It's inevitable that you'll most probably need a ski jacket for your time on the hill. But which style should you go for, hardshell or softshell? How much insulation do you need? Which waterproofing rating is best? We've put together this handy guide so that you can get head out there, and shred in style.
Whether you're heading out to the mountains for the first time, or you're a seasoned rider, the ski jacket is an essential part of your alpine wardrobe. With so many technologies and factors to consider, it can be daunting knowing which jacket to reach for. Luckily, we've complied a handy guide so that you can head out on the hill with style and confidence.
Waterproofing and Breathability
So what is waterproofing and breathability, and why do we need it? Put simply, a waterproof fabric will prevent the snow from dampening the jacket, like a rain jacket protects you from rainfall. And breathability? It allows perspiration to escape. Without breathability you would quickly become damp and cold, no matter how waterproof the jacket is.
Rated in millimetres, the basic premise for waterproof ratings is the higher the rating, the more waterproof the fabric. Without getting too scientific, a jacket with a waterproof rating of 10,000mm means that you could fill a 1 inch by 1 inch piece of said rated fabric with water to a height of 10,000mm before it would begin to seep through. Some jackets are labelled as 'Water repellent' - reliable enough for really light, dry snowfall, and normally with a waterproof rating of 0-5,000mm. However, this is not a reliable jacket for taking out for a long time on the hill, unless it's a scorcher of a bluebird and 25+ degrees. Generally, any garment with a waterproof rating in excess of 10,000mm is likely to make sure you stay comfortable and dry out on the mountain. Those in heavier snow and wetter climates need to be looking at around 10,000mm and 20,000mm +. It's worth bearing in mind that even a jacket with a rating of 20,000mm will be put to the test after a full day of skinning up, hacking down, hiking up and riding through deep powder. Breathability needs to be taken into just as much consideration as waterproofing, particularly if hiking is on the agenda.
Breathability allows perspiration to escape. It needs to combine with waterproofing in order to provide a reliable performance on the hill. For example, if you headed out with just a waterproof rubber raincoat then it would be damp as soon as you started skiing or snowboarding because of your own perspiration. A jacket's breathability rating is measured in how many grams (g) of water vapour can pass through a square metre (m2) of material from the interior to the exterior in a 24-hour period. As with waterproof ratings, the greater the figure, the more breathable the fabric. Like waterproofing, a breathability rating of 5,000 to 8,000 grams will be enough if you cruise the pistes all day, while backcountry trekkers and powder hounds should look at jackets in the 20,000+ range. Extra ventilation is possible through zips, typically under the arms, (pit zips) with mesh lining,
Hardshell and Softshell
A hardshell ski jacket is a waterproof garment with a tightly woven outer fabric with very little, or no, stretch. Hardshells are often low in the breathability department, and so are kitted out with pit zips for added ventilation. Yet, they are highly packable, and so perfect for backcountry riding. Hardshell jackets are most effective when worn for ski touring. Wear one over a breathable base layer for a reliable performance. A softshell jacket has a soft-hand feel and is extremely comfortable, with superior breathability and exceptional water resistance. They are perfect for dry conditions and can be worn in the backcountry when paired with a technical fleece, for the ultimate blend of weather resistance, breathability, stretch and warmth.
Gore-tex is the leader in waterproof and breathable fabrics. This is the material to go for if you're after incredible durability and 100% waterproof, breathable and totally windproof performance. Essentially, it's a membrane that's sandwiched between an outer and an inner layer of fabric with over 1.4 billion pores per square cm, each 20,000 times smaller than a raindrop, but 700 times larger than a particle of water vapour. This means that water is prevented from passing through the fabric, yet perspiration can easily escape. Gore-tex tends to have a waterproof rating of 20,000mm+ and a breathability rating of 20,000grs, perfect for backcountry riding. A Gore-Tex jacket will have fully taped seams and feature a 'Guaranteed to keep you dry' promise. It's not essential for your jacket to have GORE-TEX. Many other insulations and different fabrics provide reliable enough designs to shred wherever you fancy and still stay dry and warm. For more information, visit www.goretex.com
Durable Water Repellency (DWR)
Many jackets will have a DWR treatment to their shell, (Durable Water Repellent). This ensures that the jacket doesn't become a sponge and absorb all the water. It is up to the membrane to keep the water out. Most commonly, the membrane will be protected by a super thin layer of Polyurethane with a fine mesh bonded to the inner surface for comfort in 3 Layer (3L) fabrics.
Most waterproof breathable outwear is constructed with 2 layers. This construction is simply where the waterproof outer shell and membrane are bonded together. The membrane, (inner lining layer), is normally mesh, polyester taffeta or both that loosely falls within the jacket to prevent the deterioration of the waterproof lining. 2 Layer designs are often considerably cheaper than 2.5L and 3L shell. Yet, they are often bulkier and consequently not as easy to pack down.
