A pair of skiers rides a chairlift while smiling at the camera.
SKI & SNOW

What to Wear Skiing and Snowboarding

A Mt. Bachelor team athlete gives us a checklist of all the clothing you need to hit the slopes
BY RACHEL CAVANAUGH
When it comes to winter sports, it’s hard to beat skiing and snowboarding. There’s something magical about soaring down the mountain on a bluebird day without a care in the world. But before you can make those big, fluffy powder turns and gain all the benefits of skiing, you need to invest in the right gear. And that’s not just your skis or snowboard—you need the right clothes too.

We spoke at length with expert skier Ashley McNeish, a Mt. Bachelor team athlete and former FIS Alpine ski racer. She explained what to wear when you go skiing or snowboarding and walked us through all the essentials of your ski outfit, including your jacket, pants, gloves, hat, socks and baselayers.
Mt. Bachelor team athlete Ashley McNeish skis down a mountain on a sunny day. 
Mt. Bachelor team athlete Ashley McNeish, seen here skiing down the mountain on a sunny day at Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort, explained that more than anything else, your ski clothes need to keep you warm and dry. Photo credit: Jon Tapper

Getting ready

Before you make your packing list for the mountain, there are a couple of questions to ask yourself to help you pick the right gear.

1. Do I tend to run hot or cold?

Everybody is different when it comes to how their bodies regulate temperature. If you run warm, you’re going to need a different gear setup than someone who gets cold more easily.

“You could be standing in the lift line next to somebody who’s all bundled up and you're sweating in just a couple layers,” McNeish explains. “You really have to be flexible and learn from experience. It's going to take some trial and error, but every single time you go out there you learn.”

2. What is the weather like?

Conditions can vary greatly from day to day and throughout the season. You won't wear the same thing on a day that’s 38°F and sunny as you would when it's 29°F and snowing or 17°F with heavy winds. Think about the forecast before choosing your gear.

“It's really important to check the weather or have a reliable weather app so that you feel confident knowing you can go out there and bring the gear you need to be prepared,” McNeish says.

Her strategy is to bring everything up to the mountain and keep it in the car. “When I get up there, I take a peek at the weather and see how I'm feeling. Am I really energetic and hot today, or am I feeling a little mellower and colder? Then I can go from there.”

If you're anticipating variable conditions or simply don’t know what to expect, it's typically better to pack more than you'll need. In addition to your car, you can stash extra layers in a backpack or rent a locker for the day.
A skier comes down the mountain carving big corduroy turns. 
When picking out ski clothes, look for ski gear that is warm, breathable, and quick-drying. This will keep you from being wet, cold, and miserable, and instead help you focus on the fun.

Packing list: what to wear on the mountain

Later in this article we’ll provide more in-depth information about each of these items, but first, here’s a quick checklist of what to wear when you go skiing or snowboarding:

For the ride home:

Other gear to pack:

  • Helmet
  • Goggles
  • Ski or snowboard boots
  • Ski or snowboard bindings
  • Skis or snowboard
  • Hydration pack or water bottle
  • Backpack (optional)
  • Sunscreen

What types of materials are best for ski clothes?

High-quality ski clothing needs to be warm, breathable, and quick-drying. For the apparel that sits against your skin (aka your baselayers), it should also be moisture-wicking so you can sweat without feeling damp and sticky. “The foundation of all of your gear is that you need to be able to keep yourself dry,” McNeish says. “That means from both sweat and the elements.”

The team athlete explains that while most people understand you get cold skiing, many are surprised to learn you often get hot too.

“If you’re skiing at a resort, especially on a powder day where the snow is up to your knees, you’re working really hard. And if you’re a beginner, you’re working hard regardless of the conditions. Your muscles aren't used to those movements and your body is working overtime. So you’re getting really hot going down the mountain and then really cold going back up on the chairlift.” McNeish says.

