How to Layer for Skiing
For skiers, dressing appropriately for your day on the slopes is the crux of maximizing enjoyment regardless of what kind of weather the mountains throw at you. For backcountry skiing, it’s critical for safety.
To stay ahead of everchanging alpine conditions, you want to wear something that offers protection from the various environmental hazards one can expect to encounter in the mountains. You also want the adaptability needed to compensate as these conditions change throughout the day. In short, you’ll want a good layering system.
Layering for skiing and snowboarding (and any outdoor activity, for that matter) is somewhere between an art and a science. There are a few basic rules to follow, but the best combination for any given rider hinges on things like the region they’re riding and their preferences.
Below we’ll give you the hard and fast details of a basic layering system, covering the qualities and materials you should look for in each layer. Further along, we’ll dig a little deeper into each layer and talk about how a layering system works as a whole for skiing, boarding, and any other outdoor activity.
The Sandwich Paradigm
Most authorities on the subject advocate a simple, three-piece approach to layering in the outdoors. Each layer has a specific purpose, and they work together to help you manage the two key comfort factors you’ll encounter on a day on the ski hill: warmth and moisture.
The majority of your insulation will be handled in the mid layer, while the other two are more about dealing with moisture. The base layer helps wick sweat away from your skin, while the outer layer keeps you sealed off from the elements.
Most skiers and snowboarders focus on their upper body when layering. This makes sense because your body naturally tries to keep your torso warm and protected when things get chilly. This lets you keep the layering minimal on your legs. If you tend to get cold quickly or want a little extra insurance, you can always grab a pair of long johns for under your pants.
These layers work best when used in conjunction, but the great thing about having multiple garments is you can add or remove pieces as needed. It’s also worth noting that you have some wiggle room as far as the materials and style in each layer, here we’ll give some examples to help find what works best for you.
What it’s for
- Comfort and adding a layer of protection between your insulation layer and your body
- Wicks sweat away from your skin, so you don’t get cold when you stop exerting yourself
What it looks like
- Tight-fitting technical wear
- Loose, moisture-wicking sun shirt
- Long sleeves preferred
What it’s made of
- Merino wool
- Wool and synthetic blends
What it’s for
- Provides the majority of insulation in your layering system
- Can be swapped out for other layers for maximum versatility in changing conditions
What it looks like
- Mid to heavyweight fleeces
- Lightweight micro puff jackets
- Big puffy jackets
What it’s made of
- Wool or synthetic fleece
- Down fill puffy jackets
- Synthetic fill puffy jackets
What it’s for
- Keeping you dry and protected from precipitation and wind
- Allowing breathability when you exert yourself on the hill
- Protecting your soft mid layers in the event of a fall
What it looks like
- Hardshell hooded technical jackets
- Bulkier insulated resort jackets
What it’s made of
- Gore-Tex or some other suitably breathable waterproof material
- Softshell polyester jackets are also sometimes appropriate
Base Layer Explained
The base layer is your next-to-skin garment and serves the dual purpose of keeping you comfortable and wicking moisture away from your body. A good base layer is essential because skiing and snowboarding tend to be high-exertion sports and are prone to making one work up a good sweat. Not only is it uncomfortable to be soggy on the hill, but you might also find yourself cooling off a little too much on a windy chairlift.
There’s quite a bit of variety in what your base layer will look like and its material makeup. The only significant rules to keep in mind are that you shouldn’t be relying on your base layer for warmth, and cotton is a no-go in all circumstances.
Beyond these considerations, it’s worth keeping in mind that the tighter fitting the base layer, the more effectively it will keep you dry- something significant to consider underneath a bulky mid layer. This isn’t a total dealbreaker, and I’ve been known to wear a long-sleeved quick-dry running shirt if my alternatives are all dirty.
Most materials you would use as technical wear will work as a base layer. Merino wool and synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are excellent choices, each with benefits and drawbacks. Ultimately, you should opt for what feels right to you and be prepared to get creative spending on the weather.
If you’re curious about some of our top picks, our best base layer bottoms page has examples of our favorites, as well as some of the specific benefits of different materials.
Mid Layer Explained
Mid layers provide the majority of insulation in your layering system and are subject to the most variation depending on weather conditions. Choosing a mid layer is primarily a question of mobility versus warmth. Low-profile layers tend to be more svelte and easier to move around in, at the cost of the toastiness a puffy jacket can provide.
What constitutes a good mid layer depends on where you’re skiing, when you’re skiing, and how warm you run as a person. Having a few options to choose from can help you adapt for conditions changing throughout the season- or the day, and are one of the very tangible benefits of a modular layering system.
