Buying Guide for Ski Jackets
By Steve Kopitz
When it comes to the winter time and spending time out in the elements, it is important to have ski jacket that is going to keep you warm, dry, and of course stylish. But knowing what to buy can be confusing without a proper knowledge of what types of design and construction features you are likely to come across. It is the purpose of this guide to explain many of the common features you can expect to find when shopping for a ski jacket, including waterproof and breathability ratings, electronics pockets, and size adjustments.
When shopping for a ski jacket you are going to find two different types that are available. One is an insulated jacket and the other is a shell jacket. The most common question that people have is, “which one should I buy?” The simple answer to this question is that there is no right answer. The reason for this is that each person has a different body temperature regulation. Some people will get hot very quickly and thus having an insulated jacket would cause them great discomfort. Others, however, are routinely cold and having an insulated jacket only makes sense because a shell jacket would leave them even colder. With this being said, the first step to selecting the jacket that is best for you is by determining if you are warmer or colder person by nature. Once this is determined, you can then move forward in the process of selecting your jacket.
The construction characteristics of an insulated jacket include an outer layer that is waterproof and windproof, along with an insulated layer that is built directly into the jacket. The insulating inner layer is likely to be made of fleece, down, or a synthetic fabric such as Primaloft. Also, many insulated jackets will contain an additional insulator piece that can be removed. These types of insulated jackets are some times referred to as system jackets or 3-in-1 ski jackets.
The insulation that is found in insulated ski jackets is most commonly measured in grams. The greater the number weight in grams, the warmer the jacket will be. Insulation types can range as low as 30 grams and go as high as 800 grams, which is most commonly found with Down material. For people who are colder by nature, an insulated jacket is the most suitable option.
Shell ski jackets are windproof, waterproof jackets that have no internal insulation and are highly breathable. Now, you might wonder why anyone would choose a jacket that contains no internal insulation. The reasons for this are several, one of which has already been identified; being a warmer person by nature. Another reason that one may choose this type of jacket is because they prefer to have added mobility that is not available with an insulated jacket. As shell jackets are usually worn over a base layer and a mid layer, shell jackets do not have the added bulkiness of an insulated jacket. This means that you can contain the warmth of your body via your base layer and mid layer, but have added range of motion.
A shell jacket can be worn on its own on warmer days or layered with base and mid layers for colder days. However, for extremely cold temperatures and extended periods of time outdoors, a shell jacket is probably not the best option, but the final decision is ultimately up to you. For more information on base and mid layers, please review our article on the importance of layering.
Probably the most important characteristic of any ski jacket is the waterproof rating. This rating tells you how quickly your jacket will become saturated and begin allowing water to penetrate to the layers below. Waterproof ratings are measured and indicated in millimeters(mm). The level is determined by placing a tube filled on the fabric and filling it with water. The level at which the water begins to penetrate through the fabric is the waterproof rating. The higher the number, the more waterproof the jacket is and the longer it will withstand snow and rain. For a jacket to be deemed legally waterproof, it must achieve a minimum 1,500mm rating. Jackets can be rated as high as 30,000mm, but the average rating is typically between 5,000 and 10,000mm. Keep in mind that as the rating goes higher, so too will the price.
There are many different types of waterproof fabrics that are used on the market today. Among the more well-known materials that are used are Gore-Tex, Hyvent, and Event. What makes materials such as these so effective is that they contain pores which are larger than a molecule of sweat, but smaller than a molecule of water. This means that not only is the material waterproof, but also very breathable.
Just like the waterproof rating measures how effective a jacket is at keeping water outside, the breathablity rating of a jacket measures how effective a jacket is at transferring moisture from inside to the outside. The same fabric pores that help prevent water from penetrating inside a jacket, allow sweat molecules to escape and ultimately keep your warmer.
Breathability rating is measured and indicated in grams (g). The measurement is determined by finding the Moisture Vapor Transmission Rate (MVTR). The MVTR determines how many grams of sweat per 1 square meter can escape a jacket in a 24 hour period. The higher the number, the more moisture escapes and the more breathable it is. Entry-level breathable fabrics will have MVTR ratings in the range of 2,000-5000g. Fabrics at the high end of the breathability scale will have an MVTR around 20,000g.
Contrary to what many people believe, ski jackets are different than your everyday winter jacket. Yes, you can wear your ski jacket as your everyday jacket, but if you haven’t purchased a jacket specifically for skiing, you’re best not to wear the everyday winter jacket that you bought at the department store to the slopes. The reasons for this are several, but one of the most important ones is that your ski jacket is going to be far more durable.
Ski jackets are made of tightly woven nylon or polyester. Materials which are designed for high performance use in the elements of winter. Extended exposure to high winds and the wet elements of the winter is what makes the construction of a ski jacket different from your everyday winter jacket. This is also why you’ll find that ski jackets will cost more than a jacket you’d buy from the department store.
