Cross-country skiing adds exercise to the beauty of winter. This combination makes it hard to dress appropriately. The weather will likely be chilly, but you will be warm from physical exertion. Expert skiers get it wrong some days, asking themselves, how should I dress for cross-country skiing?
The best way to dress for cross-country skiing is in layers. You’ll want a base, mid, and outer layer for your body but also layers for your hands and head. Dressing in layers allows you to be prepared for whatever changes may come, both in your activity level and in the weather.
The different options for what to wear for cross-country skiing are seemingly endless. You could wear tights or loose-fitting windbreaker pants, a headband or a hat, a full jacket, or just a vest. Below, we take a detailed look at these options.
Table of Contents
The Importance Of Dressing Correctly For Cross-Country Skiing
Winter weather can be unforgiving, so it is important to dress correctly for any winter sport but especially cross-country skiing. Even easy-going cross-country skiing can be physically demanding. As with any aerobic exercise, as your heart rate climbs, so will your body temperature. You may begin to sweat. Sweat and cold weather do not mix.
If you are underdressed, you will be cold from the get-go, which, besides ruining the day, could be dangerous. If you are overdressed, you will be sweating, even on the colder days. The sweat will make your clothes damp, and when you stop, quickly make you very cold, maybe even dangerously cold, which could lead to frostbite or hypothermia.
With other winter sports like downhill skiing or tubing, the uphill work is taken care of by a lift or a magic carpet. So the objective is to stay warm for the downhills. In cross-country skiing, the objective is to dress correctly for the uphills and the downhills. You want to stay cool enough on the uphills but warm enough on the downhills. It’s tricky but obviously important.
Factors To Consider
Before getting geared up for a day of cross-country skiing, there are some things to consider. Taking these factors into consideration can help you be prepared and correctly dressed for the conditions.
The most obvious thing to consider is the weather. Differing temperatures can make a big difference when it comes to how you should dress. For example, a Spring day in March will be a lot warmer than a day in mid-January. Time of day can also affect the temperatures. Are you going for an early morning cross-country workout? Or in the later afternoon?
Either way, be sure to check the weather before your outing. Is it supposed to snow? Be windy? Cloudy? These are all things to consider when dressing for a day of cross-country skiing.
Knowing what cross-country route or trail you intend to take is almost as important as checking the weather. Will your route have a lot of uphill that will make you warm? Or will it have downhills, which can cool you quickly? Is it exposed or protected by trees?
How many miles do you plan on going? Will you be close to the parking lot and your car or in a remote location? If you’re planning to stay close to others and the parking lot, getting rid of or grabbing extra layers will be easy. If you’re going far out, you’ll have to carry the extra layers. These are all things you need to know if you are going to dress correctly for cross-country skiing.
Everyone will dress a little differently, according to their own needs. Some people run warm, others on the cold side. If you are someone who always has cold feet no matter what the rest of your body is doing, you might want to consider different socks. Or sweaty-handed people may only need thin gloves. It’s important to know your own needs before a day of cross-country skiing.
What Should You Wear Cross-Country Skiing?
You should wear several non-cotton layers when cross-country skiing. You’ll want a snug base layer that’s close-fitting and moisture-wicking, a good pair of wool socks, an insulating mid-layer, a wind and water-resistant outer layer, coverage for your hands, and a headband.
The following are good guidelines for dressing for cross-country skiing. However, remember to also dress for the weather, your route, and your own needs.
The saying “cotton kills” exists for good reason. Once cotton gets wet from sweat or the snow it will not dry out. The wet cotton will make you cold. When choosing your layers, avoid cotton at all costs, even in your underwear. You should instead use polyesters like fleece. Wool or wool blends are also a great option.
As mentioned, layers are your friend when it comes to cross-country skiing, but your feet are the exception. Even if you tend to have cold feet, wearing multiple socks can cause friction and blisters. Multiple socks may also cut off your circulation, defeating the purpose.
It’s best to wear one pair of good wool socks. Wool is naturally anti-microbial and moisture-wicking, so even if your feet do sweat, they will still feel dry and warm.
If you have a history of frostbitten toes or chronically cold feet, heated socks are helpful for cold days. Most heated socks have different settings that can be set low for warmer days or higher heat for colder days.
