Choosing Snowboard Outerwear
Snowboarding is an extreme sport with an extreme venue - the great outdoors. To ensure that your time on the mountain is spent riding as opposed to worrying about the elements, invest in some quality outerwear and you'll stay warm and dry. The following article details many of the terms and characteristics associated with outerwear, which we define here as jackets and pants specific to riding. Purchasing snowboarding clothes requires some knowledge regarding fabrics and apparel accessories, so browse this page to discover a few of the most important features you should compare when shopping around.
Flip through a manufacturer's catalog and you'll find apparel made from dozens of fabrics designed to combat cold, wind and wetness. While they may have fancy names, each is essentially a derivative of either polyester or nylon material.
Polyester is the base fabric for all kinds of apparel. It is strong, resistant to shrinking and stretching, quick-drying and mildew-resistant, properties that make it a fantastic winter outerwear material. When tightly woven, polyester is also water-resistant and durable; however, nearly all boarding jackets and pants still need to be treated with some type of DWR coating (durable water repellant) or laminate to heighten these characteristics. Polyester fabrics come in varying weights (gauges), the heavier the denser. However, the best indicator of the protective qualities for any given polyester shell is the factory-assessed waterproof/breathability ratings, discussed below, under "Characteristics."
Nylon is an exceptionally strong material, with low-absorbency and elastic characteristics. It can be dyed easily and is simple to wash, a big plus for riders. This resilient fabric is very typical in the outerwear market; again, despite its many benefits, a supplementary coating is often added to nylon fabrics to increase their protective capabilities. Like polyester, nylon is woven into different material weights, which is indicated by a gauge measurement (ie. 80g polyester). Of course, the waterproof/breathability rating (see "Characteristics" below) issued by the manufacturer is the easiest way to determine whether a particular jacket or pant will work under your desired conditions.
Some shell apparel is made using nylon and/or polyester microfibers. Using extremely fine fibers, these materials are woven into high-performance, super durable, lightweight, breathable, highly water-repellant and wind-resistant outerwear. Because of its superior properties, microfiber is typically reserved for the most expensive, highest-tech jackets and pants on the apparel market.
Gore-Tex has sweeping uses in our society, from clothing to medical equipment. It is highly porous (approx. 9 billion holes per square inch), with microscopic openings that are 20,000 times smaller than a drop of water. This technology is the foundation for a material that is waterproof but breathable, as water vapors (a.k.a. sweat and body heat-induced moisture) are small enough to fit through the tiny pores. In outerwear, Gore-Tex membranes are attached to nylon or polyester base fabrics to create a protective shield against rain/snow, wind and cold. The Gore Company, maker of the original Gore-Tex, insists that any company using its technology must seal the seams of the garments in order to ensure that no moisture can penetrate the teeny holes made by stitching during assembly, so you can rest assured that your gear will be leak proof and sound.
There are three major characteristics of snowboard outerwear that buyers need to understand before shopping around. Apparel companies rate their garments' ability to protect you from water and wind, as well as their ability to breathe. Here is a breakdown of each element, with an explanation of its function and the units of measurement used for rating it.
Insulated or not, outerwear designed for snowboarding should boast at least some level of water-resistance to protect the rider from the rainy or snowy conditions found on a mountainside. Simply put, the more extreme the weather, the more waterproof your gear should be.
In most cases, manufacturers coat fabrics such as nylon and polyester with porous membranes, each with a certain amount of waterproofness. (Unlike these fabrics, Gore-Tex doesn't require supplemental coating, as it is already designed to be impermeable.) The companies then assess ratings to the apparel in order to give the consumer an idea of how much protection they can expect. These ratings are usually in millimeters, denoting the number of millimeters of rain the garment can withstand over the course of 24 hours. Therefore, a jacket with a waterproof rating of 20,000mm will be more waterproof than one with a rating of 10,000mm. Of course, the chances that you'll encounter 10,000mm of rain in a day (that's nearly 33 feet) are pretty low, but factors such as the force of the rain can detract from your outerwear's ability to keep you dry.
