By Steve Kopitz
When it comes to the winter time and spending time out in the elements, it is important to have a pair of ski pants that will 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 ski pants, including waterproof and breathability ratings, size adjustments, and pocket types.
When shopping for ski pants you are going to find several different types that are available. The most common type is an insulated pant, with the other types being shell pants, stretch pants, and bib pants. 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 pant would cause them great discomfort once the heat builds up. Others, however, are routinely cold and having an insulated pant only makes sense because a shell pant would leave them even colder. Additionally, some people prefer the added protection from the snow with a bib pant, and many women prefer the less bulky feel of a stretch pant. With this being said, the first step to selecting the pants that are best for you is by determining if you are warmer or colder person by nature and what protection you prefer from the snow. Once these are determined, you can then move forward in the process of selecting your ski pants.
The construction characteristics of an insulated ski pants include an outer layer that is waterproof and windproof, along with an insulated layer that is built directly into the pant. The insulating inner layer is likely to be made of fleece, down, or a synthetic fabric such as Primaloft. You may also find some insulated pants that have a separate insulator piece that can be removed to help regulate the internal temperature.
The insulation that is found in insulated pants is most commonly measured in grams. The greater the number weight in grams, the warmer the pants 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 pant is the most suitable option.
Shell ski pants are windproof and waterproof but contain no internal insulation and are highly breathable. Now, you might wonder why anyone would choose a pair of pants that contain 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 pant is because they prefer to have added mobility that is not available with an insulated pant. As shell pants are usually worn over a base layer and a mid layer, shell pants do not have the added bulkiness that an insulated pant has. This means that you can contain the warmth of your body via your base layer and mid layer, but have added range of motion.
Shell pants can be worn on their 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 pant 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.
Stretch pants are typically a woman’s style of ski pant. The design is a cling to body pant that is made of an insulated, waterproof, and breathable material. Its construction allows for a four way stretch so it can conform to the body type of its user. The idea is that the less room that exists between the body and the pant, the less space their is to heat. Additionally the design creates less weight and bulk to deal with.
Bib ski pants are insulated ski pants that offer an added piece of fabric that extends up from the waist to cover the back and chest areas. If you can imagine a pair of overalls, you have the design of a pair of bib ski pants. The two greatest benefits to this type of pant is that one, it provides extra warmth to your core areas. The second benefit is that it provides additional coverage above the waist to protect from snow going up your jacket or down your pants.
Probably the most important characteristic of any pair of ski pants is the waterproof rating. This rating tells you how quickly your pants 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 pant is and the longer it will withstand snow and rain. For a pair of pants to be deemed legally waterproof, it must achieve a minimum 1,500mm rating. Pants can be rated as high as 20,000mm, 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 ski pant is at keeping water outside, the breathablity rating of a pant measures how effective a pant is at transferring moisture from inside to the outside. The same fabric pores that help prevent water from penetrating inside a pair of pants, 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 pair of pants 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 2,000-3000g. Fabrics at the high end of the breathability scale will have an MVTR around 25,000g.
Contrary to what many people believe, ski pants are different than your everyday snow pants that you’d wear in the backyard. Yes, you can wear your ski pants as your everyday, backyard snow pants, but if you haven’t purchased a pair of pants specifically for skiing, you’re best not to wear the everyday snow pants 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 pants are going to be far more durable.
Ski pants 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 pants different from your everyday snow pants. This is also why you’ll find that ski pants will cost more than snow pants 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 pants with only 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, but with ski pants it is strongly encouraged that you choose pants with Welded or Fully taped seams. This is because your pants are going to spend more time on the snow, whether it be from a fall, sitting on the snow, or sitting on water that has accrued on the seat of a chair lift.
If you opt for ski pants that only have Critically taped seams, you will still be protected, but you’ll want to avoid spending long periods of time in wet weather, or avoid falling in the snow. Regardless of what you choose, know that Critically taped seams will offer the protection you need.
When shopping for ski pants it is important to know that beyond how waterproof and breathable a pair of pants are, 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.
Boot Gaiters: Boot Gaiters are a simple, but very effective feature of ski pants. A Boot Gaiter is an elastic fabric that is positioned at the bottom of ski pants. This fabric fits snugly over your boots to prevent snow from going up your leg. It also helps to retain heat that can escape through the bottom of your pants.
Articulated Knees: To help with flexibility and also to reduce bulkiness at the knee, many pants will offer the feature of an Articulated Knee. Ski Pants with articulated knees have a seam sewn in the has a natural bend form. This feature is not a must have, but certainly a nice option for improving flexibility.
Scuff Guards: A Scuff Guard is extra durable fabric that is positioned inside of the ankle of a ski pant. Its purpose is to keep the pants from fraying in an area that is highly prone to friction. This feature is considered by many as a must have because it helps to protect the investment made in ski pants.
Waist Adjustment: To help with comfort and fit, many ski pants will offer some adjustability features such as a waist adjustment. This adjustment feature is usually present as a Velcro strap, cinch cords, or snaps. While not a must have feature, it certainly is a luxury to be able to adjust your pants at the waist, particularly if you need to wear more, or remove base or mid layers throughout the day.
Suspenders: Another adjustment feature that is available on select styles of ski pants are pants with suspenders. Ski Pants with suspenders will work in similar fashion to regular dress pants with suspenders. The difference is that most pants with suspenders will have the suspenders sewn into the pants. If you find that your ski pants are routinely falling down, you’re best to select this type of pant. Pants with suspenders will keep your pants from falling down, especially during activities with increased movement.
Side Zips: Located near the bottom of the leg, side zips are a convenience feature that helps with positioning your ski pants over your boots after you’ve put your boots on. The zippers can also be left unzipped on warmer days, or if you need to let some heat out of your pants if you get too warm.
Thigh Vents: Thigh Vents are temperature regulating features that are present on many ski pants. Thigh Vents are zippers located on the inner thigh that can be adjusted on the fly to help retain or release heat that builds up inside a pair of pants. If you’re cold, or the temperature 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.
Leg Lifts: Located inside of the pant, ski pants with the Leg Lifts feature have a cord with a snap located at the bottom of the pants. This allows you to fold the pants up and snap them higher when you’re done skiing and walking in your street shoes or after ski boots. This is a great feature for many because it helps prevent damage to the cuff of the pant when it is hitting the ground.
Jacket-to-Pant Link: While not offered by all brands, this feature allows you to snap or zip the powder skirt of your ski jacket to your ski pants. This help to further protect you from wind and any snow that may creep up your back.
Glove Holster: Glove Holsters are positioned at the side of the pants and are great for stowing your gloves when you’re not using them. This will insure that you don’t misplace your gloves, or have to stuff them into your pockets which already have essential items in them.
Video Tutorial: Technical Features of Ski Pants