The base layer is arguably the most important layer of the ensemble. This layer should be close-fitting and most definitely moisture-wicking. You don’t want a base layer that will stay wet, so synthetic or wool fibers only. For your bottom half, tights or long underwear are perfect. If the weather looks especially cold, go for a thicker layer on your legs.
For your upper body base layer, a long-sleeved synthetic or wool shirt will do the trick. Again, use thicker or warmer shirts for colder days. Think about your downhill skiing base layers. They will work for cross-country skiing as well.
The mid-layer, or the layer between your base and outer layers, is especially important on cold days. This layer or layers, depending on temperatures and activity levels, should be breathable and, again, moisture-wicking. You won’t want anything too bulky or movement restricting. Remember, cross-country skiing involves lots of upper body movement as well.
It’s a matter of preference when it comes to your mid-layer. Some people like a light fleece, a thin wool sweater, or a zippered sweatshirt, while others like a hoodie or half-zip pullover. Vests are universally loved for keeping the torso warm but allowing freedom in the arms. On cold days, a sweatshirt and vest over your base layer will keep you warm but not overheating.
Mid-layers with zippers or half-zips can be helpful for temperature regulation. You can unzip if you are warm without taking off the whole layer. Hoods will work the same way. On warmer days, just one mid-layer will be plenty. On especially warm days, or on a route with long climbs, some people ditch the mid-layer altogether, going out in just a base and outer layers.
For your legs, a mid-layer is usually unnecessary. A second pair of tights will only restrict your movement without adding much warmth. If you’re concerned about losing warmth through your legs, a light pair of fleece pants over your tights is something to think about.
The necessity of an outer layer, or shell, depends a lot on the weather. On snowy, windy, or colder days, a good outer layer will be a lifesaver. As always, it’s important to check the weather.
Your outer layer should be water repellent but breathable. Your downhill skiing snow pants and jacket won’t work for cross-country skiing. They are too bulky and non-breathable. Down-filled jackets are also not breathable enough for aerobic activities like cross-country skiing. Anything gore-tex will be both breathable and water repellent and make great outer layers.
Your outer layer should also be wind-resistant. Even if the weather doesn’t call for wind, you will create wind with your movements, especially when going downhill. For your lower body, a pair of light wind and water-resistant pants are best. There are cross-country skiing-specific pants that won’t limit the movements of your legs but will offer wind protection.
Depending on the weather, you can bring a light, mid-weight, or heavy outer layer. Of course, not everyone will have all three on hand. If you’re in the market for a new shell, go for a midweight one. It can work for most conditions, especially if paired with the right base and mid-layers.
Cold hands can quickly ruin an otherwise fun day. What you wear on your hands will very much depend on the weather and your own needs. However, same as with the outer layer, your bulky snow sledding or downhill ski mittens will make your hands sweaty and then colder in the long run. Full mittens also don’t give you enough dexterity to grip the poles.
For colder days, use a pair of medium-thickness gloves or light mittens. Mitten/glove hybrids, such as a trigger mitten or a mitten with a glove inside, combine the warmth of a mitten and the dexterity of a glove, perfect for cold days.
On warm days, a light pair of gloves will be all you need. People with extra sweaty hands may not need any hand protection on sunny spring days. The last thing you want is wet gloves or mittens, so de-layer as needed.
We’ve all heard that 50% of your body heat is lost through your head. This means whatever you wear or don’t wear on your head can make a world of difference. A big wool hat will probably have you overheating, but ears are very prone to frostbite. For this reason, cross-country ski enthusiasts love a headband. It will keep your ears protected and warm but still let body heat escape.
Of course, on windy or snowy days, a full, tight-fitting hat is probably a better choice. On warm and sunny days, a ball cap or ball cap/headband combo will keep the sun off your face and your ears warm.
Once you’ve got your base, mid, and outer layers, have your hands and head protected, it’s time to accessorize.
On cold days a neck gaiter can help keep you warm, and you can pull it up to help protect your face and nose on windy or snowy days.
Carrying a pack is not advised unless you are going for a long-distance, remote cross-country ski. A full backpack will trap heat under it and make your back sweaty and wet. Remember, we want to avoid getting too sweaty. If you want to carry water, use a small, low-profile camelback or hip pack.
If you are going for a long ski and need a full backpack, bring something lightweight with a breathable back panel. You can use it for extra layers, snacks, and water.
What To Pack For A Longer Day?