Your mid layer could be anywhere from a midweight fleece to a Michelin Man down puffy in terms of materials. Again, anything you would wear for a hike or other outdoor activity is more than likely a suitable choice. Just remember to avoid cotton. As noted above, a synthetic fleece can be a little easier to move around in than a down puffy but won’t be as warm.
On that note, a general rule of layering I’ve heard is “be bold, start cold.” I’ve found this to be particularly true in the case of alpine skiing, and I’d rather be a little chilly on the chairlift than sweating through my layers. If you tend to have issues with overheating or being cold, you can gauge your choice appropriately. You can also double up a fleece with a heavier layer on particularly cold days.
Outer Layer Explained
A good outer layer should effectively manage the moisture inside and outside of your layering system. Top-of-the-line models will be both burly enough to withstand a downpour and breathable enough to keep you from getting soaked while skiing your hardest.
Not everyone needs a technical shell like the ones described above. There’s a whole spectrum of options ranging from high-end soft shells to some all-in-one insulated resort-specific jackets out there. Above all, you want to look for a jacket with a solid balance between water resistance and breathability that’s appropriate for where you ski.
Softshell jackets will be more appropriate for uphill skiers in drier snowpacks, while those in warmer, wetter places will want to emphasize a stanch water resistance to keep everything dry and comfortable over long drizzly days.
Insulated ski or snowboard jackets are great for people who don’t want to make the additional investment in a heavy mid layer. These highly durable and waterproof shells are lined with synthetic fill to add a little bonus to warmth. For my part, I usually avoid insulated outer layers in jackets, opting for a more flexible layering system- though having some loft in your snow pants is nice when you’re spending the day sitting on cold lift benches.
We’ve considered the problem carefully and have amassed lists of both our top picks for ski jackets, as well as ski pants. You can read more about the different approaches to keeping warm and gauge waterproofing and breathability in each article, respectively.
Once you have your layering system figured out, you’re well on your way to being ski slope ready in any condition. In addition to keeping you warm and dry, your layering system can also protect you from overexposure to sun, wind, and getting scraped up by snow.
Outside of what we’ve covered in this guide, there are a few more elements necessary to prepare you for the wonderful world of winter sports.
Buffs and Face Coverings
Jackets and snow pants are great for keeping your core temperature up, but they don’t do much in the way of protecting your nose from frostbite. Buffs are a great way to keep your face warm over a ski day, as well as prevent chapping from overexposure to wind and sun.
Think of ski socks as a base layer for your feet. They do the heavy lifting of keeping your toes and soles dry while you’re riding all day while also providing a layer of protection against the friction of your ski boots.
Ski socks come in many shapes and sizes, and picking out the right pair can be nearly as tricky as finding the right layering system. We’ve collected a wide selection of our favorites across the many categories, and you can read our side-by-side comparisons here.
Mittens and Gloves
If there’s one place you’re going to have issues with warmth outside of your general core temperature, it’ll be your fingers. Ski gloves are an essential part of keeping you safe and comfortable on the slopes, and our best-of article covers the finest out there.
Just like all of the pieces of gear listed above, goggles are important in keeping your eyes safe from the wind and sun while you’re tearing down the ski slope.
The importance of a dependable ski helmet should speak for itself. Do your brain a favor and pick out a durable model with some form of rotational protection before heading to the mountain next time.
Frequently asked questions
Most authorities on the subject advocate a simple, three layer approach to layering in the outdoors. Each layer has a specific purpose, and they work together to help you manage the two key comfort factors you’ll encounter on a day on the ski hill- warmth and moisture.
In general you’ll need a moisture wicking base layer, an insulating mid layer, and a waterproof outer layer to have the best results while skiing. If you have more questions, take a look at our basics of layering page.
The best ski pants will be the pair that do what’s needed in the particular weather and for the conditions of the ski hill. For resort skiing the best ski pants are:
- Arc’Teryx Sabre AR Ski Pants
- Outdoor Research Skyward II Ski Pants
- Patagonia Powder Bowl Ski Pants
- North Face Freedom Bibs
For off-piste and backcountry, the best ski pants are:
For different hills and skill level, there are different goggles for you with different lenses and lens systems. We’ve tested and compared and contrasted the best models for ourselves and to outline which pair is good for which type of skier or snowboarder. Here are the top 5.
Best ski goggles
For warmth or better dexterity, ski gloves have different profiles. There’s also a question of quality. Check our ski glove guide for all the details of each of the best ski gloves we reviewed. Some are better for resorts while others are better for snowboarding.
Best ski gloves