The main concern for any skier is staying warm and comfortable when spending long periods outside, in sub-zero climates. Obviously, sliding down a steep pitch on one or two bits of thin wood whilst dodging cliffs, rocks, trees and the occasional gumbie snowboarder is not what the human body was optimised for; you need to buy the right gear to ensure your comfort on the slopes. We had a chat with the local ski fanatics Snowcentral to find out how they recommend keeping warm on the slopes.
At Snowcentral, we recommend a foolproof three-layer system to keep warm and dry.
- Thermal underwear
- Technical/fleece midlayer
- Waterproof/breathable outer layer
Depending on the person and the way you handle the cold, there is some latitude to change this formula- if you really feel the cold, you could double your midlayers, for example. As a whole, we’ve found most people have had a huge amount of success in adopting this three-layer system, from balmy days at Perisher to frigid blizzards in Banff.
There’s a lot of jargon in the ski industry which serves to complicate what is really a simple principle- buy the right ski gear for your snow condition. Clever marketing and fun and edgy nicknames for technology and various textiles and fibres makes distilling the options almost impossible, so let’s start from the beginning and talk about what you should look for in the make of your ski garments.
Fibre selection is vital for your thermal and midlayer options, as some materials will work at a higher efficiency to keep you warm, some will work better to keep you dry and some just won’t work at all.
We’ll start by looking from the inside layer and working our way out. It’s hard to say no to wool, when choosing your thermal layers- garments made from a finely spun wool (merino) fibre are going to work exceptionally well at body temperature regulation. The biggest misconception with thermal underwear is that it’s a warming layer, in fact, the thermal layer is important to wick sweat away from the skin, keeping you dry and comfortable, so that your mid and outer layers can do all the insulating work (thermals do, of course, provide some insulation, but very little in comparison to your other layers). So why wool?? It’s a natural thread and there’s a channel of air which runs through the fibre, meaning moisture doesn’t only wick through the gaps in the woven thread, but also through the fibre itself- working at a higher efficiency to keep moisture off your skin. Wool also has a much lower saturation point, when compared to other fibres, so even when you’re drenched with sweat, or it’s just been a wet old day, you’re thermal underwear is still going to be keeping your skin dry and providing insulation to your body.
Wool’s not for everyone however- some people react badly to wool against their skin and others just find that they get too warm and uncomfortable using it as a thermal layer, but don’t dismay, there are still options out there for you! Synthetic thermals, made from polypropylene, are a good alternative to wool if there’s a compromise that needs to be made. It still works great as an active wicking layer but perhaps won’t be quite as warm as it’s woolen counterpart.
Now that we’ve covered the good, time to deal with the bad – cotton. Too many times, here at Snowcentral, we’ve seen people employ the quantity over quality approach. That is to say, skiers who believe throwing as many layers on as possible will stay warm and dry all day…This is WRONG! You may get away with it skiing the warm days here in Australia, but stare down the barrel of -25 deg day in Canada, in your sweat soaked cotton t-shirt and see how you feel. The basic principle of cotton is that it works well in the heat, because it holds moisture to your skin, decreasing the amount of sweat the body needs to produce to keep you cool, but apply that principle to extreme cold and you’ve pretty much signed your own death sentence. Survival experts say that if you were to find yourself drenched to the bone in a frigid environment and wearing a cotton shirt, your best bet for survival is to go naked, rather than stay in the shirt- hopefully that provides some perspective!
Fleece is your friend, when it comes to midlayers! It’s cheap, dries fast, doesn’t smell, is hard to stain, wickable and in a pinch can be hand washed and dried on a heater in less than half an hour…moral of the story – travel with fleece. There are plenty of technical midlayers out there which are great, but you pay a premium for them and they don’t necessarily work any better than polar fleece garments. Our recommendation is to get yourself a couple of comfy fleece midlayers and reap the rewards. If you’re a real cold frog, consider beefing up your midlayer options; add another wool top for a little bit of warmth, include an insulated vest/jacket or if it’s really cold, you can add down/soft shell lightweight jackets.
The first rumor to dispel: waterproofing and breathability ratings don’t directly pertain to the warmth of your outerwear. Getting your hands on the best Gore-tex 20,000/20,000mm jacket isn’t going to guarantee your warmth on the slopes (although it doesn’t hurt your chances). One thing to consider is the level of insulation in your jacket…is it down? Is there polyfill insulator? If so, which weight? For example, heading to Niseko in January, there is a very good chance your snow quality is going to be very, very dry accompanied by cold air temps. Your ski wear isn’t likely to leak, as the snow is too dry and just brushes away, but the bitey air temperature will mean you need a nice, insulated jacket to keep the chills at bay. On the flipside, skiing Australian slopes in August is likely to be warm, with wet and heavy snow, so that’s when you’re waterproofing really gets put to the test, and with the right midlayers, you probably won’t want much in the way of insulation.
So I’m guessing by now you can see where I’m going with this…heading away to the snow is all about knowing the conditions you’ll be faced with and ensuring you have the best possible kit to face those challenges. Use your local ski shop guys and girls for advice. There’s a good chance that between the whole staff, someone has been where you’re headed to, if not, they’ve read about it or heard of it. Why spend thousands on an amazing trip to the snow and have it all come undone because you saved $20 on thermals!