You’ll want a lightweight pack carrying a few light backup layers such as gloves and a hat. You’ll also want some snacks to boost your energy and a liter of water to keep yourself fed and hydrated. You’ll also want to bring an emergency beacon in case you become lost or stranded.
If you do plan on spending a long day out on remote cross-country trails, it’s a good idea to carry a small, lightweight pack. Bring with you a few lightweight layers, extra gloves, a neck gaiter, and a backup hat.
You should also pack some energy-boosting snacks and at least a liter of water. At the top of the climb, before you head back down, is a good time to switch layers so you will be warm for the downhill.
It’s never a bad idea to carry an emergency beacon such as a SPOT or a Garmin InReach. You could become lost, break a piece of gear, or get stranded by extreme weather changes. Remember to always let someone know where you’ll be and when to expect you back.
What About Skate Skiing?
Skate skiing is a type of cross-country skiing that involves moving down a groomed trail as if on ice skates. It uses specific types of poles and skis and a specific technique. Skate skiing is even more physically demanding than cross-country skiing. If you’re trying out skate skiing, expect to move a lot and sweat a lot. The goal is to go fast, so skate skiers are pushing themselves non-stop.
Skate skiers and serious cross-country skiers will sometimes wear full-body racing suits. They are likely training or competing. The Lycra spandex is meant to be aerodynamic and allow for higher speeds.
Although these suits may look cool, they are designed for continuous, high exertion cross-country or skate skiing. They don’t provide much warmth or protection from the elements and will likely leave a casual cross-country skier feeling cold. Most cross-country skiers can stick to the guide and be fine.
7 Extra Dress Code Tips For Cross-Country Skiing
1. Layers, Layers, Layers
It’s worth repeating, dressing in layers is a must for cross-country skiing. If you only have one layer, you won’t be able to adjust to changing weather or changing body temperatures. You will end up either very cold or uncomfortably warm and moist. On the other hand, if you have your layers dialed in, you can exert yourself without fear of getting too sweaty but also avoid becoming cold.
2. Embrace The Cold Start
A cold start involves starting out in fewer layers than is comfortable, knowing that you will become warm once you start moving. You will be cold for the first few minutes, but as soon as your heart rate comes up, you will be perfectly dressed and not have to stop for layer removal. The cold start is sometimes unpleasant but usually more efficient in the long run.
3. De-Layer or Re-Layer Throughout The Day
If you hate the idea of a cold start (which is fair), remember, the window between feeling a little warm and then sweating through your base layer is very small. As soon as you start feeling warm, take off your shell or a mid-layer. It might feel inconvenient to stop and change layers, but it’s worth not making your clothes wet.
Likewise, if you start feeling cold, put your full hat back on or another mid-layer. Winter weather can change quickly, so layer up before you become too cold.
4. Wear Sunscreen!
On sunny days the snow reflects up to 80% of UV light, so being out in the snow and sun is like sitting in a tanning bed. Sunscreen will protect your skin from the sun and wind. Even on cloudy days, there are damaging UV rays coming through, so be sure to wear sunscreen!
5. Wear Sunglasses
If you’re out on a sunny day and unprepared, the sun and the reflected light can spell snow blindness. You might be tempted to use your snow goggles, but goggles and physical exercise don’t mix. Your goggles will end up foggy and wet.
Sunglasses will work on snowy or windy days and can protect your eyes and make it easier to see. Bring and wear sunglasses while you are out cross-country skiing. Your eyes will thank you!
6. Consider Using Leg Gaiters
Leg gaiters cover the tops of your boots and lower leg, usually clipping to the laces of the boot with velcro up the leg. They can be a real game-changer. If it’s supposed to snow, blow snow, or if you plan on breaking trail, gaiters can keep snow out of your boots and keep your socks dry.
7. Have A Change of Clothes In The Car
Even if you manage to de-layer at the right time, it’s always nice to have dry clothes waiting in the car. It’s also a good idea to have a heavier down or synthetic jacket to put on when you get done.
Once you stop moving, you don’t need to worry about breathability as your body temperature can drop quickly in cold weather. A puffy jacket and a pair of fresh socks at the end will keep your body from cooling too fast and keep you from feeling cold.
Making sure to dress correctly for cross-country skiing is crucial. You’ll always want to check the weather, plan out your route, and be aware of what you’ll need. Always be sure to dress in layers so that way you keep yourself from getting both too sweaty and too cold.