Are you thinking about hitting some high elevation mountains this winter with your skis or snowboard? Well, then you need to keep warm. Here's everything you need to know...
I grew up skiing in New Jersey and would often visit the smaller mountains around the area. A few years back, my wife and I decided to take it to the next level and paid a visit to the Mont Tremblant Ski Resort in Canada followed by Park City in Utah the following year.
I had no idea how different those ski mountains would be from the little ones I grew up on. Needless to say, the experience was beyond awesome, but the high elevation makes for a level of cold that one does not expect. As such, we had to change our strategy for clothing ourselves.
In this article, I'll talk about all of the rules that I follow whenever I go skiing or do any other snow activity. You'll learn:
- The most important rule of dressing yourself on the slopes.
- The layering system that I like to follow for my upper and lower body (and how I do it cheaply).
- How I keep my head my head, neck, and face warm.
- Considerations for eye protection/goggles.
- Tricks for keeping your hands warm and dry.
- How to avoid the most common mistakes when keeping your feet warm.
This guide is designed for the someone who wants to get the most possible warmth on a budget. Some of this equipment isn't the latest and greatest, but it still works fine for me on cold days and tough runs.
Most Important Rule: Stay Dry
Arguably the most important principle about keeping warm when you’re doing snow sports is keeping moisture away from your body. As you probably already know, when water is exposed to the cold, it turns to ice. Nothing will make you colder on the slopes than having water freeze on your skin.
That being said, you need to be mindful of two things:
- Wicking moisture from sweat away from the skin.
- Preventing moisture from the snow from making its way there.
The most common mistake people make is wearing cotton against their skin. Cotton is actually hydrophilic, meaning that it likes to absorb water. That’s actually why bath towels are made from the stuff. They’re designed to absorb the moisture from your skin post-shower and help you dry off.
As you keep reading, you’ll notice that we recommend certain gear that we like to use, but no matter what, this principle remains the same. Whether you’re going with our recommendations or not, be sure to pay attention to what I refer to as the 3 M’s: Mindful Moisture Management.
The Base Layer
The base layer of your ski outfit is what you’ll put directly onto your skin. That being said, it’s not something you want to get wrong. Should some moisture find its way to your base layer, either from sweat or the outside, you’re going to be in for a miserable time.
What I prefer for an upper-body base layer is a simple winterized compression shirt such as this one by Tesla. It does a great job of keeping you dry and getting rid of the moisture when you sweat from a hard run.
At the time when I was shopping for my stuff, I was able to get one for far cheaper than anything else, so it was in my frugal nature as well as my ethical one. I’m happy to report that it keeps me warm and toasty on the mountains.
Note for Women: If you’re a lady, then you’ll also need to be mindful of your bra you’re wearing. Make sure you get a sports bra that’s capable of protecting you from sweat moisture build up. A bra like this one under your compression shirt should do the trick.
For the lower body, a set of winterized moisture wicking compression pants works just as well as it does for the top half. As a guy, I'm not really used to wearing leggings outside of skiing, but I think I look pretty good in them!
In all seriousness though, good moisture control is just as important on your lower body.
That being said, we can’t forget about the other critical garment for your base layer besides the pants: your underwear.
Even if you’ve got on the best and warmest moisture wicking pants, get the underwear wrong and and it will all be in vein.
Now, you can opt to go commando and not wear any underwear below your compression pants. For some reason, I just don’t find this comfortable and prefer a little more support. I wear these David Archy Boxer Brief’s not only when I go skiing or snowboarding, but when I do jiu jitsu or any other activity where I’m going to be sweating a lot.
We humans tend to sweat the most “down there”, so you don’t want to mess up the underwear. If I’m not doing any sort of activity, I prefer something loose and cotton-like. But let me tell you that being stuck in the cold with wet underwear isn’t very much fun. I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy!
The David Archy's fit a lot tighter than I would like for every day use, but when I'm on the mountain I don't even notice it.
