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Ski Jackets

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How to Choose a Ski Jacket

There are a few things you’re just not going to have a good ski day without, and your jacket ranks high among them. But, while it’s easy to understand the need for a ski jacket, things get a little more complicated when it comes time to actually shop for one. Search for “winter jacket” and you’ll be met by an immediate and overwhelming barrage of options. And each one has a different list of features and technologies that requires a PHD to unravel. So we’d completely understand if you just threw up your hands in frustration, closed your eyes, and started clicking randomly. But please, please don’t do that, you don’t need to play jacket roulette. Instead, we’ve designed this guide to help simplify your choices and pick the right coat for you, without any indecision or hassle.

The easiest way to break down how to choose a ski jacket is to think of it as an equation. You have a specific set of needs from your jacket, and the sum of those requirements will be a coat that works well for you. So before you even start searching for a new ski coat, sit down and make a list of what you need from it. Think about what sort of weather conditions you’ll use it in (how often does it rain while you’re skiing, how cold does it get?), what sort of activities you’ll do in it (just riding chairlifts, or do you earn your turns?), and what features you can’t live without.

At the most basic level, all technical outerwear like a ski jacket does three things: It keeps you dry, it keeps you warm, and it lets you breath, so that the moisture your body produces doesn’t sit against your skin and make you feel clammy. Every ski jacket balances those three priorities differently, which optimizes them for different applications and users.  

What Type of Ski Jacket Do You Need?

The first thing you can do to narrow down your search is to decide what type of ski jacket you are searching for. There are four main styles of ski jackets: Hardshell jackets, Insulated jackets, 3-in1 jackets, and softshell jackets. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Hardshell Ski Jackets

Hardshell jackets are the most common ski and snowboard jackets, because they make sense for the biggest number of people. They’re very versatile. A hardshell jacket is made out of just one layer of material, the shell. It doesn’t have any lining or insulation. That means that a hardshell jacket’s priority is on keeping you dry. Hardshells are the most waterproof jacket style, and they breathe reasonably well. But they won’t keep you warm, that’s not their job. Instead they’re designed to be worn over an insulating layer. This is what makes them so versatile, if it’s really cold out, you can put a puffy and a sweater under your hardshell and stay toasty. But on warm spring days you can just wear a base layer underneath and still be comfortable in the same jacket.

Insulated Ski Jackets

Insulated ski jackets take that same hardshell outer material and then line it with insulation. This means that they’re the warmest style of jacket, and are great for people who often deal with very cold temperatures. You can also layer other insulators underneath them, but you can’t remove the insulation, so on warmer days you may overheat. Insulated jackets do a really good job of keeping you warm and dry, but they don’t breathe very well since that insulation is built in, and it’s harder for moisture to wick out of it. Because of this, they’re not a good choice for skiers and snowboarders who hike or skin for their turns, you’ll overheat quickly and get sweaty.

3-in-1 Ski Jackets

3-in-1 jackets are just a modular combination of a hard shell and an insulated jacket. They come with a hard shell outer portion that buttons or zips onto an insulated liner. So you can wear both together on cold days, ditch the insulated liner and just wear the shell on warmer days, and just wear the liner as an insulator on its own. This makes them very adaptable, and they often offer a better value proposition over buying a shell and an insulated puffy separately. On the flipside, there are less style options available, and you end up with some extra bulk from the attachment system.

Softshell Ski Jackets

Softshells are the most specialized style of jackets, they put breathibilty at the forefront, and prioritize it over warmth and waterproofing. This makes them perfect for people who are exerting themselves a lot while skiing or snowboarding. They offer plenty of waterproofing to protect you from light snow, and they breathe so well that you won’t work up a sweat, even when you’re climbing mountains. They don’t offer any real insulating value, so you’ll have to wear a mid layer to stay warm. If you only ski inbounds, a soft shell is probably not the right choice for you, but if you like to explore the backcountry and live somewhere with a drier climate, a softshell will keep you very comfortable.

Ski Jacket Waterproofing & Breathability

Now that we understand what the different types of jackets are, we can dive into the stats that reflect how they perform. The most obvious is waterproofing, followed by breathability. These are the main factors to pay attention to when comparing the weatherproof performance of different ski jacket - they’re the stats that will tell you which jacket will keep you dry and which will leave you soaked through.

Waterproofing and breathability are both measured in increments of a thousand. So a jacket with a 10k waterproofing rating is less waterproof that one with a 20K rating. We recommend ski jackets with at least a 10k rating, or 20k if you live and ride in a wet climate like the PNW. Similarly, a 20k breathable jacket will be more breathable than a 10k ski jacket. These stats are often listed together like 20k/20k waterproof/breathable. If you’re curious about this rating systems, read our full guide to waterproofing and breathability ratings.

Ski Jacket Insulation

If you’re looking at insulated ski jackets, there are a few things to consider. First off is the material used to insulate. Down insulation generally delivers the most warmth at the lowest rate, so you end up with a lighter jacket that keeps you warmer. On the flipside though, once down gets wet, it doesn’t do a good job of keeping you warm. Synthetic insulation weighs a bit more, but keeps working even when it’s sopping wet, so it’s a better choice for people in wet climates like the Pacific Northwest.

Insulation is generally measured in grams per square meter. The higher the number, the more insulation there will be, and the warmer it will keep you. Some manufacturers vary insulation weight through the jacket, they put heavier insulation in the torso area, and less in the arms, so it’s easier to move your arms, but your core stays warm.

Ski Jacket Fit

Now the most personal attribute of all, fit. Most ski jackets should list their general fit cut, be that baggy, fitted, or regular. Think about how you want your jacket to look on the hill, and remember that you may be wearing some thick insulating layers underneath it. It’s a good idea to have a friend help you take some measurements of your body so that you can compare them to fit charts and figure out what size works best for you. Make sure there’s plenty of room across the chest so you’re not restricted, and that the arms and long enough. Nothing sucks more than the sleeves riding up and leaving your wrists out in the snow.

Ski Jacket Features

Once you’ve narrowed down the basics of how different ski jackets fit and perform, it’s time to get into the details. These are all optional features that may or may not suit your needs from the jacket.

Vents

Most ski jackets have some sort of zippered vent in the armpit or on the chest. These allow you to dump some heat without taking the jacket off. Some have mesh lining, to keep snow out even while the vent is open. It’s a good idea to look for a jacket with easy to use vents, it’s no fun to have to have you friends help you unzip your pits.

Hood

The hood on your ski jacket should be adjustable so it can open up to fit over a helmet, or cinch down if you’re just wearing a hat. Some are adjustable in multiple directions to make them even more adaptable.

Collar

The collar can make or break a ski jacket. A good jacket will have a soft lining inside the collar so it doesn’t rub against your chin, but still stands up to keep the cold air out. Some jackets also have an offset zipper so the hard zipper pull isn’t right in the middle of your chin.

Powder Skirt

The powder skirt is a piece of material inside the jacket that you can cinch down so that snow doesn’t get up your coat in crashes. Most jackets come with them, and higher end ones often have a removable powder skirt that can zip out if you’re not using it and want to cut some bulk.

Pockets

There are as many pocket layouts as there are brands of jackets. The biggest thing is to make sure all exterior pockets are zippered, so you don’t lose anything. And if you ski at a resort with RFID readers, make sure it’s got a pass pocket. Otherwise, think about what you like to carry skiing, and pick a pocket layout that will fit all your gear.

Jacket-Pant Interface

If your jacket and pants are made by the same brand, there’s a good change they can button or zip onto each other to create a system that’s impervious to snow. This is nice for keeping snow out of your base layers.

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