Buying a winter jacket seems pretty straightforward, until you look at all the choices. When looking at ski jackets and snowboard jackets, is fleece better or synthetics? What about breathable? Waterproof? Should you layer, or just buy a really warm coat? The choices can seem to go on forever. Let's unpack some of these choices so you can get a jacket that not only looks great, but keeps you warm — without making you sweat all winter long.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Ski Jacket or Snowboard Jacket

The technology used to make jackets has gotten pretty sophisticated, so you want to make sure you get a model that exactly matches your outdoor sporting needs.

For Winter Sports: since winter sports put you outdoors in the elements, it's important to consider a few things first. Generally, it's a good idea to lean toward ski jackets and snowboard jackets that are:

  • Durable — You want to be able to take a few nasty spills and not ruin your ski jacket.
  • Waterproof — sometimes that 100% chance of snow can turn into a 100% chance of rain — better to be safe than sorry.
  • Snug — You want a jacket that fits well (not too tight or too loose). This allows for you to layer on colder days, but also keep warm on days you didn't layer.
  • Breathable — It's amazing how hot you can get on a cold day, and to keep yourself from alternately sweating and freezing, breathable jackets can be a lifesaver. Breathable fabrics are a critical part of moving sweat away from your body while also keeping body heat in.
  • Appropriate for the Temperature — Skiing at high altitudes might mean you'll need a warmer coat than if you ski closer to the ground. Getting a coat that's too thin — or too heavy — can mean you'll simply never be comfortable.

Hard Shells (Jackets)

A hard shell is kind of what you'd expect — a strong barrier against Mother Nature. Remember, though — a great outer shell isn't nearly as good if your inner layers aren't also good materials (see Base Layer and Mid-Layer for more on why this is). The fabric, length, cut, and durability of your hard shell jacket influence the price, but here are some general categories you can expect:

Lightweight — these jackets are good for lighter weather, where you'll only need to keep out a cool breeze and an unexpected rain. Think summer backpacking, spring bike rides, trail blazing in the fall. Lightweight jackets are easy to pack and to store, and are relatively inexpensive.

Mountain — these waterproof coats are built for more strenuous outdoor activities, like weekend trekking and camping high up in the mountains. While snow jackets are for cold and dry, mountain ones are for cold and wet. Because of this, these coats use high performance fabrics that had not only withstand sudden rainstorms, but also thorn bushes and low-hanging tree branches. Many use advanced materials to wick sweat away from the body while keeping heat inside — and this is a very important feature.

Snowboard and Skiing Jackets — both snowboard jackets and ski jackets are, obviously, designed to withstand the cold. Some models include things like underarm zippers to keep you cool, pouches for MP3 players, and lots of other goodies. Extras on these coats are designed to keep you dry and your jacket in one piece, so look for things like powder skirts to keep out the snow and articulated elbows to allow for freedom of movement and extra durability.

It's very important that your snow sport jacket uses breathable materials — this is the easiest and best way to keep your temperature constant during a full day on the slopes. Otherwise you will get hot and sweat, then get cold, then get hot and sweat some more — all day long.

Alpine/Downhill jackets are closer fitting, to keep out the air and the snow on those downhill runs.