The Right Way to Dress for Cross-Country Skiing
Leave the snow pants, helmet, and goggles at home
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If you’ve ventured into the sport of cross-country skiing, you’ve likely made the mistake of being hopelessly overdressed and underprepared. As if this weren’t already the world’s hardest sport, you’ve weighed yourself down with parkas and snow pants, which inevitably wind up sweaty and unzipped, superfluous layers flapping in the wind. Symptoms also include drenched neck gaiters and oversize fleece hats haphazardly stuffed into HotHands-filled pockets in a moment of desperation.
Yes, cross-country skiing is hard. But the real issue is that you’ve dressed yourself like you’re going downhill, not up. To the uninitiated, this is an easy mistake to make. Even seasoned nordies are prone to overdressing sometimes.
After four years as a professional nordic racer, I’ve amassed an armload of tricks that make a day on skinny skis much more enjoyable.
To start, drop any preconceived notions of what you think is cool in snow sports. Baggy jackets? Nope. Helmets and goggles? Nix. Nordic ski style is part cyclist, part speed racer, and undeniably Scandanavian, with pieces that are slim, simple, sleek, and highly functional. Since it’s an aerobic sport like running, cross-country skiing usually doesn’t require too many clothes to keep you warm. The key is to wear just enough to avoid getting cold without winding up overheating on the first hill. Unless you’re doing a lot of standing around (think: long, slow skis with lots of wildlife-viewing breaks and snack pit stops), you likely don’t need more than two layers each on your top and bottom. You certainly do not need a heavy parka on top of fleecy layers. Here’s what I recommend.
Choose Your Underthings Wisely
Generally speaking, start your layering from the inside and work outward. First, wear a pair of moisture-wicking undies that fully covers your butt. Most women and a few men will understand the distinction I’m making here. Second, start your upper-body layering system with a light, tight tank top; this piece will warm your core while also keeping your arms free for movement. I borrow from the cyclists’ playbook and have a couple of Velocio’s muscle-cut merino base layers on hand for extra chilly days. This top from Craft is popular with many of my male friends and former teammates. Add a long-sleeved base layer on top (Craft makes one of my favorites). For warm days, skip the tank and head straight for the base layer.
As for socks, you’ll want a pair that’s lightweight and not wooly. Heavy socks can retain moisture and cause blisters, even in the winter. You’ll also want socks that rise above your ankles to keep out snow. As long as your feet are moving, your toes will be warm. If you’ll be doing significant standing around in your ski boots (cheering on the sidelines of a race or hanging out by a scenic view) or if it’s particularly windy, these Madshus boot covers add extra protection for your feet.
Layer Up Your Torso
Once you have your next-to-skin layers dialed, you’ll want to add a soft, breathable jacket, like one you’d wear for running or fast-paced hiking. Great cross-country ski jackets are lightweight, stretchy, slightly wind blocking and moisture resistant, and have several pockets for snacks. If it’s cold, don a light vest as well. In fact, bring the vest along no matter what. In warm temperatures, you can wear it over your base layer without a jacket.
Wear Soft-Shell Pants—or No Pants!
For the legs, two layers will be enough. Start with a pair of light long undies (merino wool is the best because it resists stink) with either a pair of cross-country pants (more on those below) or a set of spandex tights.
Like jackets, good cross-country ski pants will be light and breathable. They’re typically made of a stretchy soft-shell material so that they’ll wick moisture and move with you, and they’ll have a fitted cut. Some might feature slight wind resistance in front with a more breathable fabric in back. I use mine for camping during the summer and running in the fall.
But the fun thing about nordic skiing is that you actually don’t have to wear pants. Nordorks love spandex. If you have a pair of running tights, those will work really well, especially in temperatures of around 30 degrees or more. (Just make sure that you wear them under your boots, not stretched over them, ya noob!)
Finish off your kit with a neck gaiter, hat, and gloves. Light Lycra neckies with no fleece are best, except on extra cold days when you might want additional insulation. Either way, they warm up the cold air around your face and in your throat, reducing your risk for lung burn, which is a real thing.
For your hat or headband, say it with me now: “Lighter is better.” Careful, though. Your neighborhood ski shop might try to sell you something called a racing hat, because you’re buying all this other cool gear and clearly fit in with the nordies. These things are spandexy and tight, likely have your local ski-club logo screen-printed onto them, and have gained the nickname “condom caps” in the ski world for a reason. Best to avoid them unless you want to look like a dork. Try these instead.
Finally, opt for gloves over mittens. Unlike downhill skiing, proper cross-country form requires you to grip your pole each time you plant it and then release the grip as your follow through your stride, which means you need good dexterity—and mittens are like hot prisons for your fingers. I always have three pairs of gloves ready to deploy: a lightweight pair, an insulated pair, and one set of lobster gloves that offer the warmth of mitts without compromising too much fine motor control.
Pro tip: when shopping for gloves, look for a thoughtfully placed patch of fleece on the outside part of the thumb. That’s a very important feature designed specially for nose wiping. You’re gonna need it.
Wear Sunglasses—Any Sunglasses
This doesn’t have to do with layering, but I cannot stress it enough: goggles are not sunglasses. Goggles are for shredding pow and protecting your face from the pounding downhill airflow. They’re heavy, tight, and tend to fog up when you get hot. When worn without a helmet (which you also should not wear for nordic skiing), goggles also make you look like a Minion. Leave them at home.
When choosing what eyewear to bring, don’t get too caught up in fashion. Any sunglasses will do, so long as they cover your eyes. The ideal option is a pair that has interchangeable lenses for different sun levels. Large-framed sunnies are very hot right now with the nordies. But wearing nothing is still better than wearing goggles.