One of the biggest factors that makes people cold, aside from not having proper insulation, is that their clothes get wet—either from the snow or their own perspiration—and then the freezing temperatures make it miserable. “If your baselayers get soaked, it feels like you're wearing a wet towel,” she says.
“The last thing you want to be doing is thinking about how uncomfortable you are. You want to be able to enjoy what you're doing and focus on hitting the next feature or going after the next line—not pulling at your gear.”
Ashley McNeish, Mt. Bachelor Ski Team
She points to quick-drying fabrics like polyester or wool blends. She also likes knits and fleece materials that trap heat for warmth but also allow it to escape.

And don’t forget comfort and fit. “The last thing you want to be doing is thinking about how uncomfortable you are,” McNeish says. “You want to be able to enjoy what you're doing and focus on hitting the next feature or going after the next line, not pulling at your gear.”
A skier wearing a white Columbia Sportswear jacket smiles at the camera as she peels off her layers. 
McNeish recommends using a three-layer system when you ski or snowboard that consists of a baselayer, midlayer, and outer layer. This Columbia Sportswear model shows off the gold Omni-Heat™ Infinity liner inside her ski jacket, along with a cozy fleece midlayer.

Your ski clothes: a three-layer system

For any mountain-based activities—including skiing and snowboarding— learning how to dress for cold weather is all about knowing how to layer. There are three basic elements to proper layering: baselayer, midlayer, outer layer.

Let's begin from the inside out.

Baselayer

Your baselayer is what some people think of as “long johns” or thermal underwear. This is the layer that sits against your skin, wicking away sweat and keeping you both warm and dry.

“The baselayer is definitely foundational,” McNeish explains. “That’s what's going to be touching your skin for the entire day. I look for moisture-wicking, long-sleeve tops with fairly high necklines, and some sort of moisture-wicking athletic leggings. I prefer the ones with the high waists because I find them more comfortable.”

Midlayer

This piece, which is often a fleece jacket or puffer coat, provides an extra layer of insulation between your baselayer and your ski jacket. You typically only need it on your upper body, unless you’re skiing in extra frigid conditions.

“This layer doesn't necessarily have to be as moisture-wicking, but it shouldn’t be made of cotton. Avoid cotton at all costs when you’re on the mountain,” McNeish advises. “It should be soft and breathable. A lot of the fabrics nowadays have technology that allows you to trap moisture but still expel heat when needed.”

If you run cold, fleeces or knits with Omni-Heat™ Helix can be good choices for midlayers, as they’re built with tiny heat cells that trap your body warmth. Puffer jackets with Omni-Heat™ Infinity also work well because they have special NASA-inspired liners that reflect your body heat back at you, similar to a space blanket.

One midlayer is typically enough, although McNeish says that on really cold days she likes to add a second midlayer. In those cases, she wears the fleece first, right over her baselayer, and then adds an ultra-thin puffer underneath her ski jacket.
A skier adjusts her boots while smiling at the camera. 
Your outer layer, made up of a ski jacket and pants, is the external barrier that protects you from weather elements such as snow, sleet, and ice.

Outer layer

The outer layer, consisting of your ski jacket and ski pants or bibs, is the external barrier that protects you from the weather elements. It needs to be fully waterproof and windproof to keep you dry in any winter conditions you may encounter, including snow, sleet, ice, wind, and hail.

The degree of insulation the outer layer offers will depend on your personal preference. When making a decision, think about how you plan to layer, what the conditions are like where you’ll be skiing, and how cold you tend to run.

Some ski jackets are fully insulated, acting more like midlayer/outer layer combinations, while others are simply waterproof shells. There are also interchange options that are 3-in-1 systems you can zip together or take apart for varying layering styles.

“A great feature for looking at shells and outer layers is ventilation in the pit zips. Those help me tremendously,” McNeish says.

“When I'm looking for shell jackets, I want to make sure that the hood is large enough to fit a helmet, and that it comes up high enough for a comfortable fit with the zipper all the way up with that helmet on,” she explains.