Fully taped seams is exactly what it sounds like. All of the stitched seams have been taped for waterproofing. This is done with a waterproof tape that is glued on the interior and exterior of the seam. Fully taped seams are the best option if you want to be waterproof in these important areas that are prone for moisture. They will, however, cost more than jackets with critically taped seams. As an additional note, higher-end garments will offer Welded Seams, which are even more effective at protecting against moisture penetration at the seams.
A less expensive option than Welded or Fully taped seams is Critically taped seams. Critically taped seams means that only some of the seams are taped and protected against moisture penetration. On a jacket this is not necessarily a bad thing, so don’t be scared off by the fact that not all seams are covered. As long as you don’t spend long periods of time in wet weather, or spend a lot of time falling in the snow, Critically taped seams will offer the protection you need.
When shopping for ski jackets it is important to know that beyond how waterproof and breathable a jacket is, there are a number of features that you can expect to find available to you. In the following sections, we’ll cover many of these features so you will know what to expect when shopping from one model to the next.
Front Zipper Cover: This feature is sometimes referred to as a storm flap. The purpose of this feature is to cover the front zipper of your jacket to prevent the wind and moisture from penetrating inside. As the zipper can be a highly prone area for moisture, this is considered by many as a must have feature.
Powder Skirt: A powder skirt is an elastic band that is located inside of a jacket at the waist. It provides a snap closure in the front and is intended to keep snow from going up the front or back of your jacket. Additionally, it help retain heat and keep you warmer when you’re out on the slopes. This also means that if you’re starting to feel a bit warm, you can unsnap the skirt for a moment to allow heat to escape and cool you down, then snap it back up to protect against the snow. This features is considered by many as a must-have, and it is highly recommended for maximum comfort when out on the snow.
Hood: While not all jackets offer a hood, those that do will offer a hood in one of several options: attached (non-removable), detachable, or stowaway. Attached hoods are fixed to the jacket and cannot be removed. Detachable hoods offer the luxury of protection on windy or snowy days, while also offering the versatility to be removed on warmer or fair weather ski days. Stowaway hoods offer the same luxuries as a detachable hood with the difference being that stowaway hoods do not need to be removed from the jacket. Instead they will tuck into a designated area of the jacket.
As your hood is intended to protect your head and neck from the elements, you want to make sure that your hood can fit over your helmet. Your hood should have enough room so you can look from side to side, and it should also adjust for your helmet size so it isn’t too large or too small. The bill of your hood should be generous enough in size to shed rain from your goggles and eyes. Hoods, regardless of their style, are highly recommended for protection against the elements.
Wrist Closure: Wrist closures are one of the common adjustability features you can expect to find on jackets. Wrist closures will be present as an elastic, Velcro, snap, or thumbhole adjustment. This purpose of such an adjustment is to help keep cold air and snow from going up your arms. You will want to make sure that the wrist adjustment will work in tandem with your gloves.
Cinch Cord: Another adjustment feature that you can expect to find is a Cinch Cord adjustment. This is located at the bottom of the jacket and can be tightened so your jacket and pants are positioned closely together. This will help keep snow and wind from creeping up inside your jacket.
Pit Zips: Under arm zippers, or Pit Zips, are temperature regulating features that are present on many ski jackets. Pit Zips are zippers located under the arm that can be adjusted on the fly to help retain or release heat that builds up inside a jacket. If you’re cold, or the temperate starts to drop, you can close them up to help keep heat close to the body. On warmer days these can be opened up fully to allow heat to escape while you remain fully protected from the elements everywhere else. While not considered a must-have, they are certainly suggested if you want the luxury of regulating your core temperature easily.
- Electronics Pocket: Thanks to the influx in portable electronic devices (e.g., cell phones, personal audio players, digital cameras), having a pocket designated specifically for electronics is a must have for many. For others, it’s not a make or break feature. The important thing to understand is that pockets do exist for such items and they are certainly a convenience if you own such items. For those who enjoy listening to music while on the slopes, this pocket is extremely useful because electronics pockets have openings for wires to be run for headphones. This keeps the electronic device protected and the wiring internal so it is not ruined.
- Goggle Pocket: Like an electronics pocket, the goggle pocket is designated specifically to house your goggles when you’re not wearing them. This pocket will also typically house a goggle cloth that can be used to wipe your goggles if they get foggy.
Additional Fabric Lining: On many higher-end jackets you are likely to find additional fabric lining the inside of the jacket. This added fabric liner starts at the wrist and extends down over the palms with holes provided to insert your thumbs. This added lining adds extra warmth to the palms and wrists.
Avalanche Rescue System: Built into a select number of jackets an avalanche rescue system can be an invaluable feature if you’re the type of skier who ventures into areas that prone to avalanches. Unlike a separate beacon system, jackets with this feature have a small, weightless transponder that is easily detected by a search rescue team. This feature is not necessarily a must have, but for safety is recommended. If you opt against a jacket with a built-in rescue system, you can always purchase a separate rescue system at a later time.