When you dress for skiing or snowboarding, you’re trying to do several things. The first is protect yourself from getting wet from snow and rain (and sweat), which is accomplished by wearing a waterproof/breathable shell. The second is staying warm enough. That’s the job of an insulated layer, which can be a separate garment or another layer built into the interior of your shell. An insulated hardshell can be the right choice if you almost always ride in cold weather and your level of exertion is constant throughout the day, or if you tend to get cold. Separate hardshells and insulated layers are more versatile in warmer climates or for those who alternate between times of intense physical activity and cooldown.
The shape and size of the compartments used to hold the down also matter. The tubes, or “baffles” can be either stitch-through or box wall construction, with box wall being the warmer of the two (stitch-through allows heat to escape in the stitched areas). Smaller baffles also help keep the down from shifting and help keep the garment uniformly warm.
When cleaning down garments, don’t dry clean them - traditional dry cleaning methods strip natural oils from the down that reduce its effectiveness. It’s best to wash down garments yourself in a front loader washing machine. Wash the garment once at warm temperature with just water, then again with a down-specific product like Nikwax Down Wash. Rinse again with no added cleaner to remove any residue. Dry the garment at low heat in a dryer with a couple of tennis balls thrown in to restore the loft – this may take several hours. Don’t store your down garment in a compressed state (like its stuff sack) – hang it up in a dry place. If feathers work their way part way out through seams or the fabric, don’t pull them out as it enlarges the holes and can pull other down with it. If you can, try to pull the feathers back into the garment from the back side.
Synthetic insulation, usually made of thin polyester fibers, provides warmth similar to down, but retains heat more effectively if it gets wet. On the other hand, it’s not as compressible (doesn’t pack as small) as down and can be less durable. Synthetics don’t have quite the same warmth-to-weight ratio as down but they can perform better in damp conditions.
Synthetic insulation is rated in gram weights — 60 grams (g) means a 1 meter by 1 meter piece of the insulation weighs that much. The heavier the weight, the warmer the insulation. Common synthetic fill weights range from 40 to 120 grams, and are often lighter in the sleeves than the body of a coat.
The best synthetic fibers compete with the lower quality levels of down in terms of insulating efficiency. PrimaLoft® One, for instance, compares favorably with 500 to 550 fill goose down. Many synthetic fibers also have a “green” or “eco” version, made with recycled material.
A synthetic filled insulating garment can be the best choice if you wear it next to your body during high exertion activities or in wet weather. If you ride in a maritime climate, or are often in temperatures that hover around the freezing point, synthetic filled garments are a good choice. Many experienced skiers and snowboarders have more than one insulated jacket – synthetic for warmer, wetter days and down for colder ones.
Washing synthetic filled clothes is normally pretty simple (but always check the instructions on the label). There are no natural oils to worry about, so you can use your regular detergent, but beware of upright washing machines with agitator vanes as they can snag and tear thin shell fabrics. Machine drying at medium heat is usually fine as well.
Yup, fleece is still around too, and works pretty well as an insulating layer under a waterproof/breathable shell for skiing and snowboarding as long as it doesn’t get wet. One advantage is you probably already own a fleece jacket. It’s highly breathable, which can be good during strenuous activity but a disadvantage if you’re trying to stay warm on top of a windy peak.
On the other hand, fleece doesn’t have the same warmth-to-weight ratio as a good down or synthetic layer, and it’s not very compressible so if you need to stash it in your pack, it’ll take up more room. Fleece comes in various weights (light, medium, and heavy)so you can pick the right weight for the weather. Fleece garments with a GORE® Windstopper® membrane can also be effective in more severe weather as they will block the chilling effects of wind.
For casual skiing or snowboarding in moderate temperatures, a fleece mid layer in combination with a waterproof/breathable shell can be just right. Mid layers made from Merino Wool such as Smartwool® are increasingly available in heavier weights and can work for resort riding in warmer temperatures as well.
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