To ensure that there aren't even the slightest holes made by stitching the fabric together, manufacturers usually seal the seams of the garments to prevent any moisture from creeping in. The definition of critically taped seams varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it typically refers to the most exposed areas of the garment: the shoulders, arms and side seams on jackets and the rear-end and outer seams on pants. Critically taped seams are good enough under most conditions, though fully taped seams will offer the highest amount of protection to the wearer under the foulest conditions.
If you're looking for a springtime jacket/pant, or just something to wear on the clear days, you can opt for a garment with a water-repellant or water-resistant rating. These fabrics are coated with a membrane that combats the rain, but won't offer as much protection as waterproof outerwear. The trade-off is in breathability - waterproof materials usually aren't as breathable as water-repellant or resistant fabrics.
Over time, it is likely that any apparel, despite its original waterproofing, will succumb to the dirt, oil, sweat, wear and tear that comes with our fine sport. When the fabric becomes easily permeable by water, it's time to get some new gear.
Waterproof Rating (mm)
What it can withstand
No resistance to some resistance to moisture
Light rain, dry snow, no pressure
Rainproof and waterproof under light pressure
Light rain, average snow, light pressure
Rainproof and waterproof except under high pressure
Moderate rain, average snow, light pressure
Rainproof and waterproof under high pressure
Heavy rain, wet snow, some pressure
Rainproof and waterproof under very high pressure
Heavy rain, wet snow, high pressure
i. What do the rating numbers actually mean?
Manufacturers typically describe the waterproof/breathability of fabrics using two numbers. The first is in millimeters (mm) and is a measure of how waterproof a fabric is. In the case of a 10k or 10,000 mm fabric, if you put a square tube with inner dimensions of 1” x 1” over a piece of said fabric, you could fill it with water to a height of 10,000 mm (32.8 feet)before water would begin to leak through. The higher the number, the more waterproof the fabric.
ii. Why isn’t outerwear completely waterproof?
The truth is that all outerwear designed for active winter sports has various degrees of water resistance, but will eventually leak given enough water, time and pressure. Manufacturers define “waterproof” according to different standards, and testing is not standardized. A rubber raincoat is completely waterproof, and may be the ideal garment for standing in a downpour waiting for the bus, but if you tried to ski or snowboard in it, you’d be wet in no time from your own perspiration. The trick is to balance protection from rain and snow on the outside with the ability to let water vapor (warm perspiration) escape from the inside.
iii. How is it done?
Waterproof/breathable fabrics consist of an outer layer called the “face fabric”, usually made of nylon or polyester, and a laminated membrane or coating, usually made of ePTFE (expanded Polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as Teflon®) or PU (Polyurethane). The purpose of the face fabric is to protect and look stylish; it’s not waterproof but is treated with a solution called DWR (Durable Water Repellent) so it doesn’t soak up water. The job of keeping the water out is left to the membrane, which has tiny holes too small to let liquid water enter but large enough to allow water vapor to escape. Since contamination with oil, sweat and many chemicals causes PTFE membranes to lose their ability to keep out water, the membrane is protected by an ultra-thin layer of Polyurethane (GORE-TEX® membranes have a bi-component laminate structure) or other oleophobic (oil-hating) treatment (eVent™ does this at the microscopic level with individual PTFE fibers). Finally, a fine scrim or mesh is bonded to the inner surface for comfort in 3 Layer (3L) fabrics. 2 Layer (2L) fabrics receive a separate fabric liner, while 2.5 Layer fabrics use an abbreviated pattern screened on the inner surface to save weight. Modern waterproof/breathable fabrics have come a long way since the original GORE-TEX®, and most are extremely waterproof at any price point, but outstanding gains in breathability in the past few years have redefined the market in high exertion outerwear.
iv. How waterproof a garment do I need?
We recommend a minimum waterproof rating of 5,000 mm for ski and snowboard outerwear. If you ride primarily in cold and clear conditions and take regular lodge breaks this level of protection could be fine, but anything less and you stand a good chance of getting wet and cold in a storm. Clothing rated between 5,000 mm and 10,000 mm is a good choice for riders who spend long days out and ski or snowboard in any weather conditions. Avid snowsports enthusiasts, especially those in wetter climates, should look for waterproof ratings in the 10,000 mm to 20,000 mm range or better. If you spend a good percentage of your time in the backcountry or hiking or skinning to remote locations, breathability becomes equally as important as waterproofing – look for outerwear with both waterproofing and breathability in the 20,000 plus range. As you might expect, higher ratings in both categories will usually mean higher prices.
