Parkas & Jackets
What to look for
Waterproof and breathable
Particularly in warmer snow areas, such as Australian resorts, a waterproof outer layer is vital as the conditions tend to be wetter because of the warmth. Colder areas, with drier snow can get away with less waterproofness although no one gets miserable with equipment that is more effective than conditions require. Breathability is important because as you exercise you sweat and, if the sweat cannot escape, it condenses and you get wet from the inside. Manufacturers have developed waterproof and breathable fabrics or coatings that stop the water getting in, and let the sweat out. They do this on droplet size (water vapour from sweat has smaller droplets than liquid water, so can pass through smaller holes) and a water repellent coating on the exterior surface.
A waterproof and breathable outer layer will make you a lot more comfortable. Fabrics are rated, typically with 2 numbers in the thousands. One is for waterproofness, and the other for breathability. In both cases, the higher the number the more effective the fabric (and, usually, the higher the price). A garment with a waterproof rating of 5000 should be waterproof for years for the average user if looked after. Higher breathability is best, a plastic raincoat may be super waterproof but wont breath leaving you hot and sweaty.
There is little point in having a garment made of waterproof fabric if the waterproofing is pierced by thousands of tiny holes caused when needles stitch the panels of the garment together. Water will also penetrate where the join is as the waterproof membrane cannot be continuous across the join. Manufacturers overcome this by placing sealant over the seams on the inside of the garment. The sealant is either a narrow tape (about 1.5 cm wide) glued over the seam on the inside or, less often, a line of gunk that looks like silicon sealant along the seam. You will be able to see the seam sealing with a shell, but it will probably be hidden by insulation with a padded parka. Seam sealing is almost 100% effective, but it can fail. There is some logic in buying a garment with the minimum number of panels to reduce the number of seams and therefore reduce the possibility of failed seam sealing.
A good hood or collar gives you a place to hide in bad weather. A good hood is one that gives you protection but does not impede visibility. There are no magic fixes - try before you buy. A hood with a stiffened peak, either with additional fabric or a wire insert, above the face gives additional protection from falling snow. Some parkas have hoods that are attached by zips or press studs, others have hoods that tuck into a pouch in the collar. Both systems work. The best hoods I have had are detachable because (I think) there are no compromise for volume when folded. On the other hand, it is easy to lose a detachable hood (although I have a pocket in my boot bag where all stuff like this goes). Hoods become pretty irrelevant if you wear a helmet.
A good collar is one that is high enough to tuck at least your nose into. You need more than your chin protected - there is a lot of skin between chin and nose. The secret is minimising exposed skin. Some collars, and most hoods, have drawstrings to tighten the apertures and stop wind and precipitation penetrating. The collar should be big enough that you can fit a neck gaiter inside it without the collar being uncomfortably tight.
Effective Wrist Closures
Another thing that stops the weather getting in. Make sure the closures at the wrist are a tight but comfortable fit on your wrist. Some people close the wrist of the parka over their gloves. If you think that this might be you make sure that there is enough room for this as well. Most wrists are elasticised with a velcro adjustment.
You can't have too many, or pockets that are too big. Look at whether there are internal (inside the main zip) and external pockets. Make sure that there is at least a flap of cloth, if not a velcro closure, over the zip on each external pocket. Any gap is a way for water and wind to breach the seal of the parka. Some parkas have special pockets for MP3 players, others for water bottles. If it is important to you these things are important. On the other hand, the more exterior pockets you have the more gaps exist for the penetration of moisture. Personal preference is needed here, as you might like to carry a lot of useless crap with you, and don't feel like bunching it all into one or two pockets.
As more and more resorts use RFID technology for tickets a pocket on the sleeve to hold your ticket is a good idea. If the detector does not register your ticket it is easy to wave it closer to the detector. Often these pockets are on the upper arm, but some are on the forearm. Forearm pockets are the most convenient for this use.
These are cloth flaps that cover the main zip. They are designed to stop water and wind penetrating through the zip. Flaps can be in front of the zip, or one can be behind (although the flap behind is less efficient) One flap will not be enough. Two overlapping flaps are necessary to keep weather out. In the last few years many manufacturers have been using waterproof (or water resistant) zips which seem to be effective to keep water and wind out. They are r easonably easy to identify - when they are closed no zipper teeth are visible.
An elasticised internal skirt inside the parka near the bottom. They form a seal around the top of the pants to prevent snow getting up inside the parka. If you think you will be skiing deep powder, or fall a lot at high speed these matter. Some parkas do not have an internal skirt, but have an elasticised drawstring at the waist. This performs a similar function, although a separate skirt is probably more effective as the elastic sits lower down. Most skirts have buttoned hooks to attach to your pants.
Zipped vents under the armpit. Useful to control ventilation, and thus temperature.
Insulated or Shell?
A shell is a waterproof and windproof garment without padding for insulation. This means that the garment will not add significantly to your warmth on the hill. Many people like them because they can control temperature by layering, without taking the insulating qualities of the garment into account. An insulated parka means one less item of clothing as the garment retains warmth because of the insulation. Personally, I am a great fan of shells. An insulated parka can be too hot for spring skiing, where a shell may be just right. If you are getting cold you can always add a layer.
Shells are the only choice for cross country skiing at any time of year as you generate considerably more heat than when downhill skiing.
An apparent compromise is shells with linings that can be zipped in or out. Superficially, these look like a great idea, but practically they are no different to a shell with a separate insulating layer.
A softshell is a jacket with a soft and stretchable water resistant windproof outer skin, and a fleece inner all as one layer. They are warm and comfortable. They are not as waterproof as a dedicated waterproof shell, but are certainly good enough to protect you from snowfall and light rain.
There is such a thing as a perfect parka. I have had two, one made by Far West, a Vernon, BC company, and my present parka by Marmot. But it has taken me 35 years of good and bad decisions to know what I really need. Try to go as light as possible, and away from denim-like material (snow/ice magnet).
You should always check the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning, but, generally, you can wash parkas/pants/ski suits but just be careful. NEVER dry clean. When washing use the gentlest option your machine has and zip up all zips/tags etc before starting. Do an extra rinse cycle at the end and you can usually tumble dry on a mild setting.
As for detergents, some people recommend lux or the most mild detergent you can find but the best thing you can use is something like Nikwax or a special sports detergent for the fabric you are using. Many technical fabrics don't like lux and must be washed in synthetic only detergents. Goretex and Entrant do react differently so try to get something for your fabric. Nikwax is perfect for Goretex and you can get it at any outdoor specialty shop.
There are also products that are added to the final rinse which will restore the water repellency of the outer surface. This is the first line of defence. If water is soaking in and not beading on the surface the water repellent coating has probably broken down.