For the Ladies: I can’t vouch for them myself, but these Climacool Underwear by Adidas should do the trick. They don’t look like they’d show much of a line, but you probably don’t really have to worry because you’re going to have other clothing on top of your base layer. If you find them comfortable, you can also get a moisture-wicking thong.
Midlayer or Second Layer
Now that you’ve got your moisture wicking and winterized base layer on, it’s time to talk about the gear that’s actually going to keep you warm.
The real warmth retention starts at the mid layer. The idea behind this layer is that it should as warm and as light as possible. Not only do you want to keep it from restricting your movement, but it can also function as your primary layer if it gets warm on the slopes.
With a properly planned mid-layer, you’ll be able to switch between having your full jacket on and off as the day moves through different temperatures.
Having said that, this means that personal preference and consideration for your conditions plays a large role in deciding what to wear as a mid-layer. Sometimes a simple vest can do the trick while other times may warrant a heavy fleece jacket such as a North Face.
When I go skiing, I very much like using a North Face Fleece for my midlayer. Mine is actually a bit small on me, as I actually got it before I was fully grown!
Kind of funny that it has lasted so long.
Either way, it works exceptionally well for the upper body. Weighing only around 1 pound, it ticks the boxes for warmth and lightness.
Whether you go with the North Face or not, I highly recommend going with a fleece that zips all the way up the neck like the one I’m wearing. Having the little bit of extra coverage around the neck area can make a huge difference in keeping you warm. And unlike a turtleneck, you can actually unzip it for a little extra air if you become too warm.
Just make sure it's made out of polyester and not cotton!
Just like with the upper body, I prefer a simple pair of fleece pants that don’t break the bank. There are lots of fancy brands out there, but any fleece (polyester-based) pants have worked just fine for me. You might see these types of products referred to as a “soft shell” if they are a bit fancier.
Although many of these products claim to be “waterproof”, I don’t think they are a great first line of defense. If you’re going to be skiing or snowboarding in rainy or snowy conditions, you don’t want to rely on this type of gear to keep you dry. It’s fine for keeping a little bit of snow at bay, but the majority of moisture protection should come from the your final layer.
Here are the pants I'm wearing this year as my midlayer. They're nothing fancy, just some pretty generic fleece joggers made from South Pole. My final layer snow pants are going to provide the final layer of warmth and keep the water out.
One thing to be mindful of is how the pants will interfere with your boots. Mine are nice and stretchy at the bottom so I can put them right over the tops of the boots. Pants that are bulky, but tight at the bottom could interfere with your boot configuration.
The nice thing about getting one of the fancier brands is that they can be used on a warmer day if you're not going to be wearing your final lower layer.
The final layer of your gear, sometimes referred to as “the shell” serves as a final barrier to keep cold air in and moisture out. With this in mind, this is the only layer that I recommend to be completely waterproof (otherwise it’s not really a shell). If the snow or rain starts coming down hard or you simply fall on the snow, a proper shell won’t allow any of that moisture to make its way to your midlayer.
While I’ve recommended that it be completely waterproof, it certainly doesn’t have to be if you’re skiing on an easy mountain on a mild day. Heck, I’ve gotten away with a cotton hoodie as my final layer, but only because I was pretty confident that I wasn’t going to fall and I knew the conditions were going to be suitable for it.
Let’s be totally clear that what you put on for the third layer can be totally dependent on the conditions. I like to use a 3-in-1 jacket for my upper body because of its versatility.
3-in-1 jackets have the advantage of being table to be worn three ways (hence the name):
- Worn with all the components (outer shell and inner warm lining).
- Worn with just the outer shell for water and wind protection.
- Worn with just the inner portion as a normal fleece or lighter coat.
