YOUR GUIDE TO WINTER SPORTS OUTERWEAR
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. Our guide will take you through the what and why of skiing and snowboaridng outerwear so you know you've got the right gear to take on the the slopes.
Why choose technical outerwear?
Mountain conditions, especially in winter, are unforgiving, and can change in an instant leaving you with the mighty challenge of protecting yourself from the harsh elements. It's especially important that your outerwear is waterproof, windproof, and breathable - or simply put technical. Not only does your clothing have to stand up to the snow, wind, and rain, it also has to allow water vapour from sweat to exit or else you’ll end up hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable.
Notable waterproof and breathable fabrics to look out for are GORE-TEX®, eVent™, Entrant®, Polartec®, and Sympatex™ to name a few. Many brands manufacturers develop their own fabrics while others pair together to share technology.
Waterproofing and breathabilty
One of the biggest factors in price is the level of waterproofing and breathability your ski pants or jacket provide.
Waterproofing is measured in millimetres (mm). This number indicates how waterproof a fabric is, usually between 5,000mm and 25,000mm. Using the first rating, 5,000mm, as an example, if you were to put a square tube with inner dimensions of 1” x 1” over the fabric, you could fill it with water to a height of 5,000mm before water would begin to leak through the fabric. So, the higher the number, the more waterproof the fabric. Almost all fabrics used in ski and snowboard outerwear are technically very waterproof, with ratings in excess of 10,000mm.
Differences in breathability can vary greatly but it’s as important as waterproofing when considering new outerwear. Breathability is measured in grams (g); found by testing how many grams of water vapour can pass through a square meter (m2) of the fabric from the inside to the outside in a 24-hour period. In the case of a 5,000g fabric, this would be 5,000 grams. The larger the number, the more breathable the fabric.
It’s important that active outerwear retains an element of breathability, otherwise you’ll keep the water out but soon be wet from your own perspiration. As a result, most technical outwear balances protection with breathability.
Choosing technical clothing based on the type of activity you are doing is key. If you only ride occasionally, using lifts and pistes, whilst rarely or never hiking or climbing, then breathability doesn’t need to factor quite as highly in your decision. You probably won’t work up enough of a sweat to justify the higher price point. However, if you’re a more serious backcountry rider this rating will become more important.
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 generally more expensive. 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 bonding 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.
Built-in insulation vs shell and mid-layers
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 of water resistance and dries quickly, especially in direct sunlight. Garments made with synthetic insulation are 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.
Hardshell vs. softshell
HARDSHELL vs SOFTSHELL
If you’re considering a shell you may have seen the terms ‘hardshell’ and ‘softshell’ but what does it mean when talking about winter sports outerwear?
Hardshell garments tend to be waterproof pants and jackets with little or no stretch, and a much firmer fabric to the touch. They might have a lower breathability rating but with extra ventilation systems like zips and hidden vents.
Softshell garments are much softer to the touch, with more stretch and more breathability than its harder counterpart. They’re usually more comfortable as they have much more flexibility to move with you and still offer good waterproofing.
Ski and snowboard jackets often feature extras such as powder skirts, goggle pockets, audio pouches, removable or adjustable hoods, wrist gaiters, and more. But not all these features are going to be useful to you, likewise, if you love a jacket that has features you won’t use, don’t let that put you off.
If you don’t often ride in powder you probably won’t need a powder skirt but your number one priority should always be the right level of protection from the weather. Often higher priced garments will have less features, instead focusing on waterproof rating, breathability, and weight. Riders considering the higher end products often know what they’re looking for, and what they need, allowing them to easily build the perfect garment set up. The key is to think carefully about how you intend to use your outerwear and buy accordingly. Remember you can also visit us in store for more advice - our in-store experts will make sure you go away with the right gear to get most out of your adventures.
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