I hate the cold.
There. I said it.
Seems almost blasphemous when you consider that this is a ski blog. So maybe I should amend that a bit: I hate being cold. But since I love to ski, I’ve learned to dress for whatever the day will throw at me: below zero temperatures; mild, spring-like conditions; dumping snow; and yes, even sleet and rain.
Dressing for skiing can be a challenge. But there are things you can do to keep yourself warm, dry, and comfortable, no matter what the forecast.
The Essential: Dress in layers.
The reason is simple: layers trap air, which helps you stay warmer. Another plus: you can tailor your clothing to the conditions at hand. So if you get warm during the day, you can remove a piece of clothing to cool down, or add more if you get chilled.
An effective layering system contains three basic components: a base layer, a mid-layer, and an outer layer. Let’s examine what you need to look for in each.
The most important part of what you wear is the layer beside your skin, or your base layer. Base layers come in a lot of different materials, but no matter which you choose, your objective should be the same: you want something that’s comfortable, easy to move around in, and able to keep you dry by wicking, or transporting, moisture away from your body. Cotton is a no-no. That’s because once it gets wet, it stays wet. And when you’re wet, you’re colder. So resist the urge to wear that cotton T-shirt next to your skin. For a better option, go with base layers that are merino wool or synthetic:
Wool used to be popular, then it wasn’t, now it is again. Part of the problem was its bad reputation. Wool just sounds itchy. That may be because you’re thinking of plain old sheep’s wool. Merino wool isn’t like that at all. Its final finish is much smoother than standard sheep’s wool. It’s also soft and has a high warmth-to-weight ratio. And it’s naturally antibacterial, usually for the life of the garment, so it can be worn on consecutive days with minimal odor buildup. It also retains 80% of its heating properties when wet, which is a huge plus.
Synthetics have benefits, too. They’re typically less expensive than wool, dry more quickly, and retain their shape better. And while synthetics have a nasty reputation for retaining odors, many companies have come up with technologies that minimize the stink factor. There are loads of companies offering synthetic base layers, each with its own little twist.
You can get base layers in a variety of weights: Lightweight, mid-weight, and heavyweight. As a rule, the thinner the fabric, the better it wicks and the faster it dries. If it’s not very cold, or if you’re going to be very active, you’ll want to stick with a lighter weight base layer. If it’s colder or you’re less active, go heavier. And if it’s really cold, don’t hesitate to wear two or even three layers at once. You can always take one off if you get too warm. It may take some experimentation to nail down the best combination for your activity, and once you do, trust me, you’ll forget by next season.
Mid-layers are just what they sound like: the layer between your base layer and your jacket. Their function is to insulate you from the cold and to move moisture outward, away from your body.
The most common mid-layer is made of fleece, which is warm, light, breathable, and comfortable. Fleece is available in a number of weights, so you can select the one that’s best for the day’s temps. Many skiers and boarders will own two types of fleeces; one that’s lighter weight for warmer days, and a heavier weight one for colder days.
Other good mid-layer options include merino wool and down. Merino wool sweaters are excellent insulators; soft, highly breathable, and naturally odor-free. Down offers unbeatable warmth, but since it loses its insulating properties when wet, it’s best suited for drier climes.
Again, under any circumstances, do not choose cotton, for the same reasons listed in the base layer section above: once it gets wet, it stays wet. And when you’re wet, you get colder faster.
Outer layers essentially come in two varieties: insulated and uninsulated. Many skiers and riders will opt for the latter, otherwise known as a shell, because it’s easier to customize to the conditions. On very cold days, for example, you can wear a down layer beneath your shell for maximum warmth, and when the weather’s warmer, a fleece layer alone may suffice. If you typically ski or ride in an area that’s particularly cold — New England, for example — you may want to opt for an insulated jacket or pants.
Whichever you choose, however, there are a few features you’re going to want in an outer layer:
Water Resistance: Ski jackets or pants can be either water resistant or waterproof. What’s the difference? A jacket that’s water resistant is treated with a coating that resists water for improved durability in wet conditions. This means that precipitation will run off the fabric rather than being absorbed. A waterproof jacket, in comparison, features a breathable membrane, laminate, or other comparable waterproof technology. This can actually prevent water from penetrating your jacket’s interior for superior dryness.
Breathability: A jacket or ski pant that’s breathable will allow perspiration to escape to the outside while still acting a barrier to water droplets. This reduces the sweaty and clammy feeling you may find in non-breathable outerwear. You want the highest breathability rating in your price range.
Other options you may want to consider: Underarm venting (otherwise known as pit zips) that you can open if you get too warm, and pockets, both interior and exterior. Pro tip: the more pockets, the better.
Outer layers are a great way to make a fashion statement on the slope. But a word of caution: avoid white. Sure, it may look cool, but it’s harder to see against the snow and can be a magnet for chair lift grease. A better option is a brighter color, so you can be easily seen by others on the hill.
What Else Do You Need?
Socks: It may seem counter-intuitive, but thinner socks are actually warmer and more comfortable than thicker socks. Thick socks can hold moisture closer to your feet, which can make them feel colder. Thin socks, on the other hand, move sweat away from your foot to the boot liner, which is designed to wick moisture away from your body. Thick socks can also bunch up to reduce circulation and make your feet colder.
Goggles: The best goggle is the one that fits your face and works with your helmet. Pro tip: Be sure to bring your helmet along when you try on goggles to make sure they work together. Also, check to see how easily the lenses can be swapped out, since you may want to change your lenses to accommodate conditions on any given day.
Glove or mittens: For skiing or boarding, not just any gloves or mittens will do. You want ones that are specifically designed with the warmth, dryness, and features that a day in the mountains requires.
Choosing between gloves and mittens is really a matter of personal preference. Both offer specific benefits. In general, gloves offer greater dexterity than mittens, but mittens are warmer, because your fingers will share one compartment and retain more heat that way. If it’s really cold, however, you may also want to invest in a pair of glove liners. This is a thin liner you wear under your gloves or mittens for additional warmth.
Helmet: Helmets come in a variety of styles and colors in a wide range of price points. It may take some looking around to find one that has all the features you want. Some have brims, some don’t. Some have vents, some don’t. Some can even be wired for sound. Whatever you do, though, don’t skimp in this department. A helmet is more than just ski apparel; it’s safety equipment. So be safe and wear one.
Neck gaiter: Neck gaiters, neck fleeces, or neckies all refer to the same thing: a tubular piece of fabric you wear around your neck and can pull up over your lower face, if needed. You can get these in a variety of weights, materials, colors, and patterns. Go crazy. Make your gaiter your own fashion statement.
Face Protection: If you’re skiing and it’s very, very cold, you might want to consider a facemask. I wear one when it’s brutally cold to protect against frostbite. It’s not a great look, but it can be a godsend.
Dressing appropriately for skiing may take some experimentation, but with the right information and a little perseverance you’ll find the system that works for you.