First Time Skiing or Snowboarding? What to Wear And Avoid

First Time Skiing or Snowboarding? What to Wear And Avoid

So you’re finally taking the plunge and hitting the slopes for the first time? Congratulations, you'll soon experience why millions are obsessed with skiing and snowboarding. Since this is your first time, you're most likely renting your equipment. But you may be wondering if you'll need to purchase any new clothing for the trip. The short answer is yes... and no. 
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So you’re finally taking the plunge and hitting the slopes for the first time? Congratulations, you'll soon experience why millions are obsessed with skiing and snowboarding.

Since this is your first time, you're most likely renting your equipment. But you may be wondering if you'll need to purchase any new clothing for the trip.

The short answer is yes... and no.

You most likely have some clothing items already that can be used for skiing or snowboarding, but there are some technical and snow specific items like ski jackets and pants that you may need to purchase or borrow if you don't already own them.

These items are highly specialized, making it difficult for other apparel you have lying around to replace some ski and snowboard-specific apparel.

This article centers around maximizing what you already have in your closet for the slopes and guiding you on what's absolutely necessary to purchase or borrow.

From your head to your toes, you'll learn what clothing will get the job done right.

Most importantly, you'll see clothes you might already have that could work, and what to look for if you need to hit the store to get the rest.

The Basics of Dressing for the Slopes

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s go over some of the basics when it comes to dressing for a day out in the snow.

1. Don't Rely on Your Boots to Keep You Comfortable

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that your boots and most other equipment are built to keep you safe and provide a conduit for the activity.

Its primary purpose isn't to provide you with the right temperature, that's the job of your clothing. This is especially important to remember for your feet.

Ski Boots - Your Feet Can Still Get Cold

Even the best ski boots on the market can’t keep your feet as warm as a good pair of snow boots, so make sure you have socks that will protect you against the cold and won’t make your feet sweat. Socks made from merino wool are fantastic options here.

Helmet - The One Equipment Exception

Your helmet will do a great job of protecting your head from impact, and a properly fitting helmet will also keep your head warm.

One of the biggest giveaways that your helmet doesn't fit you correctly is if your forehead gets cold or areas of your head that are covered by the helmet get cold going down a run.

For your forehead, if there's a gap between your goggles and helmet, you probably have a poor fit. If you're getting cold anywhere else on your head, your helmet is also not the right size or shape for your head.

There are three steps to picking out or checking if your helmet is the right fit - you can find a quick guide on all three in another Kenver article about helmet fit.

2. The Goal: Stay Dry, Stay at the Right Temperature

The three most important factors to consider when getting dressed for skiing or snowboarding are staying dry, staying warm, and avoiding overheating.

While staying warm and avoiding are two separate things, they are after the same goal, which is to balance your body temperature.

If you’re too cold, you risk getting hypothermia and frostbite. If you’re too hot, you'll sweat and your clothes will get wet, which can also make you cold.

It's a bit of a misconception that you need to just dress for staying warm because, in reality, you need to dress in a way that you can stay comfortable - warm isn't always best.

You want to avoid being too cold or too hot and find that sweet spot of being just the right temperature.

To do this, you’ll need to dress in layers.

3. Layering Is Everything for Skiing and Snowboarding

The best way to stay at the right temperature while skiing or snowboarding is to dress in layers. You want clothing that allows moisture to escape so you don’t get too sweaty.

See a running theme regarding moisture and sweat?

Most people opt for a three-layer system when they head out for a day on the slopes, this includes a base layer, mid layer, and outer layer.

How to Layer Clothing for Skiing and Snowboarding

Dressing for skiing and snowboarding isn't as simple as choosing one or two items.

No, you need to take into account the climate, difficulty of terrain, type of snow (for instance, eastern US snow is wetter than western US snow), and even your general ability at each sport (this is a nice way of saying how often you fall.)

Based on all of these factors, you can begin building a system of clothing that aids in keeping you dry and comfortable in all of the elements.

A Few Things To Keep In Mind for a Layering System:

  • Base Layer - The layer that sits closest to your skin and helps wick away sweat.
  • Mid Layer - The layer that provides insulation and warmth.
  • Outer Layer - The layer that protects you from the elements like wind, snow, and rain.

