How To Layer For The Snow

The last thing you would want to be worried about during your epic holiday to the snow is warmth. Keeping warm is probably the most essential part in either making or breaking your holiday plans – and it all begins with choosing the right kind of insulation for your snow gear, whether it’s men’s thermals or women’s thermals. Wondering what to wear in snow? 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.

So, we’ve simplified it down for you into the following few guidelines, along with a couple of common questions you might want answers to.

First of all, there is one myth that needs to be addressed in terms of keeping warm in the cold:

CLOTHING FOR THE SNOW

Myth: If I go to the colder climates, I need to get the warmest jacket and clothes for snow weather that I can find.

Fact: This is partially correct. It’s true you would need the warmest jacket if you plan on staying or living in a colder climate and spending most of your time outside in the icy conditions. Warmth, however, is provided mainly through the technique of ‘layering’ and choosing to wear the appropriate layers such as men’s mid layers and women’s mid layers is the key to staying warm and happy.

At Snowcentral, we recommend a foolproof three-layer system to keep warm and dry.

WHAT TO WEAR IN THE SNOW

  1. Base layer – Thermal underwear
  2. Mid layer – Fleece between base layer and outer layer
  3. Outer layer – Waterproof/breathable jacket and pants

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 mid layers, for example. As a whole, we’ve found most people have had a huge amount of success in adopting this three-layer system when they wear clothes for snow, from balmy days at Perisher, to Kathmandu snow gear 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 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 mid layer 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.

1. BASE LAYERS AND THERMALS – DRESSING FOR SNOW

The base layer is essentially the ‘thermals’ that one would wear underneath all their thick outer coats and snow jacket/pants. This garment is the most crucial, as it serves the purpose of providing a kind of ‘second skin’ to your body which requires it to be moisture wicking (drawn away from the body) and keep you warm (insulating). Here are some of the different kinds of base layers available:

Synthetic BaselayersMerino Wool Base LayersBamboo Base Layers
ProsConsProsConsProsCons
LightweightNot antibacterialWarmer than syntheticMore expensive than syntheticResistant to abrasions- will not fray easilyNot as widely available
High wickingNot as warm as merinoHigh wickingMay not wick as well as syntheticQuick dryingPerformance can vary greatly between brands
Machine washableSoft feel against skin May not be machine washable (if 100% wool)- could shrinkAntibacterial properties
Quick dryingBreathableSofter/less itchy- ideal for sensitive skin
Relatively cheapNaturally antibacterialAnti static
Natural UV resistanceCloser fitting than merino
Retains thermal properties even when wetCheaper than merino
Eco friendly (bamboo is sustainable)

Merino Wool

The name ‘merino’ comes from the breed of sheep that is known for producing the softest and finest kind of wool from the wide varieties of sheep around the world. The merino fibres are natural temperature regulators – in cold climates the material traps the expelled warmth from the body and creates an air lock to prevent it from escaping. Thus, keeping the body warm. Garments made from a finely spun wool (merino) fibre are going to work exceptionally well at body temperature regulation.

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, your thermal underwear is still going to be keeping your skin dry and providing insulation to your body.

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).

Alongside its insulating properties, merino wool also exceeds in breathability control. Sweat produced from exercise is quickly absorbed into the fabric, from here it is deconstructed and released as vapour. Thus, allowing for the rapid removal of moisture, while keeping you warm and dry on the inside. The material is also renowned for remaining stink-free, which is usually caused by the build-up of bacteria within the garment material. The interlocking nature of merino fibres creates a barrier that prevents bacteria from building up. The material then naturally breaks them down once trapped inside. As a result, the base layer can remain odour free and worn for a few days in a row.

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.

Bamboo/Merino Blend

If you’ve ever worn wool and found it to be uncomfortable, due to a constant itching and scratching sensation, then perhaps the bamboo/merino blend is the right choice for you. Companies, such as Lé Bent, have created a ‘Platinum Blend’ which combines merino, as well as rayon fibres from bamboo. The rayon possesses silk-like qualities which soften the fabric and prevent the itch and scratch, which would be found in traditional merino wool garments. Since it’s also made up of merino, you don’t lose the temperature regulating, moisture wicking and bacteria-free qualities of the merino fibre.

