Snow Outerwear and Layering
How to choose your ski and snowboard clothing
A ski jacket, snowboard jacket, skiing or snowboarding pants – whatever you’re looking to buy, making the right choice is essential to getting the most from your time in the mountains. But it’s far from simple, with so many manufacturers, styles, materials, features and tech to consider.
You need to think about the conditions you’re going to be skiing in, how warm or cold you are naturally, how active you’re going to be, and more.
And of course, your outerwear should be the icing on the cake of a well thought-out system of layers that keep you as dry and comfortable as possible, whatever the weather.
That’s why we’ve created this ski and snowboard outerwear and layering guide – to help you navigate your way through the options available and make the right choice.
Here’s what we’ll look at…
• Base layer
• Mid layer
• Outer layer
• Hard shell
• Soft shell
• Insulated shell
• Jacket features
• Pant features
Layering up: it’s not just about your outerwear
While this is first and foremost a guide to buying snow outerwear, it just wouldn’t be right for us not to mention layering first. Because we strongly believe that, for the most part, your outerwear is nothing without what you’ve got underneath, and wearing the right combination of layers is the key to an enjoyable day skiing or snowboarding.
Obviously, the configuration of ski and snowboard layers you choose will vary depending on the conditions and whether or not you’re a naturally hot or cold person. But when thinking about outerwear, you should consider how you’re going to be building up your base and mid-layers too.
The flexibility to get it right in any conditions
Constructing a well thought out wardrobe of layers will allow you the flexibility to pick and choose what you wear in order to get the level of comfort you want, whatever the weather. Too hot? You can lose a layer. Too cold? You can put one on. A thinner outer shell can provide the protection you need from the elements on a warmer wetter day, and it can do the same on a colder day, when combined with the right base and mid layers. That’s not to say that thicker insulated jackets and pants don’t have a place, but you should think about how they’re going to sit within your layering system, to make sure that they’re the right choice.
The starting point for any layer system is a solid base layer or set of thermals – something relatively tight fitting that traps warm air next to your skin and transfers moisture away. It’s natural for the body to sweat during exercise, but for your warmth and comfort it’s important to stop sweat sitting on or next to the skin where it can cool your body temperature too much and cause hypothermia.
Base layers are commonly made from synthetic materials, merino wool or bamboo. All of these ‘technical’ fabrics share the same wicking effect and breathability – effectively transporting sweat away from the body where it can evaporate or be trapped in an insulating layer that sits separate from the skin.
Don’t wear cotton!
Cotton does not wick or breathe – it absorbs sweat and traps it next to the skin – so shouldn’t be used as a base layer.
Do wear synthetics
Synthetic fibres are ideal for making base layers as they’re relatively inexpensive, breathable and very quick-drying.
Do wear merino wool
Merino is less effective at wicking moisture than synthetics, but it’s a more effective insulator, which makes it ideal for colder situations where you’ll be sweating less and in need of warmth. It’s also more resistant to the odours caused by bacteria acting on your sweat, meaning it can stay fresher for longer.
Do wear bamboo
Bamboo is a sustainable natural fibre that holds its shape well and is very soft, so a good alternative for people who might be sensitive to merino or looking for a more eco-friendly alternative to synthetics.
Do wear mixed fibres
Many base layers use a combination of different materials to achieve the best combination of performance, fit and cost. As with most of these things, you can spend as much or as little as you want, but you don’t have to spend a lot to get a good functional base layer – just remember, no cotton!
So, where base layers are primarily about dealing with sweat and keeping the surface of your body dry, the mid layer (or layers) are where you’re going to get the bulk of your insulation from – keeping you nice and warm. If the weather is warmer, then you might use a lighter-weight mid layer or not wear one at all, but it’s best to have one or two ready, should you need them.
You can use a bunch of different garments as mid layers, but when it comes to what they’re made of – you guessed it – avoid cotton! While a mid layer can often hold some of the moisture that the base layer wicks away from your body, it’s still best if that moisture is able to quickly evaporate. Cotton holds a lot of moisture and dries very slowly, so it’s better to wear synthetics, merino or down.
What makes a good mid layer?
Good mid layers should still be fairly snug fitting, helping to trap air around your body. For your torso, you can choose from fleeces, hoodies, soft shells, pile smocks, synthetic insulated or feather down jackets. Each one will have pros and cons in terms of value, weight, packability, breathability and warmth, so it’s important to think about how you’re most likely to be using it before making a decision.
