Snow Gear: Tips to Stay Warm and Safe on the Slopes

Whether you're a seasoned snow bunny or first timer hitting the slopes, staying warm and safe with the right gear can mean the difference between a good run and a bad one.

Photo © Unsplash/Pamela Saunders

Brand new, rental or second-hand? Whether you are a freshie on the slopes or have years of experience, everyone needs snow gear to protect them from the elements, especially if the weather turns.

Buying Second-hand Snow Gear

Not everyone can afford to buy brand new gear or wants to rent, so if you're planning to buy second-hand jackets and pants, check the zips and condition of the garments before purchasing. Are the zips working and not broken? Are all the seams intact?

The waterproofing of snow gear will deteriorate over time, and an easy way to test it is to pour a small amount of water on the garment. If it beads, then the waterproofing is still good. If it soaks in, then you will need to re-waterproof it. There are plenty of products out there which can bring back the waterproofing to used snow gear. Over time, you will need to refresh the waterproofing regardless if your gear was bought second-hand or new.

Another positive about buying second-hand snow gear is you are giving these items a new lease of life and minimizing your impact on the environment.

Waterproof Ratings

When shopping for snow gear, you will need to understand what waterproof ratings mean and how they work. Waterproofing is calculated by how much water the jacket can hold per square inch of fabric which is measured in milliliters.

Most jackets and pants will be seam sealed, but check this prior to purchase as some products are only semi-sealed. In terms of fabrics, Gore-Tex is a good way to go as it's highly waterproof and reliable. You may also see other fabrics such as Primaloft and Thinsulate, both of which are moisture resistant and breathable.

Jackets and Pants

Different jackets cater to different conditions. Conditions such as spring skiing or snowboarding, misty rain or light snow, you may only need a 5,000mm jacket. Light rain or moderate snow, you will need at least a 10,000mm jacket. 15,000 - 20,000mm is good for heavy rain and wet snow. In Australia, the snow is more wet than somewhere like Japan or Canada, so waterproofing will be important, especially if you are learning and spending more time on your butt than upright.

But whatever jacket you choose to buy, check for arm vents to help you cool down while riding, handy in places where conditions tend to be warmer and to regulate your body heat. Remember - being wet and cold in the snow is not just unpleasant but can be life threatening.

Having a jacket with plenty of features is a must. Make sure it has a snow skirt that you can button around you which stops you getting a bucket load of snow up your back and down your pants. Pockets are essential for having somewhere to stash your belongings such as a beanie or neck warmer. Some jackets also have goggle pockets, headphone holes and clear plastic pockets for your lift pass.

Hoods are something that you may not consider but they are essential if you plan on being in heavy weather. A good hood should have a sturdy brim and can be adjusted to cover most of your face in case the weather closes in.

Snowboarding and ski pants come in slouchy, skinny and stretch styles. Waterproofing is important and like jackets, pants come in insulated or shell. Check for vents, no one likes sweaty legs and private parts. Boot gaiters are a must to avoid snow in your boots and up the leg of your pants.

Whether it's a jacket or pants, make sure your zips are waterproof zips. 

Shell vs Fully Insulated

A shell jacket basically is just that – an outer layer. Good for anyone who sweats heavily as a shell can be layered underneath and layers easily shed. More suitable for spring skiing and snowboarding, shell jackets are a little less expensive than a fully insulated jacket. If you are skiing in cold, freezing weather, a shell jacket is not the best option.

Fully insulated jackets will keep you warm and dry in cold conditions. There are two types of insulation: down and synthetic. Down is generally made with duck or goose down and in very cold weather, it will warm you up quickly and will last for decades if cared for correctly. If you do choose a down jacket, make sure it's breathable and has under arm vents. Look for the Responsible Down Standard (whose policies include no live plucking or force feeding of ducks and geese) when purchasing a down product. The only disadvantage of down is that they do take some time to dry when wet.

Synthetic down mimics natural down in warming and insulating effects. Synthetic down will usually be a lot less bulky and easier to move in that natural down, however it's not biodegradable like natural down and can leave you feeling muggy.

Layering Up

Before you throw any clothes on for a day of skiing or boarding, look out the window and check the weather forecast to help you choose how many layers to wear. Is it overcast and windy? Is it a beautiful bluebird day? Are you in the middle of winter or is it spring?

It's easier to peel off layers if you get a bit warm but harder to stay warm if you aren't layered up enough. The amount of layering can also depend on what type of outer gear you have i.e shell or fully insulated and how much you feel the heat.

Err on the side of being a bit cool than piling the layers on, as sweating yourself stupid on the slopes then freezing if a cold wind hits you can be a danger to your health.

The basic layering for your upper body is a light base layer, followed by a warm, insulating mid layer and then finish with your outer layer.

