What to Wear Skiing and Snowboarding

Couple getting ready for skiing from their car

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Ah, winter. It's the most wonderful time of year—provided you love skiing and snowboarding, of course. While some people may move to warmer climates come November, powderhounds know they should sharpen their skis and wax their snowboards when they see snow in the forecast.

Experienced skiers and snowboarders probably have a section in their closets devoted to ski pants and mid-layers, but new or occasional athletes may be wondering exactly what to hit the slopes. While gear terms can seem confusing, as long as you stick to a few basic principles, you'll be warm, dry, and comfortable on the slopes this winter.

The Basics

When it comes to skiing and snowboarding, there are a few basic principles to keep in mind when choosing clothing and accessories:

  • Layers are your friend: Generally, you want to have three layers—a fitted layer to wick away perspiration and keep you dry, a mid-layer for warmth, and an outer layer to protect you from weather and wind. Most skiers skip the middle layer on their legs, opting instead for a base layer (also called long underwear) and waterproof pants, which may also be insulated.
  • Choose quick-drying fabrics whenever possible: You'll sweat when you ski, but as soon as your sweat cools down (which it will once you're riding the lift back up), you're going to get cold quickly. So you want the layer closest to your skin to be a fabric that won't stay damp for long. Cotton is a bad choice; synthetics are generally a better choice (though wool does a very good job of moisture management).
  • You probably don't need the highest level of waterproofing possible: Waterproofing ratings on ski gear usually range from about 5K (for staying dry in light, intermittent snow) to 25K, which means you can ski in the rain for hours and stay dry. If you prefer to ski on sunny, mostly clear days, you can save some money by choosing jackets and pants with lower waterproofing ratings.
Smiling man standing on mountain peak while splitboarding in snowstorm
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What to Wear on Top

Follow this formula and you'll be set: a moisture-wicking base layer, a heat-trapping mid-layer, and a protective outer layer. Make sure your base layer is tight as it needs to touch your skin to pull away perspiration.

You'll probably want your mid-layer to have a full or half-zipper so you can cool off between runs. Choose a mid-layer without a hood if your outer jacket has one since multiple hoods can be bulky and lead to overheating around your neck.

Your outer jacket can change based on how warm it is. On sunnier days when the temperature is in the 40s Fahrenheit or warmer, you may find that a non-insulated jacket (called a shell) is the best option. Shells provide protection from wind, rain, and snow, but aren't insulated, so they're good for warm days. On overcast days where there's no sun to warm you up or temperatures are measured in the single digits, you'll want a jacket with insulation.

If the weather is dry and relatively warm, you could wear a softshell. They don't offer the same level of wind or rain protection, but they're much lighter and softer and tend to be more breathable. Softshells are popular among backcountry and cross-country skiers.

What to Wear on the Bottom

Most skiers and snowboarders wear just two layers on their legs: a fitted base layer and a waterproof ski pant. All the blood in your body circulates through your core, so keeping your torso warm is the most important thing—and having three layers on your legs can be a little bulky. If you have thick socks or want to reduce bulk in your boots, consider wearing a 3/4-length base layer that ends below the knee.

Like your ski jacket, your ski pant also needs to be waterproof. You'll probably also want it to have zippered vents in the inner thighs to help reduce perspiration. There's not a huge difference between ski and snowboard pants. While ski pants are traditionally a bit tighter and slimmer to minimize drag while racing, you'll see both skiers and snowboarders wearing looser, more comfortable pants at resorts today. If you often sit while strapping into your snowboard, look for a pair of pants with a high waterproof rating on the seat.

A caveat applies to snowboarders: if you ride with your boots very loose around your ankles, you may want snowboard-specific pants. The gaiter (elastic hem that goes around your boots) on ski pants is sometimes a bit tighter than on snowboard pants, so you'll just want to test that the gaiter will stretch around the top of your boot if it's bulky.

Medium shot of smiling female skier on ski run at ski resort on winter afternoon
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Accessories for Skiing and Snowboarding

There's one accessory you should never skip: a helmet. But past that, there are a few other items you'll certainly want to keep in your gear bag.

Gloves: You'll want waterproof gloves or mittens with insulation to keep your hands warm. And if you ski on very chilly days, look for one with a zippered pocket on the back of your hand. The zipper is for a disposable hand warmer, and while you may be tempted to put the hand warmer inside your glove, you should use the pocket. Blood flows to your fingertips through veins on the back of your hand, so keeping that blood warm ultimately jeeps your fingers toastier and more nimble.

Goggles: You'll need a pair of goggles, even if it's not snowing. Your eyes will water if you ski without them, which makes it impossible to see where you're going. Different color goggle lenses also serve different purposes, depending on the conditions. The correct goggle lens can help make it easier to see bumps in the snow on overcast afternoons or help reduce glare on very sunny mornings.

Socks: Think of your socks and underwear the same way you think about your base layers: tight and moisture-wicking. Your socks should be taller than your boots. Ski socks are usually thinner than snowboard socks as ski boots usually have a more specialized fit than snowboard boots. Ski- and snowboard-specific socks usually have extra padding in the appropriate places for each type of boot to prevent rubbing or thinning in high-use, high-contact areas (like where your ski boot sits against your shin).

Oh, and since winter also happens to be flu season: consider rocking a gaiter around your neck. You can pull it up to keep your face warmer on the lifts or for when you're trying to make your way through a crowded ski resort cafeteria full of sneezing kiddos.