cross-country skiing

What to Wear Cross-Country Skiing

My skiing instructor passed along a piece of wisdom to me many years ago. It goes as follows: the role of cross-country skiing clothing is not merely to create warmth but is to provide protection and allow for the evaporation of moisture. Indeed, it is not the clothing that makes you warm, it is your body. Your body is the one pumping the blood and regulating your temperature. This definitely holds true for cross-country skiing, a highly aerobic activity that can generate sweat, body heat, and a higher heart rate despite the cold and damp environmental conditions. Because your body can generate so much heat during cross-country skiing, it is vital that you invest in clothes that offer protection yet keep you comfortable. You need to strike a balance between clothes that will protect you from icy winds and cold temperatures and clothes that allow the excess heat to escape.

The ideal apparel for cross-country skiing? Something light and non-bulky that ‘breathes’: permitting perspiration to evaporate whilst protecting you from the elements. You need something that is waterproof and wind resistant yet thin enough to layer. Layering is absolutely fundamental as it allows you to add and remove clothing as environmental conditions demand. Thin, light layers allow you to pack all of your apparel neatly into your backpack.    

Because cross-country skiing is a full body workout, your clothing should allow for flexibility and freedom of movement. For those who are new to cross-country skiing, you may be struggling to paint a mental picture of the required apparel. Think of what you would wear when going for a run in cold weather and go for something similar. The key is to find a good moisture wicking base layer. Generally, it is best to start your excursion feeling a bit chilly. Trust me, whether or not you feel underdressed, you’ll warm up quickly. Start cool and remain dry – that’s the key idea.

The Biggest Mistake Newcomers Make When Choosing Cross-country Skiing Apparel

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is dressing in heavy ski clothing. Alpine skiers are guilty for thinking that they can take their heavy parkas and ski pants and incorporate them into their cross-country ski attire. This is definitely not the case.

Remember that you can always take a thin layer off and store it in your backpack. But a heavy parka? I’m guessing you’re not going to just leave it on the snow on the side of the trail! Multiple thin layers offer more flexibility and comfort. The misguided perception that cross-country skiing is challenging and exhausting? That’s usually down to wearing inappropriate and heavy clothing.

Choosing the correct clothing is crucial not only for managing unpredictable weather and wind but also for maximizing your comfort on your customized route. If your planned route includes both uphill and downhill slopes than the ability to add or subtract layers will be invaluable. You might sweat on the ascent and then rapidly lose heat during the descent. You want to be prepared for all scenarios. Always be ready to add a sturdy jacket when the conditions look set to change rapidly.     

Why Layers are Necessary For Cross-country Skiing

A good rule of thumb is to dress for cross-country skiing like you would dress for a chilly autumn morning. You would layer up with a shirt, a fleece, and a sweater under your coat. This will keep you warm in the crisp morning hours and will allow you to shed layers as necessary when the sun begins to shine!

You may have heard this method of layering referred to as ‘dressing like an onion’. This method is ideal for transitional seasons and cross-country skiing alike. It enables you to strategically combine multiple layers of functional clothing in order to compensate for weather and temperature fluctuations. Ensure that you coordinate the different layers so that you can reap the most functionality out of them. 

The Different Layers – A Primer

The onion principle is well suited to the upper body and typically consists of three layers, although this can depend on the conditions. If it is particularly cold, it can be worthwhile adding an extra layer of insulation under the outermost protective layer. If you are skiing in the spring two layers will typically suffice. Some people are more sensitive to the cold, however, so you should always customize your outfit to your individual needs. Personal preferences aside, let’s examine the three-layer principle in further depth!   

First Layer/Base Layer

The layer closest to the skin should be form-fitting and made from a non-irritating material. It should be able to both wick moisture and protect you from the wind. Many skiers advocate choosing a synthetic polypropylene-based material. They dry quickly and are low maintenance when it comes to washing, drying, and storing. The material is flexible, abrasion resistant and light on the skin. However, one disadvantage that is rarely discussed is the smell that can develop through frequent wear. While synthetic fibers do not absorb moisture the lattice-like structure which makes the garment breathable also attracts odor-producing bacteria.

