If you’re new to winter sports you might be wondering why you need special outerwear, not to mention why it varies so much in price and technicality, especially when you’re used to just throwing on your usual waterproof jacket and heading out the door.
Sitting alongside their waterproof and breathability ratings, these fabrics are also typically classed in layers; either 2 layer, 2.5 layer, or 3 layer, often abbreviated to L.
This is the most commonly used construction for waterproof outerwear. Typically this construction will use the same fabrics and membranes as 3 layer but without a bonded layer on the inside, instead using a mesh or loose fabric lining.
Although 2 layer fabrics can offer the same waterproofing rating as a 3 layer, they’re often bulkier and heavier with the looser layer inside. One of the benefits however is their cheaper price point.
2.5 layer fabrics don’t have a bonded mesh lining or a separate sewn-in lining, but include a very fine raised pattern screened onto the membrane to keep it off your skin. The raised pattern helps to protect the laminate from your body oils, sunscreen, bug spray, and anything else that can break down the material over time.
Most commonly found in rain shells, this fabric can also be used for winter sports too. Like 3 layer fabrics these can be lightweight and easily packable.
3 layer fabrics are constructed with an outer layer, or ‘face fabric’, usually made of nylon or polyester and a ‘membrane’ that’s bonded to it; membranes are the waterproof layer. Then, a very lightweight backing fabric is attached to the interior. It’s not loose hanging like a 2 layer, and helps to improve comfort by absorbing moisture and helping transport it through the membrane and to the surface of the face fabric. The interior lining also helps protect the waterproof laminate from being dissolved by skin-borne substances.
This is the most advanced construction offering a protective, lightweight, durable, and most importantly breathable fabric, but it comes at a price.
Seam sealing, or seam taping, covers the tiny holes made by sewing such as around zips and pockets, so they don’t leak. This process is usually done using a heat application of thin, waterproof tape.
The alternative to sewing is welding or bonding, which attaches the pieces of fabric together using heat-activated film. Bonding can be lighter and less bulky but can become costly.
Sewn seams tend to be a little stronger so often brands will use both methods when producing their garments; sewn seams around stress-bearing areas such as arms and legs and bonded for pockets and zippers.
Outerwear often comes in different levels of taping from ‘fully taped’ to ‘critically taped’. On fully taped garments every seam has been made waterproof whereas critically taped garments usually only have ‘high exposure’ areas taped such as the neck, shoulders, and chest.
Ski and snowboard pants and jackets are available as both insulated and non-insulated. Insulation can be synthetic or natural such as goose or duck down.
Outerwear insulation is often ‘body mapped’ meaning it uses a heavier and warmer layer of insulation in the areas you need it most such as your core and a lighter version of the same insulation in areas where you need it less such as in the arms or hood.
Synthetic insulation weights are measured in grams per square metre of fabric, so the heavier the weight the warmer and thicker the insulation will be. Insulation weight is also often split to express body mapping such as “60 grams body / 40 grams arms”.
Synthetic insulation offers a very high warmth-to-weight and volume ratio and tends to provide a good level water resistance and dries quickly, especially in direct sunlight. Garments made with synthetic insulation is also more affordable, good value for money and easy to care for without the need for dry cleaning or special products
Synthetic insulation is polyester threading that is moulded into long single threads or short staples to mimic lofty down clusters. Thinner and lighter threads fill voids and trap warm air more effectively, while thicker strands sustain the loft and durability.
Down insulation is rated on a ‘fill power’ scale, measured by the number of cubic inches one ounce of down will occupy. For example, if one ounce of down takes up a volume of 650 cubic inches, it is given a 650 fill power rating. The quality of the down is directly related to its fill power rating with high quality down having a high fill power and requiring fewer ounces of down to create insulating warmth. The higher the fill power, the better the down will insulate because there is less of a chance of ‘cold spots’, or areas in the garment where there is no down.
Down has its advantages over synthetic fabrics such as an extremely high warmth-to-weight ratio, being highly compressible and lightweight, however the higher the number, the higher price tag.
A shell is exactly as it sounds, a waterproof, windproof shell that keeps you protected from the elements but often without any extra features or functions, including insulation.
Using more mid layers and shell outerwear is a more versatile approach, allowing you to customise your insulation levels to suit you. It can be more expensive once you factor in the levels but the ability to easily adjust your layers with the change of weather is attractive.
Shells can come with removable insulation or with attachment systems such as zippers. If you tend to, or will be, skiing or snowboarding in more variable climates then this could be a good system for you.