Choosing Winter Pants

by | Feb 27, 2016 | Skills

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For the lucky, spring is just around the corner, but for most of us we’re still stuck in the deep dark cold of winter (at least the days are getting longer). Therefore the question is what kind of pants do you wear for your winter activities. Your typical options include insulated winter pants, hard shell pants, and soft shell pants.

Insulated pants

If you live in a cold climate (well below freezing) then you’ll want to investigate this option. While it makes you look like the Michelin man retaining water, the insulation keeps you warm. They are great for cold weather, but they can run hot when exercising vigorously (or if you are just out of shape and sweaty). If you lived around snow as a kid, this is probably what your parents made you wear before you went out to play. They are usually made out of some water repellent shell  with a synthetic fill.

Hard shell pants

Typically made of GORE-TEX®, or some other trademark variant, they can be expensive, but are generally windproof and waterproof with little to no insulation (the combination is warmer than it sounds). They are lighter and more maneuverable than insulated pants, moisture wicking and far better in the warmer wetter snow that you get around the freezing mark. Usually the wearer will also have long johns or fleece pants underneath to provide an additional layer of warmth and or insulation between your legs and the snow.

Soft shell pants

Soft shell pants (or tights for the cross-country skiing / running crowd) are typically the lightest, and least expensive option (while still being  quite durable). They will slough of some light snow or drizzle, but won’t hold off rain, wet or heavy snow, or really cold weather. The usually have a wind and water repellent shell with a light fleece lining. These are your outdoor comfy pants as they stretch, are maneuverable and the fleece lining makes it comfortable against your skin. They are good for high output activities in dry weather.


If you lived before the 1920s then wool pants would be (and still are) a great option. They might be itch like hell, and aren’t all that durable, but they keep you warm wet or dry. Heck they worked for a few hundred years so they can’t be that bad, and they are also 100% renewable (for the sheep).

Cotton such as jeans, are the worst choice for cold weather outdoor pursuits. Not only do they not block the wind, when wet they don’t dry well  and will actually suck the heat away from your body making you colder, but hey at least you’ll have a stylish corpse (this is what I wore in my youth when my parents couldn’t make me wear snow pants anymore).

Useful Features

Other than pockets, some useful features can include:

  • Internal gators – the fabric that elastics around your boot to keep the snow out
  • Recco strips – which can help rescuers find you in an avalanche (if they have the proper equipment). These should never be considered a substitute for proper avalanche transceivers and self rescue skills should you choose to go into avalanche terrain. (The Search and Rescue folks we’ve talked to mention that these just make it easier for them to recover your body)
  • Vents – to open for those more vigorous moments. Ones with mesh prevent the snow from coming back in.
  • Cut – a loose cut or fit that can allow for layering.
  • Connectors – zippers /straps / loops to allow you to connect your jacket to your pants to prevent that unwelcome snow that finds it way between your layers when you wipe out.

Personal experience

I just recently switched from my prairie winter insulated snow pants to GORE-TEX® hard shell pants. While the snow pants kept me quite warm they didn’t do so well with the wet weather here on the west coast (I soaked through a couple time). Also they tended to be warm at times (causing me to sweat, sometimes heavily). To be fair, I probably didn’t buy the  the highest quality snow pants back in the day. I recently found some GORE-TEX® pants on clearance at MEC (BackBeyond review coming shortly), bit the bullet (and the price tag) and embraced my new west coast environment. It was an interesting experience switching from big fluffy insulated pants to a alpine shell. I wasn’t  necessarily cold but I wasn’t necessarily warm either. My son was skiing with me as it was snowing and the snowflakes just rested on his pants as snowflakes. For me, the snow melted on my legs and then froze as water droplets, an interesting experience. The windproof / waterproof combined with better moisture management, and not being hot enough to sweat meant that although I was cooler, I wasn’t cold, so they did their winter task effectively. Next time I’m going to try a  fleece pant underneath rather than merino wool, which should provide a bit better of a insulating buffer when actually sitting in the snow.

The dwarf has a little more experience with tights, so I’ll leave him to discuss that, but I do wear soft shell pants with Merino long underwear when I’m snowshoeing and getting a lot of exercise. This is an effective combination for days when the weather is nice (around freezing) and you don’t expect to spend any time falling or sitting in the snow, however now that I have my alpine shell pants, I’ll wear those instead and just vent when I work up a sweat.

Wrap up

Staying warm is vital in cold weather, but not sweating is a close second. As the saying goes, “take off layers to stay warm”. I’ve literally sweat through my jacket cross country skiing and had the shell of my jacket freeze. This works fine while active, but can get pretty cold when you stop. You should feel cool when you start if you expect to sweat (which is easier said than done when it’s cold out). If you are out for a stroll to enjoy the scenery then dress warm for comfort. Activities like downhill skiing can be trickier because you have bursts of activity followed periods of rest (while sitting on a chairlift while the hurricane wind pelts you with a blizzard of ice crystals), here layering and zippers / vents are important.

If you want to get more technical (in ascending order of detail), visit these pages ArcteryxMECREI.

If we missed anything, or you have any thoughts, drop us a line in the comments below


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