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What To Wear Skiing? Helpful Layering Guide For Winter 2021

What to wear skiing or snowboarding? There are a lot of outfit options out there when it comes to winter sports. It is important to find a good balance of freedom of movement, comfort, staying warm, and staying dry. The secret to staying warm and dry while skiing and snowboarding is learning how to dress in layers.

Nothing is worse than either feeling like your freezing going up the chair lifts or feeling like you are wearing a big wet sponge on a spring day. Whether your skiing in Michigan or if you are going out west similar advice applies.

What to wear skiing. The art of layering

The key to what to wear skiing is layering and choosing what layers to wear that day. What works on a -10F day is not going to work on a 40F day.

Your goal is wicking material touching your skin and then breathable outer layers so that the moisture isn’t trapped inside your outfit after it’s pulled away from your skin. Wearing a wet soaking sponge will eventually overwhelm any wicking ability when the moisture has nowhere to go.

Below are a couple of tables showing what I would wear skiing if I was wearing an insulated ski jacket and insulated pants and if I was wearing a shell ski jacket and shell ski pants with no insulation.

How much do I need to spend for my skiing outfit?

There are many price points available for ski clothing and equipment. One can totally enjoy the sport on a tight budget.

Spending a lot more doesn’t get you a lot more performance. This is definitely an area where the 80 20 rule applies. You get 80% of the performance for the first 20% of cost. If you are just starting out you can find some good starter gear at low prices. Once you’re hooked on the sport, it’s a good idea to invest in better clothes and equipment that will help you advance. See my guide to beginner ski gear for more information if you are just starting out.

I personally have found that gear by Mountain Hardwear, Marmot and Arcteryx is very well made, performs and is durable. Some good mid level brands are Columbia and TheNorthFace

What to wear skiing – Layering guide

how many layers table insulated
how many layers table shell jacket and pants

Breathability and Waterproof ratings

How many layers you wear won’t matter if you are soaking wet all day skiing. The goal of our ski clothing layers is to keep us warm and dry. To do this our clothing must keep the water out and it’s even better if it lets the sweat moisture get out also.

Mid to high range ski clothing will have a rating for breathability and waterproofing.

The breathability rating is in units of (grams) and a value of 20,000 is what most high performance clothing has. The number is how many grams of moisture can pass through a square inch of fabric in 24 hours.

For water proofing the units are in (mm) and a value of 20,000 is also what most high performance clothing has. The value is how tall a column of water an square inch of fabric can withstand the pressure of. A 20,000mm value means a 20,000mm tall column of water can be stacked on top of an inch of fabric without passing any water through.

A good explanation can be found at EVO. Breathability and Waterproof guide.

waterproofing guide table
Water proofing guide courtest of evo.com


Nothing should be made from cotton. Cotton gets wet either from contact with the snow or sweat. Once cotton is wet it is cold. It’s going to stay wet and cold for the rest of the day and there is nothing you can do about it. Just avoid anything cotton from the start if it’s going to be a baselayer, mid layer, sock, hat or glove.

Nothing feels worse than falling, in the snow, in a pair of jeans and then freezing the rest of the day. Look for clothing that specifies wicking, breathing, fast drying, etc… The goal of layering is to pass the moisture from our skin to the inner layer to outer layer and then outside to keep us warm and dry.

Ski Socks

The first thing to consider is what is going on your feet. I prefer medium to heavy weight ski socks. I never find that my feet have any tendency to feel too hot. They do tend to feel cold sometime.

Good socks are important. You will notice that they don’t have seems around the toes. Seems are pressure points. Pressure points cut your circulation off quickly once you clamp your boots down. Don’t go for any kind of cotton sock or any sock with a seam.

Wearing 2 pairs of socks is also not the way to go. You will inevitably get a wrinkle somewhere in the overlap that will have the same effect as a seam. Anything that is wicking is a bonus to keep the sweat from being trapped on your feet. If you have cold toes while skiing toe warmers or heated boots can help. See my reviews of toe warmers and heated insoles for more information.