(For more detailed information on selecting the right outer layer, check out “How to Choose A Ski Jacket” or “How to Choose Ski Pants.”)
A close-up shot of a blue Columbia Sportswear glove gripping a ski pole in a snowy mountain setting. 
Before you hit the mountain, don’t forget important accessories such as your hat, neck warmer, socks, and gloves, like the Columbia Sportswear ultra-warm Men's Whirlibird™ II winter glove pictured above.

Hat, neck warmer, gloves, and socks

In addition to your main ski clothes, you’ll also want high-quality winter accessories, including a warm hat, gloves, socks, and a neck warmer.

Hat

Your ski hat will be worn directly under your helmet, so it needs to be fairly thin and lightweight. In fact, some skiers and snowboarders find they don’t need a hat once their helmet is on, particularly on more moderate days.

However, even if you don’t wear a hat while you’re skiing or snowboarding, you’ll want something to keep your head warm around the lodge as well as going to and from the mountain. Lots of skiers have two winter hats—a thin fleece hat they wear under their helmet and another thicker insulated hat to wear off the slopes.

Neck warmers

It’s also nice to have a balaclava or neck gaiter, especially if you run cold or live in a frigid climate. These items will protect your face and the areas around your head, neck, and chin that your hat won’t cover and which are susceptible to icy blasts of wind and snow.

The difference between the two is that a balaclava covers your whole face and head while the neck gaiter is more like a scarf (although it can be pulled up around your face). “I use both of them for different purposes,” McNeish explains. “I find the balaclava—the full face mask—to be much warmer, especially around my hairline where my ponytail can cause a break. I use that for really, really cold days. And then when it's not quite as cold, I go with the neck gaiter, which is more breathable.”

Gloves

Nothing will make you more miserable on the mountain than having cold hands, so it’s essential to invest in a good pair of waterproof ski gloves. These can be made from either leather or synthetic materials. More insulation typically means more warmth but potentially less finger dexterity. On cold days, mittens will usually keep your hands a bit warmer.

“People who run colder should go with mittens, and people who run a little bit warmer and tend to have a little bit more clammy hands should go with gloves,” McNeish says.

On warmer, wetter days, it’s a good idea to have extra gloves on hand in case your first pair soaks through.

Socks

Having cold, wet feet is another recipe for being unhappy on the mountain. Look for ski-specific socks made from wool or synthetic materials. Like with your baselayers, avoid cotton. “You want something that is going to wick away your moisture and still keep your feet warm,” McNeish says.

In terms of thickness, some skiers and snowboarders prefer thinner performance socks for better feel and movement, while others like a mid- to heavyweight variety. A lot of it comes down to personal preference.

“Ski socks come in various levels of padding and bulk,” she says. “You can get thicker ones if you run a little bit colder or if you need to fill out your boot. You can get thinner ones if you're a little tight in your boot or you need some more breathability. There's a lot of variation when finding that perfect ski sock.”

Never wear two pairs of socks at once as they will bunch up in your tight boots and give you blisters.
A group of skiers stands on the mountain smiling at the camera.
Essential pieces of your ski and snowboard attire include helmets and goggles, along with your outer gear and baselayers.

Other gear

GogglesSki goggles are essential, even on dry days. Different lenses are tailored for specific light and weather, but an all-purpose tinted lens will protect your eyes from sun and wind.

Helmet—A helmet should always be worn when skiing and snowboarding. On top of protecting your head and helping to keep you safe, it can provide an extra layer of warmth on your head.

Backpack—A backpack or hydration pack can be useful, especially for intermediate and expert skiers who want to stow extra gear or snacks without renting a locker or going back to the car. For beginners, backpacks can sometimes feel cumbersome or distracting as they learn new skills.

Sunscreen—It may seem strange to bring sunscreen to a mountain, but sunlight reflecting off the snow can be powerful. Rays are stronger at higher elevations, and when they’re hitting you from above and below, the double exposure can lead to surprise sunburns.

Skis or snowboard, boots, and bindings—Last but not least, don’t forget your ski equipment! This includes your skis or snowboard, along with boots and bindings.

Now that you’re all packed, it’s time to hit the slopes!
Ready to head to the mountain? Check out Columbia Sportswear’s ski and snowboard gear.
Share