Ski gear is just ski gear, right? It’s designed to be worn anywhere that you can slide around on snow. And while that’s mostly true, there’s actually a huge range of climates where we ski, each with their own set of weather patterns and temperatures that dictate what sort of ski or snowboard clothing will keep us warm and dry through a day on the slopes. And for skiers and riders in the Pacific Northwest, our climate possesses a unique set of challenges. So yes, you can ski in the same old ski jacket that your dad bought when he lived in Colorado during college, but you’ll be a lot more comfortable, and have a lot more fun on the hill if you shop for gear that’s designed to handle our unique climate.
There are three main services that any piece of ski gear is designed to provide: waterproofing, breathability, and insulation. The waterproofing keeps snow and rain out, the breathability allows the moisture created by sweat when you exert yourself to escape, instead of making you feel clammy, and the insulation traps air close to your body to keep you warm. Every ski jacket or pant has its own unique balance of those three functions, and you want to find gear that prioritizes the same features that your climate puts under duress.
Waterproofing and breathability are measured by how much pressure it takes to push moisture through the membrane. This measurement is generally done in increments of ten thousand. So a 10K waterproof coat is much easier to soak out than a 40K one. The same goes for breathability, a 10K breathable coat doesn’t breathe very well, where a 40K one will allow much more of your body’s moisture to wick away.
Here in the PNW we get a lot of moisture, a lot of snow (but also plenty of rain) and generally slightly milder temperatures than some more continental ski areas. Our snow is often wetter and denser, and temperatures often rise above freezing over the course of a ski day. That means that our top priority with ski or snowboard gear is the waterproofing.
While some skiers can get away with much less waterproof gear, because it rarely rains and they’re dealing with very cold, dry snow, it’s really, really important for PNW skiers and riders to get the most waterproof gear possible. We don’t recommend anything with a waterproofing rating under 20K, and going higher isn’t going to hurt you. We get a lot of rain here—rain is fine outside your jacket or ski pants, but it really sucks inside them. Get good, waterproof gear, and don’t let the rain in.
The fact that our temperatures run a little on the warmer side also means that you need good breathability. Look for something that’s at least 15K breathable. Warmer temps, combined with lots of precipitation mean you’ll often feel very warm inside your gear, but it’ll be raining or snowing so you still need to stay protected. A more breathable material allows you to sweat and cool off instead of making your outerwear into a sauna.
When it comes to insulation, you also have to factor in how wet and warm it is. You don’t need the thickest down puffy jacket out there. Our number one rule is to make sure you’ve got a shell jacket and pants. You don’t want any insulation built in, because if it is, it’s likely to soak out and make you uncomfortable and wet. Instead, when you’re shopping for insulating layers, look for synthetic or dry-coated down insulation. You want to make sure that your insulation still keeps you warm, even if it happens to get wet.
Here are some specific recommendations for each piece of your gear system.
At least 20K waterproof and 20K breathable (it’s more important that your ski jacket breathes than your snow pants.) Make sure it’s got good vents to dump heat well, and that it’s got a DWR coating to help shrug off rain.
At least 20K waterproof and 15K breathable (some pants will have thicker, more waterproof panels on the butt and thighs to keep you dry while riding lifts.) Look for an option with thigh vents, or if you run hot, thigh and crotch vents to give you a cross-breeze. Bibs do a great job of keeping snow out.
Make sure they’ve got some sort of waterproof lining, as well as a waterproof coating on the shell. Nothing sucks more than soggy gloves or mittens.
Make sure it works while wet. Synthetic insulations still trap heat even when they’re soggy, and some special coated down insulations do as well. It’s also a good idea to have some sort of DWR on the outside of your puffy jacket so it can shed occasional snow.
The more prepared you are for the elements, the more fun your ski or snowboard day will be. So dress for success in the Pacific Northwest.