If there wasn’t outerwear, what purpose would underwear serve? Outerwear can be some of the most frustrating gear to purchase. There are many choices, but finding something that can keep you warm and dry, looks cool, and is affordable can be seriously challenging. But it’s also pretty fun, isn’t it? It’s not like trying on ski boots, or not knowing how a ski is going to work just from its flex on the shop floor. At least with a garment, you can try it on, and with a little bit of research, find something that is going to fit your lifestyle and budget. Luckily for you, the outerwear featured in our 2011 Apparel Guide is engineered to keep you warm, dry, and styling. And in the recent economic times, it’s also been built to last more than a season.

One tip we can offer is to not get pigeonholed into a brand’s perceived intention of a garment. A solid backcountry shell can be a pipe skier’s best friend on a spring hiking session, just as a long-fitted neon jacket may offer everything you need, at a better price, for out-of-bounds fun (though it’s not advised to wear cotton tall tees in shitty weather or if you’re over the age of 25).

Regional location is a strong factor to consider when choosing your gear. The denser and wetter climate of the Pacific Northwest tailors to a different need than the schizophrenic weather patterns on the East Coast or arid Colorado.

That’s great, you say, but what does it all mean?

Two-Layer vs. Three-Layer: Two-layer pants and jackets have one layer of fabric laid on top of a breathable membrane, which keeps water out and allows air to escape. The membrane is sensitive to dirt, natural oils on the skin, abrasion, and beer. A third layer sandwiches the membrane between the top layer fabric and another layer on the inside of the jacket, offering more durability. Most two-layer or three-layer technical fabrics will have a non-porous membrane and thus are usually going to be considered “waterproof.” “Water-resistant” fabrics include microfiber hard shells and soft shells. These jackets are essentially woven so tight that they are extremely windproof and water-resistant, but won’t keep you entirely dry during a heavy storm. The benefits to a two-layer are high-breathability and “packability.” Another important distinction here is the two-and-a-half-layered shell—a two-layer shell with a protective coating or print on the inside membrane. This extra coating protects the membrane like a third layer would, and though it’s not as durable as a third layer, it comes without the extra weight. The main distinction between these options is trading performance for weight and vice versa.

Construction: Building a jacket is highly technical. All these brands have access to and use the best materials available (three-layered fabrics, water-resistant zippers, seam tape). But these materials are only as valuable as the design and construction techniques used to put them together. A good waterproof piece will always have either welded seams, where the fabric is attached without stitching, or will have a waterproof tape glued over the stitching. A garment that has a technical three-layer shell should be seam taped or welded because the benefits of the technical fabrics are lost as soon as it is punctured by a needle. It’s important to pay attention to your own needs when it comes to fit, weight, performance, and durability. With outerwear and vintage booze, you get what you pay for.

Insulation: When it comes to high-performance hard shells, layering your under garments is key. But what if you’re looking for some added warmth? Insulated outerwear will keep you warm and toasty. Real goose down is the lightest and warmest type of insulation, but its qualities rapidly decrease if it gets wet. Synthetic insulation consists of manmade fibers engineered not to physically soak up water, and thus retain its loft and warmth even when wet. However, synthetics are heavier than down and don’t compress as easily in a pack. And down, though not being the best choice for damp climates, is the superior insulator for cold, dry conditions. Like Trew Gear’s Chris Pew says, in regards to comfort, weight, and warmth, real goose down is “the tits.” – MIKE ROGGE