And for your legs?
Although less common, you can find mid-layers for your lower half too, in the form of insulating shorts. These can be good for extremely cold conditions, or if you’re someone who is naturally cold.
If you’ve got the right system of layers underneath, then your outer layer or shell is primarily there to shield you from the elements – the wind, rain, sleet and snow. So, you want to look out for waterproof and windproof materials that are also breathable. You want this outer layer to keep the weather out, but still allow as much sweat vapour to escape as possible. This balance of waterproofing and breathability is one area where more expensive products tend to do better than cheaper ones.
Make sure your layers work in harmony
It’s important that your outer layer works well with your mid layer, as too much friction between them can restrict your movement. Generally, soft shells can be a good option as the smooth outer surface allows your outer shell jacket to move more freely. You may also find that some outer shells come with a removable mid-layer liner. These systems can provide a two-in-one solution for mid and outer layer that you can be certain will work together seamlessly when you need them to.
Technical soft shells for intense activity in dry weather
Depending on the conditions and the style you choose, some mid layers will also work well as outer layers in their own right. If you’re doing a lot of intense exercise where you’ll sweat – touring for instance – then you may want to choose a softshell that can insulate you, is wind-resistant and shower-proof, but stops short of being fully waterproof. These softer options are far more breathable than fully waterproof shells, meaning your sweat will evaporate away quicker, keeping your temperature regulated and your body dry. It’s still best to have wind and waterproof outer layer at the ready for very wet or windy conditions, but if conditions are fine and largely dry, a good technical soft shell can do the trick.
Similarly, if weather is warm and wet, then a thinner shell can be used without a mid-layer, to give protection from the weather without the unnecessary insulation.
Now that you know how a basic layering system should work, we’ll get into outerwear in detail.
When choosing the best outerwear, we mainly look at four key elements – how waterproof it is, how wind-proof it is, how insulating it is and how well it breathes. We’ll explain each of these terms in detail, then explore how well each type of outerwear will perform against these criteria.
In most ski and snowboard situations, moisture is going to be an issue. The environment will be doing its best to make you wet, whether through sleet and snow from above, or melted snow and slush from below. So, for most situations, you’ll want to choose outerwear that has a degree of waterproofing or water resistance.
How it’s measured
Waterproofing is measured in millimetres – meaning the height that a column of water would need to be before the pressure of that water caused it to seep through the fabric. These numbers are usually somewhere between 5,000mm and 35,000mm and the higher the number is, the more waterproof the fabric will be. Generally, these numbers are far larger than the amount of water that your outerwear is ever likely to encounter, but it does give you a good idea of how effective the waterproofing of a particular garment is.
Coated fabric or membrane?
If it claims to be waterproof, your ski and snowboard outerwear is likely to be constructed of a coated fabric, or a waterproof membrane. Coated fabrics take a regular nylon or polyester weave and apply a special coating to leave a material that has pores small enough to keep liquid water from getting in, while still allowing water vapour to escape.
Waterproof membranes like Gore-Tex are plastic membranes with a microporous structure that repels wind and liquid water, preventing them from getting in, while allowing water vapour to get out. Waterproof membranes tend to be more breathable than coated fabrics and will usually retain their waterproofness for longer, but they are generally more costly.
It’s not just the fabric or membrane that makes ski or snowboard outerwear waterproof though – water can also get in through the seams too. Where the two ends of fabric or membrane are stitched together, the needle will cause tiny holes which water can pass through. To guard against this, many jackets also offer critically or fully-taped seams. Fully-taped seams are fairly self-explanatory – every seam has been taped to stop water being able to get through. Critically-taped garments will only have had key seams taped, to take care of the bulk of the problem while keeping prices lower.
Another area where water might be able to penetrate your garment is through any zippers that it may have. High end jackets and pants can combat this by using waterproof zips with a rubber coating that stops water from being able to penetrate.
You may also find that your garment has had a DWR coating applied. Durable Water Repellent coatings are not waterproofing as such but they’re hydrophobic – designed to make sure that any water that collects on the outside of your garment runs quickly away and doesn’t have the chance to soak through. DWR coatings can attract dirt and also wear off over time – but they can be reapplied during or after washing to keep them fresh.
