Time was¿probably still is for many¿that "waterproof-breathable" or "technical ski shell" meant "Gore-Tex." Invented in 1969, Gore-Tex was the first fabric to be both waterproof and breathable, and until recently it was the only option for skiers looking for weather protection that didn't become saunalike after even small amounts of exertion. Today, however, a slew of new waterproof-breathable fabric technologies are appearing in some very technical ski shells, parkas, and pants.
Marmot MemBrain, Solstice Microshed, Lowe Alpine Triplepoint Ceramic, Columbia Omni-Tech, Patagonia H2No, and Nike Clima-FIT Max are some of the new "smart" fabrics. Several perform like Gore-Tex, whose billions of tiny pores are too small for a drop of water to penetrate but large enough for a molecule of water vapor to pass through. Others function differently, often sacrificing some degree of waterproofness for greater breathability.
Why risk your skiing comfort on one of these upstarts when you know from reading the ubiquitous hangtag that Gore-Tex is "Guaranteed to Keep You Dry"? Sure, Gore-Tex is the granddaddy of waterproof-breathable technologies and arguably still the most durably waterproof for extreme conditions. But consider several simple truths: 1) You might not need Gore-Tex's superior level of waterproofness; 2) you may want more breathability; and 3) you might be looking to save a few bucks. Even if you're pretty hardcore, getting, say, 40 to 50 days a year, you still might be perfectly happy with a less-expensive waterproof-breathable jacket.
The performance difference between Gore-Tex and its challengers is getting smaller all the time. And manufacturers who use an alternative to Gore-Tex have the flexibility to create garments for a specific intended use¿for example, more breathable for highly aerobic activities¿without having to meet Gore's strict standards for waterproofness. The trick is to figure out what you really need. If you usually ski lift-served in Colorado, total waterproofness might be overkill. Even companies like Marmot, while still offering high-end, fully waterproof Gore-Tex outerwear, are coming out with their own proprietary options for those skiers who need windproof, breathable outerwear that is merely waterproof enough.
Skiing is an activity of extremes. We're not talking about hucking huge cliffs here, but about the extremes of being completely sedentary on the lift and then going full-bore through a thousand vertical feet of moguls. This is why the attributes of windproofness (to prevent convective heat loss) and breathability (to keep you from overheating) are every bit as important as waterproofness. In fact, a garment's ability to breathe¿not air, but moisture vapor, which you want to escape¿is often what keeps you dry. And dry means warm and comfortable.
When shopping for skiwear, think honestly about the conditions you're likely to encounter. Two other things to look for in a waterproof-breathable garment are pretty mundane, but crucial: cleaning requirements¿can it stand up to the washing machine without losing waterproofness?¿and the company's guarantee¿will the manufacturer stand behind it?