If the above information is the top-level summary for layering, the following are all the details you need to know to layer properly.

Base Layer - Wick Moisture Away, While Keeping You Comfortable

The base layer is so important to the system because it's the only layer that will be in direct contact with your skin.

Role of Base Layer

You want this layer to wick away moisture (don't forget your socks are part of this too!) so you don't get sweaty, overheat, or allow the moisture to sit and get hit with cold air.

The base layer should also provide some level of insulation. You don't want it to be too bulky though, because that will make it harder to move and could cause you to overheat, but you do want it to provide some warmth.

Materials for Base Layer

Opt for a lightweight, moisture-wicking fabric like merino wool or synthetic fabrics. Avoid cotton - it doesn't wick away moisture and will hold on to sweat (more on that in a bit.) Here's a cheat sheet on picking suitable materials for your base layer.

  • Merino Wool
  • Polypropylene ("polypro" which dries faster than polyester)
  • Polyester or Recycled Polyester (both perform the same, the latter is eco-friendly)
  • Microfibers (built from any of the fibers above)

The Fit of Your Base Layer

You want your base layer to fit snugly but not too tightly. If it's too tight, it will be uncomfortable and could restrict movement.

Leggings repeatedly break this rule - so if those are in your carry-on, have another look at fit - run them through the Kenver leggings fit test if you have to.

On the flip side, if any of your base layers are too loose, they won't provide some of the insulation you need, or stay in place to pull the moisture away from your body.

Articles of Clothing for Base Layers

For your upper body, you'll want a thermal long-sleeved shirt.

If you tend to get cold easily or will be in a particularly cold climate, opt for a heavier fabric, or bulk up with a second layer or thicker mid-layer (more on that in a minute.)

For your lower body, you'll want long underwear (which can also apply to your upper body as well) that fits snugly.

And for all the leggings fans out there, you can wear leggings, but the ones in your closet most likely won't do the trick. You'll want properly fitting thermal leggings for skiing and snowboarding.

Don't try to sneak your normal leggings onto the trip, you'll quickly regret it if you do.

Purchase, Borrow, or Repurpose?

For your base layer, there's a higher chance you have something in your closet that you can use here, especially if you play sports or work out in colder temps.

A lot of athletic training gear today uses materials that work perfectly as a base layer and fit appropriately to your body

Because the base layer is sensitive to fit and also is in the business of sweat, this is most likely not something you'll want to borrow.

There are limitless options for purchasing too, and relative to other layers, they'll be more reasonably priced. Additionally, they don't need to be ski or snowboard specific - that would just be a bonus that they're graded for those activities.

Mid Layer - Trap The Heat

Even if it's just mildly cold out, adding a middle layer for insulation is a good idea - if it's too much you can always shed it.

Role of Mid Layer

It's important to find the right balance between insulation and breathability. The mid layer works as a warm insulator, but it also needs some areas that allow heat out so you can cool down when necessary.

Materials for Mid Layer

Insulation is the name of the game here, so you want to look for materials that excel at retaining your heat. The most common fabrics for mid-layers are:

  • Fleece (made from polyester or other synthetic fibers)
  • Down or Synthetic Down

The material thickness is an important consideration - you want a thicker material than your base layer, but not so thick that it constricts your movement.

The Fit of Your Mid Layer

Similar to the thickness of the material, the correct fit of a mid-layer is also a balancing act.

You want your mid layer to still conform to your shape, but not as tightly as your base layer. If you have difficulty twisting or moving in it, it may fit too tightly - which is massively problematic on the slopes.

If it's too loose it won't serve its purpose of trapping heat close to your body.

Articles of Clothing for Mid Layers

While there are mid-layers for both your upper and lower body, it's most common that you'd wear a mid-layer for your upper body.

This is part of the reason that the fabric and materials in the list above are more commonly seen in jackets, pullovers, cardigans, down jackets, and down vests.

You could put neck gaiters in the outer layer, but because they are generally far less durable to the conditions, they seem to fit in an accessory version of mid layer clothing.