Special technologies and formulas can supposedly reduce odour, but I have always found that the odor would still develop after a few wears. I personally dislike wearing synthetic fibers directly against my skin because they feel suffocating while I am exercising. Due to this natural aversion to synthetic base layers, I experimented with a cotton t-shirt as a base layer when I was new to cross-country skiing. Big mistake! Cotton is ultra-absorptive, and instead of wicking moisture, it will retain it. You’ll be soaking in your own sweat to the point where you just want to turn back home and change.

So what’s a cross-country skier to do? If you’re like me and like to go natural with your base layer I recommend merino wool. You may have the misconception that wool is inherently itchy and irritating. That is absolutely not the case with merino wool. I remember receiving merino underwear for Christmas. It was a gift from my mother, so I certainly couldn’t choose not to wear it. She had bought it on the recommendation of a friend who had just returned from an extensive trekking trip in Nepal. He and his wife had worn the same merino wool undershirt for ten days without washing it. Not only did it keep them warm it did not produce any noticeable odor. Inspired by this story my mother implored me to try it on my next excursion. I remember how pleasantly surprised I was when I tried it for the first time. I was blown away by the finely woven, soft material. It feels cozy and comfortable, not itchy. I think your body instinctively reacts differently to natural fibers. Merino wool really shines in low temperatures. It has climate-regulating qualities but also efficiently allows your body heat to evaporate. All these benefits with no sign of odors – how is that possible? The outer layer contains wool based fibers that are slightly roughened and prevent the colonization of bacteria. No bacteria buildup equals no odor. Check it out here and with half zip here.

The only real disadvantage I can see when comparing the two aforementioned materials is that merino wool does not dry as quickly as synthetic fabrics. Merino wool takes longer to dry than a synthetic shirt, sure, but still dries much faster than cotton. When I wear merino wool while cross-country skiing I never notice any uncomfortable moisture buildup. Merino wool regulates the bodies temperature and traps just the right amount of heat. That is a huge value-add, and I would recommend trying a shirt made from merino wool for your base layer for the upcoming season. 

Mid Layer

The second layer is responsible for insulating your body and the base layer. Therefore, the design and material depend on the prevailing weather conditions. The desired level of insulation depends upon both the temperature and the aerobic intensity of your excursion. The choices range from light and durable mid-length shirts to insulation jackets or shells. You can double up and wear both a shirt and a jacket shell if conditions demand. Always ensure that every piece of clothing is functional in its own right.

I like fleece for cold days but with my passion for merino wool in mind, it should come as no surprise that I like to use a long-sleeve merino hoodie as my second layer. They are a comfortable and soft choice for protecting your base layer. I suggest looking for a piece that has a ¼ zip to ensure ventilation. You should take into account additional features like chest pockets, discreet thumbholes, and low profile hoods that can be worn under a helmet for alpine skiing excursions. 

Although I prefer 100% merino wool there are some innovative wool-polyester blends on the market. They provide the odor-neutralizing, soft, moisture-wicking qualities of the merino wool paired with the fast-drying feature of a synthetic fabric. This might be the best of both worlds if the longer drying times of wool are a true deterrent to you.

Third Layer/Outer Shell

The role of the outer layer is to protect you and from wind and water. Protection from icy, cold winds is one of the key functionalities of the outer shell. If you are letting the wind in it will feel like you are wearing no layers at all, regardless of how well-prepared you are. Ensure that you are wearing a jacket with a protective stand-up collar. It must also prevent airflow around the wrists, waist, and hips. You will retain heat that much faster.

You should be looking for a windproof soft-shell or hard-shell jacket with an integrated membrane that reliably defends against wind and rain while providing maximum breathability. You want heat and moisture to escape, but you also want protection and the best products on the market offer both. In dry conditions, a windproof soft-shell jacket is the better choice as the fabric typically offers better breathability than hard-shell varieties.

