Your outer jacket is your barrier to the elements. However, it’s easy to get confused looking at the huge range of jackets available today. With new technology, fabrics and designs emerging all the time it’s hard to keep up! The best way to choose a new jacket is to narrow down your search by deciding what climate the jacket will be used in, what you plan to use it for and your budget.
- Consider what type of clothing will best suit your activity. There is a baffling variety of jackets available so narrow your choice according to activity. This will make buying your clothing an easier task. An insulated snowsports jacket may be too heavy and warm for general walking and vice versa.
- What are the most important features for your end use - Durable, waterproof, breathable, lightweight, vents, freedom of movement, cut, colour etc?
- Waterproof/breathable garments are the most popular and versatile of all available. They can be combined with various layers to suit changing uses and weather conditions.
- The fit of the garment will influence the performance you get from it. Snug is best but for casual use you may want to buy a size up.
Which type is for you?
Hard Shells (Jackets)
The waterproof barrier between you and the rain. When the weather gets really bad a good waterproof will shield you from the wind, cold and rain. Differing designs are suitable for everything from street and trail wear through to mountain and alpine use. Hood style, pocket design, length of back and cut all influence the end use of the garment. The array of fabrics available caters for the wide variety of activities out there. Long-term waterproofness, breathability, comfort and durability all influence the price of the garment. Hard shells can be divided into the following broad categories:
- Lightweight waterproofs – These are aimed at the casual user who is not expected to use the jacket in a mountain environment or all year round. Advantages are that they tend to be more simple and lightweight and will pack away neatly when not in use. This type of garment is therefore ideal when you do not anticipate wearing it but need to carry it in your pack just in case. Hood design tends to be simpler, often without visor or stiffener and may fold away into the collar. They can be used for wearing around town or for general day hiking and summer backpacking.
- Mountain waterproofs – Tougher high performance fabrics allied to more exacting design specification are what set mountain garments apart. Good design of the product is just as important as how waterproof the fabric is. The fabrics tend to be harder wearing and the garment will generally have more features but may be more expensive than lighter garments. Hoods will incorporate cheek flaps or larger volumes to allow better shelter from the weather. Stiffened hood visors resist the wind and volume adjusters allow the hood to be tailored to your requirements. Chin guards can be used to protect your face from abrasion, cold and frost. Pockets will be designed to minimise water ingress (no pockets are fully waterproof) and can sometimes double as vents. These garments may also have under arm zips to allow extra venting during high exertion activities.
- Snowsports – Snowsports clothing tends to be designed for specific winter weather conditions such as North America (cold and dry) or the UK (cold and wet), however you do get some crossover garments. The first means clothing does not need to be 100% waterproof, as being windproof and warm is more important. Some of the snowsports models by American brands like Columbia may be only critical seam sealed which means not all of the seams will be heat taped.Some garments may not even have taped seams at all but the importance of this depends on where you spend most of your time on the slopes.For the UK we unfortunately need more all round weather protection from our clothing. Snowsports clothing is mainly designed for the skier or snow boarder. Clothing designed specifically for snowboarding is generally looser in cut, casual in style and may not be fully waterproof. Alpine and Downhill ski clothing tends to be closer fitting, while extreme skiers sometimes even opt for climbing or mountaineering clothing. Features to look our for in snowsports clothing include powder skirts to keep out the snow, pass pockets for essentials, Recco Systems for safety and articulated elbows and knees to allow greater freedom of movement.
Soft shells are a fairly recent development building on alternatives to waterproof garments and combine elements of a mid-layer and an outer layer in one. Ideal for active users such as climbers, mountaineers, cyclists and ski-mountaineers, the majority of soft shells do not need to be fully waterproof or windproof as the fast pace of the user keeps them comfortable. They highly wind and water resistant and the insulation they provide makes them extremely versatile. The close cut of most garments means they look as good on the street as they do on the hill.
On the walk-in to a climb or going uphill you generate a lot of heat. Sometimes all you need to shelter from is the wind (even in the UK!). By wearing a lightweight windproof garment, you can more easily keep body temperature down and therefore feel more comfortable as windproofs are generally more breathable than fully waterproof garments. They can even be used in a light shower, as although they may get damp they will dry quickly. These garments tend to be very lightweight and can be a good alternative to windproof fleece.
When all you want is maximum warmth from your clothing without the bother of layering, a down or insulated garment can be a good choice. The various designs are intended to suit the varying needs of walkers, skiers and trail walking as well as alpine mountaineering and climbing. Choosing a jacket, smock or gilet allows you to customise your level of insulation. With either synthetic or down filling they offer everyday comfort as well as shelter and warmth when stopping for lunch or belaying in cold winter months.
The modern equivalent to the woolly jumper (but much more breathable!) fleeces are available in a variety of styles and weights. This allows you to pick a fleece to suit your activity and the weather. The general preference is towards lighter weight fleece garments sometimes referred to as 100 or 200 weight. Fleece garments are also available in wind resistant and windproof fabrics to allow for more varied use. Match the fleece type to the amount of insulation you need for your chosen activity.
A good layering system is an essential, if often overlooked, element of dressing for the outdoors. Layering correctly allows the wearer to keep warm, dry and comfortable whatever the weather. With advances in fabric technology there are a wide variety of solutions available on the market but the real key to layering is simplicity. If you follow the general principles you can tailor the system to suit your individual needs.
Wearing multiple thin layers traps heat far more efficiently than a few bulky ones. A clever and versatile solution is to aim for three layers - an outer shell worn in conjunction with a mid and base layer.
It is imperative to ensure that each layer is breathable. A cotton t-shirt will negate the benefits of a breathable shell, trapping moisture before it even hits the jacket. When you stop, the moisture on the cotton t-shirt will then cool down and cause a chill. Choose a base layer made from a performance fabric that wicks perspiration away from your skin to the mid-layer.
A fleece is an ideal choice as a mid-layer as it will continue to transport moisture away from your body to the shell while also providing insulation.
A breathable jacket will finish the layering system as it will protect you from the elements whilst also allowing the moisture from the inner layers to escape.
Once you have mastered the art of layering you can regulate your body temperature by wearing one, two or all three layers to match the weather conditions. Base and mid-layers are also available in a wide variety of weights to provide the optimum insulation, whatever your needs.
To maintain optimum performance of your clothing it is essential that it is clean and has the DWR treatment working. For tips on how to best look after your clothing see our Care and Maintenance Guide. For more information on different types of fabric, see our Fabric Guide.