Even though a 20,000 mm rating may sound impressive, a hard day of riding in wet conditions with the added pressure of wind, sitting, and falling puts even the most waterproof fabrics to the test.
v. How are waterproof ratings determined?
Waterproof ratings are determined by the clothing manufacturer or fabric producer, with testing done either by independent laboratories or in-house. There are a number of different testing protocols in use, but most involve the equivalent of placing a 1” x 1” square tube over the fabric and determining how high (in millimeters) a column of water you can suspend over it before it starts to leak. Some manufacturers have developed their own testing methods that involve adding pressure to the process to simulate the effects of wind.
While waterproof ratings are becoming more standardized, remember that different labs may test or report differently, and may come up with different results even with two pieces of fabric from the exact same roll, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that some manufacturers report waterproof ratings in PSI (Pounds per Square Inch) rather than millimeters, which has a conversion rate of 704 mm = 1 PSI.
vi. What is DWR?
DWR stands for Durable Water Repellent. Almost all outerwear exterior fabrics are treated with some sort of DWR. It’s meant to keep the fabric from becoming saturated with water and adding weight. DWR causes water to bead-up and roll off the fabric and is affected by abrasion, dirt and repeated washings. This is why after some use, a garment will appear to no longer be waterproof. This isn’t the case, though - it just means the DWR has worn off and the face fabric is getting saturated. Aftermarket DWR sprays are available from companies like Nikwax to re-condition your waterproof/breathable garment after washing – try one of these if you notice water soaking into the face fabric of your Waterproof/Breathable garments.
The second number is a measure of how breathable the fabric is, and is normally expressed in terms of how many grams (g) of water vapor 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 20k (20,000 g) fabric, this would be 20,000 grams. The larger the number, the more breathable the fabric.
Breathability ratings are often coupled with waterproofing ratings to give you an idea of the protection and comfort possible in the face of heavy weather. A garment's breathability is usually noted in grams (ie. 10,000g), which is a little simplified. In fact, the unit is g/24hrs/m² - the number of grams of water vapor that can pass through a square meter of the fabric over the course of 24 hours. This measurement refers to moisture such as sweat and condensation; as they form inside of the garment, they turn to water vapor and then pass through the pores, cooling down the rider. The higher the breathability rating, the less humidity you can expect to build up inside of your outerwear.
Well, it’s tempting to say “more is better” but the real answer depends on your level of activity. A layer of warm, moist air between your body and your shell can mean warmth as long as your underlayers don’t become saturated with moisture. In cold, dry weather a super breathable shell can actually lead to visible clouds of water vapor exiting the wearer’s body, which leads to heat loss. It’s not uncommon for owners of eVent™ jackets, for instance, to need more insulation under their shells to stay warm.
Like waterproof ratings, breathability ratings are determined by both manufacturers and independent labs, but the testing methodologies are quite diverse and almost impossible to compare with each other.
Results can vary wildly based on test, temperature, humidity and pressure and are not standardized from brand to brand, or test to test. Most testing doesn’t reflect real world winter conditions, like near freezing outside temperatures with high relative humidity. Since manufacturers seldom reveal the actual test used, and are probably keen on reporting the highest possible figures to promote sales, it’s best to read these numbers with the eye of a skeptic, but generally within a given brand or family of fabrics it’s safe to say more grams is more breathable (if a company grades breathability on an RET scale – Resistance to Evaporative Heat Transfer – a lower value is better).
Windproof or wind-resistant fabrics are made by weaving the fibers of the material extra tightly to prevent wind from penetrating the garment and reaching the wearer. A day might be otherwise fairly clear, but an intense wind chill can drastically influence the temperature you experience out in the open. Wind can often tear across the mountainside at blistering speeds, so invest in the protection of a high-quality garment specifically designed to fight the wind and you'll be able to stay warm and extend your day.
i. What is seam sealing and why is it important?
