Ok, so this has turned into a bit of an obsession for me... I've gone out and picked up 5 different pairs of Gore-Tex ski pants, and what have I learned? Not all Gore-Tex is created equal. I'm hoping that my little project benefits others on this forum. And thanks to everyone for your input so far!
First, a little education… For those who don't know, earning the Gore-Tex badge requires a very comprehensive process that every manufacturer looking to use their membrane has to go through. It begins with design proposals for a piece of gear from the mfr that GT must approve. All factories used must also be GT-certified. Once the design is approved (and GT will make suggestions on fabrics, design, etc), the mfr sends a prototype to GT's lab where they test it for a specific activity - ski gear are put through trials that simulate skiing - and based on the results, GT will label it appropriately - Pro Shell, Performance Shell, Soft Shell, Active Shell, etc. Before the final product goes to market, a final sample needs to be tested as well. It is worth noting that, while Pro Shell is considered the most serious gear, Soft Shell isn't necessarily inferior to Performance Shell in terms of durability, and in some cases, Performance Shell is just about on par with Pro Shell for most practical purposes.
Many of the pants were those mentioned in my original post. All pants tried on are a size Medium. My measurements are below…
The North Face Free Thinkers (GT Pro Shell): These pants are insane. Definitely the most rugged feeling pants I've ever come across. And by far the baggiest. Fit & finish is well beyond what I had expected from TNF gear. The nylon strikes me as extremely durable, but not as stiff and crinkly as some of the other pants, as typical with top notch GT fabrics. Lots of nice features too. Plenty of pocket space with sealed zippers, super durable kick patches on the instep of the pant, also durable nylon patches on the instep of the gaiter, zippered thigh vents, thicker than usual felt on the inside of the waistband, Recco reflector and a waistband that tightens with large, sturdy velcro tabs. Comes with detachable suspenders that have a flap covering the small of your back as a small powder guard. I'm told this small flap can be unzipped and that small area of the waste can be attached to the matching jacket, but I'm not sure I see much of a benefit to this.
Norrona Narvik 3L (GT Perf Shell): The cut of these were my personal favorites, narrower in the waist and upper leg with a slight flare to the calf to comfortably fit over your boot. Great design overall with articulated knees, pleated pockets so they stay flat when there's nothing in them, sealed zippers, zippered thigh vents, pretty large velcro tabs around the waist to cinch down the size, thin felt on the inside of the waistband and a reasonably rugged kick patch on the instep, although a far cry from those on the Free Thinkers. The fabric feels the most lightweight of these pants except the Soft Shell Sabres, and a little disappointing for a Performance Shell. The gaiters are also made out of a tightly woven mesh rather than a nylon that I imagine would wear & tear after not long. It might be a little odd to note, but these are very noisy pants. The kick pads make a ton of noise when they rub against each other and the fabric is the crinkliest of the bunch. Overall, I love how these pants are cut and designed, but the finish leaves me wanting something more.
Patagonia Primo (GT Perf Shell): As many have already mentioned, these things are bomber. I'm honestly surprised that these weren't rated Pro Shell. They're certainly priced like they are. These strike me as the second most durable pants of the bunch behind the Free Thinkers. These pants have a straighforward simplicity to them: a tiny non-descript Patagonia logo above the right knee embroidered in the same color as the pant, matte finish fabric, very clean seams with articulated knees and sealed zips that are also super clean and well thought out – the zips almost have a durable rubber quality to them rather than the typical glue laminate on the others. The material is very crinkly but the creases don't appear on the thicker fabric like they do on the Narvik so wrinkles are pretty smoothed out. The fit is on the baggier side for sure, but hardly in the same league as the Free Thinkers and some of the other pants I've seen on the mountain (mostly in the park). Other features include thin felt along the inside of the waistband, zippered thigh vents and durable gaiters. The kick patch on the instep of the pant strikes me as lightweight considering the rest of the fabrics used feel so durable. This instep material extends around the cuff of the pant as well which is a nice touch, which is to say that there is the instep kick patch and an inch high cuff of the same material. If you're looking for a cheaper version of this pant, the Powder Bowls are identical in a 2-layer fabric rather than 3-layer, and come with a wicking liner that the Primos don't have.
Patagonia Triolet (GT Perf Shell): These pants are the mountaineering/touring equivalent of the Primos, and are really quite similar. The stark differences are the fit, the Triolets being much narrower, the full sealed side zips that allow you to take off the pants without taking off your boots in place of the vents, and the elastic waistband with a built-in belt. I love the way these fit as I can't stand hiking backcounty with baggy fitting pants, but a huge disclaimer, they fit super tight around the boot if you're wearing standard alpine ski boots and not touring or tele boots. Most of the fabrics are identical to the Primo, except the pants are sectioned such that the calf & quad quarters of the pant are a slightly lighter weight fabric than the shin and the butt/hamstring. The kick patch are made out of the same material as the Primo, but lack the inch-high cuff.
Arcteryx Sabre (GT Soft Shell): As a soft shell suggests, these are made of a very relaxed and supple fabric. They feel reasonably durable, but by touch alone, I can't imagine they'd stand up to the same abuse as the rest of the pants. Presumably they breathe considerably better though. Fit is about as baggy as the Primo though visually they don't appear this way as the fabric hangs rather than crinkles. I personally think the seam design and fabric make these pants very visually appealing. Features are four diagonal zip pockets, zippered thigh vents, Recco reflector and a thin felt liner that I wish more shells had. Unfortunately there are a couple features that I think fall short of the typical Arcteryx product: the waist has a dinky plastic belt buckle and the gaiter doesn't have a cinch or closure button. The kick patch would probably fair a bit better than the Primo’s, but not as well as the Free Thinkers, and for whatever reason, there were some color fading spots on the kick patch.
Conclusion: To say that one pant is better than another in this test, or to even call this a test, would be incorrect and simply unfair. While all these pants retail for $400 – 450, they all have their unique characteristics that make them akin to comparing apples to oranges. Additionally, there are several other pants to consider if you’re in the market from brands like Westcomb, Outdoor Research, Mountain Hardwear, FlyLow, Trew, etc, in addition to other pants from the same brands in the test. That said, how boring would this thread be if I just ended on that note?
Flat out, if you’re looking for the most bombproof pant available, but don’t mind the super baggy fit, I can’t imagine there’s anything more bomber than the Free Thinker. Frankly, I’m so impressed with the fit, finish and features of this pant, I’m gonna go out a limb and say they offer the best bang for the buck as well, even at their $430 price tag - like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Mercedes if a RR were only a few grand more. The Primo is also an excellent option, with the Powder Bowl being an exceptionally good alternative for $100 less than the Primo. If you prefer a bib, you may want to consider the Arcteryx Stinger and Patagonia Super Alpine.
If a Soft Shell is your calling, I’d say the Sabre is one of your better options, but I’m not terribly familiar with the whole Soft Shell market.
If you’re into a narrower fit for mountaineer/touring, the Triolet would be my top choice. While I haven’t gotten my hands on one, I’ve heard great things about OR’s Mentor Pant, which is a Pro Shell.
And where does the Narvik fit in? Well, I’m not sure it’s quite fair to make a comparison. For a Performance Shell, it appears to me to fall short of the Primo in terms of quality and durability. But Norrona makes a line called the Lofoten, which has a Pro Shell that is supposed to be top notch, and a bib from the Trollveggen line that would probably rival the Free Thinker.
Edited by rushbikes - 11/30/11 at 8:06am