If you’re planning a long ski or snowboard trip, then having a 3-in-1 jacket will save a lot of room in the suitcase. I like to wear just the outer shell with my midlayer if the conditions are mild and the entire thing if it’s brutally cold. For when I’m just hanging out in the lodge or going to a restaurant, the inner fleece looks nice enough to wear in non-ski settings.
This year I used the Outdoor Master 3-in-1 (pictured above) and found it to be the perfect ski jacket. There are probably more expensive and more insulated ones out there, but I found this to work just fine. Especially with all the other layers I was wearing, it felt completely unnecessary to have something warmer.
For the lower portion of the final layer, I’ve always opted for simple insulated snow pants, preferably with overalls. There’s nothing worse than your pants coming down on the mountain and I’ve experienced it quite a few times when I wore snow pants that simply had only a buckle or clasp on the waist.
If something does go wrong with the buckle, it's also really annoying to adjust it with gloves on. Another reason why I prefer to have the overalls or "bib" configuration.
When it comes to differentiating features and functions of snow pants, you can get them with only the shell or insulated. As I mentioned, I’ve always preferred the insulated kind. Contrary to my upper body, I’ve never had an issue with my legs being too warm or sweating.
Additionally, I rather enjoy the extra padding that comes with snow pants bibs that are insulated. Even though I don’t fall all that much (knock on wood), the extra cushioning comes in handy if I happen to take a nasty spill. They also make sitting on the hard surface ski lifts quite a bit more comfortable.
Depending on how much extra warmth you want your snow pants to provide, you can look for pants with more insulation. Right now I'm rocking these pants with 85g of insulation which are working perfectly.
Head, Neck, and Face
The head and neck are probably where people make the biggest mistakes with keeping themselves warm. As with the other areas, I’ve found that moisture build up from your breath or saliva can be quite problematic. It seems to build up a lot quicker and more consistently than sweat does.
As such, if you wear a non-moisture wicking material, things could get rough around your mouth and nose. I've worn the wrong face protection before and by the end of a few runs, it was basically a sheet of frozen ice.
Here's how you can avoid that:
Mild & Warm Days
For a warmer day, feel free to stick with something thin that doesn’t cover your entire face, like this type of balaclava. A thinner balaclava like this one will not only keep your neck nice and toasty, but also has the added benefit of protecting you from the sun at high elevations. For that reason, I like wearing one even if I don't "need" it for warmth.
The downside to thinner balaclavas is that they usually aren’t specifically designed to prevent moisture build up from breathing and saliva. Even if they say they are moisture wicking, I would advise against breathing through them. As I mentioned, they can freeze up rather quickly to the point where you can almost snap them in half!
Colder & Wet Days
For preventing moisture build up while keeping your face and neck warm, there are two main options:
- A balaclava with an air hole on the mouth
- A balaclava designed with porous or moisture protected material by the mouth.
Balaclavas with air holes such as this one, remind me a little bit of the blowholes on the top of a whale. The airhole is a rubberized circular hole that sits right by the mouth of the balaclava. The rubberized part helps prevent moisture build up while the hole keeps it from escaping.
The only issue with this type of balaclava is that sometimes the mouth hole can be hard to line up correctly. If you have one that doesn’t fit your head correctly, it can shift around during a run. By the time you reach the bottom of the mountain, there’s a chance you’ll have to realign the hole. But so long as you pick the proper size, you should be fine.
An alternative to getting one with an air-hole, is getting a proper balaclava with a porous mouth and nose portion.
This year, I'm using this ergodyne balaclava which I found to be decent and relatively affordable. Notice the difference in material from the front of the face to the sides. It literally makes all the difference.
When I hit the slopes, I really prefer to wear a helmet. Although I went years skiing without one, I realize in retrospect that this was a mistake. Not only does a helmet keep your head safe, but the right one will also keep you warm. Combined with the right balaclava, a helmet is the ideal final layer for your head.
I like my helmets to:
- Be adjustable
- Protect the ears
- Compliant with safety standards (read more about safety standards here)
I got my helmet many years ago, so I couldn't find it anywhere online. However, it's quite similar to this Lucky Bums Snow Helmet.