Seam sealing, sometimes referred to as seam taping, covers the tiny holes made by the needle in the sewing process so they don’t leak, using a heat application of thin waterproof tape. Sometimes seams are bonded together using glue or heat, but typically they are first sewn then taped. Garments can be either “fully taped” or “critically taped” – the difference is that a fully taped garment has every seam taped, while a critically taped one has tape only on high exposure areas like the neck, shoulders, and chest. Without adequate seam sealing you’ll get wet even with the best waterproof/breathable fabric.
Seam taping describes how the waterproof tape has been placed over the stitches and seams of your clothing.
You’ll generally see 2 types of seam taping descriptions:
Critically or partially taped seams - Only the main seams have been covered with waterproof tape.
Fully taped seams - Every seam/stitching on the garment has been covered with waterproof tape.
ii. What seam taping do I need?
Get fully taped seams. I think fully taped seams are just as important for waterproofing as waterproof rating. Partially taped seams lead to moisture and snow leaking in from all sorts of random places.
Note: You can get away with critically/partially taped seams on a jacket if you ride in very dry conditions but I suggest never going partially taped seams for pants.
iii. Membrane or Coating?
Waterproof/breathable fabrics with ePTFE membranes, led by GORE-TEX®, have dominated the market for years and still tend to offer the best combination of waterproof breathability at the high end of the market. eVent™ fabric, which forgoes the monolithic (solid) Polyurethane protective layer on the fabric's interior, has raised the bar on breathability for hard shell fabrics over the past few years. As technology allows the creation of thinner and thinner layers, high performance Polyurethane and Polyester membranes are beginning to take up a larger portion of the market. Examples are Marmot's MemBrain® (Polyurethane) and SympaTex (Polyester). ePTFE membranes tend to be quite dimensionally rigid, while Polyurethane membranes have some give and are suitable for stretch fabrics. Membranes come in may different types and price ranges, but chances are you'll want a 2 Layer or 3 Layer fabric with a laminated membrane if you're looking for a versatile and durable snow garment.
Coated fabrics tend to be very waterproof but lack breathability in comparison to membrane laminates. These fabrics are less expensive and are improving as manufacturers finds ways to make the coatings thinner and more porous.
Up until this point, most of the discussion has been about the shell, or outer layer, of your gear. That layer should be the only part of your snowboarding uniform that will see direct contact with the elements, so properties such as water-resistance and breathability are the top concern. However, warmth is also a super important aspect of outdoor apparel, and insulating layers attached to an outer shell will significantly aid in keeping you toasty in cruddy conditions.
III. OTHER FEATURES
A. ARTICULATED ELBOWS/KNEES
These are angles built into a jacket or pant around your elbow or knee joints, allowing for unencumbered range of motion.
A cuff is the part of a jacket or pant that wraps around your wrist or ankle. There are usually mechanisms in outerwear cuffs designed to prevent snow or rain from entering your sleeve or pant leg, such as cinches or Velcro closures.
C. DURABLE WATER REPELLANT (DWR) COATING
DWR is a coating applied as either a primary or supplementary water-resistant shield. Not only does it increase the waterproofness of a garment, but it does so without much or any sacrifice in breathability.
On snowboarding clothes, gaiters made from a water-resistant material (such as polyester) extend outward from the inside of the sleeve or pant leg, providing a protective interface at your wrists and ankles. Their purpose is to cover any exposed skin between your cuffs and your gloves or boots thereby restricting any snow, cold or wind from making its way into the inner parts of your garment.
E. HOODS (Jackets)
There are several features built into jacket hoods to make them more convenient, protective and customizable. For instance, hoods are either fixed/attached or removable. They can be adjustable through cinching cords or Velcro straps, or they might be designed to roll up-and-into a lateral pocket on the back of your collar. No matter what the hood can do, make sure that it reaches your forehead and that there is some protection at the chin (such as a "chin guard") to cover the zipper when it is pulled all the way up.
F. PASS POCKETS/D-RINGS
Many resorts have begun to use electronic pass scanners to shuttle riders through the lift-lines quickly and efficiently. To use a scanner, you often need to get really up close and personal with the sensor in order for it to read the chip in your pass. Rather than stick your pass in a pant pocket or chest pocket (just imagine the scene when you encounter a really picky scanner), you can keep it safe and secure in a jacket pass pocket. Often see-through, these pockets are positioned in convenient locations on the jacket to allow for easy scanning, often at the bottom of your sleeve, protected by a large cuff straps.
