You need to buy a ski jacket but there’s a bewildering array of brightly coloured and expensive-looking options available. By breaking down the different specs and explaining away the jargon, we’ll help you find the right outerwear for your mountain adventures.
Insulated or shell?
The first decision you have to make is how much you want to fork out – whether you aim towards the top of the price range with an insulated jacket, or opt for a waterproof outer shell, which will be cheaper, but means you’ll need to wear additional mid-layers.
Insulated ski jackets are warmer but can be less versatile when the weather changes. There are two types – natural or synthetic. Natural down insulation is less bulky than synthetic padding, but loses its thermal properties when wet, whereas synthetic insulation works better when wet, but tends to be bulkier and not as easy to compress for packing.
Shells also come in two varieties – hard and soft. Hard shell jackets are water and windproof, but don’t have any insulation, making them easy to pack. Soft shell jackets use very breathable materials and are perfect for good weather. But they’ve got limited waterproofing, so it’s best to combine them with thermal base layers and a hard shell outer.
Waterproofing and breathability
You’ll also be faced with a bunch of numbers relating to how waterproof and breathable the fabric is. Waterproofing is measured by the height in millimetres of water that can build up on a square of fabric before it leaks through. Breathability is tested on how many grams of water vapour can pass through a square metre of fabric in 24 hours.
A general rule of thumb is that 5,000mm is low waterproofing, 10,000 around average, 20,000 high, and anything up towards 30,000mm reserved for the pros. As for breathability, 5,000g is low and 20,000g or more is very breathable. Some jackets may instead carry an RET value for breathability – most skiers aim for a number 10 on this.
You potentially face another trade-off here. While waterproofing is handy for wetter days, it can cut a jacket’s ability to allow moisture and heat to escape when the weather’s better. The more you pay, the less you have to compromise, with branded fabrics like Gore-Tex and Polartec costing more for their increased efficiency.
Another way manufacturers justify expensive jackets is by taping and sealing the stitching between panels to increase waterproofing, or using a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment to repel water. This is a nice-to-have for most people, rather than an essential.
Fit and fabric
The weight and weave will also impact the price, as top-end jackets may be two or three layers thick, and therefore much more hard-wearing. If you’re skiing on piste for a week each year, then you may prefer a thinner jacket that’s lighter and less stiff.
The fit and cut also depends on what kind of skiing or boarding you favour. Slim fit may suit those happy to cruise the blues, while baggier cuts are better for the bigger movements and additional activities – like jumping and hiking – of freeriders and freestylers.
Vents and pockets
Almost all jackets now have underarm vents to allow hot air out and cool air in, without having to unzip the front, while some now feature vents on the sleeves, back and front to get fresh air circulating.
Pockets seem to get more ingenious each season, as the list of gadgets and accessories grows. You’ll usually find a big mesh one inside for goggles, a smaller one in the forearm for your lift pass, and a breast pocket with holes for your headphones – plus extras for various gadgets and valuables.
While you’re inspecting different jackets, look out for things like goggle wipers in the pockets, layered material in the elbows and shoulders, or a Recco reflector – an insert that helps ski patrollers find you with compatible detectors (but it’s no replacement for proper off-piste training and gear).
Hoods and skirts
Hoods are either fixed or detachable, with some rolling away into the collar. Most are adjustable via elastic strings and some may have transparent patches to aid better peripheral vision, or faux fur rims for added style points. Many are now big enough to fit over a helmet, but it could be argued you won’t really need a hood if you’ve got a helmet on.
Unique to ski and snowboard jackets are the elasticated snow skirts round the bottom, which keep snow from getting underneath and into your lower layers when you fall over. Cuffs usually have these too, preventing that horrible feeling of snow up the sleeve.