2.5 Layer fabrics do not have a bonded mesh lining, nor a sewn-in lining. Instead, they have a very fine raised pattern or internal carbon screened onto the membrane to keep it off the skin. Because of this raised pattern, the laminate is protected from things that can deteriorate the fabric over time. 2.5 Layer fabrics are often extremely lightweight and packable. The most common in snow sports is the GORE-TEX PacLite.
A 3 layer construction is built up of an outer layer, otherwise known as a 'face fabric', a waterproof membrane and inner that are bonded together to make one flexible fabric. A 3 layer construction is packable, durable, breathable and able to handle extreme conditions.
Ski and snowboarding jackets are available as both insulated and non-insulated designs. The most common use of insulation in a ski jacket is through 'body mapping' where a warmer and denser layer of insulation is used around the body while a lighter version of matching insulation is used the arms and hood.
A shell ski jacket is not insulated and comes unpadded. It is essentially a waterproof, breathable thin layer that is perfect for warmer riding. Yet, the shell can be built up with layers underneath for those colder days. Just make sure that the base layers are breathable.
Down insulation is normally crafted with 50% natural goose or duck down. It is rated by a 'fill power' system, typically in the 500 to 800 range. The greater the figure, the more effective the insulation. Down insulation is highly packable, as well as being highly warm in dry, cold conditions. However, down insulation is misleading for ski wear. Although it seems like this is a jacket that will keep you warm, it will not perform in wet conditions, and becomes counter-productive. Moisture is the weakness of down as it loses the ability to trap body heat when wet. It is best to combine down insulating layers with a GORE-TEX outer shell that is waterproof and breathable.
Synthetic insulation is perfect for the hill as it's lightweight, compressible warmth, even when wet. Typically made of thin polyester fibres, it's far more breathable than down and often made with different amounts of insulation in different areas of the jacket, i.e. 100g in the body, 60g in the hood. This provides plenty of circulated warmth without sacrificing ventilation. Many brands have different names for synthetic insulation, such as Thinsulate, Thermoliite and Primaloft. Burton's Primaloft Silver Insulation will repel water with its microscopic air particles, but trap heat to provide warmth and keep you dry in the most demanding conditions.
These jackets are constructed of an outer jacket and a zip-in/ zip-out insulation layer, such as a fleece liner. This creates a more versatile jacket, perfect if the weather changes while you're on the hill. However, it is worth noting that jackets with attachment systems often mean more bulk.
Snow Jacket Breakdown
- Taped seams guarantee a waterproof jacket. This is where strips of tape cover the seams to prevent moisture through in either direction. The more taping, the less breathable the jacket.
- 'Fully taped' seams mean that every seam is taped together for ultimate protection.
- 'Critically taped' is when tape on only high contact areas, such as shoulders, chest and neck, and taped for strategic protection against snow and water entry.
A powder skirt is an elasticised band that fastens over your hips to prevent snow from getting up inside to your back or chest when you stack it or are riding through deep powder. Some powderskirts are detachable, while others are able to be snapped/ stowed away when not in use.
Snow jackets often come with technical pockets, such as goggle pockets. A particularly handy pocket is a lift pass pocket, most commonly found on the left arm.
Jacket-to-pant Attachment System
Some jackets can be attached to ski pants using poppers, zips, etc. It is often the powder skirt that attaches to the waistband and is often only compatible with items from the same brand.
Your ski jacket may contain a RECCO reflector: a small reflective insert that can be used to find you by ski patrol using compatible detectors after an avalanche. This is not to be used in place of proper avalanche safety equipment.
A good hood should be adjustable, and big enough to cover your head and ears. Hoods on ski jackets are sometimes detachable. It's wise to make sure that your hood is 'helmet compatible', so that it can be worn over your ski helmet. Jackets may feature a Drop Hood Construction where the hood is attached lower on the collar for a better fit.
A chin guard is a protective cover to protect your chin and mouth from catching on the zip and providing adding warmth and protection from the snow.
Articulated sleeves allow freedom of movement when riding.
Adjustable cuffs are perfect for that little bit of extra insulation. Many come with an internal Lycra cuff and a thumbhole for extra protection against snow entry.
Zips are often covered to prevent snow from entering the jacket and pockets. This is known as YKK Water-Resistant zips and provides a cleaner finish, higher strength and a smoother performance. Ventilation Zips: Perfect for allowing extra airflow, underarm ventilation zips can let more air in through a mesh lining to prevent overheating.
Regular: A regular fit jacket will give you that desired motion when riding. It will have plenty of room for layering, but without being overtly baggy. Regular fit jackets tend to be a standard length that doesn't rise up at the waist when you raise your arms or go past your hands when your arms are straight.
Slim: Also known as the technical fit, the slim fit jacket is made for a more streamlined design that never rides up. The slim fit jackets tend to be more tailored, fitting much closer to the body with a waist-length cut. The slim fit jacket will also give you a more street wear style.
Loose Fit: Now, park rats will opt for the baggier jacket for style reasons. Practically though, it's going to give you more coverage and plenty of room for those layers underneath. If a jacket's marked as 'loose fit', it will tend to be roomier throughout the body and sleeves, with a longer length than regular fit.