Base layer: Should be lightweight and sweat wicking. Options include merino wool, bamboo or synthetic. Avoid cotton as it absorbs sweat therefore losing its insulation qualities.

Mid layer: This is the layer which does the job of keeping the warmth trapped against your body. Polar fleece or a thicker merino fabric, If you're spring skiing or boarding, you may want to ditch this layer and just wear a base and jacket.

Outer layer: This is your jacket, shell or fully insulated. It needs to be waterproof and keep the cold and wind out.

In the case of the bottom half of your body, a pair of thermals (merino, bamboo or poly) and then your pants plus long ski/snowboarding socks. You can add to this if the weather demands extra warmth, or subtract if its a still, sunny spring day.

You may want to add a neck warmer or balaclava to keep the chill and/or wind off your face and back of your neck.

Goggles

You're going to need a pair of googles which provide protection for your eyes from the glare, cold, rain and the wind. There are many different brands on the market so it's important to get the right pair to fit your face. Like a scuba mask, you want the goggles to seal all the way around and not have any gaps which allow air in causing the lens to fog up on the inside.

You may see "Asian Fit" while you are looking for goggles. This just means that those goggles suit people with high cheekbones and a shallow nose bridge. The shape is different and the cushioning foam may be different compared to standard shape. The Over-The-Glasses (OTG) style are for those who wear eyeglasses/prescription sunnies to see and some brands will even make prescription lenses.

Goggle lenses come in a variety of tints and technologies such as UV protection, polarization, mirrored etc. Different tints are good for a variety of conditions. This is something you may want to consider when purchasing goggles as some brands offer interchangable lenses.

Orange, rose or gold tints are good for overcast days, offering increased visibility and handy in white out conditions. On bright days, a blue, grey or mirrored tint are best as they act similar to sunglasses, reducing the glare. If you are going to night ride, then grab yourself some goggles with a clear lens.

Gloves

When it comes to gloves you can opt for either mittens or gloves. Whilst mittens are far warmer they are harder to use. When fitting your gloves make sure you get the right fit, just like when you buy your shoes. Too much room at the tips of your fingers will make it hard to move your hands and zip your zippers. Too tight and they will not cover your hand properly or cut into the webbing between your fingers.

Some gloves come with two layers, an inner layer of polar fleece that is detachable. Look for a glove with a gauntlet for extra warmth and ease of use. Like ski jackets, keeping them waterproofed is important, so they will need to be cleaned and re-waterproofed over time.

Whether you are learning or experienced, a helmet is a vital piece of kit to protect your head if you take a spill. As tempting as it may be to save a few dollars, avoid buying a second-hand helmet. Always buy new so you have peace of mind knowing that it hasn't been damaged. Helmets come in a variety of styles, so try on a variety to find the best fit for your head.

A helmet should fit snug but not too tight when done up. Do the shake test, if it slips over your eyes or rides up your head, then it's too big. Try on your goggles with your helmet to make sure there is no gap between the helmet rim and the top of your goggles. Make sure the helmet is ventilated, no one likes a sweaty head. Store your helmet in a cool place and clean with a damp cloth if dirty.

Snowboarding boots come in a variety of flex options which dictates how much give a boot has when you are moving. Some are soft, others are stiff. If you're a beginner or a park/freestyle boarder, you will likely opt for a soft-mid boot for the flexibility. Stiffer boots are usually favored by mountain freeriding/powder snowboarders who need more response.

There are also different lacing systems such as boa, speed and traditional lace up. Make sure the boot fits snug but not too tight, has toe wiggle room and holds your heel snug so you don't slop around. Never buy a boot that's too big which provides no support.

Ski boots are different in their fitting and take into account aspects such as gender, purpose, Mondopoint, shell fit, last, flex, forward lean and ramp angle. Even the soles have different purposes.

Brands and styles vary across snowboarding and skiing, so head to your local snow gear store to get a fitting so you know which boot type is right for you and your feet. Like hiking, there nothing worse than painful feet due to ill fitting footwear, so it's vital to have comfortable, supportive and well-fitting boots which will over time mold to your foot shape.

Protective Gear

While not essential, protective gear such as padded undershorts to protect your butt and tailbone and wrist guards do help minimize injury should you fall over, especially if the slope is a bit on the icy side. Having protective gear can also give you a bit more confidence, especially when you're learning. As you gain more skill and confidence, you're less likely to fall over.

Caring for Your Snow Gear

You'll take your snowboard or skis to get tuned and waxed to keep them in top condition and make sure they function properly, the same goes for your outer wear as it's the main layer which protects you from the elements. Dirt, oil and general wear and tear affects a garment's ability to be waterproof and its breathability. Your jacket and pants can end up absorbing water and making you sweat if they aren't clean.

Don't let your gear get smelly and dirty, wash your garments following their care instructions and replace the waterproofing if needed. Don't forget to wash your undergarments as well.

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