What should I wear for a day on the slopes?
And, what does "wicking" mean?
Skiing and snowboarding are athletic activities; if you do them right, you’re going
to sweat. Many beginners think that heavy, warm clothes are what they’ll need. If
you wear clothing that isn’t well suited to winter sports, however, when you sweat,
you'll stay wet, then get cold, and be miserable. If you dress appropriately, you’ll
have an awesome day outside, stay warm, and fall in love with skiing and
What makes the difference? Clothing layers that are wicking. Wicking fibers draw
the sweat away from your skin, but don’t hold the moisture in, so it can
evaporate, keeping you warm and dry. Good wicking clothing can make a huge
difference in how much you enjoy your day.
Base Layers, Mid Layers, and Outer Layers
The three components of skiing and snowboarding attire are the base layer, the
mid layer, and the outer layer. We’ll start with the upper body first.
Upper Body Base Layer
The most important wicking layer is your base layer: the one that’s right next to
your skin. You’ll want to wear a wicking t-shirt. How do you know if a t-shirt is
wicking? One quick clue: it won’t be 100% cotton; it will probably be made of
polypropylene. Many clothiers will name their own brand of wicking t-shirts – The
North Face calls theirs VaporWick, Patagonia calls theirs Capilene – but the most
popular items are from Patagonia and UnderArmor. There are other choices out
there, but it’s smart to go with a brand that’s reliable.
If you don’t own a wicking base layer: buy one. You won’t regret it. If you’re stuck
in a jam and you have to hit slopes without one, a thin, cotton/polyester blend t-
shirt is your best bet. But be sure to check out the clothing shop wherever you’re
Upper Body Mid Layer
Many skiers and boarders will own two types of fleeces; one that’s lighter-weight
for warmer days, and a heavier-weight for colder days. Polartec, the most well-
known brand of fleece, numbers its weights, from 100 (the least warm) to 300 (for
very cold days.) Polartec fleece is used by many different clothing companies. If
you only buy one fleece, a Polartec 200 is a good choice.
Fleece jackets come in all sorts of styles, from the Aspen-posh style of the North
Face Denali jacket to more baggy, street-styled sweatshirt & hoodie fleeces from
snowboarding outfitters like Nixon or Oakley. What matters most is that this layer
lets moisture escape, while keeping the warmth in. Your average warm sweater
won’t do that for you.
When shopping for a fleece, look for important features, like zippers in the
underarm – commonly known as “pit vents.” They’re invaluable; they help you
stay cool when you’re getting a strong workout. Good fleece jackets will also
feature reinforced shoulders, which protect your fleece from tearing when you’re
carrying your equipment on your shoulders. Zippered interior pockets come in
If you don’t own a fleece, and can’t borrow one from a friend, a wool sweater is a
better alternative than a cotton or cotton-poly blend sweater or sweatshirt.
Although wool doesn’t dry easily, it does stay warm even when it’s wet.
Upper body Outer Layer
For skiing and snowboarding, you’ll want to wear a shell jacket – a thin outer layer
that protects you from wind and moisture without adding extra bulk. The slopes
are not the place for a puffy down jacket, which doesn’t allow moisture to escape,
will constrict movement, and will just keep you too warm. On very warm days, you
might choose to ski / ride without your shell, but on a typical day on the slopes,
your shell is the first defense against the cold wind on a chair lift, or a big pile of
wet snow. A good shell is essential.
Features on a shell can vary greatly, and so does the price: a shell can cost
anywhere from $100 to $600 or more, depending on its features. The things that
add to the cost, generally, are GoreTex, a brand of fabric that makes your jacket
waterproof, but still allows sweat to evaporate, and added features (pockets, extra
zippers, or a “snow skirt” to keep snow from coming up your jacket during a fall).
Brand names, of course, also add to the price.
One of the most important things to consider when buying a jacket is whether or
not it has built-in insulation. Most skiers and boarders will choose a shell without
any built-in insulation. This is arguably the smartest choice, because of its
versatility; you can use the same shell all season long. When looking at jackets,
you may notice a kind of double-zippered system called “zip-in” capacity, which
allows you to zip open your shell and fleece at the same time. Be sure to ask if the
zippers it uses are compatible with other clothing brands. Patagonia is notorious
for shells that only fit Patagonia fleeces, while North Face shells are compatible
with a wide variety of other companies’ fleece jackets.
Your shell is the easiest way to personalize your look on the slopes, and there’s no
denying that snowboarders have a much bigger selection of hip styles. Many skiers
and boarders would tell you that it’s worth the price to buy a shell that you really
like; a good one can last you several seasons. Don’t worry too much about the
fads of jacket fashions; it’s expected that you’ll wear a shell for several seasons, so
they’re worth the investment.
If you’re looking to save a little money, opt for a jacket that’s not a big name-
brand, but still has good features. Freeride and Columbia are two brands which are
often more affordable than Patagonia and North Face, but still offer good
construction. Several outfitters feature their own waterproof backing fabric instead
of GoreTex, which will also save you some money.
Be very cautious about buying outer shells online; the web is full of knockoffs of
the most popular brands (North Face, most especially) that appear to be the real
thing – even down to the tags and the logos. They’re fakes. If you’re buying a
North Face jacket, be sure to buy it from an authorized North Face dealer. Visit
www.thenorthface.com for a list of retail locations and websites.
