Ski (and snowboarding) trips are an over-packer’s worst nightmare. Especially for someone who doesn’t often visit temperatures below freezing, trips to the mountains invite anxiety and overcompensation in the form of clothing.
Ski trips require careful planning in order to avoid serious injury (and serious spending). Frostbite, concussions, and even life threatening injuries can be the result of poor planning, so an organized approach to a ski trip is paramount.
There are a few things that are good to know when planning for cold weather and skiing, too, that make it easier to break down all the necessary gear into manageable categories. I’ve broken the sections down into separate fields of information, so you can pick and choose between my ramblings to find useful information.
All of the following information is presented with the assumption that the reader has never skied before.
How to Combat Cold
When dealing with below-freezing temperatures and wind and water (snow), there are three layers of clothing that are very necessary to have. In order from closest to your body to farthest, they are:
- Base layers (thermal underwear)
- Mid-layers (insulating layer)
A base layer or thermal underwear is best thought of as a second skin. It should fit snug and comfortably—no chafing or baggy fits here. The best thermal underwear should be either merino wool or a synthetic wool fiber in order to move moisture away from your skin and prevent some heat loss. Cotton is a no-go for thermal underwear, as it will get wet and stay wet (and cold) all day long.
Merino wool, though often more expensive, is naturally antibacterial, sweat-wicking, and insulating, while synthetics can (sometimes, but not always) potentially harbor some sweat-smell after a long day. Thermal underwear often comes in three weights. I’ll explain which ones are best for what temperatures in the ski outfit section.
>>Read more about the best fabrics for travel clothing.
Mid-layers are worn on top of thermal underwear and act as an insulator. Often made out of flannel or down, the porous and breathable materials hold warm air next to your body. Without a shell, a mid-layer is useless, but without a mid-layer, you’ll never be able to trap and conserve body heat. Many ski pants have a mid-layer build in, so there’s no need to go shopping for down pants (if those exist, I’d like to add them to my “Luxurious items I can’t afford” Pinterest board).
Shell layers are often made of Gortex or a similar waterproof material. For skiing and snowboarding, they must be wind and waterproof. A shell prevents cold wind from circulating next to the body, which would stop body heat from building up in order to keep you warm. It will also keep you dry from the snow and every inevitable fall, and they usually offer many hidden pockets to store things like lip balm and handkerchiefs. Both pants and jackets need to have a shell layer.
Building a Ski Outfit
Choose the Right Undergarments
Sports bras are a must for support while moving. Avoid any bras that you wouldn’t wear to the gym, and remember that as opposed to your usual 45-minute spin class, you’ll be out on the slopes potentially from 8AM until 4PM. If you can get away with wearing your fancy bra to your barre class, more power to you. You will be miserable when your memory foam cups are filled with sweat.
Choose panties that you’re not going to want to fuss with, so if you’re a grandma-full-coverage fiend and find yourself picking your crack if you’re wearing anything else, resign to your grandmotherly fate. I won’t tell if you won’t tell.
Thermal underwear comes in three or four weights, ranging from ultralight to ultra-heavy. I am a big advocate of layering, so when I ski I bring one lightweight set, one midweight set, and one heavyweight set, or I may switch out a lightweight for a second midweight if I know the temperatures are all going to be below 5ºF.
My lightweight sets are made of either treated silk (so they are moisture wicking) or synthetic wool and feel like quick-dry material. The midweight sets I have are merino wool, and they feel like a weighty, tight-knit tee and leggings. The heaviest sets I have are true synthetic fiber flannel or thick, heavy merino wool.
As someone who warms up fast while skiing, I follow the table below for what I wear. If you are easily chilled or run hot, adjust accordingly. (Note: temperatures are listed in Fahrenheit.)
- 40º+: Hasn’t the snow melted away? One lightweight set, maybe even just a dry-fit t-shirt instead of a long sleeve thermal
- 30º: One MW set, maybe supplemented with a fleece or down vest
- 20º: One LW top, one MW top, one MW bottom
- 10º: One LW set and one MW set
- 0º: One LW top, one HW top, one LW bottom, one MW bottom
- -10º: One MW set and one HW set
- -20º: One MW set and one HW set, with a fleece or down vest
For this table, if it’s cloudy I add a layer of either a fleece or down vest or an additional lightweight layer. If it’s super windy I add the same. If it’s cloudy and windy and snowing, I definitely add some layers, probably a vest and an additional base layer.
