Published in Whitelines Magazine Issue 93, December 2010
Outerwear is great and all, but there’s one thing that I’ve always found peculiarly puzzling about it. Every time I embark on a conversation about how gorgeous gore-tex is or how much I love fully-taped seams, someone always brings up something called ‘style’. What’s style got to do with anything? It’s as if these people base purchasing decisions on how good the clothes look! I mean come on! Next thing you know people will stop buying those amazingly useful hiking trousers that zip off just below the knee to make shorts just because they’re ‘un-cool’ or something. I ask you!
SHELL OR INSULATED
This is the first choice you need to make. Both designs have their advantages and disadvantages.
Shell Jackets are thin and light, consisting of little more than a waterproof, breathable outer layer. They may not be the warmest in the world, but they’re great if you do a lot of riding in spring (or spend a lot of time in snow domes) as you’re less likely to sweat. Don’t be fooled by their minimal look, though – some of the techest, most expensive jackets on the market are actually shells, since they’re also ideal for hiking pow. And of course, if you do want to venture somewhere colder, you can always pile layers on underneath.
Insulated jackets are warmer and heavier as they feature layers of insulation inside the shell. They are designed for high mountain riding and journeys into colder climes. The fact that the insulation fits neatly into the jacket means these are a less bulky way of keeping yourself warm than simply piling on loads of mid layers underneath a shell.
The fabric that makes up the shell of most jackets and pants will have a waterproof rating. It’s usually expressed in millimetres, with anything between 5,000 and 30,000 mm being reasonably common. The number refers to the depth of a column of water that the fabric can withstand in what’s called a static test. This involves putting a tube of a fixed diameter (usually one inch) on a piece of fabric, and filling it with water until you can see droplets on the other side of the fabric. Once droplets start to form, you read off how deep the column of water is, and that’s your waterproof rating – the higher the number the better. Simple right?
Waterproof fabrics are all very well, but if you want to wear one for a physical activity (like say, snowboarding, or a vigorous internet browsing session) it needs to be able to let moisture pass from the inside out – otherwise all your sweat would collect and freeze inside your jacket. So you need a fabric that only lets moisture pass one way – a breathable fabric. The breathability rating on a jacket tells you exactly how much moisture the fabric lets through in grams per/centimetre/per24 hours – the higher the number the better. It’s usually written as gm to make it simpler, though I’m not sure why, because it all seems perfectly obvious to me.
There are a whole host of other practical features to look out for when you’re buying a jacket…
Moisture wicking linings are special materials inside the shell that help to draw sweat away from your body so it can escape.
Taped seams make sure that water doesn’t get in through the gaps in the fabric. If a jacket says “critically-taped seams”, only the most exposed seams are covered. If it says “fully-taped seams” every seam is covered. Fully-taped is my favourite.
Waterproof zips stop any water leaking through the zips. It may sound like overkill, but if you’re sitting on your zips, or fall heavily on them into the snow, moisture can seep in very easily.
Vents let air in for when you’re getting particularly hot and sticky.
Powder skirts cover up the gaps between the bottom of your jacket and the top of your trousers to stop any snow getting in.
Boot gaiters do the same for the gaps between the bottom of your pants and your boots.
Headphone loops and iPod pockets are for people who, like me, like to listen to the audio book of their Haynes Peugeot 306 Manual while they ride.