Photo: Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports
Dave Whitlow knows a thing or two about ski pants. For nearly thirty years, he bought them for skier Ellis Brigham. During that time, he saw fashion go from “from skinny to baggy to skinny again, two or three times”. He has also seen significant improvements in fabric quality and cut.
Here are his tips for buying the perfect pair of ski pants – whether you’re hitting the nursery slopes or hitting the slopes. Ski pants, ski pants, trousers: call them what you want. But please, take them seriously. They are an important part of a ski kit and when buying a new pair you should give them time and budget, they are worth it. Here are 11 key questions to ask the next time you shop.
1. Are they suitable?
Sorry to be explicit: but it needs to be done in the age of internet shopping. You don’t buy a book or a piece of music. You’re buying trousers, which you’ll wear in a demanding environment: sometimes cold, sometimes windy, sometimes wet – and sometimes all three at once. You will also be flexing and extending the knee repeatedly. So your trousers need to fit you well – and the easiest way to ensure that is to go to a store and try on different pairs. Choose a store that has a variety of specialty brands – The North Face, Salomon, Schöffel, Norrona, Black Diamond, Arc’teryx, Helly Hansen, Kjus, Peak Performance and the like – and when you get there, talk With the staff, let them know what your budget is and be honest about your skiing abilities. They will consider your body shape and will guide you through basic choices. But then you have to go into the dressing room and see what works. Remember, unisex trousers won’t do the trick. Men’s and women’s pants cut differently – in general women have larger hips and smaller waistlines, so ski pants are designed to allow this. Don’t worry if your size is not “normal”. Shorter-than-average piste skiers, for example, will love the Salomon Brilliant pant leg, which has a very clean finish on the bottom and can be added up to 4 inches for a custom fit. Meanwhile, back-skiers should try ski pants from premium brands like Spyder and Killy, which can be worn either waist or below the waist.
2. How waterproof and breathable are they?
Even if you’re not planning to wade through deep snow on a hike in a remote area, you’ll need pants that are waterproof and fairly breathable. After all, you don’t want a wet person sitting in a booster seat or sweat dripping down your feet because your sweat can’t evaporate. Many (but not all) manufacturers measure water resistance in thousands of millimeters and breathability in thousands of grams (this is a good explanation of what these numbers mean). To be on the safe side, you should buy pants that are waterproof to 10,000mm, with a breathability rating of 10,000 grams (often abbreviated as 10k / 10k). Anyone planning to do a lot of downhill skiing, or go on a ski excursion, should look for higher ratings – 20k/20k and up. You should also consider a higher rating if you’re going skiing in a mountain range with a humid maritime climate or in the spring. There’s nothing like a warm wet day over Easter (or resort-level rain) to push a pair of ski pants beyond its limits. Gore-Tex is still considered the leading manufacturer of waterproof and breathable membranes, and many of the best ski pants have made use of it. eVent has its followers too – although some find it too breathless. Refer to the waterproof fabric buyer’s guide for more. But whatever you buy, make sure its seams are taped tight, as the stitching goes through the fabric and helps the water seep into your skin. Faucet is the simplest way to stop it.
3. Do they have patches?
Skateboards have sharp edges, and unless your pants have stiff panels under the cuffs, on the insides of the legs, they’ll eventually get cut into ribbons. Some high-end brands have concealed rock stickers, but most of them are mounted on the outside of the fabric and the more focused on off-piste skiing or one-pants ski touring, the more the stickers are. The bigger the rock. Okay. The hardest things to wear are not simply stitched on top, but pressed into the fabric underneath.
4. How stiff is the rest of the fabric?
If you love to ski on the slopes and only have one vacation a year, you don’t need to use thick fabrics. But anyone planning to go out on rougher terrain, or ski a lot, needs to take durability issues seriously. Look for thicker threads in the weave of the fabric and a thinner amount (although this number is not always given). The Gore-Tex Pro label is a good indication of durability, as the company requires manufacturers to provide a minimum identification quantity of 40 (40d). Some companies go even further. Black Diamond’s Mission Pro pants, pictured left, are 150 dener (150d) sizes.
