How to Choose a Ski or Snowboard Jacket
By now you’ve undoubtedly ogled, researched, and wisely chosen a pair of shiny new sticks or a new board for the season. But have you given any real thought to what you’ll be wearing?
After all, your jacket is going to be just as much a part of your quest for pow as what’s underneath your feet. Choosing the right jacket for the right conditions is crucial to maximizing your comfort, protection from the elements, and overall stoke factor.
Types of Jackets
As you begin the search for your new jacket, it’s important to know the key features and basic differences between the main types of jackets that are available. Although there are many variations of individual jackets within these types, the majority of jackets fall under shells, insulated jackets, technical shells, softshells, and 3-in-1 jackets.
An uninsulated shell jacket (sometimes called ‘hardshell’) is the type that you’ll see the majority of people wearing on your local shred hill. The reason for this is that shells are super versatile—they’re generally waterproof enough for most conditions, have at least a few taped seams, and often feature vents for breathability so you won’t overheat on mid-winter bump runs or during spring sessions. If sized correctly, a shell should also allow enough room for layering underneath on extra cold days. If you’re only going to have one jacket for every type of riding, a shell is definitely a great choice.
Shell jackets offer different degrees of waterproofing, which will probably be the biggest determinant of price. If you’re heading into more consequential environments with more extreme weather, a jacket’s level waterproofing can be important. You can check the products technical specifications for a jacket’s waterproof rating, which will range from around 5,000g/m2 to 20,000g/m2 or higher. These ratings need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they can give you an idea of the relative weatherproofness of a jacket. Then there’s Gore-Tex, which doesn’t provide ratings but just flat-out says it will keep you dry.
Another factor that will affect a jacket’s level of waterproof protection is its seam taping. Seams that are covered with tape won’t allow moisture can leak in through; a jacket will either have critical seams taped, meaning that only those seams in spots that are more exposed are going to be taped. Fully taped jackets, on the other hand, have every seam sealed up. Obviously, these are going to be more expensive, but more weatherproof.
Read more about waterproof technologies & materials here.
If you plan to be skiing or snowboarding in really cold conditions most of the time, you might want to consider an insulated jacket. This type of jacket will feature an outer shell and a layer of insulation built in, either of down or of synthetic insulation like Primaloft or Thinsulate.
Jackets with synthetic insulation are a good choice for snow outerwear; synthetic insulation is less expensive than down, more durable, and it works even when wet. This is ideal for areas that are bitter cold, humid, and rainy, such as the Northeast and the Midwest.
How much insulation do you need in a jacket? The thickness of synthetic insulation is usually expressed as grams per square meter (note that this is NOT a measure of the total weight of the insulation in a jacket). So, a jacket with 200g insulation is going to be thicker and warmer than a comparable jacket with 100g insulation. As a rule of thumb, 50-100g jackets are great for spring or fall, or in situations where you expect to be wearing several layers, while 100-200g jackets are ideal for more frigid conditions. However, these rules don’t totally apply for the newer generation of synthetic insulation like The North Face’s Thermoball; these new technologies are engineered to more closely resemble down and will be lighter yet warmer than other types of synthetic insulation.
One technique that many companies use to fine-tune the warmth of ski and snowboard jackets is to vary the amount of insulation in a jacket. Generally, this means heavier insulation in the body and a lighter-weight insulation and the sleeves and hood. This cuts down on weight and bulk without affecting the overall warmth of the jacket.
Down jackets, on the other hand, use either goose or duck down for insulation, which helps battle the lowest temperatures. Down insulation is valued for its incredibly high warmth-to-weight ratio and its packability. So while these jackets tend to be puffy in appearance, they’re lightweight and easily compressed, while still remaining exceptionally warm. The major downside to down is that it loses its insulating properties when wet, making it less than ideal for humid and rainy climates. For this reason, down jackets are a great choice for skiing in dry, cold areas such as Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
To combat this Achilles heel of down, many companies are now coming out with jackets stuffed with water-resistant down. Applied at the nano-level, these hydrophobic treatments keep down from wetting down as quickly so you stay warmer.
Read more about insulation technologies here.
If you spend a good chunk of your time boot packing or skinning to peaks in search of lines to ride, you could be in the market for a technical shell. This type of jacket is lightweight and highly breathable to keep you comfortable while ski touring and in changing conditions, and is also very waterproof. Often constructed with fully taped seams and high-end fabrics such as Gore-Tex and eVent, technical shells tend to be more expensive than other jackets, but for the dedicated backcountry skier or boarder, the quality and features they provide is a must.
One thing to note is that often these jackets tend to be minimalist; you may not find features that you expect in a ski or snowboard jacket, like a like powder skirt. This is both to save weight and to make these jackets more packable, since often they will be carried to a peak in a pack and only put on for the descent.
Softshell jackets feature soft, stretchy fabrics that still have waterproof properties. They’re generally less wind- and water-resistant than hardshell jackets, and they usually have fewer features. These jackets look and feel like hoodies, but they don’t get soaked the instant they touch snow, thanks to a DWR coating on the surface of the fabric to keep out moisture.