>>Learn more about the importance of packing layers.
Ski Jackets & Ski Suits
Ski jackets often offer a mid-layer and shell layer solution by putting down in a waterproof jacket. “Tri-layer” jackets are also very popular now, and the nice thing about them is that you can use the shell as a rain jacket, the mid-layer as an autumn or springtime jacket, and only zip them together for the coldest days or for ski trips.
You can also buy shell jackets specifically for skiing and add any down or fleece jackets you may already own. Just be sure that all layers are moisture-wicking and appropriate to be used in sub-zero temperatures while working up a sweat. When concerning down, both synthetic and natural down aren’t always waterproof, and sweating while wearing the material can ruin the jacket.
I own (and almost exclusively ski in) a ski onesie from the 80s. I bought it on eBay for $30, and it’s one of the best ski purchases I’ve ever made. If this is your first time skiing, do not assume that you need to drop $300+ on a modern ski onesie made to look like it’s 30 years old, nor should you go on eBay and find the first ski onesie with a floating zebra pattern.
I say this because you have to know your own body before experimenting with warm clothing. I run pretty hot while skiing, so I knew older technology with less insulation would suit me fine as long as I properly supplement it with the right layers.
>>Check out some unexpected places to buy travel gear.
For first time skiers, invest in a jacket with a good shell and great insulation and a pair of ski pants that fit you well, so you can do full squats in them without feeling like lunch may come back up.
Ski socks, appropriate ski mittens, balaclavas, and neck gaiters are all very important accessories.
As for ski socks, I personally only use merino wool. Ski-specific socks are your best bet because they will be tall enough for the ski boots, thin enough that they don’t cut off circulation in your foot (more of a problem for skiers than boarders), but thick enough that they’ll keep your toes warm.
Your socks should go on top of the thermal underwear, and there shouldn’t ever be any wrinkles. A wrinkle in your sock or thermal underwear can cause a blister on your leg that will make you miserable because of the repeat motion and the tightness of the ski boots. Buy the right size and put them on with consideration.
Ski mittens should also be waterproof and very insulating. Your extremities (face, hands, feet) are the first things to get frostbitten, and your hands are pretty necessary in life. Gloves, while sometimes more convenient, are not as warm as mittens.
Balaclavas and neck gaiters are important for keeping your face from being windburned (yes, it is possible) and frozen solid. A balaclava covers most of your face and may be made out of a synthetic fiber or fleece material.
I personally prefer a synthetic material over fleece, since breathing through a fleece material gets soggy and cold after a while. I use an Original Buff, and have been for many years. Even in -19ºF, my face was kept un-windburned and relatively warm while wearing one over my nose and mouth. The combination of a short Buff and a neck gaiter lets me wear my hair in a braid without freezing the back of my neck.
Nowadays, ski helmets are a much more universal norm. I do not condone skiing or snowboarding without a helmet. It’s just dumb. Plus, ski helmets are significantly warmer than hats could ever be, and you don’t have to worry about your ears getting frostbitten (usually the first part of the body to get frostbite, the last part to be noticed). Rent a helmet. Buy a helmet. It doesn’t matter to me. Just wear one.
Lastly, ski goggles are the finishing touch of the ensemble. Goggles should fit both your helmet and your face well, so they touch your skin all the way around the edges of the frame and don’t get jostled or pushed down by your helmet at all. They should provide almost uninterrupted peripheral vision, increase the contrast on the snow when the sun is either bright or clouded, and they should be polarized to protect your eyes from the sun that is reflected off the snow.
I am assuming you are renting or already own your ski/snowboarding boots, skis/snowboard, and ski poles. I already ramble a lot, so you probably don’t want me to ramble on about how to choose the right equipment, too.
So now that we’ve gone over all that you need for skiing, you have to think about the aprés ski, which is just as important as the ski gear! You’ll want some comfy outfits, maybe a go-out-to-dinner outfit or a bar-hopping outfit. A lot of ski resorts have hot tubs and heated pools nearby, too, so take a bathing suit if you want. Warm socks that double as slippers are also pretty great to have.
