I went skiing for the first time in 1995, and embarrassingly knew nothing about it. I went on a whim because a bunch of my friends were going, and I thought that I’d try something new. I don’t remember being very nervous, but do remember thinking to myself that I was probably grossly underprepared for what I was getting into. I live in Minnesota and thought that I already had most of the winter gear that I would need. But ripping down a hill in the cold at speeds I normally only did in a car, I was in for a completely different level of preparation. Since that first trip I’ve had some good experiences with suiting up for a day on the slopes.
FEET: I’ve long struggled with what to wear inside my boots. I started out with normal cotton socks, because that’s all I owned. Then after my feet sweat and froze, I thought that maybe my boots weren’t the right size. When that checked out ok, it was time for new socks. Companies like SmartWool make a few different thicknesses/cushion levels, so when I recently bought my first pair; I wasn’t sure which one would be right. Buy too thick, and your feet will sweat and toes freeze. Buy too thin and there will be nothing there to keep the heat in. I picked a pair in the middle and have been impressed with the comfort and heat control.
TOP BODY: Top body layers have been a roller coaster for me. A trip to Killington last year confronted me with early morning temperatures below 0°F, and not topping out above 5°F by midday. In addition to my main ski jacket, a light undershirt, a Columbia thermal long sleeve, and another light long sleeve on top proved to not be enough to battle those extremes. I didn’t have any problems with my face, neck, or hands, but my core area was chilly and hard to keep warm — especially on those long lift runs to the top with the wind blowing at you and nothing to hide behind. For the next day, I replaced the outer long sleeve with a hooded sweatshirt, but then my neck was overheating and got really uncomfortable, with my body heat having nowhere to escape. I went back to the original setup on the third day and preferred being a bit cooler over having bulky extra layers.
LOWER BODY: The one area that I seem to have down is what to wear on my legs. When I first started skiing as a teenager it was just a pair of snow pants, but those limit your movement and are a little too bulky. What I’ve found that works best is a good pair of SmartWool mid-weight bottoms, and vented ski pants over that. The vents are great because you can easily open them up if you’re getting too warm, and I have been amazed at how warm they stay even in the coldest conditions.
HANDS: Coverage for my hands has never really changed, I’ve been most happy with a pair of GORE-TEX mittens. They have a mitten exterior with divided finger fleece linings. I’m not a big fan of normal ski gloves, my fingers never seemed to stay warm enough. And I like gloves/mittens that ride up higher past your wrist (with a pull strap), so there’s no chance of snow blowing in there.
I added a helmet to my lineup this year, but still wear a thin wool hat underneath it. I use a neck gaiter in lieu of a full balaclava, but a few extreme cold days at both Killington and Arapahoe Basin have made me reconsider my approach.
The main lesson learned from all my skiing trips is that what to wear is a path of trial and error. What works for me is not going to work for somebody else. Every group of people I’ve skied with has all been dressed differently. Temperature and wind differences between the base and summit of a mountain also make it harder to know what’s appropriate to wear, so it comes down to picking a level of bundling with which you feel comfortable. Most important of all, get out there with your friends and have fun tearing up the slopes!