D-rings serve a similar purpose, giving riders a convenient place on their jacket to attach a lift ticket.
G. POWDER SKIRTS
A powder skirt works somewhat like a gaiter for the waist, giving riders an extra layer of protection from the snow. By preventing snow from entering through the bottom of the jacket and at the same time protecting the top of the pants, powder skirts allow you to remain warm and dry in your gear, despite severe weather.
H. REINFORCED SEAT / KNEES (Pants)
The makers of a good pair of riding pants will recognize the need for reinforcement around the seat and knees, where most contact with the snow happens. Therefore, some pants come with added patches, stronger materials or thicker fiber weaves in these areas to combat their accelerated wear and tear.
As described in the "Waterproof" section of this article, seam sealing is an important step in ensuring your gear's protective quality. Waterproof tape seals the seams to prevent any moisture from leaking in through the needle holes made when stitching the material together. Critically taped seams will cover the most exposed sections of the seams, while fully taped seams will seal every stitch on the garment.
J. STORM FLAPS
A storm flap is the piece of material that keeps the snow, rain or wind from breaking through the tiny spaces in the zippers (or other openings) on your snowboarding clothes. The flap is most commonly on the outside of the zipper, but can also be found along the inside or on both sides, essentially acting as an added shield against the elements.
K. UTILITY POCKETS
It's kind of crazy to think about how much junk we carry around with us while riding - there's the cell phone, wallet, keys, iPod, chapstick, sunscreen, goggles, snow tool, extra gloves, spare beanie… get the picture? Luckily, outerwear companies recognize the insane pocket-need of the modern rider, and have been making jackets and pants with more stash spots than ever before. Some pockets are designed for general use, while others, like goggle pockets or so-called "media-pockets," are intended for a particular item.
Quick tip: While having a place for everything can be really great, you could benefit from being discerning about what you take to the mountain. In an industry where lightweight gear is the objective, you may end up counteracting the purpose of your clothes by weighing them down with unnecessary stuff.
Ventilation is an essential part of any outerwear. Despite a garment's breathability rating, there are still times when a little added airflow makes a huge difference in your comfort while riding. Many jackets will come with vents in the underarm area (called "pit zips"), on the chest, and/or across the back to keep your torso cool. In pants, vents are commonly found along the seams, at the hips and across the thighs. Vents are often lined with mesh, so while the air will flow, less chill will enter your jacket/pant through the opening.
Zippers for outerwear are made to varying specifications of strength and water-resistance. These aren't ordinary zippers; they are robust, hefty, technical closures that are designed to secure your garment and protect you from cold and wet conditions. There are waterproof zippers for high-end gear, and there are zippers sprayed with water-repellant coatings to discourage moisture from entering through the teeth.Quick tip: When buying a jacket/pant, check out the zipper pull: is it large and grippy enough to grab with your gloves on? Being able to easily access the interior of your clothes (or the pockets for that matter) without removing your gloves is an often-overlooked aspect of outerwear convenience, but it's one that will add riding time to your day.
The fit of your jacket or pant should be based on your personal preferences. For some, a baggy fit is mandatory on the hill, allowing for a complete range of motion, free of restrictions. However, others find that baggy outerwear gets in the way and therefore opt for slimmer fitting apparel, keeping everything close to the body. Outerwear manufacturers make a wide range of fits for their gear (some will even offer the same model garment in several shapes), so regardless of your riding and clothing styles, you're sure to find something that meets your needs.
Jackets and pants range in price from under $100 to over $400. So what is the difference between a low-end and a high-end outerwear product? Waterproof/breathability ratings, venting and accessory features are the factors that determine the quality - and therefore the price - of the goods. The more severe weather the apparel can withstand, the more advanced it is technologically, so expect higher prices. In addition, you'll spend more for gear with added options such as strategic vents, built-in audio, and detachable powder skirts, as the convenience these features afford is usually worth the premium you'll pay. Of course, the brand of apparel you choose will also have an effect on the item's price.
Remember, outerwear is only half of the story when it comes to staying comfortable while riding. Proper layering matters just as much.