Just remember: you will only spend maybe 6 hours in your aprés ski outfits each day. Bring items that can be layered and re-worn to combat over-packing.
Full Packing List for a Ski Trip
Everything here is basically what I personally pack for three days of skiing on a five day trip. Adjust accordingly.
I have packed into an expandable roll-aboard that is 22” x 14” x 9”, plus a backpack for ski boots, helmet, entertainment, and work necessities. I own my boots, but rent my skis and poles typically, so I avoid checking that one bag. The checked bag is kind of unavoidable if you are bringing skis and poles.
>>Check out the best 22 inch rolling suitcases.
- Thermal layers: one lightweight top and bottom, one midweight top and bottom, and one heavyweight top and bottom
- Midlayers: a fleece vest (like this Woolrich that is $25)
- Shell layer: Trilayer ski jacket (I have an older Columbia Bugaboo Interchange, worn to the airport)
- Ski pants
- One sports bra
- Two pairs ski socks
- Helmet (and aux cable to connect the speakers to my phone)
- Neck gaiter
- Fanny pack with hand warmers, sunscreen stick, bandana, lip balm, lotion, cash, tampon, extra contact lens, empty water bottle (stored on outside of bag for security check), insurance card, and emergency contact card
- Ski boots, skis, poles (or rental receipts)
- Buttpads for snowboarders
- Fanny pack
- Hand warmers (they’re little pouches that heat up after you shake them for a while. They make ones for your toes, too, but there’s not really enough oxygen in your boots for the reaction to happen)
- Sunscreen (the sun is reflected off the snow, which increases your chances of getting sunburned. I use the Sunbum Signature Line, which is oxybenzone free, therefore safe for coral reefs)
- Handkerchief (or tissues, but I think a bandana is easier to deal with on the slopes)
- Lip balm
- Thick hand and face lotion
- Cash and card
- Extra contact lens
- Small reusable water bottle (you get very dehydrated while exercising at high altitude)
- Emergency contact card and insurance card: if you’re skiing alone, have these somewhere on you. You can also program a name and your insurance info into your smartphone under the name “In Case of Emergency” so someone can call your emergency contact… in case of emergency
Aprés Ski Stuff
- One pair of heavy black jeans (+ belt)
- One pair fleece lined leggings (worn to the airport, could be exchanged for a heavyweight thermal layer, but mine are a bit too see-through for that)
- One long sleeved tee (worn to the airport)
- Two pairs of thick socks (one worn to the airport, another used as slippers and left by the door to the condo)
- One heavy sweater
- One heavy vest (matching both long sleeved shirts, and the sweater providing a total of three layerable outfits, worn to the airport)
- Three pairs of underwear
- One t-shirt bra
- Bathing suit
- Waterproof/snowproof shoes
- Hairbrush and ties
- Non-liquid shampoo bar
- Non-liquid conditioner bar
- Soap bar
- Menstrual cup or tampons
>>Consider packing solid toiletries for carry-on travel.
- Face wash
- Liquid makeup
- Menstrual cup cleaner (accordingly)
- Tiger balm for aching muscles
- Zote non-liquid laundry detergent bar or powder laundry detergent
- Advil (helps with altitude sickness)
- Ginger chews (also helps with altitude sickness)
- Kinesthetic tape or knee braces (for joint support)**
- Phone charger
- Books and coloring books
- Work supplies (laptop, etc.)
After all that, I hope you have a wonderful ski trip. Remember, for skiers: always face down the mountain. For boarders: look where you want to go. I hope your ski trip creates as much of a lifelong draw to fresh powder and icy temperatures as I have, and I wish you all the safety and enjoyment you could possibly get out of your trip.
**If you believe you may need kinesthetic tape or knee braces in order to ski or snowboard, talk to your doctor before doing so as both sports can be very taxing on your body.
About the Author: Sydney Ling is a graphic designer and web developer currently living in Atlanta who grew up acquiring as many “fun facts” as she could. Unless it involves heights, if she hasn’t tried it, she hopefully will soon. She loves to go on last minute adventures, so if you have any desire to go on a ski or scuba trip and need a travel buddy, she’d probably be down to go. Make plans with her at SydneyLing.com or follow her on Instagram.
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