Wind chill is a huge issue in the mountains, so protecting yourself against the wind is one of the most important things that your outer layer will do. Particularly if you’re exercising and sweating, the wind can chill the sweat on your body and drastically reduce your body temperature.
Tightly woven fabrics and membranes provide a good level of wind-proofing whereas looser weaves and fleeces will be more penetrable by the wind.
The more intensely you exercise, the more you’ll sweat. Your base layer should wick that sweat away from your body and help it to evaporate quickly, keeping you dry. But if your outer layer isn’t breathable enough then the moist air that evaporates from your body will condense on the inside of your jacket, making you feel damp, and potentially leading to a dangerous drop in body temperature. The breathability of a fabric measures how well this sweaty water vapour can pass through it.
How it’s measured
Manufacturers rate their outerwear by listing the grams of water vapour that can escape from a square meter of it every 24hrs. The higher the number, the more breathable a fabric is – meaning you should have fewer issues with condensation.
Which styles of fabric are more breathable?
Waterproof coatings and membranes need to be impermeable enough to keep liquid water out, which means that they’re always going to be less breathable than outer layers which are not waterproof. If you do need a fully waterproof outer layer though, then a cheaper coated fabric is likely to be less breathable than a generally more expensive membrane, like Gore-Tex.
The amount of insulation an outer layer provides will determine how warm it is. It works by insulating your body against losing the heat that it generates. As we’ve explained already though, we’re not always looking for our outerwear to provide a lot of insulation, so don’t write an outer layer off if it doesn’t provide much – you can always use a good mid-layer to provide the bulk of your insulation.
Synthetic vs Down
Insulation is usually provided in outerwear by quilting with a synthetic material or natural down. Both are designed to trap air in small pockets around the body but each have different pros and cons that you need to consider.
Down insulation pros and cons
Natural down is made from the fluffy material beneath the feathers of ducks and geese. It gives more warmth per weight than any synthetic insulation, meaning that natural down outerwear can be less bulky and lighter, while providing the same level of warmth. It also compresses down to a smaller size, making it more packable and portable. On the other hand, good quality down is far more expensive than synthetic and it doesn’t like getting wet at all. Wet down loses all of its insulating qualities and takes a long time to dry.
Several brands have pioneered methods for making their down water resistant to try and address some of these issues, and whilst they’ve been pretty successful at it, the down is still only water resistant rather than waterproof.
Measuring down quality
Down garments are rated in terms of fill power. Fill power essentially describes how fluffy the down is, how much air the down can trap and how insulating it will be. A down with fill power 800 will be more insulating than a down with a fill power of 600, for example. It’s also important to think about how much down is in a garment though – having more down of a lower quality might keep you warmer than having less down of a higher quality.
Synthetic insulation pros and cons
Synthetic insulation is much cheaper than down and can still be very effective. One of the major benefits of synthetic is that it copes far better with moisture. It’ll continue to provide insulation while wet and it’ll dry far quicker than natural down. Many advanced synthetics have been modelled on down to make them as lightweight and packable as possible, but they’ll still generally be a little bulkier and heavier than natural down. Look out for the likes of Thinsulate, Primaloft, Polartec and many more brand-specific equivalents.
Now that we’ve covered the outerwear essentials, let’s look at the different types of jackets and pants available and how they stack up for waterproofness, how wind-proof they are, how they breathe and how much insulation they provide.
Ski and snowboard jackets fall into four main categories – hard shell, soft shell, insulated and insulated shell. In this section, we’ll talk about each one, what makes them unique, how they perform and when you would use them. We’ll take you through some of the useful extra design features that you should look out for too.
Shell jackets, often referred to as hard shells, are usually waterproof and wind-proof, but not generally insulated. They’re designed to be the lightweight, breathable and weather-proof outer shell to a layer system where the insulation (when needed) is provided by the base and mid layers.
How do they perform?
Hard shells are ideal for protecting you from the wind, rain and snow, and because they’re not trying to deal with the insulation, you’re free to regulate your warmth with your base and mid layers. Good quality options can be expensive – especially if you opt for more breathable and durable membrane construction over a coated fabric – but hard shells provide a really versatile option for most types of riding, in the majority of conditions, all year round.
How would you use them?
