An Expert Guide to Waterproofing in Your Ski and Snowboard Gear
How does your ski gear stay dry? Check out this guide to understand how waterproofing works, the differences in types of waterproofing, and more!
The time has come for you to invest in a new ski jacket. You want something that will keep you warm and dry. But as you are looking around you see all these different types of waterproofing - Gore-Tex, DWR, DRYMEMbrane. What do all these things mean? What’s the difference between them? What accounts for the drastic price differences? And what is the best option for you specifically?
There are so many types of waterproofing these days, it’s kind of overwhelming, so let's break it down so you can make an informed decision about what the best option is for you!
Do I Need Waterproofing?
One of the first questions you'll ask yourself when shopping around for ski gear is do I want my gear to be waterproof or not? Though most people will say yes, waterproof gear isn't always the best option!
If you aren’t the type of person who likes being out on the slopes when it's really coming down, if you live in an area that tends to get more light consistent dustings of snow instead of heavy dumpings, or if you generally are doing highly aerobic skiing (cross country skiing or backcountry touring as opposed to riding lifts all day), you might not want a waterproof jacket!
If that sounds like you, a water-repellent jacket such as a softshell might do the trick. Softshells are typically a bit more comfortable, more breathable, and cheaper. They almost always have a water-repellent coating, so if you are just dealing with light snow most of the time, water repellency on a softshell jacket will be enough to keep you from getting wet!
Waterproof vs. Water Repellant
So what’s water repellent vs. waterproof? Water-repellant gear has a coating on it called Durable Water Repellent (DWR). In light rain or snow, this coating will cause water to bead up on your jacket instead of soaking through. It obviously won't hold up in heavier rain or snow as much as something that's waterproof will, but it will still help with some mild wet conditions!
Since DWR is a coating on the jacket, through washing and wear it will eventually start to rub off and require a re-application from time to time. Luckily, this is pretty easy and can be done in your washing machine at home with a wash such as Nikwax or Grangers.
Aside from the price factor of water repellency being cheaper than waterproofing, the downfall of waterproof gear over water repellency is breathability. Many people think waterproof gear can feel clammy, like wearing a plastic bag. It’s true that many waterproof jackets are not very breathable, so when you start getting too warm, it's game over. The same technology that keeps the moisture out also keeps the moisture in. With nowhere for the heat to go, you will start to get sweaty, which in snowy mountain environments will eventually mean you get cold.
But there are a few exceptions to this! Some fabrics are both waterproof and breathable, and you won’t feel like you are wearing a plastic bag in them. Though they are more expensive than both non-breathable waterproof options and water-repellant options, it's absolutely worth the extra cost if you are needing a waterproof jacket.
The Introduction of Gore-Tex
Gore-Tex technology has been around since the 1970s and was the first material to solve this breathability issue. The technology of old waterproof jackets was pretty much to create a barrier that didn’t let any moisture out or in (similar to that plastic bag!). But Gore-Tex fabric utilizes the fact that water droplets (rain and snow) are much larger than water vapor (sweat and heat off your body), and instead works by having microscopic pores in the material that are 20,000 times smaller than water droplets, but 700 times larger than water vapor. The water can't get in, but the heat can get out.
Not only is this technology more comfortable because it keeps you drier but not too hot, it's also more lightweight than older technology, so Gore-Tex is a fan-favorite for those who want waterproofing on their gear but are concerned about weight. Since this tech has been around for a while now, it is pretty dialed in in terms of being durable, reliable, and having a long life (especially if taken care of properly). It is the most well-known of the waterproof yet breathable fabrics, though there are some other options listed at the end of this article that have the same properties.
Other Features to Look For in a Waterproof Jacket
2-Layer, 2.5-Layer, and 3-Layer
Within waterproof materials such as Gore-Tex, there are a few differences in how the layers are bonded together that will affect longevity and comfort. When shopping around for waterproof gear, you might notice that some Gore-Tex (or an equivalent to Gore-Tex) are labeled as either 2-layer, 3-layer, or 2.5-layer. This measurement is related to how the Gore-Tex membrane is bonded to one or sometimes two layers of high-performance fabric on either side.
- 2-layer: The waterproof membrane is bonded to an outer layer of high-performance fabric, but not an inner layer. This makes the garment more comfortable to wear, but since the inside has no protection, it is susceptible to more friction, dirt, oils, and sweat from everyday wear, so will wear down the waterproof membrane a bit faster.
