Cross-country skiing is a famously aerobic activity. You’ll generate a lot of heat and moisture, so it’s best to dress in layers.
- Each layer must be breathable
- Add extra mid-layers for warmth, if needed
- Your outermost jacket and pants should be windproof on the front side and breathable on the back panels
- Carry as little as possible
- Bring a change of dry clothes for after your ski
1. Base Layer
Your body will generate a lot of moisture when you cross-country ski.
Most people sweat from the exertion and/or develop condensation on their clothing from the temperature difference between their warm bodies and the cold air.
Wool or synthetic base layer materials are good for drawing moisture away from your body so it can evaporate.
Base layers need to fit snug against your skin but not feel tight or constricted. If your base layer is baggy, pockets of moist air will circulate next to your skin and you’ll feel chilled.
2. Mid Layer(s)
This layer is for warmth and moisture wicking.
We like thin, warm fabrics like merino wool. If your mid-layer is thin and lightweight you can take it off and stuff it in your pocket or pack if you get too warm while skiing.
If it’s cold, it’s better to add extra layers rather than wear bulky mid-layers. Extra layers are better for drawing moisture away from your body and allow you to make adjustments if conditions change.
3. Outer Layer
Purpose-made Nordic ski jackets and pants are constructed of windproof fabrics on the front side, and stretchy, breathable fabric on the back.
The wind might blow from any direction, but when you’re skiing it will almost always feel like you’re skiing into the wind.
You can test fabric for windproof-ness with the “breath test”. Hold the fabric up to your mouth and blow hard. You shouldn’t feel any air pass through the fabric. (Make sure your face is clean and you aren’t wearing make-up.)
Both your pants and jacket should be constructed with front side fabrics that completely block the wind. Jackets and pants need to be well-articulated at all the joints so you can move with freedom and comfort.
If you think you might enjoy racing, buy warm-up pants with a full-length zipper down the side of each leg. That way you can easily remove them immediately before your race begins.
Unless your ski area is very rainy, you should avoid Gore-Tex and similar fabrics. They aren’t breathable enough for Nordic skiing. And anything made with down feathers is definitely not a good choice for cross-country skiing.
Lycra Race Suits
The advantage of Lycra is the comfort of completely unrestricted movement. The disadvantage is, well… Lycra.
Also, Lycra isn’t windproof. If you wear a race suit, you might also want to buy windproof nordic underwear. Yes, that’s a real thing.
Hats, Neck Gaiters
Wear whatever hat or headband you like.
“Buff”-style neck gaiters are popular with cross-country skiers. They seem to provide just enough warmth and protection and are easy to stuff in a pocket or clip to a drink belt.
They also make great headbands.
What happened with socks? In the last decade they evolved from boring but essential to the most awesome clothing item ever.
The fabrics are great, the styling is fun and the fit is amazing. They come at an astonishing price, of course, but today’s technical socks are a pleasure to wear. Who knew we could get so much performance from our socks?
Btw, if you have trouble with cold toes, don’t wear 2 pairs of socks. That might cause blisters. Here’s a solution that will keep your toes warm when cross-country skiing.
Gloves and Mitts
Most Nordic skiers wear gloves rather than mitts because they give better control over your poles.
Those of us with cold hands and poor circulation wear well-fitted Nordic ski mitts and use hand warmers as needed. We can still have pretty good control of our poles.
In case you haven’t read our Buying Guide for Nordic Ski Poles, we recommend you buy ski poles with the hand harness, not a simple strap.
These come in different sizes and are expensive to replace. Be sure to test with your gloves or mittens on before you buy.
Glasses and Visors
Skiing with glasses is really nice; they protect your eyes from the sun and wind.
Sport sunglasses with interchangeable lens are a good choice. Clear lens protect you from the wind and snow in low light conditions and dark lens protect you from UV damage and glare.
Your glasses will probably fog up whenever you stop skiing to rest. You can prevent that problem by lifting them onto your forehead until you start skiing again.
Ski visors are another option for dealing with fogging. Visors are made of clear or tinted plastic and shield your eyes. They’re especially nice in heavy snow conditions. The air circulation behind a visor is better than sunglasses so they’re less prone to fogging.
Downhill ski goggles are too warm for cross-country skiing. Plus, they definitely break Nordic fashion rules.
We encourage our Masters athletes to ski without a backpack. You need to get your centre of mass well forward to cross-country ski properly and wearing a backpack makes this difficult.
Nordic skiing drink belts are a good choice for carrying a lot of fluids and a few small items, like an extra buff and snack.
While we don’t like to carry a backpack, sometimes it’s necessary for safety. When it’s very cold you must be prepared for an emergency situation. It you get hurt, even with a little ankle sprain, you’ll cool down very quickly. In that case, you need some extra clothing and other emergency supplies.
Wool Knickers, Long Socks, and Leg Gaiters…
Most cross-country skiers don’t dress like this anymore.
Modern Nordic clothing is lighter, more comfortable and dries faster, and there’s really no need for leg gaiters on groomed trails.
Norwegian sweaters are another type of old-fashioned cross-country ski clothing you don’t see much anymore, at least in Canada. They’re heavy, bulky and extremely expensive. Also, beautiful.
It’s best to start out feeling a little cold and underdressed. You’ll warm up quickly.
If you’re a runner, think of how you’d dress if you were going for a run and dress in a similar way.
If your planned route includes a long descent, you might get very cold, especially if you build up sweat during the ascent. In this case it makes sense to carry a small pack with some extra clothing. Put on dry mitts, a fresh hat and perhaps an extra jacket before skiing downhill.
Finally, bring a change of dry clothes for after your ski. Strip off all your wet ski clothes (including underwear and socks) and change into warm, dry clothes for the trip home. Even in a heated car, you can get chilled if you stay in your wet ski clothes.
The Norwegians have a great expression we try to take to heart:
Never bad weather, only bad clothing.