The life of ski and snowboard pants is a rough one. While you might rotate through various ski jackets in any given ski season, most folks only own one pair of shell pants and hopefully a pair or two of long underwear. As compared to ski jackets, we ask them to be a lot more versatile, we want to pay a lot less, and we expose them to harsher treatment. We bang them up on the reg and expect them to keep us warm and dry consistently.
The good news is that our legs are less picky about temperature. We can get away with less refined temperature regulation on our legs. If we're too hot or too cold in the legs, it's not as big of a deal as it would be on our torso. In the end, the fact is most will own just one pair of ski pants that must work in all conditions and match or complement all the possible jackets worn.
Many winter sports enthusiasts use a ski or snowboard jacket for general purpose cold weather wear also. Life on the ski hill, at the bar, and shoveling the driveway can require an insulated ski style parka. Pants, however, will be worn almost exclusively while actively sliding around on snow. As a result, most justify spending less on their pants than they would on a stylish and functional jacket. Finally, we sit on cold and wet chairlifts, slash at our pants with ski edges, and hopefully are spending minutes and hours at a time knee-deep in snow. Pants must be strong and weatherproof while allowing for a significant range of motion.
Types of Ski and Snowboard Pants
First of all, at OutdoorGearLab we don't distinguish between ski and snowboard clothing. Following convention, we regularly refer to all gravity-powered snow sliding as "skiing". Both activities have very similar practical demands. The primary difference is in style and taste, and these lines and distinctions are becoming ever more blurry. We encourage you to choose products for their function and your personal style and preferences, regardless of what you wear on your feet.
The most versatile pants are not insulated, as they allow you to customize your system depending on the temps. Uninsulated ski or snowboarding pants come in two different types of construction. Both types join three sheets of material but are named for the number of these layers that are laminated together.
"3-Layer" Shell Pants
These are the simplest pants in our test and on the market. The pants are constructed of "fabric" that is actually a laminated sandwich of three different materials, all stuck together. The name refers to the number of sheets that are joined into one. The outer fabric is what the world sees and what first blocks abrasion and weather. Stuck to the inside of the face fabric is the waterproof/breathable membrane. This layer ultimately blocks liquid water, even when the outer fabric gets soaked.
Stuck to the inside of the membrane is a light fabric that serves to protect the membrane as well as make it at least slightly more comfortable against the skin. Again, the end result appears as a single layer of fabric. Pants constructed this way are stiffer and more confining than the alternatives. They go on easy and vent well. They don't feel all that great against bare skin and therefore are best worn with long underwear. An exception and a welcome one is the fuzzy lining of the Arc Teryx Sabre. These are three-layer pants that can truly be worn against the skin.
"2-Layer" Shell Pants
In this category of pants, there are still at least three layers of material. The layer count refers to the number of sheets of textile actually perceptible. Like the above, there is a beefy face fabric with the waterproof/breathable membrane laminated to the inside of it. In this case, however, a lining fabric hangs independently from the external components. Because of this, the lining fabric can be heavier, or more fuzzy, or both.
This means that garments constructed this way are more comfortable and slightly warmer, especially when worn without long underwear. We fully realize that the vast majority of skiers will wear long underwear most of the time. However, as more and more people tour into the backcountry in their dedicated ski gear, having pants that are comfortable for higher-exertion activity are appreciated by many. Our testing team considered this, at least a little, in their evaluations.
Insulated Ski Pants
Just like it sounds, this category of pants has some sort of "puff" insulation. For a given amount of warmth in the coldest of conditions, insulated pants will be more comfortable than the equivalent layering scheme. However, and obviously, the insulation cannot be removed for warmer conditions, higher output, or warm-blooded skiers. If you know you run cold and ride exclusively in relatively cold conditions and climates, check out insulated pants.
Some will want insulated pants as a second pair in their quiver. For the coldest of days, this can be a good idea as significant layering underneath shell pants is bulky. For users that get out often enough to justify owning multiple pants, an insulated pair to complement your daily driver is worth consideration.
Ski Bibs and One Piece Suits
ski jackets is the most vulnerable to weather penetration. Bibs bridge this gap. Bibs, if the fit works for you, can be far more comfortable than standard waist-height pants. Drawbacks include poorer venting and the extra layers on your upper body. Some users don't appreciate the extra warmth around their abdomen and chest.
Additionally, bib style pants are more limited in production and distribution. In the bib category, you have fewer options for fit, color, insulation, style, etc. A special, niche category must be mentioned here. Many pants can be attached in some way to matching pants. This is nice, but we can't necessarily call it real weather protection.
