How to layer for skiing?
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How to layer for skiing?

Wear one or more merino wool base layers. Base layers are essential for keeping warm while skiing or snowboarding. They are efficient insulation while also being thin and light. Base layers are designed for layering, meaning you can wear a base layer under a fleece and a coat, or you can even wear multiple base layers underneath if it is especially cold.

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The best way to layer for skiing is to wear thinner layers on the inside, with progressively thicker layers on top of each other, with your heavy, warm ski coat on the outside. Not only are the thinner layers more comfortable against your skin, but it will also give you better freedom of movement, and won't restrict your movement as much as wearing thicker layers on the inside. Having skin tight clothing next to your skin is also a good way of staying warmer. It was found that merino wool removed up to 25% more moisture away from the skin compared to polyester. This is one of the major advantages of Merino wool.

When skiing in Canada in -20°C down to -30°C I often had to wear 2 base layers, a microfleece, a down jacket and a ski coat on top, so it really does depend on the conditions you are in. If your ski pants are not insulated well, you will also need to buy thermal pants to wear under your ski pants.

What is a base layer for skiing?

A base layer is a thin layer of clothing with high thermal properties worn under your ski coat and ski pants. Similar to a base layer for other sports, this thin thermal layer traps heat efficiently for your body while being super thin to give you freedom of movement. A base layer for skiing is so light that you wont even notice you are wearing it. If you are planning a ski or snowboard holiday this winter, and have not yet purchased some good quality base layers, you need to go and buy some now. Base layers are designed to be light and thin so as not to restrict your movement while you are skiing or snowboarding. They are made to be worn next to the skin, and are designed to be comfortable. Despite being so thin, they are incredibly warm, and this is because of the material which good quality base layers are made from. There are lots of different materials a base layer can be made out of.

What is the best material for a base layer?

The most popular options for base layer materials are Merino wool or polyester. Without a doubt, the gold-standard material for base layers for skiing is merino wool. Base layers for most sports tend to be made from polyester because it is cheaper to make and is lightweight and durable. There are certainly some advantages to buying synthetic base layers due to polyester being moisture-wicking and not absorbing as much water as wool, as well as being lightweight and durable. Synthetic base layers are much more affordable with a polyester base layer costing $30 upwards, whereas a merino wool base layer will cost as much as $100 for the top brands such as Icebreaker®.

What are the advantages of Merino wool compared to polyester?

  • Merino wool provides extra warmth – Merino wool fibres are much thinner compared to normal wool making it a far better insulator, with the merino wool fibres containing more crimps which create pockets of air to help retain heat. Merino wool will also retain its insulating properties when wet. This is one of the reasons this base layer has become so popular in recent years for winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding.
  • Merino wool is more comfortable – Due to how fine the merino wool fibres are compared to other materials, this makes merino wool far more comfortable and softer on the skin. This soft feeling is different from the itchiness most people associate with normal wool, meaning it can easily be worn next to the skin. Merino wool is also much softer and comfortable to wear than synthetic base layers such as polyester.
  • Merino wool is anti-microbial – All wool has anti-microbial properties due to Lanolin which is a naturally produced wax made by the sheep. These anti-microbial properties are a game-changer when it comes to reusing clothes on a ski trip. As no bacteria can grow on the wool, the clothes do not get smelly, and stay clean for days or weeks without needing to be washed.
  • Merino wool is breathable – Merino wool is much more breathable than polyester. This is extremely useful for temperature regulation as well as moisture wicking, whereby the wool acts to draw moisture away from your body which helps you to stay warmer.

Do you need base layers for skiing?

I highly recommend purchasing at least one base layer (ideally 2 layers for a week long holiday) if you are planning on going on a winter holiday. Base layers are a fantastic way of staying warm using very lightweight and unrestrictive clothing. While base layers from the top of the range merino wool brands are expensive, it is also possible to purchase much cheaper and affordable synthetic base layers, which have their own advantages as mentioned above, though they will not keep you as warm per weight of material.