Gear Recommendation – Ski Socks

Ski socks

Base Layers

Similar to socks, I tend to go medium to heavyweight here. You can always remove mid and outer layers when you’re getting warm on a warmer day. On a cooler day, a lighter base layer isn’t a lot of good.

You can double or triple up on baselayers but again one medium to heavyweight will work just fine. Definitely go for something that has good wicking properties to go with insulation value so that your skin stays dry.

Gear Recommendation – Base Layer

Base Layers

Mid Layers

For this layer, I recommend something that is a bit heavier than the base layer but also synthetic with wicking properties. This becomes an optional layer anytime the temperature goes about the mid 30’s.

Gear Recommendation – Mid Layers

Mid Layers

Outer Layer

This is the spot for the traditional ski sweater or fleece. Spyer makes some really excellent ski sweaters that are fleece lined. Make sure this layer as good breathability. A big heavy cotton sweater or sweatshirt will turn into a big full body sponge. For your bottom half, fleece pants work well for this layer.

Gear Recommendation – Outer Layer

Outer Layers

Ski Jackets

There tend to be 3 categories here. Insulated jackets and non-insulated shells and 3 in 1 jackets that are a combination of the 2. After trying out a good 3L shell I am convinced they are the much better way to go than insulated jackets.

A few things should be considered. 3L material such as Goretex and Dry Q have much better breathability and waterproofing than what comes in the construction of an insulated jacket.

3L shells tend to have much better construction and hardware such as zippers. The first thing to fail on every ski jacket I’ve ever owned has been the front zipper wearing out. Inevitably it happens while out skiing and leaves you with a run down the mountain with an unzipped jacket on a cold day.

The visual tell for the zipper type is whether there is a flap covering the zipper. Waterproof zippers don’t need it. If the jacket has a flap (usually has snaps on it) to cover the sipper it’s not waterproof. It will be the first thing to wear out on that jacket.

The combination of 3L shell and a down insulator (we’ll get to this item in a later section) tends to feel more freely moving, lighter weight and just as warm as a jacket with built in insulation.

The next best thing is the “3 in 1” style jackets. These feature a shell with a zip in insulator that is usually a fairly heavy fleece jacket. I find these preferable to a jacket with built in insulation because on the warmer days you can’t take the insulation out and then your just sweaty and hot all day.

Gear Recommendation – Outer Layer

3 in 1 Ski Jacket

Shell Ski Jacket

Down Insulator

This is a key part if you are going for a shell type jacket without insulation. Find something with a high fill count and down that is treated to be water resistant. Without it, this layer can quickly turn into a sweat sponge on a warm day.

Some good examples are available from Mountain Hardwear and Arcteryx. Some insulators have a feature where they can be stuffed inside one of their main pockets. This makes it very easy for stuffing inside your pockets when taking it off or bringing it with you in a backpack or other jacket pocket.

Gear Recommendation – Down Insulator

Down Insulators

Ski Pants

There are many options for ski pants. The best option for comfort on the mountain is bib types. They have so many advantages.

There is only one real disadvantage which is when it comes time to go to the bathroom, you have more things to remove if you’ve got to take a seat. Sitting down with ski boots on is already unpleasant enough so an extra 30 seconds of time taking off your bibs isn’t really making things any worse.

Because of the extra overlap with your jacket, it removes the path where cold air blows up your back while you’re sitting on the chair lift. For snowboarders, it doesn’t leave your butt hanging out while your sitting on the ground to buckle up your bindings every run.

The second consideration for pants is insulated or shell. My personal preference is a shell without insulation for both ski pants and ski jackets. 3L shell material such as Goretex or Mountain Hardwear Dry Q Elite has much better waterproofing and breathability than you will get from the shell material with built-in insulation.

The quality of zippers and other hardware on a pair of ski pants or ski jacket always seems to be much better on 3L shell jackets and pants. 3L shells tend to have waterproof zippers rather than using a layer or overlapping fabric to cover the zippers.