Protecting Your Eyes
Goggles or eye-wear will form the final barrier of cold protection for your face. They not only provide protection for snow going in and around your eyes, but they also provide UV protection from the sun. On a sunny day, it's hard to imagine skiing without goggles.
There are three main things that can go wrong with goggles.
- Light Transmission
- Improper Fit
Here's how to avoid them:
Again, this goes back to proper ventilation on your balaclava.
If you’re wearing one where the air from your mouth can’t properly escape, it’s going to travel up through the balaclava and into your goggles. So make sure to avoid this! It’s happened to me quite a number of times and it can be quite annoying.
A good pair of goggles will have built in measures to protect against fogging like anti-fog lenses or built in vents. However, if you're literally breathing warm air into it it's not likely going to matter.
One thing that you want to take into consideration when you’re getting goggles is the amount of light that they let in. If you’re skiing at night, you’ll obviously want to get something with much greater VLT (visible light transmission). When there’s not enough light to go around, you don’t want your goggles to block out as little as possible.
The best way to ensure that your goggles fit well is to try them on before you buy. The only way to do this is at a ski shop or sports store. If you opt to go this route, make sure you bring the rest of your head equipment with you - including or balaclava and your helmet.
This is something you’ll especially want to be mindful of if you have glasses as there are ones that are designed to fit over top of them. I don’t have glasses, but I can’t imagine putting on my goggles on my face if I did.
I'm currently using these goggles which are designed for both people who wear glasses and people who don't. However, I can't say I've tested them with glasses since I don't have any!
Keeping Your Hands Warm
Even with the best layering on your body, neck, and head if you neglect to properly cover your extremities it will all be for naught!
Let’s cover the things you should be considering when you’re protecting your hands.
Put Gloves Over the Jacket
After they’re all suited up, many people will make the mistake of putting on their gloves incorrectly. Even though you’re likely going to be putting your gloves on after your jacket, you should put the bottom portion of the gloves (opposite of the fingers) over your jacket.
At first it may seem counterintuitive, but think about it for a minute.
When you’re going down the mountain snow is going to be blowing from all angles, but most importantly up towards you. If your gloves are on the inside of your jacket, that snow has a better chance of making its way inside and freezing. Even though the opening may seem visually small, trust me, snow can still get in.
Put your gloves on over your jacket and you’re not going to have this issue. All the snow will stay on the outside and your hands and wrists will remain warm and toasty.
Wear Liner Gloves
Before you put on your heavy duty waterproof gloves, you’ll want to use a pair of smaller liner gloves. They’ll keep your hands warm and give you much more dexterity for doing things between runs.
Many of the modern liner gloves come with cell phone compatibility. Since almost every phone is a touch screen nowadays, this is a must have if you’re on the slopes.
And no, I’m not saying that because I like to check social media in between runs.
I’m saying it because if you get lost or hurt, your cell phone can be your last line of defense. If you need to call for help, the last thing you want to do is strip down to your bare fingers on top of a mountain. Not only will it be extremely uncomfortable, but the decreased movement could hamper your ability to dial for help.
Bottom Line: Invest in some decent liner gloves. Currently I’m using these gloves by Dakine. I’ll even throw these on if I’m not on the mountains. The grips are great for driving and any work outside that doesn’t require heavier gloves.
Make Sure Outside Gloves are Waterproof
Just like the how your jacket should be the “waterproof shell” for your body, your outer gloves serve the same purpose for your hands.
I prefer something where the waterproof part of the sleeves go rather far up the wrist. This way you can create that barrier I was talking about earlier.
In my experience, you typically won’t need any big brand special gloves if you have a good pair of liners. These gloves are doing the trick for me this year. Make sure you get a bigger size because they're a bit tight on the inside.
If you want the option to take them off and just wear the liners, you can also consider getting a wrist leash to ensure that you don't lose them on the slopes.
