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What To Wear Skiing? Complete Winter Layering Guide

What to wear skiing

What to wear skiing or snowboarding? There are a lot of ski outfit options out there when it comes to downhill skiing. 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 ski clothes 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.

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.

I personally have found that gear by Patagonia is very well made and durable. A great mid level brand that I also use a lot that provides a lot of value is Columbia.

What to wear skiing – Layering guide

Below is a basic list of what to wear for the average winter skiing day.

Ski Clothes Checklist

Lower Body

  • Ski Socks
  • Baselayer
  • Fleece Pants (if cold enough)
  • Ski Pants

Upper Body

  • Baselayer
  • Mid layer
  • Fleece or Sweater (if cold enough)
  • Ski Jacket
  • Ski Gloves or mittens

Head

  • Ski Helmet
  • Ski Goggles
  • Thin hat
  • Neck Gaiter or Balaclava

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 waterproofing, 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. Material that is good at keeping water out also works good as a windproof layer to protect you from evaporative cooling.

Materials

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 moisture 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. Merino wool is a good material for base layers, mid layers and ski socks.

1 – Baselayers, Socks, and Underwear

What you wear underneath makes up the foundation of your skiing outfit. This layer needs to be self wicking so it removes water away from your skin. If it’s not you will collect sweat like a sponge no matter how great your jacket or outerwear is.

Base Layers

Base layers are the same as long underwear or thermal underwear. 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 when it’s really cold out. I prefer to go with 1 heavyweight baselayer. Definitely go for something that has good wicking properties to go with insulation value so that your skin stays 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 sometimes.

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. They should extend above the top of your ski boots. The top of your socks will feel like a ridge inside your boot and create discomfort and can also cut off your circulation.

Wearing 2 pairs of socks is never the way to go. You will inevitably get a wrinkle somewhere in the overlap that will have the same effect as a seam.

Nothing should go inside of your ski boot except for your ski socks. The bottom edge of your baselayers will act as a seam that will create pressure points and cutoff circulation. Pull the bottom of your baselayer up out of your boots when you put them on.

If you have cold toes while skiing toe warmers or heated boots can help. These are the one exception to nothing in your boots but socks. They are low profile and designed to work inside boots. See my reviews of toe warmers and heated insoles for more information.

Fox River Snow Pack Medium Product image

See our review of Fox River Ski Socks to learn more.

2 – Middle Layers

These layers are for providing a bit more insulation. You want something thicker than a baselayer but easy to move in.

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.

Patagonia R1 Midlayer Product Image

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.

Spyder outbound sweater product image
  • Spyder Outbound Half Zip Fleece – Amazon

If you need a little more insulation on your bottoms, fleece pants work well. They give you a bit more insulation and can make sitting on the chair lift a bit more cozy. I throw a set on over top of my baselayers any time it’s going to be below freezing out.

mountain hardwear polartec fleece pant product image

3 – Outerwear

Your jacket, pants, and gloves all need to be waterproof so you stay dry when you hit the snow. Breathable is also important so that sweat isn’t trapped inside. This is the layer that protects you from the snow, wind, and occasionally rain.

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 jacket I am convinced they are the much better way to go than insulated jackets. Most beginners will want to go with an insulated jacket because it makes your ski outfit less complicated.

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.

Most insulated jackets have heavier fleece insulation. Once you sweat a bit the fleece gets wet and feels even heavier. Insulated jackets don’t breath as well it has no where to go. The overall jacket feels much heavier than the combination of a fleece and down insulator.

The combination of 3L shell and a down insulator tends to feel more free and easier to move. When you are on your ski trip spring skiing, a shell feels way better than a sweat soaked heavy insulated jacket. It just gives you more options at the ski resort.

The next best thing is the “3 in 1” style jackets. These feature a shell with a zip in insulator that is usually a 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 you are just sweaty and hot all day.

Columbia bugaboo jacket product image

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 ski or snowboard pants is to go with insulated ski pants or shell pants. I don’t have as strong a preference for shell vs insulated. I’ve been skiing with a shell jacket and insulated pants for the last season.

I’ve personally been skiing with a pair of Columbia Powder Stash Pants for most of last winter. This included 4 rainy, slushy, awful days at Whitefish Montanna where they impressively stayed warm and dry.

Patagonia PowSlayer Bibs Product Image

4 – Down Insulators

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 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.

Patagonia down sweater product image

We have been trying out the Venutas Heated Vest this past winter. It gives you some extra heat under your jacket. We really like it so far. If you always feel cold you should give it a look.

Venustas mens heated vest 7.4v product image

See our review of the Venustas Heated Vest to learn more.

5 – Gloves, Hats, Goggles, Helmets, and Accessories

Let’s talk about how to keep your head and hands warm and some other accessories you might want to take with you.

Gloves

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 sleeves prevent snow from going up your sleeves when you fall. It also keeps 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 have zipper vents that help on hot days and also give you a place to put hand warmers inside.

Swany X-Cell gloves have been my favorite ski gloves for years now. They are warm, dry, have cuffs that go over your sleeves, and vent zippers. I’m on my third pair now.

Swany X-Cell gloves product image

See our review of the Venustas Heated Ski Gloves to learn more.

See my guide to the best heated ski gloves here.

Hats, Neck gaiters, and Balaclavas

I personally always wear a hat while skiing. Some people find that the ski 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.

A neck gaiter or warmer 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.

Patagonia Liner Beanie product image
  • Patagonia Overlook Merino Wool Liner Beanie – Patagonia

Columbia CSC Gaiter Product Image

See our guide to the best neck warmers and neck gaiters to learn more.

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. If you are still on the fence about wearing a helmet. See our article 5 reasons why you should wear ski helmet to help you decide.

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 and Oakley are 2 of the most popular. Outdoor Master makes really good goggles and helmets for a great price. I don’t recommend going cheap on the helmet and getting one that doesn’t have goggle defogging vents or MIPS.

Goggles with swappable lenses are more versatile and work on days with different light conditions. Darker lenses for bright days. Mid VLT lenses for cloudy and flat days. Clear lenses for night skiing.

See our guide to the best ski goggles to learn more about goggles.

See our Ski Helmet Gear Guide to see our best ski helmet picks.

See our review of the OutdoorMaster Ultra XL Ski Goggles to learn more.

See our review of the OutdoorMaster Diamond MIPS Ski Helmet to learn more.

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.

  • Bosvision Ultra-Secure 4-Digit Combination Cable LockAmazon

See my guide to the best ski locks for more information.

Thermal case for your phone

Your phone can get cold in your pocket too. On colder days this can cause it to shut down leaving you no way to get in touch with your ski friends. A good thermal phone cause such as a Phoozy XP3 can keep you connected.

PHOOZY XP3 Series Ultra Rugged Thermal Phone Case

Phoozy XP3 Product Image

See our full review of the Phoozy XP3 and Phoozy Apollo II Anti-Microbial to learn more.

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About the author

My name is Doug Ryan. I am an outdoors enthusiast always looking forward to my next adventure. I spend as much time skiing, biking, and paddleboarding as I can. I decided to start Endless Rush Outdoors as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for all things outdoor adventures and to help other people have as much fun as me.