One of the biggest benefits of a softshell is their breathability. Air moves more freely through it, which means body heat and sweat created during activity transfers away from the body. Throw on a softshell in the early morning and know you’ll be warm while still ‘airing out’ all day long. An ideal layer for backcountry touring, no doubt.
Softshells are relatively inexpensive and ideal for warm, sunny days, making them a great spring jacket or a good year-round piece in milder climates.
Read more about softshell jackets here.
Perhaps the most versatile jacket style, 3-in-1 jackets (aka Interchange jackets, Triclimate jackets, or Component jackets, depending on the manufacturer) feature an outer shell jacket and some type of technical fleece or inner insulated jacket that usually zips into the shell. This gives you the option of wearing just the shell when it’s not too cold, wearing both together when temperatures drop, or wearing just the inner layer when it’s really warm and dry.
These jackets are ideal for those who know they will be facing a wide range of conditions throughout the season and want one jacket to handle them all.
Aside from the general type of jacket outlined above, the features included in ski and snowboard jackets will vary considerably. More features generally (but not always) means more money; it’s up to you to decide what’s important to you and what is not.
Usually found in the underarm area or around the chest, zip vents will allow you to cool off some without having to unzip the front of the jacket. They may be open vents, or may have a mesh lining to keep out stray snow.
These can be found on many higher-end jackets or technical shells; not having to have a storm flap over the zipper can save weight and bulk.
Most snow jackets have hoods; what distinguishes one from another will be whether or not they’re helmet-compatible, how adjustable they are, and whether you can remove them. If a hood has a fur (faux or not) trim, you want it to be removable for cleaning or for really stormy days so it doesn’t trap snow and ice.
I’m of the persuasion that you can’t have too many pockets in a ski or snowboard jacket, but there is definitely a tipping point where you start to lose track of what’s stashed in each pocket if you have multiple options. At minimum, snow jackets will have two outer hand pockets and one inner pocket; from there, you can get chest pockets, multiple inner pockets, pockets designed just for media with headphone ports, sleeve pockets, pass pockets, etc.
Sometimes called a waist gaiter, a powder skirt is designed to keep snow from getting up your back if you take a tumble, and is a universal feature of ski and snowboard jackets. It may be fairly basic, or it can have a stretchy panel, loops for attaching to pants, and/or snaps to get it out of the way when you don’t need it. It may be removable altogether for when you are wearing the jacket off the slopes.
Technical shells and softshells don’t often feature powder skirts, but you’ll almost always find ‘em in those more hefty ski/snowboard jackets.
As mentioned before, this consists of snaps and/or loops, usually on the powder skirt, that connect the jacket to your ski or snowboard pants. If you have compatible pants and can get this working, it practically turns your jacket-and-pant combo into a one-piece for total snow and wind protection.
Most snow jacket cuffs are be adjustable to a certain extent; you may want to pay attention to his if you have definite preferences as to your glove style. A trim, fairly snug cuff design will be good for gauntlet gloves, while a cuff that opens wide and then locks down is better for undercuff glove styles.
These can just be plain inner cuffs, or can be over-the-hand with thumbholes. Some people prefer the latter for the extra warmth and coverage, while others find that they just get in the way. It’s up to you.
A jacket’s lining can affect warmth and general feel of jacket. Lower-end jackets will usually be lined with nylon taffeta, while others may have breathable mesh or something cozier like fleece or Columbia’s thermal reflective fabric. If you’re a luxury-lover, look for a jacket lined with satin.
One thing I always look at when checking out a jacket is its collar design. A well-thought-out collar can make a huge difference in your comfort. Features here might include nice soft lining, the main zipper set off to the side so it doesn’t hit your chin, an additional zippered gusset to accommodate a thick neckwarmer, or even vents to allow you to breathe through a high collar, which is great on a cold, windy day.
Some jackets will have a small RECCO® unit sewn into them somewhere; note that this is does not by any means provide the level of safety of an avalanche beacon. It is designed to work with a RECCO® transponder, a relatively large unit that many resorts or rescue operations have handy for search and rescue. If you’re new to RECCO®, here’s how the pros describe its duty: “The RECCO® Rescue System is two-part technology. Ski resorts and rescue teams carry RECCO® detectors. The detector sends out a directional search signal, which is echoed by RECCO® reflectors worn by skiers, riders and other outdoors people.”
Finally, you can consider a jacket’s fit; this can range from relatively trim and short-cropped to the big and baggy cut favored by a lot of snowboarders and freestyle skiers. But fit is not just fashion; it will also determine how much you can layer underneath. If you run cold, you might want to avoid jackets with a close-fitting ‘athletic’ cut in favor of something with room to accommodate a heavier fleece or extra vest on super-cold days.
Regardless of the terrain and conditions that await you out in Mother Nature’s playground this upcoming season, your outerwear is going to play a vital role in your comfort level. So once you’ve determined the type of riding you’ll be doing and conditions you’ll most likely be facing into out there, the next step is choosing the ideal jacket for the upcoming season of snow-filled adventures.