I grew up in Southern California and the coldest it ever seemed to get was 50°F. Consequently, I did not really learn how to dress for the cold until we moved to Tahoe. I made the cardinal sins of wearing cotton layers and jackets that absorbed water (because they were cute) rather than repelled water. But after a year of being cold, wet, and miserable all the time I figured out how to dress myself which makes playing in the snow a whole lot more fun.
Last year I also spent a good amount of time in Canada during the winter which brought my layering skills to a whole new level. It gets really cold up there, like freeze your eyelashes cold!
Here I’m going to go over the basics of layering and how I layer to keep warm while out on the mountain. I’ll go over fabrics, which layer goes where, and how it’ll all keep you warm and dry.
Layers, where they go and why
- Baselayers: Go on first over your undies, wick sweat and keep you dry and therefore warm.
- Midlayers: Go on over your baselayer, insulate you by keeping your body heat in while also being breathable.
- Outer layers: Worn on the outside, are weatherproof to keep the elements off you.
- Accessories: Make sure any other extremities are covered and protected, these would things like beanie, gloves, glove liners, scarf, buff, facemask, wool socks, and boots.
Types of Layers and Fabrics
Wool: It is a natural wicking material which means it pulls any sweat off your skin to keep you dry and therefore warm. The big plus about wool is that it is also naturally odor-free, meaning it is resistant to odor-causing bacteria so you don’t get the sweaty gym clothes smell.
Silk: It is really soft and lightweight making it really comfy. It is not as wicking as wool or synthetics so if you are working hard it might not be the best option, but for moderate activity in cool weather, it is perfect.
Polyester: It is engineered to wick away sweat to make sure you stay dry and it is extremely durable. Some have odor-resistant properties but they aren’t quite as good as wool.
Fleece: It’s warm but breathable and doesn’t lose it’s insulation when it gets wet. The breathability is good, but it also means you need a windproof outer layer because the wind will cut right through it. It can be a bit heavy and bulky especially if you have to take it off and stuff it into a backpack.
Wool: It is breathable and sweat-wicking, it also retains its insulation when it gets wet. Similar to the fleece though, it needs a windproof outer layer to be effective and can be bulky and heavy.
Down: It is considered to be one of the best insulators, it is light, compressible, and very warm. The only drawback is that if it gets wet it becomes useless, wet down won’t continue to insulate and will, in fact, make you colder. Also, some people are allergic to down feathers and therefore cannot wear it.
Synthetic Down: It is not quite as warm as real down but will still keep you cozy. The big benefit to synthetic down is that it will continue to insulate even if it gets wet. It’s only drawback is that it does not compress down as small as real down.
Gore-Tex: It’s the best as far as waterproofing, windproofing, durability, and breathability. The downside is that it is really expensive, but for the highest quality in waterproofing and windproofing Gore-Tex is the best.
Specialty Synthetics: Many companies make up their own waterproof synthetic materials, they are usually some kind of combination of polyester and nylon. The thing to make sure is that the item has a rating of 10,000mm waterproofing or higher. 10,000mm is the bare minimum for waterproofing and a lot of time that means a coating has been put on the fabric to “waterproof” it, but that coating can wear off over time. For good quality, I’d go with something that is at least 15,000-20,000mm (although this can sometimes be hard to find for women, inequality in gear quality between genders is a whole other thing. The point is, you might have to really search for good quality women’s outerwear).
How I Layer
My layers for a mild day in Tahoe snowboarding or doing other outdoor snow activities (15-35°F)
- Baselayer: Synthetic midweight top and either silk or synthetic lightweight bottom.
- Midlayer: Thin fleece or wool sweater on top and wool socks on the bottom.
- Outer layer: Snowboard jacket – my snowboard jacket is insulated so I don’t need too many layers underneath it; Snowboard pants – my snow pants are also insulated so again, I don’t need too many layers underneath them.
- Accessories: Beanie or snowboard helmet to keep my head warm, a buff around my neck that can be pulled up over my face and ears if needed, waterproof gloves and synthetic “e-tip” glove liners so that I can still use my phone without having to expose my skin. I use sunglasses or goggles to protect my eyes from the sun and snow glare, and waterproof boots or snowboard boots are a must.
My layers for extreme cold in Canada snowboarding or doing other outdoor snow activities (-30-10°F)
- Baselayer: Synthetic midweight top and wool midweight bottoms.
- Second layer: Fleece sweater on top and fleece leggings on the bottom.
- Third layer: Puffy jacket on top and wool socks on the bottom.
- Outer layer: Snowboard jacket and snow pants.
- Accessories: Beanie or snowboard helmet to keep my head warm, a buff or scarf around my neck, waterproof gloves, and synthetic “e-tip” glove liners so that I can still use my phone without having to expose my skin. I also like sunglasses or goggles to protect my eyes from the sun and snow glare and a face mask that can attach to my goggles to make sure I have no exposed skin on my face if I’m snowboarding. Waterproof boots or snowboard boots are also a must.
Getting Layered Up
Last thing, let’s talk about cotton. It’s a natural fabric that is used in all kinds of clothes, I bet you are wearing some cotton right now. The reason it is not good for snowsports is that it absorbs water and sweat which will make you cold. Odor causing bacteria loves to hang out in cotton so once you’ve sweat in it, it’ll get real stinky. And it’s not weather resistant so the wind will cut through it and rain and snow will make it soggy and wet. So while cotton is great for t-shirts it’s not great for winter sports.
Here is all my favorite gear for staying warm when I’m playing out in the snow!
Packing for a Ski Trip
A Hipster’s Guide to Whistler
Packing for Tahoe in Winter
Snowboarding the Western US & Canada: An Epic Winter Road Trip
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