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How To Dress for Winter Sports

How to Dress for Winter Sports

The key to enjoying winter sports is to dress right. There’s nothing more miserable and potentially day ruining than letting your child get cold, wet and uncomfortable kid. It’s important to also take into account what your activities are, what the weather predictions throughout the day will be and since most of it will change from hour to hour, you need to dress in layers. And layering in the right gear is also important.

whistlerFollow these guidelines and you’ll be good to go for a full day of family adventure.

First, what are you planning on doing? Will there be a lot of hiking up a mountain, skiing, duck walking up to the lift line? Will you be Alpine or Nordic skiing? What I’m getting at is, how hot do you expect to get under all those layers? If you think you’ll be sweating that’s important to know.

Dressing Your Core in The Winter

Base Layer (top and bottom):

A good moisture wicking, tightly woven, flexible technical fiber will keep you cool and dry. Keeping dry is important because while you are hot while you are sweating, if you don’t get rid of the moisture you just shed, it will make you colder than when you started out. Remember why we sweat in the first place? We sweat to cool our bodies down by evaporating the moisture off our bodies. Getting soaked even in your own sweat is just as bad as if you accidentally got wet. So, moisture wicking is key.

Also keep it flexible. The more flexible your under layer is the more you’ll enjoy yourself. And try to find the thinnest, with the most protection that you can. It can be a bit more costly but it’s so worth it when you are out there in the elements. Cold weather gear is not the place to cheap out.

For really cold days, you can add a layer of fleece on top of the under layer. Make sure that’s flexible as well for both your torso and legs. You want to be free to move at your own pace. Remember the kid in Christmas Story that looked like a marshmallow? Don’t be him.

Your Core Middle Layer:

We’ve already talked about Fleece but there are a number of technical fabrics you can use to layer up over your base layer. Wool is also a good choice as long as it’s flexible. This middle layer is the part you will want to remove and add as the weather changes. So for really cold days one more thin layer that can be easily taken off and stuffed in a bag if the sun comes out, might not be a bad idea. Just don’t make this layer a big heavy one. Stay away from the big cable knit sweaters. A turtle neck is fine to throw over your base layer but try to avoid cotton. Make sure if you do put anything cotton on, that it’s sitting on top of your base layer (as opposed to touching your skin directly–neck is OK) and you can peel it off easily.

Your Core Outer Layer: 

First it MUST cut the wind. It’s not worth anything unless it cuts the wind. I don’t care how pretty the jacket is, you’re not going to care if you are miserably cold. Tight fibers like Gortex and other types of material are good for blocking wind and water. You want a nice, water and windproof shell. This way even if you do get sweaty under there, the wind won’t be getting through to evaporate the sweat. You can get a super heavy duty jacket that has goose down or layers of insulation that will keep you super warm standing still. If you will be standing around watching an event or minimally active outside, this is a good choice.

For skiing, or hiking I’d recommend a mid weight shell with air vents and plenty of pockets to hold your stuff. If you think it might be super cold out, I’d go with yet another fleece layer with a shell on top of it, than a very thick jacket. The weather can change on a dime and when you are skiing hard or Nordic skiing (which you’ll find yourself dripping in sweat even on the coldest days) you will get hot. If you have a fleece layer that you can remove and a shell with vents under the armpits you can better regulate your body temperature. If you only have a big honking goose down jacket to remove, you’ll be stuck with either freezing or sweating your brains out. Or you’ll be putting it on and taking it off every five minutes. One important thing to remember about technical fiber, don’t stick pins in it. No name tags, no stick pins. If you push a pin through that fiber, you’ll start to ruin the whole “wind-proof” part of it.