Even though they have touch screen capabilities, they are way more clunky and awkward for a cell phone than thinner liner gloves. Just something to keep in mind.
Keeping Your Feet Warm
Nothing can ruin a day on the mountain quicker than cold feet! There’s many factors working against you on this and it can be quite easy to mess up.
Not only are you dealing with the elements, but you’re also dealing with reduced circulation. Especially for skiers, the boots can get really tight and limit the amount of blood that can get to your feet and toes.
In this section, we’ll not only address how you should formulate your gear, but also give you a few tips to keep the blood moving!
Make Sure Boots Fit Properly
Properly fitting snowboard and ski boots is somewhat of a complicated subject. However, the one thing that’s pretty straightforward is that if you get it wrong, you’re going to be in for a world of hurt.
An ill-fitted boot is not only going to pinch nerves and be uncomfortable, but it can actually cut off veins in the foot. As I mentioned, this is going to cut off circulation and leave your feet super cold.
Spend the time to get a decent pair of boots and make sure they’re professionally fitted. Be wary of simply borrowing a friend's who has a similar foot size to you.
Finally, be sure not to over-tighten them. When you're getting your boots fitted, be mindful of the notches that they've been fitted for. It can be really tempting to make things super snug when you're getting dressed, but you'll pay for it later with reduced circulation.
With a properly fitted footbed in your boots, the muscles in the foot will be able to relax by reducing pressure on the bones of your feet. In the case of skiing, most people’s feet will start to buckle inward. This transfers the weight to the ankle, two big toes, navicular bone, and 5th metatarsal on the foot.
For a more in-depth look at footbeds, this video is an excellent resource.
Rather than making online recommendations for boots and footbeds, I highly recommend going into your local ski shop and working with a professional. There’s a lot of nuance to be discussed and it’s not something you want to get wrong.
Just know that if you get it wrong it can really contribute to cold feet on the mountain whether you’re skiing or snowboarding.
Proper Ski/Snowboard Socks
One mistake that people make when going skiing or snowboarding is putting on really thick socks. Sometimes they’ll even layer multiple pairs of cotton socks which creates a situation ripe for wetness and stench.
Although proper socks for skiing/snowboarding can definitely have some weight to them, they’re probably going to be thinner than you would expect. The two main functions that proper socks should do is:
- Wick away moisture from water and sweat.
- Not interfere or compliment the fit of your boot.
Right now I’m using these Eurozone socks and loving them. They’re also manufactured in a compression variety, but I haven’t had a chance to try those yet. I’m sure they’d work just as well for the purposes of keeping our feet warm.
My socks are designed to reduce injuries as well, but it would be hard for me to vouch for that one way or the other. Let's just say I haven't got hurt yet (fingers crossed).
Address Day-Old Moisture
If you’re going to be on the mountain for a few days or even a few weeks, it’s important that you’re mindful of leftover moisture in your boot liners, socks, and insoles from the day before.
Be sure to separate everything and let it air out when you’re done for the day. Also, having multiple pairs of ski socks can be huge if you don’t have access to a dryer.
Moisture from sweat and snow can build up in all of these components and make things smelly and cold.
Take a Quick Break After First Few Runs
Now this is a tip I heard, but I haven’t actually tried yet. I’m going to give it a shot this year, so I’ll be sure to update the article when I do.
What you're supposed to do is take a break after your first two or three runs on the mountain. Once you complete them, go to the lodge, take off your boots, and relax for around 5-10 minutes. This will allow full blood flow to return to the feet. It will also allow your boots to be fully warmed up once you put your feet back in.
I've heard this tip can make all the difference, so I'm going to give it a try and let you guys know how it goes!
What Are Your Tips?
So what are your favorite tips to stay warm when you’re skiing or snowboarding? If you have a trick that you think we should add to this list please let us know in the comments below.
We love hearing from our readers!