It’s cold out there on the mountain. Let’s get dressed for your first day of skiing?
The main goal is to prevent heat loss, but not prevent it so much that you get all hot and sweaty, because that makes you wet, and being wet contributes to heat loss... huh?
To be ready for whatever conditions the mountain throws at you, I recommend a layering system. This way you can add or remove layers as needed to keep your temperature in the Goldilocks zone. Just right!
The Base Layer
Let’s start with some long undies (AKA: Long Johns or thermals). You’ll need both tops and bottoms that wick moisture away from your skin.
Avoid cotton against your skin. It may be nice and comfy when it’s dry but wet cotton is about as pleasant as in ice bath. “Cotton kills” as they say!
Synthetic layers work well and are inexpensive but tend to get pretty smelly, so if you can afford it, you may want to fork out for some merino wool. It’s thinner and softer than regular wool and feels nice and silky on your skin.
Warm Insulating Layers
This layer (or layers) is meant to provide warmth. The amount of layering and materials you select will vary from day to day based on the temperatures outside.
The general idea is to create some dead airspace between the base layer and the outer protective shell to keep your body heat locked in. The general rule of thumb is the thicker the warmer.
This could range from a thin fleece layer on a relatively warm day to a big down puffy on a really cold day.
Down - Comes from the undercoat of waterfowl and is an amazing insulator, however, it’s expensive... and when it gets wet loses the majority of its insulating properties. It’s really only suitable for cold dry climates
Wool - Is super cool. Especially if your Grandma gave it to you for Christmas. It is warm, long wearing, and will retain most of its warmth when wet. Be aware though, it can be heavy, itchy, smelly, and if you wipe out you will be a snowball!
There are synthetic insulators out there that mimic down such as Primaloft and Thinsulate. They tend to be more affordable than down and will still insulate when wet. The down side is they are usually a little heavier and they will go up in a puff of smoke if you happen to sit too close that winter camping stove.
Fleece, often made from polyester also works well as a lighter mid-layer and can be purchased in a variety of thicknesses and flashy colours.
Weather Proof Outer Layers
Both pants and a jacket, this outer layer is super important. It needs to be waterproof, windproof, breathable... and it’s gotta look flashy too!
Goretex was the original waterproof/breathable membrane on the market, but every brand of ski outerwear carries something similar these days. Just look for the expensive ones:) A triple layer shell with the highest possible waterproof rating is ideal for nasty conditions. The higher the number the better!
You can buy outer layers with built in insulation, but I prefer to go with a ‘hard shell’ unless you’re in a place that’s always freezing. That way you can adjust the insulating layers underneath to suit the temperature. Ski pants should have a cuff that fits over your boots to prevent snow from entering and ideally both jacket and pants will have some ventilation zippers you can open up when things get warm.
Snug Ski Socks
Yes, ski specific socks are what you want. Beginners will often reach for the thickest socks they can find in an attempt to keep their feet cozy, but thin socks will typically fit much better in your ski boots and allow you have a better feel while skiing.
It’s counter intuitive but thinner socks will often keep your feet warmer too! If your boots are fitted properly, thick socks will restrict circulation which is a fast track to cold and uncomfortable feet.
Make sure the socks are long enough that they come well above your boot top and that they are a smooth texture without any ribs or ridges. They should have a good elastic that keeps them up! You don’t want them falling down and wrinkling inside the boot as this will create a great deal of discomfort.
Again, you’ll want to avoid cotton as they’ll get wet and keep your feet cold.
Helmet or Toque
You lose a lot of body heat out of your head so you’ll want to keep it nice and cozy.
Growing up skiing in the 80’s and 90’s, I personally love a good toque, but these days a helmet is highly recommended. Especially while learning on the beginner slope where all the crazies hang out who are most likely to crash into you!
Make sure your helmet fits well or it will nullify any of the safety benefits. I suggest selecting one with insulation as squeezing a toque underneath isn’t really an option if it fits properly. As a piece of safety equipment, I don’t recommend the fancy ones with built in headphones. Skiing with music blasting in both ears is a disaster waiting to happen. You want to hear the snow conditions and other skiers around you. The ones with soft earpieces allow you to be more aware of your surroundings.
You’ll need some good goggles to protect your eyes from snow, wind and those nasty UV rays.
Remember the sun’s glare is more intense at altitude and will be reflecting off all that bright white snow.
Goggles come with a variety of different lenses for varying conditions. Some will come with two lenses, one for flat light (cloudy days) and one for bright sunny days. If you can only afford one lense, choose something in the middle like a rose lense.
Ideally your googles will fit both your helmet and your face while allowing maximum peripheral vision.
With all the exercise you’ll be getting on your first day of skiing, you’re goggles are almost certain to fog up within the first fifteen minutes if you’re not careful. In this case, check out our Foggy Goggle Guide for new skiers to help eliminate this.
Gloves or Mittens
Ideally you’ll want waterproof, windproof and insulated gloves or mittens. Mittens tend to be warmer but gloves are a little better for gripping those ski poles.
Leather ones are pricier but typically last way longer and do a better job of keeping Mother Nature out. Although I’m a proponent of the layering system in general, I’m not a big fan of gloves with a removable liner as once you pull them out, it’s nearly impossible to get the fingers back in the right place, especially when your hands are cold and wet.
Neck Gaiter, Buff or Balaclava
If I’m in the Rockies where it’s minus 25C, I might break out the bank robber balaclava, but typically on the coast I just keep a buff in my pocket for the when a blizzard strikes and my neck or face gets cold.
Stretchy buffs are nice and versatile. They can be worn in a variety of ways depending on the conditions.
- Stage one can be used as a neck warmer.
- Stage two can be pulled up over your face.
- Stage three can be pulled up over your ears and head fitting underneath your helmet.
- Stage four can be used as a nice thin toque when hangin out in the day lodge.
- Stage five makes for a good handkerchief for when you get the sniffles .
Sun Screen & Lip Balm
Lube up! The combination of higher altitudes and reflection off the snow can make for a nasty sun burn... even on overcast days. A little lube might offer some protection against wind burn as well.
And don’t forget the lip balm. An essential item for any ski parka pocket. Your lips will be extra sensitive on first day on snow.
The final article of clothing you’re going to need will be some ski boots. On your first day they will probably be rentals which will be low quality and likely won’t fit very well.
If you enjoy the sport and decide to stick with it, this will be one of the first investments you’ll want to make, and I highly recommend you see an experienced boot fitter to get it right.
Purchasing a suitable boot is a pretty in depth topic so we’ll cover that in another blog post. For now, you’ll want to maximize comfort by ensuring socks are pulled up and nothing is tucked in the boots. The boot cuff should be buckled up nice and snug around the lower leg, and personal preference, I like to pull my Long Johns over top.
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