5. Do I need insulation?
As a rule of thumb, beginners, piste skaters, and occasional off-piste players need some insulation in their pants. It’s really helpful on extended rides in a booster seat or if you’re standing during a ski lesson. Don’t worry that you will look like the Michelin man. You will not. Modern insulation materials (such as Thinsulate, left) are both thin and flexible, and ski pants are cut and sized to account for that. But anyone who travels skiing, or regularly hikes to short routes, will be furious when wearing insulated pants. Not only will they become too hot. The shell fabric is well-cut, no padding, lighter and will give you more freedom of movement
6. Do I need a vent?
Beginners and intermediates on a mid-winter ski trip can do without them. But once you’re more active, you can quickly sweat – especially when out in the sun. If you’re a spring skier, they’re essential, as they’re for skiers and snowboarders. Most vents are located on the outside of the thigh and do not go below the knee. However, Norrona’s Lofoten Pro Pants – for skiers in remote areas – feature full-length dual zips for maximum breathability while hiking.
7. Should I wear braces?
Many models of high-class ski pants for you to choose from, with zip-in, zip-out zippers. Whether you use them or not – for most skiers – is a matter of personal preference. The fact is, anyone with a defined waistline won’t need more than a belt to keep their ski pants long. But for those who are a little bit tight, this is a really good idea. Country skiers also love them, especially if they have bibs, which help keep them dry and warm in the wilds or in deep snow.
8. Is the belt adjustable?
Any decent ski pants these days will have Velcro tabs on the waistband to allow you to fine-tune the fit. Obviously, this feature is less important if you are wearing a brace to keep the pants long. But it’s worth it, because the tabs will allow you to position the pants exactly where you want them – on the belt or below it.
9. Skinny or baggy?
This is largely a matter of taste. Take, for example, a freestyle skier in a terrain park. For years, this style has been baggy: but lately some cool guys are wearing pants that look like super-tight jeans. Many piste skiers also prefer a slimmer look. But if you tend to be skinny, you’ll need a well-cut pair of pants with good four-way stretch fabric to deal with the pressures and strains of your movement. Most off-pisters and skiers prefer a looser fit that offers more freedom of movement. Again, higher end pants tend to have a more “technical” cut, designed to accommodate typical skier movement patterns. Personally, I like a relaxed but not baggy look. The North Face NFZ pants, are a prime example. They’re made with double-layer Gore-Tex fabric and a soft lining, and the fit on them is really nice. They sit right on the hip or on the hip, and they have quite a few joints designed in the cut, so they hang well when you’re in a ski stance. They also fit quite well at the waist, so they will fit a variety of shapes and sizes.
10. Colorful, or gloomy?
Many skiers buy darker, more murky ski jackets – because they want to use them at home, and canary yellow is an odd look in your local supermarket’s parking lot. But unless you’re a rough fisherman or run a market stall, you probably won’t be wearing ski pants off the slopes. So for many people, it’s an opportunity to get colorful. Just keep in mind that brightly colored pants get dirty faster, so you’ll need to wash them more often. Oh yes, and think twice if you’re going to buy a patterned pair of pants. It was all rage a few years ago among the Russians. It’s not a pretty view…
11. What will I wear underneath?
Finally, don’t forget the underlying base class. A good foundation is the foundation for any successful ski outfit and provides an extra layer of protection against moisture. If water gets in, the fabric will pull it away from your skin, helping to keep you dry and (as a result) warm. The less absorbent your pants are, the more essential it is. If your pants are insulated, you won’t need more than a lightweight sole, but if you’re wearing a non-insulated pair, consider a mid-weight fabric. Either way, make sure your foundation has a glossy finish. Soles with a nicer finish won’t slide as easily under cover fabrics and can limit your freedom of movement. Check out our ski clothing section for more advice on what to wear – including 10 Features Every Ski Jacket Must Have and 7 Steps to Buying the Perfect Ski Jacket.
Photo: Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports
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