Preparing Your Head for the Cold

If you grew up under a rock you might have missed the fact that 70% of your body heat leaves through your head. That includes if you have a thick skull or a thick head of hair. So ladies, I know I hate them too, it’s hat time. Granted if it’s not super cold out, you can get away with a fleece headband or earmuffs but a hat is your ticket to long term fun. I have always hated hats, but I’ve come to Jesus about it and found a better way. Instead of a hair flattening, stupid looking hat, I bought a neoprene full head hood. I look like I’m ready to dive off a pier but it has this great affect of keeping my head warm, plus my hair stays relatively intact. It’s similar to when you put your clothes in a suitcase still wrapped in the dry cleaner plastic. My thick hair is flattened out and tucked away so it’s not getting stuck under my goggles, so it makes it easy to put on my helmet (also another item I finally grew up and started wearing).

Ski Helmet:

If you are skiing, helmets are not just for kids anymore, everyone should be wearing a helmet. It took me awhile to get over the dork factor, even though I’d think nothing of wearing a bike helmet, but seriously, there are rocks out there, and ice as hard as rocks. When you think about how crazy it is to be strapped to a board sliding down the side of a mountain…on snow… it’s kind of crazy that we didn’t always wear helmets. So invest in a good one. Make sure it comes from a reputable company and make sure it fits comfortably on your head. Air vents are also a nice feature to have. Another nice feature are the kind that come with cushioned pockets that let you drop little speakers in. Make sure to replace it every few years and for kids, check every year to see that it still feels comfortable or go get a new one. Never use a hand-me-down helmet. Treat helmets like you would car seats.

Mounting Things on your Helmet:

I know a lot of people like to mount cameras on their helmets. I’m not an expert on them by any means, but something about drilling through or attaching mounts to a helmet never sat right with me. If the helmet comes with a mount that’s a better choice. When I read that the formula one racer, Michael Schumacker’s freak off-piste ski accident, which left him in a coma, was possibly caused by his Go Pro mounting, that kind of made sense to me. It’s just good policy not to modify safety equipment after market.

Ski Goggles:

My least favorite piece of equipment. I am yet to find the perfect pair that never fogs, is dark enough for sunny days, and still lets me see the dips and peaks of a very gray/white looking terrain. Depth perception is the bane of my existence when the sun is not out. And I want ones infused with Google Glass or something like that, that shows me where to go and how to hit the mogul…and an arrow pointing to the lodge, but I digress. If you are a heavy breather like me, invest in a pair that leads with no fog as their key feature. They even have ones with fans in them. Truth is, it’s best to have a couple of pairs ready, one for sun, one for clouds, or a set that allows you to change lenses. And it has to fit your face or you’ll be miserable. There’s no easy win with Goggles, do your research and take your time to get them fitted. This is one of those items (unlike Swaravski- encrusted ski jackets) where the more you spend, the better the gear will be.

Keeping Your Neck Warm

Scarves are Ok in a pinch but if you are planning to be active at all, invest in a neck gator. It’s a nice round, usually fleece scarf that stays snug around your neck (not too tight of course) and you can pull it up over your face when you need.

Try to have at least one of your layers zip up your neck. You want to make sure there’s no way for air to get down your shirt, or blowing on a naked neck. When skiing your chin gets cold because along with your nose, it’s one of the first body parts heading into the wind. So at the least a gator, at the most, something that zips up completely covering your neck.

Scarves are also bad because they get caught in chair lifts and under skis. They’re kind of deadly actually, so if you have a scarf tied around your neck, be very careful about loose ends.

Keeping Your Legs Warm During Winter Activities

The same as mentioned above applies for pants. My recommendation is get the most flexible, comfy pair you can find. They can be baggy as long as they cling to you on the inside and are water repellent. Unless you don’t plan on ever falling, ever, or it’s warm enough for you to ski around in wet drawers, only invest in water resistant. The more waterproof, the less flexible they tend to be, so try to strike a balance, or don’t plan on falling down. And no sitting in the snow while waiting for your less than perfect friends to catch up either.

Keeping Your Feet Dry and Happy

Winter Socks:

Wool, silk or technical fiber socks. No cotton. Repeat. No cotton. They can come in different thicknesses so choose them based on how cold you think it will be. Keep in mind what boots you are going to be wearing. I usually go with thinner. My boots are pretty well lined and hopefully stay water proof (but even the best boots can manage to get water in them). Feet sweat too remember. Avoid doubling up socks unless you have to. And did I mention, no cotton?