For warm spring laps you can wear one over your lightest base layer, while in deepest winter you might team it up with a synthetic insulated mid layer and heavier base layer for ultimate warmth and protection from the elements. If you’re touring the backcountry in good conditions and you’re sweating, the lightweight construction means it’ll pack away easily into a backpack allowing you to tour in your more breathable mid layer.
The term soft shell can be used to describe quite a wide range of jackets, but most will be lightly insulated, wind and water-resistant. At the more technical end of the spectrum, some more heavily-insulated options are available, using technologies like Polartec Powerstretch or Windpro. Fans of high-end technical soft shells argue that, most the time, for higher intensity activities in particular, the negative impact of letting a little water in is far outweighed by the additional breathability that a softshell provides.
How do they perform?
Basic soft shells will only be windproof in situations of light wind and may not provide much insulation either. They’ll most likely protect from drier types of snow, but will not protect you in the wettest conditions. Technical soft shells will fare better in more extreme conditions, but are never entirely wind or waterproof. Both will suit warmer conditions or higher output activities.
How would you use them?
Soft shells are ideal for spring riding when the weather is good and you don’t need much protection for the elements. In and around the park or wider resort, where you’re not too far away from shelter. More technical examples are great as part of a layering system, giving excellent breathability when you’re active and conditions are good to middling, and they can act as a great mid-layer to a hard shell jacket in case bad weather hits.
Insulated jackets are usually composed of down or synthetic insulation wrapped up in a fabric that’s not normally entirely wind or waterproof.
How do they perform?
The amount of protection that they give from the elements can vary, but they’re excellent at trapping air around the body and keeping you warm in cold situations. Be aware of down jackets and the difficulty you might have in keeping them dry and caring from them. Down loses all its insulating properties if it gets wet and it’s very difficult to dry, but it will give you an excellent warmth to weight ratio. Synthetic insulation is more robust and easier to care for.
How would you use them?
Insulated jackets are great for conditions where it’s extremely cold but relatively dry. They’re also more suited to less active situations. If you raise your body temperature through a lot of exercise you may find that the insulation causes you to sweat excessively. Low profile, less bulky insulated jackets can double as a mid layer for more extreme conditions when you need the extra protection of a wind and waterproof outer shell.
For ultimate protection in extreme conditions you might want to get your hands on an insulated shell. They’ll usually feature a layer or two of down or synthetic insulation, encapsulated in a water and wind-proof external shell of coated fabric or membrane.
How do they perform?
They’ll give you the ultimate combination of protection from the elements and warmth, but the combination of insulation and relatively less breathable outer shell will mean that they get extremely hot and sweaty very quickly if you start to exercise.
How would you use them?
Insulated shells are for the most cold, wet, snowy and icy conditions, when protection and warmth are at a premium. They would suit lower-intensity activities or those who feel the cold very easily.
Whatever style of jacket you go for, there are a few features that you should look out for and consider.
Ideal for protecting your lips and chin from the biting cold and wind. A soft material insert on the inside of the collar will make it a much nicer place to bury your face in when the weather strikes.
A hood isn’t essential if you’ve got a hat and helmet, but if things get really windy or cold, it can make a real difference to your comfort. Make sure you get one that will fit over a helmet – most will specify if they do or don’t.
Whether your jacket is very breathable or not, vents will make a real difference to your comfort when things heat up. For those bursts of intense activity that you can’t avoid, they’ll allow you to keep cool and vent sweaty water vapour to avoid condensation.
An essential in deep powdery conditions and pretty useful the rest of the time too. As soon as you sit down or have a stack, the skirt will protect you from an unwelcome blast of snow up the back. In very cold conditions they’ll make a nice seal for your body too, to stop the hot air that rises out of the top of your jacket drawing cold in underneath.
Another that helps to keep snow out and warm air in, adjustable cuffs are a real winner.
If you’re looking for a truly waterproof shell, make sure it’s got taped seams to stop unwanted water seeping in.
As with taped seams, waterproof zips are key to a really dry time. No sense in having a waterproof shell that can let water in all the way down the front.
High tech inserts that can help to locate you in the unfortunate event that you’re caught in an avalanche. Rescuers can use a transmitter to send out a signal that your reflectors will bounce back at them, helping them to find your location and dig you out.
Lift pass pocket
Usually located on the left arm, this pocket makes it really easy to scan your pass on most lift gates.
