GT: The Ski Jacket Buying Guide
Any good gear nerd can tell you: a ski jacket is much, much more than a ski jacket. And buying one is much more than a simple purchase. Ski and snowboard jackets these days come in a million varieties, with different features and different purposes. (Not to mention different aesthetics!) Selecting one should actually be a fun process, not an overwhelming one. It can be pretty easy, in fact, if you’ve learned a few basic terms.
The first question to ask is what you intend to use the jacket for. This can help guide what features are important, and which are nice-to-have—and which features are actually not what you want.
Traditional resort skiing and riding jackets: heavy, aesthetics-driven, full-featured.
When you’re skiing or boarding inbounds, you’re likely not counting how many grams your jacket weighs. (Leave that for the uphill touring enthusiasts.) So you can really go for anything your heart desires style-wise and features-wise.
Some brands, like Arc’teryx and Patagonia, offer a clean-cut aesthetic. Others, like surf and skate brands such as Burton, Roxy, Billabong, and Volcom, go heavy on fun patterns, trims, and trend-driven styles.
A resort jacket may have a “powder skirt,” an inner elasticized layer that you can fasten around your middle, which will keep the snow out even if you biff it in powder. It may have tons of pockets, including pockets just for aesthetics. You might find funky trims like faux fur hoods. The jacket may have built-in insulation, making it all the heavier but very plush indeed for cold lift rides. You may see “pit zips,” zippers under your arms that can open for ventilation if you get sweaty making powder turns or bootpacking up a ridge.
A resort jacket, like any jacket (whatever its use or category), will have a waterproof rating. Some of the cheaper options will have a lower waterproof rating, meaning the jacket will be fine on sunny days or in a light snow or drizzle, but will probably saturate if a true heavy storm sets in. Many of the nicer and more expensive jackets will have a high waterproof rating, which may come from using Gore-Tex brand waterproofing or from another brand that aims to achieve similar results.
Gore-Tex is seen by many as the gold standard of waterproofing, and staying dry is key to staying warm. But if you’re only looking for a casual spring-ski jacket to cruise sunny resort groomers, full Gore-Tex could be overkill.
Hardshell jackets: highly waterproof for when you want a dry nest.
A hardshell jacket is typically a relatively lightweight jacket compared to a typical resort skiing jacket—it’s truly a waterproof or highly water-resistant “shell” you can nestle into to stay dry. You can put other layers under it, such as an insulating jacket or vest, to add warmth.
Hardshells look nice and snappy inbounds and are worth their weight out of resort boundaries, too. If there’s any chance of precipitation on the horizon, you’ll want one with you for the day, unless your resort jacket is highly waterproof and you trust it to keep you dry even in a wet squall.
Hardshells are not highly breathable, contrary to what their marketing materials might promise. They’re somewhat breathable—impressively so, given their stiffness and impermeability. But if you’re really working up a sweat, a hardshell will get swampy fast. Unless conditions are gnarly, you really wouldn’t want to wear one while hiking uphill in the backcountry. But it’s great to have in your arsenal as a shelter from the storm on wet days.
Softshell jackets: great for warm days, backcountry touring, and alpine adventures.
Softshell jackets combine the best of multiple worlds. They’re typically a more breathable, stretchy version of a “hardshell” fully waterproof jacket, but still quite water-resistant and wind-resistant. If you live in a temperate climate like Utah, a softshell might actually be a great day-to-day choice for inbounds shredding or backcountry touring.
Softshells come in a full variety of sub-categories, ranging from thick and highly weather-resistant to ultra-light varieties that count more as a windbreaker. Some shave grams by going minimalist on features like pockets and zippers, which can make a light little softshell a nice idea to have in your pack at all times in case you need an extra layer of protection on a windy ridge.
Insulated jackets: down and synthetic puffies to keep you cozy.
Insulated jackets can be great as a standalone outer layer on a dry day, or underneath your hardshell or softshell on a wet day.
A down jacket offers exceptional warmth for its weight, but has a couple of liabilities—down loses its warmth if it gets wet in a heavy storm, and often, down feathers are taken from live birds in an inhumane way. Not cool.
Synthetic jackets, on the other hand, use synthetic fluffy fibers to mimic the warmth and loft of down, but don’t quite get it as perfect as mother nature does with feathers. However, these jackets have a huge benefit of staying warm when wet. And, they’re not a bummer for birds. And, you know, we like birds a lot.
You can wear an insulated vest if you feel like a full jacket might be overkill. And some brands, like Dynafit, Ortovox, and Arc’teryx, make excellent jackets and vests that put thicker insulated panels around your core and thinner breathable panels under your arms or at your back where you sweat the most. This keeps your abdomen warm while ventilating perspiration away, keeping you dry for the long haul. Some devotees can get away with only wearing such a jacket for an entire day of touring because it keeps them relatively cool on the uphill and relatively warm on the downhill.
Extra features: for when they’re nice to have.
Beyond the features explained above, you might see additional mentions in jacket descriptions, such as a helmet-compatible hood, adjustable hood, soft fleece or flannel lining, RECCO reflector strip, or waterproof zippers. Some items in a brand’s product lineup might be labeled as more eco-friendly or Fair Trade, which we’d argue is better than nice-to-have—it’s important.
These features can be day-changers when they matter, so read up on them and think about it. A helmet-compatible hood sure comes in handy on a mega storm day when the wind creeps into your helmet and chills your chin and neck. A RECCO strip matters if you’re lost and rescuers are scanning the area for the reflector embedded in your clothing. And waterproof zippers matter if you find yourself … well … anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Ski and board jacket browsing get incredibly fun when you know what you’re looking for. And even more fun when you’re shopping at UnNew prices. Have a look at our ski and board jackets, and be sure to share pics of you enjoying them in action!
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.
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