Wearing a gaiter goes a long way for keeping your system in place between your head and jacket. So don't forget to grab a gaiter for your first day skiing or snowboarding. They are relatively inexpensive and worth every penny.

Purchase, Borrow, Repurpose?

All three apply here, but this is another layer that you are likely to have in your closet. Many people have a go-to fall or light winter jacket that will work great as a mid-layer.

If you go jacket, a thin jacket is typically recommended - don't throw a parka on and assume this is the answer. It simply won't work.

Certainly check the fit and thickness and how it feels with a layer under and over it because that will be the feeling while skiing or snowboarding.

Mid-layer apparel, tops, in particular, are easy enough items to borrow from since they aren't as form-fitting as a base-layer.

And if you're looking to purchase something, a fleece pullover or lightweight down jacket are your best options. If you need to shed a layer too, consider something easy to get off your body.

Pullovers might be a bit too cumbersome compared to a jacket that zips when you have all your gear on.

Outer Layer - Protects From Wind, Snow, and Rain

Most commonly referred to as your shell, the outer layer is your first layer of defense from the climate.

Role of Outer Layer

Your outer layer is what's going to protect you from the elements - wind, snow, and rain. This layer needs to be both waterproof and breathable so you don't get wet from either the inside or outside.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that if something is waterproof or water-resistant, it must not be breathable. However, there are plenty of materials out there that are both waterproof and breathable - Gore-Tex is one of the most popular names - it's technically a membrane that can be applied to outer layer materials.

From the outside looking in, the outer layer stops nature from reaching your body, but from the inside out, it's your final stop in regulating your temperature.

Proper outer layers will have venting options for you - if you get too hot, open up some vents. Too cold, close them and zip everything up.

Materials for Outer Layer

Waterproofing, windproofing, and breathability are the focus, so materials for the outer layers have to revolve around those capabilities.

DWR is a common term used in outer layers. It stands for Durable Water Repellent, which is an application used on many snow and rain jackets and pants.

DWR works in unison with the waterproofing properties of outer layers - where waterproofing prevents water from going through the fabric, DWR prevents water from pooling on the fabric. You can't properly waterproof without DWR.

Applications, Materials (including membranes) to look for:

  • Gore-Tex
  • Nikwax
  • Pertex
  • Synthetic Blends of Nylon or Polyester

The Fit of Your Outer Layer

Like your mid layer, you want your outer layer to have a semi-close fit. This is in part because you don't want fabric flapping around in the wind, but also because you need that full range of motion while skiing or snowboarding.

If you can't fully extend your arms or legs without having the fabric pull, it's too tight and you'll be restricted. This can have serious consequences when you ski or snowboard.

A lot of people size up in their outer layers so they can have room to wear multiple layers, but this isn't the best idea. It might seem like a good idea at first, but once you get out on the slopes, you'll realize how hard it is to move when you have all that extra fabric.

And if you're constantly adjusting your layers, you're going to get cold. The key is to find the balance between a fit that's not too tight and not too loose.

Articles of Clothing for Outer Layers

Under no circumstance should you try to wear a "normal" coat skiing or snowboarding. Part impassioned plea and part justified recommendation, but all the same, this is a truth: your coat isn't built for the job.

If that isn't enough to dissuade you, you'll find 5 compelling reasons to put the "normal" coat down in Kenver's article "Can You Wear a Normal Coat Skiing and Snowboarding?"

Waterproof and breathable jackets and pants, built for the job, are non-negotiables.

The outer layers (shells) come in a few different categories; softshells, uninsulated shells, insulated shells, and 3-in-1s.

  • Softshell - This is a flexible layer that is water resistant, not waterproof. They're made with a softer fabric and are generally more comfortable.
  • Uninsulated Shell - This layer is waterproof, but has no insulation. They're often used in warmer climates or as part of a layering system.
  • Insulated Shell - Waterproof and insulated, this is the layer you want when it's snowy and cold out.
  • 3-in-1 - It's exactly like it sounds - three layers in one jacket creating a full system of comfort and protection from the weather. The inner liner is typically removable with a zipper.

For a beginner, you'll most likely want to go with uninsulated shell pants and a 3-in-1 jacket. This will give you the most options for layering and climate control.

