When people shop for snowboarding gear, many of them tend to spend all their time and money picking out the latest and greatest boards and bindings without putting much thought into their outerwear. The fact of the matter, however, is that the jacket you’re wearing can make or break your day. Having the right jacket for the type of conditions you’ll be facing is key. Braving a blizzard in a softshell? You’re going to get soaked and frozen like a human popsicle. Pop on the puffy jacket for a sunny spring day? You’ll end up riding for the rest of the day in just your baselayer with your jacket tied around your waist like you’re in a ’90s grunge band. Chances are you’ll experience very different weather visiting Vermont over Christmas then you will in Tahoe during spring break, so be sure to take both location and the time of year you’ll be riding into consideration before buying a jacket simply because it looks cool.
Before choosing your 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 differences between individual jackets within types, the main groups that most jackets can be lumped into are shells, insulated jackets, technical shells, softshells, and 3-in-1 jackets.
The bread and butter of the jacket world, this is going to be the type of jacket that you’ll see most people on the hill wearing, whether they ride one weekend a year or every single day of the season. Shells are very versatile, as they’re generally waterproof enough for most conditions, have at least some taped seams, and often feature vents for breathability and early- and late-season riding. If sized correctly, they should also allow enough room for layers underneath when the weather is cold. If you’re only going to have one jacket for everything, a shell is probably going to be the right choice.
If you’re going to be riding in really cold temperatures most of the time, you might want to consider an insulated jacket. Insulated jackets fall into one of two categories: synthetic fill and down. Synthetic fill insulated jackets use some type of synthetic insulation, such as Primaloft or Thinsulate, due to the relatively low profile and ability to insulate even when wet. This is ideal for areas that are bitter cold and often wet, such as the Northeast and the Midwest.
Down jackets use either goose or duck down for insulation to help battle the coldest 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 can be compressed easily while remaining extremely warm. The major downside to down is that it loses its insulating properties when wet, making it less than ideal for humid climates. Down jackets are a great choice for riding in dry, cold areas such as Colorado and Wyoming. If you want down’s warmth in a wet area, pay attention to the waterproof ratings on the fabric (a high waterproof rating and fully taped seams can keep the down from getting wet).
Do you spend most of your time bagging peaks and searching for new lines to ride? If so, then technical shells are definitely what you’re looking for. They are lightweight and highly breathable to keep you comfortable on long climbs and in changing conditions, and they’re also very waterproof because there’s nothing worse than being deep in the backcountry with a sopping wet jacket. Often using high-end fabrics such as Gore-Tex and eVent, technical shells tend to be more expensive than other jackets, but for the dedicated backcountry explorer, the quality and performance are priceless.
Softshell jackets feature soft, stretchy fabrics that still have waterproof properties. They’re generally less water-resistant than hardshell jackets and have fewer features. Essentially hoodies that don’t get soaked the instant they touch snow, softshells are relatively inexpensive and ideal for warm, sunny days, making them a great spring jacket or a good year-round piece if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where the weather is almost always pleasant, such as Southern California.
Perhaps the most versatile jacket style, 3-in-1 jackets feature an outer shell and some sort of technical fleece 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 fleece layer when it’s really warm or when you need a fleece around town. These jackets are ideal for riders who know they will be facing a wide range of conditions throughout the season and want one jacket to handle them all.
Whether you’re just going up to the mountains for a weekend or you’re privileged enough to ride all season, your jacket is going to play a big part in how much you enjoy your time on the hill. So choose wisely, because all the carbon stringers and sustainable wood cores in the world won’t help you have fun when you’re shivering by the fireplace inside the lodge while everyone else is out making turns.