Backcountry Skiing Pants
Before we get into this style, we must note that many people use their regular resort pants in the backcountry. Any backcountry excursion to a popular spot will indicate this. Most are just making their backcountry tours in their resort pants. For cold and gnarly weather, this is the strategy we still prefer. The lighter and more tailored of available resort pants are the best bet for rugged weather on human-powered adventures. Our lead test editor has long reached for the Arc'Teryx Sabre when his ski tour guiding days look cold and tough.
Backcountry ski pants are tailored to the needs of their expected environment. They are typically lighter weight, provide plenty of ventilation, and fit closer to the body than resort pants. Many consist of a softshell material for the outer fabric. Backcountry-specific models we have tested are noticeably less weather-resistant, largely due to the lack of thick, heavy fabrics found on many resort pants. The trade-off is greater breathability for skinning uphill, less weight, and a greater range of motion.
How to Choose Ski Pants
The first thing you should do to help narrow down the dizzying field is to choose which of the above styles works for you. Most will choose a pair of standard height pants constructed in two-layer fashion. Think long and hard before you opt for insulated ski pants. We suggest you be absolutely confident that you will ride exclusively in very cold climates (like, Lake Louise or Sugarloaf or Lyngen cold) or that you be absolutely confident that you are far colder than the average person (Not "I wear a sweater when the office is air-conditioned" cold. We're talking "I wear a down jacket when the office is air-conditioned" cold).
Fitting traditional ski pants is pretty simple. You'll be hard-pressed to find a manufacturer that doesn't provide a size chart for any of their pant models. A few models may run shorter or longer, but in our experience, we find most to be true to size within an acceptable margin. Consider a pair of pants with a Velcro adjustable waist to customize the fit. Most models also come with belt loops.
Bibs present a slightly trickier scenario. If you choose bib pants, be cautious of fit. In addition to waist and inseam, you must consider torso length and girth. The best way to get an excellent fit is with fully separate tops and bottoms. However, for many people, bibs will work very well.
Durability and Weather Protection
Next consider the durability and protection you require. Will you ride 100+ days a year, charging hard and fast in all conditions? Or do you get out a few weekends a year, and reign it in when the weather turns foul? In short, you get what you pay for. More expensive pants, basically across the board, will best serve the former. The latter group won't experience "overkill" with the better-designed options, but their dollars may be better spent elsewhere.
What About Style?
After sorting through which overall type you will select, and determining the level of abuse- and weather-resistance you can afford, consider the fashion variations. In short, we know that appearance matters. We even offer further rationalization in the following maxim: If you look good you feel good. If you feel good, you ski well. If you ski well, you ski safely. So, really, looking good equates to safety. Tell your spouse you need more current pants so you don't tear your ACL. In all seriousness, consider the cut of your pants and the color.
Current ski pant fashion tends toward more baggy style. Even within the current style, there are different degrees of baggy. Consider how loose you want to go. In terms of color, you have tons of options right now; it's a great thing. In our review of ski pants, almost every pair comes in a variety of both bright and muted colors. With bright colors, muted colors, and printed patterns available, you are free to make whatever statement you wish with your pants. However, our more fashion-conscious reviewers caution about getting too bold with your colors. Your pants will be asked to accompany a few different ski jackets. Make sure that all combinations are suitable.
Resort and Backcountry Use?
Before you finish your pant shopping, consider whether you will ever hike in your ski area gear. More and more people are exploring the backcountry. Some make the occasional short hike ("booting" or on touring skis and climbing skins), while others spend as much time (or more) in the wilderness as they do riding lifts. The best ski area pants for hiking (as opposed to dedicated ski touring soft shell pants) fit a little closer than the average style, are readily worn without long underwear, and have large and effective vents. If you will do extensive ski mountaineering, using crampons on your feet, virtually no dedicated ski resort pants are low-profile enough around the cuffs to use safely.
Finally, consider what other features you are looking for. Each skier has his own preferences on the pocket count and layout. You'll want at least two pockets, but 4-5 won't go unused. You want the pockets to sit, ideally, along the outside of your legs. Contents placed here will swing and chafe less than stuff stored immediately in front or behind the user's legs. Zippered pockets are much more trustworthy to hold small items than Velcro closures.
Some pants come equipped with Recco brand avalanche safety "reflectors". These devices are part of a commercially made integrated avalanche rescue system. Other features to consider include suspenders, integrated belts, and Velcro-adjustable waistlines. And when it comes to elastic inner cuffs, our testers prefer longer ones over shorter ones, as they are easier to pull down over a ski boot shaft.
While you might put more thought into your ski jacket, the right set of pants can have just as significant of an effect on your ability to feel good and have fun on any mountain. Keep our recommendations and considerations in mind while shopping to narrow down your options and lead you to the pair that suits you best. Buying right the first time saves you frustration on the ski hill and money in your wallet.