Synthetic Fibres

The alternative to merino wool are thermals made up of synthetic fibres which are usually a polyester and/or polyester blend (i.e. polypropylene). Although not as warm as merino or merino blend thermals, synthetic garments are incredibly quick drying and have excellent capabilities in moisture evaporation, as well as keeping your skin dry. However, synthetic fibres do not perform well in bacteria control and are usually prone to becoming ‘quite smelly’ after a couple of days of use. Nevertheless, most synthetic base layers are machine washable and maintain their shape for longer. Since they are also quick-drying you’ll be able to pop them back on in no time!

Which Base Layer is Best for You?

So, you’ve gone through and read about all the different choices out there. Now, you may be wondering which kind of base layer is right for you, here are some tips for you to consider when choosing which one to go for:

What kind of activities will you be doing?

Baselayers Options
Base layers

The properties of the base layer fabric will be critical here in helping you stay warm and dry if you are intent on doing some intense mountain activities, i.e. skiing or snowboarding of course!

What is the temperature range of the different kind of thermal fabrics?

Natural and synthetic thermals alike are both meant to be used for cooler to cold climates. In comparison, merino and/or merino blends are by far the best in providing warmth, whereas synthetic fibres excel in breathability.

If you’re looking to go to the northern hemisphere for a wintery Christmas then investing in merino and its blends is worth it. However, if you’re just planning on a short trip to the southern hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand snow, then synthetic fibre thermals will do the trick.

How long will you be going on holidays/skiing/snowboarding for?

For longer trips, it’s always handy to have a backup pair of thermals on hand. The last thing you would want to have on a trip is no spare warm clothes…

Do you plan on heading to the snow regularly, or any kind of cold climate?

If you do plan on going on an annual snow trip, or visiting your cousin who just recently moved to Canada, then it is probably worth investing in the merino thermals or bamboo/merino blended thermals. Since they are natural fibres, they have been engineered to keep you warm and dry by mother nature – not much can beat centuries of evolution.

What is the right size? How should it fit?

A thermal should feel tight, but not uncomfortable. If you raise your arms then the material under your arms should not feel tight or like it is restraining your movement. Most thermals are quite stretchy, however, always look for a good arm length and a good torso length – meaning that your wrists are covered when you lift your arms in front of you and your stomach should be covered.

2. MID LAYERS – CLOTHES FOR SNOW WEATHER

Fleece is your friend, when it comes to mid layers! 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 mid layers 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 mid layers and reap the rewards. If you’re a real cold frog, consider beefing up your mid layer 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.

“What are mid layers and how should mid layers fit?”, is perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions we find ourselves answering. The mid layer is often overlooked and misunderstood, thus forgotten in the process of insulation. But, when it comes to layering, the humble midlayer is the bridge between being too hot and too cold.

Take this example for instance: You’ve bought a really warm snow jacket, which is thickly insulated, and after a while of skiing through a fresh dump of snow you find yourself feeling warm, hot and sweaty. There’s not much you can do. If you take off your snow jacket, you’d lose the main feature that’s keeping you waterproof and warm. Otherwise, you’d have to ski in thermals… which probably isn’t a good idea either.

This is where the mid layer comes in. If you have a base layer, a mid layer and a waterproof outer layer, then you have the versatility to put on or take off the mid layer according to how your body is responding to the temperature around you. Skiing and snowboarding is quite an exercise intensive sport, so it’s quite common to find yourself sweating and toasty in -10°C weather.

There are two kinds of mid layer materials, polar fleece and down insulation.

Polar fleece

For those of you who tend to find yourself quickly heating up, even in the cold, then perhaps polar fleece is the choice for you. Made up of synthetic polyester fibres, fleece is a lightweight, breathable and quick-drying fabric that retains much of its insulation capabilities even when wet. It is a great choice for any skier/snowboarder who would like the versatility of wearing it on piste if temperatures drop, or out and about during après-ski activities (i.e. going to the pub or out for dinner).

Down insulation

Down Insulation Ski Jacket
Ski Jacket, Down Insulation

On the other hand, if you tend to always feel the cold or are planning on going through arctic conditions, then down is the way to go. It is able to retain and provide warmth better than polar fleece as well as being easily compact-able, and lightweight.

If you plan on heading to the northern hemisphere for any snow sports, then it would be worthwhile considering a down mid layer to assure that you’ll stay warm.

We will go into the properties of down under the ‘Outer Layer’ section.