- 2.5-layer: 2-layer but with some type of plastic-feeling laminate on the inside of the jacket. This is meant to protect the waterproof membrane from friction as well as the sweat and oils from everyday wear.
- 3-layer: The waterproof membrane is bonded to the high-performance fabric on both the outer layer and inner layer. This makes the fabric more rigid, but since there is less friction on the Gore-Tex membrane, the waterproofing on the garment will last longer.
The 3-layer construction will be the most expensive and feel the stiffest to wear, but it will last the longest. 2-layer will be a bit cheaper, more comfortable, but require you to be a bit more attentive with taking care of your gear if you want the waterproofing to last. 2.5 layer is a good in-between in terms of both comfort and price point.
Aside from the layers, the other numbers you might see when looking around for waterproof gear are the waterproof and breathability ratings. These numbers will appear on the “tech specs” of a jacket in a sequence such as 10K/5K. The first number is the waterproof rating and the second is the breathability rating. These measurements are sometimes done by the company that makes the jacket but are more often done by a third party to ensure accuracy.
The waterproof rating is measured by placing a column of water on a 1” by 1” square of the fabric (as shown below). The number is referring to how high, in mm, the column of water can be filled before it leaks through the material.
So, a 10K waterproof rating means the column can be filled to 10,000 mm of water before the pressure of the water is enough to soak through the jacket. The higher the number, the more waterproof the fabric.
The breathability rating is measured in a similar way. It’s expressed in grams of water vapor that can pass through a square meter of fabric in a 24-hour period. So for a 5K breathability rating, 5000 grams of water vapor can pass through a square meter of fabric in a 24 hour period. The higher the number, the more breathable the fabric.
A few other tests are sometimes done on waterproof fabrics to ensure comfort, durability, etc. (you can read more about those here), though these are the two that you’ll see done on every fabric.
Another feature on waterproof jackets that you will want to check for is sealed seams, sometimes called taped seams. It normally appears under the tech specs as “fully sealed seams” or “critically sealed seams.” When the jacket is being sewn together during manufacturing, the needle makes tiny holes in the garment. Though they are barely visible to us, they are big enough to let water seep in during heavy precipitation conditions. Seam sealing is a process by which waterproof tape is applied and heat sealed to these areas so they don't leak.
Fully taped means all seams have this tape applied to them. Critically taped means only the areas that are more likely to be exposed to heavy precipitation (neck, shoulders) are taped. It's good to make sure you have critically taped seams, at least, on a jacket if you are expecting to be in areas with high precipitation because even if the fabric is waterproof, leaks through these areas can still leave your underlayers wet.
Though Gore-Tex products have been around for the longest and are pretty much agreed upon to be the best on the market, there are a few others that use similar technology and are almost as good as Gore-Tex. Since many of these waterproofing technologies are unique to the brands that use them, they can be manufactured at a lower price point, resulting in a less expensive, but still waterproof and breathable jacket for you!
- eVent: A brand similar to Gore-Tex in that they make a type of membrane that is used by several companies. It has a similar technology that is actually a bit more breathable than Gore-Tex, though it isn’t as well protected, so it needs to be washed more often and isn't quite as durable in the long run. In general, this is the best alternative to Gore-Tex!
For brand-specific materials, check out the list below:
- OutDry Extreme by Columbia
- DryVent by North Face
- H2No by Patagonia
- NanoPro by Marmot
- Proflex by Rab
- NeoShell by Polartec
It’s a bit overwhelming to shop around for waterproof jackets with all the options, technology, and numbers. It feels like there's a lot to know and ten million options on the market. But at the end of the day, jackets labeled as waterproof will keep the water out, and it's just up to you to decide how much breathability, stiffness, and durability you want out of your ski gear.
As a general rule of thumb, the more expensive the garment, the more waterproof and breathable it will be. The less expensive, the less breathable it will be. If you are doing a high output activity, it's worth it to pay extra attention to the breathability features. If you are recreating in an area with a lot of heavy precipitation, make sure you get something a bit thicker with taped seams.
Keep in mind that regular washing with a gentle detergent to keep dirt and oils from deteriorating the fabrics will go a long way and keep your garment happy and able to live a long life. How this gear is stored in the off-season will also have a huge effect on longevity. Though waterproof jackets can get expensive, they often last 8-10 years if taken care of properly, so investing now can keep you happy, and dry for years to come.
If you have any other ski gear questions relating to waterproofness or otherwise, or to or get a list of personalized recommendations hit up a Ski Expert on Curated and we would be happy to walk you through your search for the perfect gear!