For more info on softshell, uninsulated, and insulated pants, definitely check out the Kenver quick guide - while the focus is more on the dry time of the different materials after washing, you'll gain a lot of valuable insight into construction and fabrics.

As always, make sure the outer layers fit properly. You'll need to be able to move comfortably and have room to layer underneath.

Oh, and don't forget about gloves. They need to be waterproof, windproof, and breathable - typically built like a 3-in-1. A good pair of gloves is a game-changer. If you have the wrong gloves for the job, you will know very quickly.

Purchase, Borrow, Repurpose?

If you don't have pants or a jacket suited for an outer layer, this isn't something you can fake.

Certainly don't try to force your raincoat or some other coat to become your ski jacket.

A better option would be to borrow from someone, if you do, make sure you try it on with layers underneath to check the fit.

For most people though, this will be a new purchase and it could be a significant purchase. Proper outer layers generally are the most expensive items for snow sports apparel.

Part of the reason a 3-in-1 jacket is recommended for someone new is that it can be found in numerous places and generally run at a lower cost than piece-mealing each layer for a jacket.

But they are worth the cost - without them, you'd be making a big mistake. This is especially true if it's your first time skiing or snowboarding. For beginners, falling in the snow happens. And it happens a lot.

You won't land neatly either.

Sometimes you'll land where snow will fly up your pant legs or the back of your coat. Other times you'll stand up after a fall with snow that doesn't come off your leg or jacket.

Without a proper shell, this snow will get wet. And being wet while skiing or snowboarding is miserable, and can be dangerous.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they can just buy a ski jacket and be done with it. But that's not all you need - you also need pants.

Again, you need something that is both waterproof and breathable.

Purpose-built snow pants solve the same issues with the elements that a ski and snowboard jacket does.

Snow pants also have features like gaiters to keep snow out of your boots.

And just like snow jackets, your snow pants will have zippers that can help you regulate temperature, and help cover the top of your boots as needed. You can find these on the inside and outside of your lower pant legs.

Without the proper snowboard and ski jacket and pants, you could have a seriously long and rough day on the slopes.

Fibers to Avoid Wearing

Since the world of apparel is far too vast for one article, focusing on materials and fabrics is the more logical way to discuss what items to avoid for your trip.

In general, there are two fabrics that you should avoid at all costs - cotton and wool. And cotton is the more serious of the two.

  • Cotton - This is probably the most common fabric people think of when it comes to clothing. It's comfortable, soft, and has a lot of give. But unfortunately, it also holds moisture close to your body which can leave you feeling wet and cold. To boot, it also does a poor job at insulating. Both are poor options when you're falling in snow or dealing with extremely cold temperatures and high wind.
  • Wool - A lot of people think wool is the best fabric to wear in the cold. And while it's true that it's a very good insulator, it's not the best when you're active in the snow. Wool holds moisture close to your body just like cotton and can leave you feeling wet and cold. It's also itchy. Note: This does not apply to merino wool, which is a solid choice for base layers.

Now, as it relates to layers, you probably wouldn't want to wear merino wool as your outer layer, but it's ideal for a base layer.

The point is that fabric has a certain role in each layer, and what might be good at one layer will not work on another layer. But regardless of layer, it's best to cut cotton out entirely, and wool is a no-go as well.

Now You're Ready For The Mountains

When it comes to what to wear skiing or snowboarding, there are a few key things to remember.

Your goal is to stay comfortable and dry, and your layers are the key here, so think through each layer as you plan your clothing for your ski trip.

For the base layer, focus on moisture wicking. For your mid-layer, pick a fabric that does a great job at insulating. And for your outer layer go with snow-specific jackets and pants that prevent moisture from entering and can block the wind.

And while you might be able to find base-layer and mid-layer clothing items in your current closet, if you don't have snow-specific apparel already, this is something you need to purchase or borrow before your trip.

One last tip - avoid cotton and wool at all costs. These two fabrics will hold moisture close to your body, which is the last thing you want when you're out in the cold.

With these guidelines in mind, you should be able to put together a solid list of what to wear skiing or snowboarding on your next trip.