Another option to keep in mind is a windproof, water-repellent insulation vest. You can wear this atop your second layer if warmer weather conditions permit. This option allows you greater freedom of movement around your shoulders. Moisture becomes less of an issue as it has more escape routes, if you will.

Good quality jackets are an investment. The best products will be lightweight and offer high functionality and breathability. It is worth it to spend more on a top quality product, particularly if you ski in diverse weather conditions. You can also look at it as a general investment because many brands offer hybrid function jackets that are suitable to not only cross-country skiing but serve as a key piece for any demanding outdoor sport. A jacket with functional detailing such as pit-zip ventilation, mesh lining, and zip-off sleeves can be worn for winter hiking, nordic walking, and skating among other activities.   

Lower Body Apparel

When it comes to choosing the right ski pants, pay attention to both the weather and your planned physical exertion level. Most cross-country ski pants are tight fitting, offering comfort and optimal freedom of movement whilst protecting you against the elements. There are two key varieties of tight ski pants: legging style and soft-shell hybrid. Legging style is in the same vein as elastic running or yoga leggings. The hybrid variety is thicker and designed more specifically for cross-country and backcountry skiing. The main difference between these two types is the weight. The choice between the two depends on weather and what skiing style you are partaking in. If you are a skater and are skiing in moderate weather conditions, you should choose a legging style pant. If you are engaging in nordic style skiing than the heavier hybrid style will have more utility.

Pants should be lightweight and comfortable first and foremost, particularly for skating. In addition to this basic requirement, the potential for customization is significant. I suggest looking for functional elements such as additional lining in the back and knee zones, pockets and reflective elements. If you are skiing in frosty conditions, you may want to consider a water-repellent, windproof, and warm coating technology. As pants are usually made of synthetic fibers, they dry quickly and effectively wick moisture. Two side pockets provide storage for small belongings like car keys and lip balm. Zipped leg cuffs will be a line of defense against wind and frost.

Protecting Your Head & Your Hands

Hands, feet, and the head take on a special status in the hierarchy of the body. They are all fundamental to the body’s temperature regulation, and they are well-supplied with blood. That being said, they produce barely any heat of their own as they consist of hardly any muscle. I probably don’t have to tell you that the hands, feet, and head are the first parts of the body to freeze. Apart from the pain and discouragement that result from ice-cold ears, toes, and fingers, your ski technique is also compromised by the reduced agility of frozen hands.

It is interesting to note that most body heat escapes through the head. You must protect your head, but you must also remove excess sweat and moisture from the forehead to prevent getting sick with a cold. In chilly alpine conditions, you should wear a cap that covers your ears. Some have a fleecy inner band that absorbs sweat and ventilates it outward. Another key advantage you might looking for is that the cap has slots on the side which ensure a secure fit for utility sunglasses. I wear a cap made out of – you guessed it – merino wool & synthetic blend. In extremely cold conditions you can apply the onion principle to your head by wearing a light cap under the hood of your jacket. This will protect your ears and forehead from the frosty winds.

Skaters and classic cross-country skiers alike can use the same gloves. That being said I have noticed that skating skiers tend to use thinner gloves with a highly breathable membrane as their main go-to. These gloves are flexible and ensure optimal pole control and moisture transport. Sweaty hands provide friction during pole use, which promotes blistering. The gloves should be thin and elastic enough to ensure adequate freedom of movement. The palm should have a sturdy grip to allow for targeted and seamless pole use.   

The best functional gloves combine wind-mitigation features with moisture transport. Many new models are designed with touchscreen capabilities which make them useful for skiing, trail running, and winter hiking.

Synthetic fiber is weather-resistant, abrasion-resistant, breathable and easy to care for. Merino gloves feature the same qualities with the added benefit of being odor-neutralizing and self-cleaning. Always take a second pair of dry gloves, over-gloves, or mittens with you. This is useful for when you fall and soak your gloves or if weather conditions change, necessitating a thicker layer.