While you’re carrying on with your mission of chasing untracked lines and lapping the mountain, your ski or snowboard pants are working hard to keep your lower body dry and comfortable.
So when choosing a new pair of pants, it’s worth taking some time researching the various fabrics, features, and styles that will be most applicable to your type of skiing or riding. We’ve broken down a few of the most important categories you’ll want to consider before making your selection.
The majority of ski and snowboard pants will have a waterproof rating between 5,000 and 20,000mm (5-20K)—the higher the number, the more water-resistant the fabric. There are also some high-end fabrics that don’t post specific ratings (e.g.,Gore-Tex and eVent). The other thing that affects waterproofing is seam taping (fully taped seams or critical seams taped). Some ski and snowboard pants are offered in a softshell material, which, while they’re stretchy and super-comfortable, won’t be quite as waterproof as most ‘hardshell’ pants.
How waterproof your pants need to be depends on the region you’ll be playing in. For example, it’s both very wet and relatively warm in Oregon and Washington, so you’ll need something with a high waterproof rating and fully taped seams to keep you from getting soaked by all that wet snow, whereas dry areas such as Utah or Colorado allow you to get away with a lower waterproof rating. The price of pants generally increases with an increase in the waterproof rating and the amount of seams taped, so if you only ski a few times a year or usually encounter favorable conditions, a more inexpensive pair with a lower rating might work best for you. On the other hand, if you’re going to be spending most of your time in damp climates or harsh conditions, it’s going to be worth investing in pants that you can rely on to keep you dry day after day.
Another factor that varies greatly in importance from person to person is the warmth of the pants. Uninsulated ski and snowboard pants feature a shell with some type of lining for a little extra warmth and comfort. People whose legs don’t get very cold will often wear their snow pants over just a light base layer for the majority of the season, while others prefer to wear several layers to keep from getting cold. Of course, the amount of layering can be changed up depending on the weather, making shell pants a versatile option.
There are also unlined pants, which are usually technical pants meant for backcountry skiing. The idea here is to make the pants as light as possible while also allowing for maximum breathability, which is key when you’re on long treks in changing conditions.
Finally, there are insulated pants that generally feature light, low-profile synthetic insulation to add some extra warmth. Remember that warmth on your legs is not as crucial as keeping your core warm, which is why pants have less insulation than jackets. It may feel cold for a minute when you step outside, but once you start moving, your legs tend to quickly warm up.
While not all the bells and whistles are necessary, there are some important features to look for that may help you narrow down your choices. The relative importance of these features will depend largely on personal preference and the type of skiing or riding you’ll be doing.
Gaiters are probably the single defining feature most ski and snowboard pants have in common. They’re found under the cuff of the pants, and are designed to keep snow out of your boots and lower extremities. They may have slightly different features, such as hooks to connect to laces or buckles or hook-and-loop openings along the sides, but as long as they’re being worn properly (over your buckled-up or laced-up boots—never tucked inside boots!) they pretty much all work the same way. Some pants will have zippered cuffs that make getting to the gaiter easier.
Features like zips at the cuff to allow easy access to boot gaiters (left) are fairly common. Less so are multiple reinforced areas (top right) and full- or 3/4-length side zippers that allow for venting and on-off without removing boots.
Another featured shared by many ski and snowboard pants is zippered vents. These vents open up to allow you to dump heat and promote air circulation when you start to get too hot. Most often they are located on the inner thigh inseam, and feature a mesh lining to keep stray snow from getting in. Some pants will feature zip vents across the front or along the outer seam. Technical ski mountaineering pants will often have full-length side zippers which, in addition to offering ultimate ventilation control, also allow for easy on-off without having to remove boots.
Many brands also have a system that connects your pants to your jacket if they’re compatible. This creates a snow-proof barrier that prevents snow and wind from making its way up your jacket and down your pants, which can be really important if you plan on riding in deep snow.
Another key feature to keep an eye out for is pockets. While this may seem pretty obvious, it’s important to consider. For example, if you normally ski with a backpack, then you might not need anything more than standard hand pockets. However, if you know you’re going to be exploring the resort or hanging out in the park all day and don’t want to lug around a pack the whole time, then it might be really beneficial for you to have cargo pockets to hold snacks and other essentials.
Often, ski and snowboard pants will have reinforcement at the cuff (sometimes with a stiff, extra-durable fabric) to protect the pant from wear and tear. Ski pants will generally have these on the inside of the pant to protect against contact with ski edges or crampons, while pants that are snowboarding-oriented may have a band at the cuff in the back.
If you’re looking for the ultimate protection against snow down the back, along with a touch more protection from the wind in front and waistband-free comfort (aaaah!), bibs are the way to go. On the other hand, they’re usually heavier and more expensive than regular pants, and you have the issue of bathroom breaks. If you know you’re going to be out in the backcountry a lot, or just don’t want to mess with stripping down in a bathroom stall, ladies, look for models with a zippered drop-seat to make things a little easier. Similarly, guys, look for a pair that features a zip fly.
Bib styles range from minimalist backcountry styles to something more reminiscent of overalls, with lots of pockets in the bib. Zip-off designs are also available, which offer the ultimate versatility.
Above, a sampling of bib styles, from left to right: high back with suspenders; high waist; removable bib; overalls-style
Some pants, and especially a number of bibs, 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.”
Last, but certainly not least, there is the style factor. This one is all personal preference, and while there’s no wrong way to go about it, knowing what’s out there will at least give you a better idea of where to start. The main element to consider when it comes to style is going to be the fit. Fit can generally be broken down into slim, regular, and loose. Although there are a lot of differences between, and even within, the fits of different brands, those three categories are a good jumping off point for finding the fit that’s right for you.
A final note to remember is that there aren’t any rules or guidelines about skiers wearing “snowboard pants” and vice versa. If you like the features and styling of brands long associated with snowboarding, go ahead and rock ’em. If you snowboard but love ski brands, go for those. As long as you’re comfortable, dry, and wearing the fattest grin you can muster out there, you are following the only principles that really matter.