like the weight and feel of the stiffer fabric before making the investment.
The North Face Free Thinker is a burly hard shell that offers excellent protection and plenty of features for resort skiing. It will work well for touring, too, if you don’t mind carrying a little extra weight.