Boots–for Winter Hiking

Waterproof, covering your ankle is preferred. In summer I’d say a lighter shoe is fine, but when there’s a potential for any snow or slush, you want something covering at least your ankles, preferably up to your calf. You want a good grip on the bottom of your shoe. If you hit ice and there’s no tread on your shoe, down you will go unceremoniously. If it’s really icy, invest in a pair of crampons, it makes exploring in icy areas, so much easier. They are not just for ice climbing. Any hiking trail that gets trampled in the snow is going to get icy.

Boots–for Specialized Winter Sports

With any specialized boot you need to get fitted properly. Nordic, Alpine and Snowboarding boots are all different, so you need to get fitted by an expert and discuss the features that best work for you. Most importantly, they should feel comfortable even with a pair of mid grade thickness socks on as it’s likely that’s what you’ll be wearing. Don’t try them on with light, dress socks. Make sure your toes are not jammed in there and that if they lace or buckle up, they can handle your calf. For front entry boots for example if you have big calves, you might need to have the buckles moved. I’ve never tried the molded fit boots but they sound fabulous, but can be pricier. The idea behind them is the less wiggle room between you and the boot, the better control you’ll have over your equipment. I’ve also heard complaints from people who say the fitting wasn’t done right and it’s too tight out on the hill (which is just the worst). So you’ll have to explore that one on your own with a qualified sales rep.

Also, this may sound weird but make sure you clip your toe nails. If you are in between pedicures your nails might not be bothering you in regular sneakers as you walk around but you’ll find that if you are in a pair of boots and hiking, walking, running or skiing downhill and your nails are a little long, it won’t take long before they start cutting into each other. This can be really painful, so don’t underestimate it. Clip them good and lace up tight before you head out.

Keeping Your Hands Warm



This is a key item. The first things that will get cold are your hands and feet. Invest in a good, waterproof, windproof, insulated ski glove. If you need to, you can also buy inserts as they can wick sweat away and keep your gloves dry for days of skiing. Just make sure your gloves still fit when you put them on. You don’t want your fingers to be too tight in them, or cut off your circulation. The last thing you want is less blood flowing to your fingers, since as it is, it will be making a mad dash to protect your core as soon as you get a bit chilly. Even with the best gloves, your fingers are likely to get chilly. Go inside when you need to, or take the time to warm your hands up, even if it means sticking them under your armpits. My recommendation, especially if you have kids with you, buy a big box of hand warmers, the kind you shake and they heat up. They are the best thing in the universe when you are out skiing and the only thing making you uncomfortable are your bitter cold hands. There’s no shame in them. I have them for the boots as well but they tend to bunch up in my ski boots and end up hurting. It really depends on the shoes and socks you have on so try them out before you go.

How to Handle Kids and Cold

Now I’ve written this with an adult in mind, but everything applies to a child even more so. When you are with children in the cold, remember they get cold faster, and are less tolerant that us adults. Keep checking on them, ask them how they feel because they may not always tell you, and be ready to carry their layers if they need to take them off or put them on. Keep an idea in your head of where all the good spots to warm up will be, and be realistic about how much you can push them.

Having a kid have a melt down because they are cold and miserable in the middle of nowhere on a cold, snowy day, believe me, can be a bit scary. I know because it happened to me. It was late in the day with a zero wind chill factor and my daughter threw a tantrum and refused to move, half way down the hill. Luckily I convinced her to move, but it was frightening to think what do you do to keep them from freezing. So cold weather is not the time to push them, even though you are dying for one more run, or to check out that ridge just a little further up ahead.

Oh and those hand and toe warmers? They are fantastic for shoving down a pair of kids ski pants if needed. They work magic. I just stockpile them each winter and bring fistfuls with me on every outdoor trip.

I’d love to hear about your outdoor winter adventures with your kids. Feel free to share below in the comments section. –Chris