Ski and snowboard pants have a tough job. 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. While many skiers will own four or more layers and jackets for the upper body, most will own only a single set of shell pants and one or two base-layers or fleece for beneath.
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, its 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 chair lifts, 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 weather proof, 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.
Uninsulated "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.
Uninsulated "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 independent of 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.
Ski Bibs and One Piece Suits
Finally, all of the above types can be made available in bibs or onesies. Bibs are great for full-body weather protection. Under so many conditions, the gap between ski pants and 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.
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. However, in the case of the Norrona Lofoten Gore-Tex Pro Pants and matching jacket, the Norrona Lofoten Gore-Tex Pro Shell, that we recently tested, the two can be zipped together to form a seamless one piece suit that still looks like two separate pieces.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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 pocket count and lay out. 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. Some pants come equipped with Recco brand avalanche safety "reflectors". These devices are part of a commercially made integrated avalanche rescue system. When buried in an avalanche, the victim cannot dig him or herself out and is often completely invisible from the surface. The Recco system can help ski patrol find the buried person.
The buried person must be equipped with passive reflectors, facing the surface, while the ski patrol must be in possession of the expensive and bulky receivers. The good news is that most ski areas with avalanche hazard have Recco receivers. Additional good news is that not only do the dedicated Recco reflectors (built into ski clothing and gear) show up in patrol's receiver, but anything with an electronic circuit board will show up too. Your phone, digital camera, and gps device will all show up in the receiver. It is worth noting that, again, at most ski areas with avalanche hazard, patrol will first do a traditional avalanche transceiver search before a Recco search. OGL reviewers that also teach avalanche safety courses recommend proper training and equipment, even for those that stay "in bounds" on high hazard days.