If you’re heading to the slopes and you can’t get a shell jacket before you go,
consider asking around to see if someone has one you can borrow; many skiers
and boarders have several, and will gladly loan you one.
What you wear on your legs is really a matter of personal preference, based on
how aggressively you ski/board, what mountain you’re on, and what the weather’s
Lower body base layer
When it comes to your lower body, the two biggest factors are how aggressively
you ski or board, and the temperature outside. If it’s cold, and you’re a beginner,
you’ll probably want to wear a wicking fleece layer as your base layer. If it’s
warmer outside – or if you ski and ride very aggressively – you might just choose
to wear a thinner base layer, like Patagonia Capilene pants. You’d only wear BOTH
a thin layer AND a fleece if it’s very, very cold – single digits or below.
Lower body outer layer
What’s the common mistake that new skiers and boarders make while dressing for
the slopes? Wearing blue jeans. Unfortunately, blue jeans are terribly common on
the bunny hills of America, but they’re the worst thing you could wear while skiing
or riding. When they get wet, they’re instantly cold. Plus, they don’t allow enough
room for you to ski and ride, so when you fall, they’ll tear. The only thing worse
than a wet pair of jeans in the snow is a wet pair of jeans with a giant hole in the
Skiing and boarding pants can be pricy – you should plan to spend $150 or more
-- but if you can only afford to buy one skiing and snowboarding clothing item,
make it a good pair of pants.
Your pants need to be waterproof, so you’re going to want something that’s made
of GoreTex, or its equivalent. The various features on a pair of pants aren’t quite
as varied as on a jacket, but you’d be smart to buy pants that have zipper or
Velcro ventilation. You’ll appreciate the chance to cool off at lunchtime, without
having to take your pants off. Most skiers and boarders prefer pants that don’t
have any built-in insulation; they get too warm if you’re on the slopes in the
As for the style, you may notice that skiers tend to wear slimmer cuts than
snowboarders; this is really a matter of appearance. It’s not that boarders need
more room, they often just choose to wear styles that take their inspiration from
popular street wear. If you want some pants that could easily pass for skiing or
snowboarding, look to a company like Oakley.
ACCESSORIES & SKIN PROTECTION
If the skies are sunny, or even overcast, you must, must must wear SPF lotion.
Sunburns are very common while on the slopes; the atmosphere is thinner, the
light reflects off the snow, and we don't have the added advantage of a summer
tan to protect us. Although a "goggle tan" is an easy giveaway that you're a die-
hard when you're in the mountains, the raccoon look isn't quite so becoming when
you're back at work.
The choices for a hat are numerous; it really comes down to what you prefer.
Generally, you're going to want a fleece cap that will stay on when you fall. When
you’re shopping, keep your eye out for a balaclava, a hat, scarf, and neck gaiter
combined into one. These hats are fantastic for keeping you warm, and the best
ones can easily be adjusted so you can choose whether or not to cover your face.
In the last few years, hats have become a signature way to distinguish yourself on
the slopes, so hat fashions run the gamut. If you wear a knit cap, be sure to select
one that's got a tight weave. The open, "chunky" J. Crew look may be cute on the
streets of the city, but it'll do nothing for you when you land face-first in the snow.
Spend money for good goggles; it’s one thing that can completely make or break
your day on the slopes if it starts to snow. Poor-quality goggles will easily fog up,
and if you can’t see, you can’t ski or ride. Be sure to look for polarized lenses,
which block out the sun’s harmful UV rays. And, always be sure to let your goggles
dry outside their protective case when you return from the slopes.
Many skiers and riders will wear two layers on their hands; a thin liner, then a
warmer, insulating glove. Some high-quality gloves are designed with built-in
liners that can be removed easily and tossed in the wash. The most important
features of a glove are warmth and durability. Look for primaloft insulation for
warmth; deerskin or goatskin palms will remain durable even after repeated trips
on the rope tow. When shopping, look for fun features like a goggle cleaner – a
thin strip of rubber that won’t scratch your lenses, which comes in handy when you
end up face-down in the snow – and a soft patch on the index finger, in case you
don’t have access to a hanky to wipe your nose.
You should only wear one pair of socks under ski or snowboard boots, and you
shouldn’t tuck anything into your boots – like pants – or it will affect the fit of your
boot. Buy a pair or two of SmartWool socks. They’ll cost you about $20, but they’ll
keep your feet warm while allowing your skin the chance to breathe. Your feet will
Knee Pads and Wrist Guards
Many snowboarders will choose to wear protective knee pads and wrist guards, to
protect against the two most common types of injuries while boarding. Ask a
salesperson at a snowboard shop to recommend the right kind of protection for
Where should I buy this stuff?
SKI BUMS has great relationships with several shops in town, including Princeton
Ski Shop, Eastern Mountain Sports, The North Face, and Burton. Visit our links
page for addresses and phone numbers.
Do I really need to buy all these things?
We've compiled this article for those of you who want to be outfitted for a full
season on the slopes. If you're only going to make it skiing or riding once or twice
this season, there's no need to buy an entire wardrobe of new clothing. If you only
buy one item of clothing all season, make it a good pair of pants. For anything
else, ask around to see if friends have items you can borrow. It's a great excuse
to drop by the next AVALANCHE and make a few new friends!
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|a balaclava, not to be
Copyright 2006, SKI BUMS.