As you start your search for a new jacket, it’s important to know the differences between all the styles and key features of each jacket. We’re going to cover the types of jackets, styles, and best use of each.
The majority of jackets you’ll see out on the slopes are shells. Shells are incredibly versatile, durable, usually waterproof and breathable. Most shells are sized larger to allow for layering underneath. This makes it so you can wear them on the coldest days of the year or on days you could get away with a t-shirt.
Insulated jackets are best for colder conditions. These jackets usually feature a waterproof outer shell and a layer of insulation built in to keep you warm. The insulation used in these is usually a down or synthetic insulation, which both require a specific type of care.
Synthetic Insulation is a good choice for snow outerwear; synthetic insulation is less expensive than down, more durable, and it works when it’s wet. This is ideal for areas that are bitter cold, humid, and rainy, such as the Northeast, Northwest and the Midwest.
Down Insulation, on the other hand, uses 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. 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.
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 in the sleeves and hood. This cuts down on weight and bulk without affecting the overall warmth of the jacket.
If you spend a good chunk of your time mountaineering 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, waterproof and highly breathable to keep you comfortable while moving in changing conditions. 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, boarder or mountaineer, the quality and features are requisite.
One thing to note is that 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 or pit zips. This is both to save weight and to make these jackets more packable, since these features are the name of the game.
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.
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.
Perhaps the most versatile jacket style, 3-in-1 jackets (aka Interchangeable 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 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.
Usually found in the underarm area or around the chest, zip vents or pit zips will allow you to cool off without having to unzip the front of the jacket. They may be open vents, or may have a mesh lining to keep out blowing snow.
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 too many 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. Pass pockets are super handy for lift serviced skiing where you have to show a pass every time you hit the lift again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Your jacket plays a vital role in your comfort level out on the slopes, choose carefully when buying your next jacket as it could have a direct correlation to how much fun you have on your next adventure.