Conditions can change in an instant when you’re on the hill, so it pays to have your backup goggles or spare lenses to hand. Internal pockets like this stop your delicate lenses from being scratched.
Another often internal pocket, usually located in the chest area, your phone pocket will be ideally placed to hold your smart phone. Some feature a transparent plastic face that allows you to see and often operate your smart phone screen without taking it out of the safety of its pocket.
If your phone or mp3 player is in your pocket, you’re going to need a convenient way of running your earphone cable up to your ears. Cable routing in some jackets will run from your device pocket to a convenient place in the neck of your jacket for easy, tidy access.
Not to be overlooked or taken for granted, your lower half layers and ski or snowboard pants can also make a big difference to your comfort and enjoyment out in the mountains. Unlike jackets, they’ll need to be able to deal with a lot of sitting and kneeling in snow, slush and ice, as well as keeping you generally dry and protected. In terms of construction, they can usually be divided up into either insulated pants or shell pants, as most will feature some degree of waterproofing.
As with hard shell jackets, shell pants are there primarily to control the wind, rain, sleet and snow. The shell itself will keep you dry and protected from the wind while breathing and venting as much sweat vapour as possible.
How do they perform?
Shell pants are the most versatile style of snowboard and ski pants, because they give you the option to vary your level of insulation using layers. You can combine them with thermal leggings or long johns, even with padded insulated shorts to get the level of comfort you need.
Again, as with shell jackets, the more expensive membrane construction materials tend to be more breathable and durable than their coated fabric cousins.
How would you use them?
Wear them on their own for warm spring conditions or team them with insulating base and mid layers if things get really cold.
Much like insulated shell jackets, insulated pants are going to combine layers of down or synthetic insulation with a water and windproof exterior. These guys will give you excellent warmth and protection from the elements, but aren’t always as versatile as shell pants. Membrane waterproofing on the outside will be more breathable and durable than coated fabrics, but demand a higher price tag.
How do they perform?
In low activity situations or extreme cold and wind, insulated ski and snowboard pants will keep you very warm and dry. But if you find you need to do a lot of exercise you may find that the combination of excellent insulation and less breathable waterproofing mean that you could overheat and sweat heavily.
How would you use them?
If you don’t like wearing thermals on your lower half, you feel the cold easily, or you’re out in extremely cold conditions then insulated pants are a good option for you. If you’re more resilient to the cold, in warmer conditions or doing a lot of exercise then insulated pants might not be the best choice.
When choosing a set of snowboard pants or ski pants, there are a few features you should look out for that could make the difference.
You probably want some form of pocket in your ski or snowboard pants, but the number and size will depend on how much you tend to carry, how many pockets are in your jacket and whether or not you carry a backpack. If you need extra storage, cargo pockets on the leg can be a bonus.
For those times when you need to get busy, venting will allow you to lose some of that sweaty vapour and avoid the build up of condensation that could cool you down later.
If you're looking for the ultimate in waterproofing then make sure you've got full-taped seams.
Particularly if you like a looser, more relaxed fit, it can be a challenge to keep your pants up – especially if you end up having a crash. The last thing you want is to expose yourself or end up with snow down the back of your pants. Integrated belts can really help to give you extra protection and keep your pants where they should be.
Another good way of keeping your pants up is to choose a pair that have a bib, or shoulder straps, essentially making them work like dungarees. Whereas this design might have become very uncool for a number of years, some excellent options have come back onto the market and they can give you a great level of comfort and warmth.
Integrated gators on the legs of your pants will hug the top of your ski or snowboard boots, meaning that snow and slush can’t get up there. They’ll also help to stop the warm air that rises out of your pants from drawing cold air in behind it up your legs.
These clever inserts can help the authorities to locate you in the unfortunate event that you’re caught in an avalanche. Rescuers can use a transmitter device to send out a signal that your reflectors will bounce back at them, helping them to locate you.
If you don’t have a pass pocket in your jacket, then a pass clip in your pants can be really handy. They’ll usually be on a piece of elastic so you can easily extend them up to the sensor on the lift gate.
Now that we’ve taken you through the whole layering system and broken down your choice of underwear, we hope that you’ll be ready to make an informed choice on what to buy. If you still have any questions, we’d love to help so please get in touch with one of the friendly team here at Freeze.