Having a good outerwear set is vital to having a good time on the mountain. Depending on where you’re riding, the climate can range from wet slush to bone dry powder, and you want to have the right gear on when that happens. Your jacket is obviously an important part of this. You’ll want to pick out your jacket based on your personal preferences, and the primary climate you’ll be in. Do you prefer to layer up under a shell (a jacket with no insulation) for the most versatility? Or do you prefer to have an insulated jacket that provides more warmth, requiring less layers in cold conditions? These questions and more you’ll want to consider while choosing your outfit.
It’s easy to break jackets down into three categories for warmth: shell, insulated, and puffy. Shells offer the most versatility out of the group because they can be used in almost all conditions and climates. If it’s artic cold, you can layer a down insulator under your shell, if it’s drizzling and 40 degrees (F) just have a light base layer underneath, you get the idea.
Insulated jackets span the range between shells and puffy, so you’ll see a lot of different weight pieces. Insulation is measured in grams and usually starts at around 40gm for a lighter jacket, to 100gm for something pretty warm. Any more insulation than that and we start to get into puffy territory. The insulation type may vary from brand to brand, but it’s typically some kind of synthetic loft.
Puffy jackets are for riding in frigid temperatures, but also make great city/commuter jackets for people in cold areas. Insulation in these jackets is typically around 200gm if synthetic. Another common insulant in puffy jackets is down, which is taken from the undercoat of tiny feathers found on geese and ducks. The warmth of jackets with down insulation is measured in fill power which typically ranges from 400 (lesser quality) to 800 (higher quality). You’ll find that the higher the fill power, the smaller the “feathers” are, yielding lighter, yet warmer jackets. It’s also common to see goose and duck down mixed in various ratios in the same piece.
Now some people assume that all jackets made for snow sports are simply “waterproof”, but anyone who’s ever ridden in the Pacific Northwest knows that’s not the case. Jackets use a membrane which is bonded to the backside of the face material of the jacket to protect you from the elements. The concept is that the membrane keeps wind and moisture from getting in (water resistance), while allowing moisture generated from your body out (breathability). You’ll see two numbers relating to the water resistance and breathability of each jacket. Water resistance is measured in millimeters and ranges from 5,000mm (light resistance) to 20,000mm (heavy duty resistance). Breathability is measure in grams and ranges from 5,000gm (not that breathable) to 20,000gm (very breathable). The exception to the rule is garments that use Gore-Tex.
Gore-Tex is a patented waterproof/breathable membrane that several outerwear manufacturers use in their high-end product lines. It provides maximum breathability while guaranteeing to keep you dry, no matter what.
The face material of jackets is coated with a Durable Water Repellent (commonly called DWR) finish. This is what forces water to bead into pellets and roll off, rather than soaking into the face fabric. This is not ultimately what keeps you dry, but it does help the face fabric from absorbing moisture and becoming heavy and cold. The garments DWR will eventually wear off, but can be revitalized with a low heat cycle in the dryer or through purchasing a wash-in or spray-on product like Nixwax TX Direct.