Depending how warm you need to be, Icebreaker offers different thicknesses of base layers and merino wool. From Featherweight all the way up to Heavyweight, the different thicknesses of the wool used will be suitable for different type of activities and sports. The number used refers to the grams of wool per square metre. The different weights of icebreaker base layers are explained below:

  • Heavyweight – 300 Icebreaker make a range of different items of clothing which they label as Icebreaker 300 or ‘heavyweight’ layers. These have 300g of merino wool per square metre, or 300 gsm. These items are designed for the coldest temperatures and are normally either worn on top of a lighter base layer, or worn next to the skin. for example if you are out for a winter hike in the mountains and have several other layers on top.
  • Midweight – 260 Icebreaker 260 or midweight layers are still quite thick and heacy layers as far as base layers go. This isnt a layer you would wear to go for a run for example. Designed to sit loosely on the body, this thickness of base layer is ideal for a cold day skiing when layered up with other clothes such as a fleece and your ski coat.
  • Lightweight – 200 Icebreaker 200 is another base layer which is more versatile than the Icebreaker 260 because it is a bit thinker and therefore allows much more freedom of movement. This is another base layer which I use regularly when I ski. It is the perfect weight to help the body regulate temperatures when you are skiing between 0°C and -5°C. Not only does it keep you warm at the start of the day when your body is just warming up, but when you do start to warm up throughout the day as the sun comes up in the afternoon, this layer is thin enough that it also helps you to cool down and wick away any sweat as you are carving down the red run on your favourite mountain. The Icebreaker 200 base layer is also a great layer for when you are hiking, for the same reasons benfits it provides when skiing. Best used for a cool day or a mild day, with another fleece-like layer on top, this base layer will ensure your body temperature is well regulated and you don’t feel too warm or too cold.
  • Ultralight – 175 The Icebreaker 175 base layer is another all-year-round base layer, though probably best suited to Spring or Autumn conditions due to how light it is. This probably isnt the base layer to choose if you are planning a camping trip in the winter, or even on a cold Spring morning! The advantage this base layer has over the heavier base layers such as 260 or 300 is the freedom of movement it provides, and how light it will feel to wear.
  • Featherweight – 125 The Icebreaker 125 base layer is an extremely light layer. This will by no means keep you warm in the winter, this is primarily a summer thermal, for example if you are hiking in the evening or early morning before the day heats up.

Merino wool insulation doesn’t stop at a base layer top and leggings. You can buy a base layer top and leggings, merino wool gloves, hats, balaclavas, socks - almost anything you can think of made out of merino wool! Buying your equipment ahead of your holiday will help save you spending lots of money in the ski resort where prices are often vastly inflated.

Below I have outlined the complete package of Merino wool thermal clothing I always pack in my suitcase and which I would recommend taking with you on your ski holiday.

How many layers to wear skiing?

The rule of thumb for skiers is to wear a minimum of three layers when out on the mountains. This should be a base layer, a microfleece or other mid-layer jacket, and your ski coat on the outside, which will often also be insulated as well. If it is an especially cold day (less than -10°C) or you feel the cold a lot, it is more than likely you will an extra later in there, which might be another base layer for example. There are lots of factors to consider when deciding how many layers you will need on a particular day in the mountains. If it is windy you will need very different clothing from a still day on which it is beautiful sunshine and the temperature is close to 0°C. Not only does the wind make it feel about 5°C colder, but it also pierces your clothing, so if you don’t have a good quality, insulated ski coat, youre going to find yourself chilly if it is blustery wind. For windy days its important to add an extra base layer or else wear a thicker base layer than you otherwise would have done.

If you enjoy exploring the back country or skiing off piste, you may find yourself putting in a lot more effort hiking or traversing across the mountain, which will dramatically increase your body temperature. If you have plans to do this on a nice day with good visibility (this is the only time you should be adventuring off piste and into the back country!), then you should only wear two layers. Wear a light jacket and only one base layer underneath to make sure your clothes are breathable and you wont get too sweaty.

Another area of your body you need to consider layering up on is your legs. As well as wearing your salopettes which may or may not be insulated, you will want to wear thermal leggings. These will give you extra warmth, especially on chilly days when your legs will feel the cold first if all you are wearing is salopettes. The normal thickness of base layer leggings is 200 gsm, this will ensure there is enough dexterity for your legs to be constantly moving as you are skiing.

Thermal inner gloves are essential if your hands and fingers are the first things to get cold. People feel the cold differently, and if you are someone who tends to get cold hands, then inners will make a massive difference to your day on the mountains. Although they are thin and don’t look like much, I can guarantee they will make all the difference to keeping your hands warm, because once your hands are cold, it can become a very miserable time on the slopes.

What should you wear over base layer skiing

Most people will wear what is called a midlayer over their base layer. While base layers are most important item of thermal clothing you can wear under your ski coat, a midlayer is also recommended for the majority of people, though on a warmer day when the temperature is close to 0°C, those who don’t tend to feel the cold as much may want to ditch the midlayer because its equally as unpleasant to ski in sweltering conditions as it is to ski in freezing condition!