Apart from the good looks, how can you tell if a ski or snowboard jacket suits your needs? Our advice on key lingo and the latest technology will make sure you choose the right one for you.
Waterproofing & breathability
The holy grail is a jacket that keeps snow out while allowing the heat and moisture generated by your body as you ski, snowboard or hike to escape. All the jackets we review are waterproof and breathable to a degree, but some are more effective at one or the other.
How they perform is largely down to the waterproof/breathable membrane in the fabrics used to make them. The level of waterproofing is often expressed in numbers referring to a water test - 5,000mm is low waterproofing, 10,000 average, 20,000 high, 28,000mm extremely high. Breathability is usually rated in grams, again with 5,000g being low and 20,000g or more being very breathable. You may also see a RET value for breathability - less than six is very breathable, up to 13 good, up to 20 OK but not great for high-energy riding or hiking. High waterproofing can cut a jacket's abilty to allow moisture and heat to escape, and you can choose to prioritise one or the other, or go for the double.
The most efficient jackets do tend to be more expensive, and jackets using big name fabrics such as Gore-Tex and Polartec will also cost more than those with a brand’s own waterproofing technology.
As well as the waterproof membrane in a fabric, most jackets also have a thin coating on top of the material to repel water so it can't easily settle and soak in, compromising breathability as well as water resistance. This coating is often called a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) treatment. Many are made using perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which are damaging to the environment, so there has been a move to find greener alternatives.
Shell or insulation
In general, padded jackets are warmer but less versatile than shell jackets, which have little or no insulating material. The story goes that natural down insulation is less bulky than synthetic padding but loses its thermal properties when it's wet, whereas synthetic insulation works better when wet but tends to be more bulky and not as easy to compress into a small package. However, newer forms of synthetic padding are less bulky and more compressible, mimicking down, and may even be stretchy and breathable.
There has also been a move towards responsible down, produced without live plucking of birds for example. Manufacturers may mix down and synthetic padding in the same jacket - putting down where warmth is most needed for example, and synthetic in areas likely to get wet. Big names in insulation include PrimaLoft and Thinsulate.
Rather than just stitched together, seams may also be taped on the inside so they’re more waterproof. Some jackets have all their seams sealed with tape. Others have only the critical seams sealed, in vulnerable areas such as shoulders. The narrower tape on some high-end shells helps keep overall weight down.
Jacket linings are often made of a quick-drying, moisture-dispersing material or mesh that’s designed to transport sweat away from the body fast. This helps keep you dry when working hard or when it's warm; wearing similarly technical baselayers under your jacket helps the process.
Durability and weight
The materials used to make a jacket come in different weights and weaves – the outer face fabric may be two or three layers thick for example. More layers are more hard-wearing, and tougher materials also resist abrasion more effectively, but tend to be heavier and feel harder, and don't drape the body as well. Some jackets have more abrasion-resistant material on areas such as shoulders; recently there's been a trend for more durable areas to be woven into material, so the jacket can be made from a single piece, cutting down on the need for water-vulnerable seams.
Fit and cut
The fit and cut that's right for you depends on what kind of skiing or snowboarding you like to do. Slim fit may best suit those who are cruising smooth pistes, while a baggy cut suits the bigger movements and extra activities like hiking that freeriders and freestylers partake in. However, stretch materials and clever cuts designed to work with ski and snowboard moves mean that there's a wealth of options between the two extremes.
Most ski and snowboard jackets have underarm vents to allow hot air to escape your jacket and cool air in – opening them avoids having to undo the front zip and have a flapping jacket while on the move. They may be mesh-lined or open to the air; some have a two-way zip so they’re easier to use, especially if wearing a backpack.
Some manufacturers get more inventive, with vents at the front or on sleeves to draw in cool air, vents on the back to let hot air out, and systems that channel air around the jacket. Front vents are also easy to use when wearing a backpack, and may double as a pocket. Some manufacturers have introduced jacket vents that line up with vents on midlayers, so they can work together.
This is a wide elasticated band inside the jacket – sometimes called a snow skirt – that can be done up over ski pants and helps stop snow getting inside your clothes. Many brands add silicone strips around the band to help it stay in place. Some jackets have removable powder skirts, others have one that can be poppered away when not in use.
Snap to pants
Some jacket and pants can be linked to each other using poppers, zip, loops or hooks on the powder skirt and the waistband of matching pants, creating a pseudo onesie. This is even more effective for stopping snow getting up your jacket or down your trousers.
Hoods are fixed or detachable. A detachable hood can be removed if you think you won't need it, or just for style. A fixed hood is always at the ready. Many are designed to fit over a helmet for extra weather protection when it's cold and snowing, some roll away into the collar when not needed. Most hoods are adjustable – look for an elastic pull at the back for example, which is useful to stop it falling over your eyes. A stiff brim at the front helps too. Some hoods have a detachable fur (or faux fur) trim.
Since they’re a vulnerable part of your jacket, some or all of the zips may be water resistant. To avoid chin chafe there’s usually a guard over the top of the front zip, and there may be softer material behind it here too, for extra protection. An asymmetric zip, or one that's designed to curve out from the face, avoids the problem, and a flap behind the front zip keeps wind out. A pull on the zip helps make it easier to use with gloves on, and a little garage over the top of the closed end of a zip is another trick for keeping water out.
Internal cuffs and thumb loops
To stop the wind whistling between cuffs and gloves, you may find an internal stretchy cuff in the sleeves of your jacket, sometimes with a loop for the thumb to help it stay put. These may be made of moisture-wicking material (see above) to prevent them staying soggy.
Most jackets have an array of useful item-specific pockets – a big mesh one inside for goggles, a small one on the arm for lift pass, a phone pocket with an insert so that headphone cables can be threaded to your ears from inside the jacket, and a secure pocket for stashing card or cash.
Some jackets contain a Recco reflector – a small insert that can help you be found by ski patrollers using compatible detectors. Although it may help in a crisis, if you're going off piste having clothing with Recco is no replacement for wearing and knowing how to use an avalanche transceiver.
Search and you may find, a goggle wiper in a pocket, a detachable and washable collar lining, a hood brim with a see-though section so you can wear it further over your eyes in a blizzard, extra protective padding in vulnerable areas like elbows and shoulders, holes in the collar for easier breathing when it's done up.