Gear Recommendation – Ski Pants

Ski Pants


The goal is keeping your hands warm. Mittens work better in this regard then gloves. I personally prefer gloves or mittens that have large enough sleaves to go over my ski jacket cuffs. Other people prefer the opposite. See my article on Mittens vs Gloves for skiing if you need some help deciding which is better for you.

I find that gloves outside of sleaves prevents snow from going down your sleeves when you fall and also keep air from blowing up your sleeves keeping your warmer. A lot of people like going the other way. I look for gloves with large sleeves that go over my sleeves. Some like Swany have zipper vents that help on hot days and also give you a place to put hand warmers inside.

See my guide to the best heated ski gloves here.

Gear Recommendation – Gloves

Ski Gloves

Accessories. (Hat, neckwarmers, etc..)

I personally always wear a hat while skiing. Some people find that the helmet is enough insulation on its own. The earmuffs built into helmets give me headaches from pressure on my ears so I always have to remove them. I have tried several helmets and always get them.

For a hat, it is important to choose something that works under a helmet. This means no big fluff balls or other features. The hat needs to be tight fitting and I prefer it covers my ears.

Neckwarmers make a good barrier to keep rain and snow from going down the neck of your jacket. They also give some padding from your helmet strap. They just make things generally more comfortable.

When it’s cold out a balaclava can be nice to have also. Some people prefer them over a hat neck warmer combination. This is one area where personal preference really comes into play and you need to experiment to see what works for you on which days.

Gear Recommendation – Ski Accessories

Ski Accessories

See our complete guide to neck warmers and neck gaiters here.

Helmet and Goggles

Helmets are very popular these days. They are comfortable, warm, and provide defogging ventilation for your goggles. They are just as much for you getting run over by other skiers as they are for you crashing on your own. If you ski somewhere small and crowded you’ll quickly understand why.

It is important to get matching goggles and helmet to take advantage of the defogging features. They work really well while your skiing and have air flow through the helmet.

Several companies make really good helmets and goggles. Smith, Anon, and Giro are a few examples. I don’t recommend going cheap on the helmet and getting one that either doesn’t have good venting or will not match the shape of your goggles and leave you with a goggle gap.

Get a set of goggles that matches your helmet. Goggle lenses have similar features as sunglasses. Polarized lenses have the same benefit here as sunglasses. A mid tinted lens is fine for all purpose.

If you feel like spending more, goggles with swappable lenses usually come with a dark and light lense to cover the full spectrum from night skiing to bright sunny days.

See our complete guide to ski goggles here.

Gear Recommendation – Helmet and Goggles

Helmet and Goggles

Ski Lock

This is a simple and inexpensive to carry around with you to make sure your skis don’t go skiing without you. I have experienced this. Nothing ruins a ski day more than coming out from a break and discovering your skis aren’t there anymore. Cable ski locks are small, lightweight and easy to use. They easily fit in the pocket of your jacket. They only take a minute to use.

See my review of ski locks for more information.

Gear Recommendation – Ski Lock

Ski Lock

Ski backpack or other storage for extra layers

I like carrying a small backpack around while skiing. I use it for placing an extra layer or 2 and a balaclava if I’m not really sure what to wear that day. It’s also handy for camera equipment and a bottle of water. This is totally optional. A lot of people don’t like this.

At some resorts, the lifties will make you take it off or take one shoulder off while riding lifts. If you do choose to wear one, small is better. It makes it a lot easier to ride chairlifts with it on.

Gear Recommendation – Ski Backpack

Ski Backpack

What to wear skiing? The answer is layering for the temperature outside. I have given you my knowledge of what I have found works. Everyone generates a different amount of heat and needs different amounts of clothes. Don’t be afraid to add more or take off clothes during the way to stay comfortable.

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About the author

My name is Doug Ryan. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys paddle boarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water.  I actively run an adventure sports meetup where I get asked many questions.  I decided to start Endless Rush Outdoors as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports their gear.

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