Sizing

Same as the base layers, the general rule of thumb for choosing a mid layer is to make sure the sleeves reach the wrists when your arms are lifted in front of you. Make sure your stomach is mostly covered too when you lift your arms up. The mid layer may not have to be ‘tight’ like the base layer, however, it should also not be too baggy. It’s always good to try on different mid layers, as some manufacturers vary in lengths and cuts, although they might be the same size.

3. OUTER LAYERS – WHAT TO WEAR IN SNOW

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.

The two main qualities to look for in a snow jacket are: waterproofing and insulation. If you aren’t looking to do any specific snow sports then perhaps keeping warm is all you are looking for. Without a doubt, insulation is your primary guard against the cold while visiting the snowy climates around the world. As there are various climates around the world, there are also different levels of insulation. Here is an overview of the kinds of insulation you’ll find:

Down Insulation

The warmest available option on the market for insulation. Down is a natural insulating layer which is sourced from goose or duck plumage – it isn’t the feathers themselves, but the lofty, fluffy material found underneath the feathers. Essentially, it is the undercoating of the feather that is made up of air pockets which trap air and body heat. This creates an air barrier between your body and the cold outside air which is what insulates you from the chill.

Not only that, down is also incredibly breathable, allowing it to evaporate any unwanted moisture from your body as you are out and about on the move. These features however, don’t sacrifice the fact that it is also lightweight, and in terms of its warmth-to-weight ratio, down by far is the best performing insulator. The material is also able to be compressed and compacted, meaning that you can stuff it in your luggage time and time again without compromising its quality and performance.

Down Fill Power (Loft Power)

Warmth by Fill Power
Down Fill Power Graph

When it comes to choosing down insulation, there is a rating called the Down Fill Power that is important to consider. There are two main factors that determine this: the warmth-to-weight ratio and how compressible it is. Manufacturers will advertise a ‘fill power’ of down at 600, 700 or 800. These numbers refer to the quality of down used within the garment. The number represent a volume – the measure of cubic inches (in3) one ounce of down occupies. The higher the rating is, the ‘loftier’ the down – meaning it will provide more warmth, depending on the warmth-to-weight ratio and higher compressibility.

For example: You have a down jacket with a down fill power of 650 weighing 150g and an 800 down fill power jacket also weighing 150g. The 800 fill jacket would provide more warmth compared to the 650 one while also being able to compress and pack away to the same size.

If you plan on travelling for a long period of time and want to pack light, yet stay warm. Then it is worth considering a higher down fill power jacket. For a more casual and everyday use of down, your choice may depend on how warm you would like to be and where you plan on going.

Synthetic Insulation

Alternatives to down have also been manufactured by many brands to create insulation for jackets and pants. If you’re planning on being more active or perhaps don’t feel the need for a toasty warm down jacket, then a synthetic one is the way to go.

Various amounts of insulation will be added to different parts of the jacket, for example the arms of the jacket may contain less insulation than the chest, as to prevent overheating. The weight range of insulation is usually between 10g-400g of insulation, the higher the amount the warmer it will generally be, depending on its quality.

The two most recognised types of synthetic insulation are as follows:

Primaloft

The best alternative to down. Engineered to mimic the qualities of down, this mix of microfibres and macrofibres have improved wetting and drying capabilities — they still maintain their insulating qualities when wet and are also able to dry faster. Therefore, it is preferred in clothing intended to be used in cold, wet conditions; such as snow jackets, pants, gloves and footwear.

There are also different levels of Primaloft insulation, depending on what kind of activity and use it is intended for. To read more about these differences, refer to the Primaloft website: http://www.primaloft.com/insulation

3M Thinsulate

Developed by 3M, Thinsulate is also another alternative insulation much like Primaloft. Made from unique microfibres as well, they are also moisture resistant and maintain their warmth when wet. 3M are innovators in their field, providing a range of recycled, water-resistant and featherless synthetic insulation options. For more information refer to: https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/thinsulate-us/?WT.mc_id=www.Thinsulate.com

According to the manufacturer, the warmth rating of synthetic insulation also depends on how much insulation is present. For outdoor activities in cold temperatures, generally a 400g Thinsulate material is required. It is recommended that for prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures, a 600g Thinsulate will keep you warm, and for extreme conditions Thinsulate materials will also go up to 800g.

Synthetic vs. Down Insulation

 PROSCONS
DOWN INSULATIONHigher warmth-to-weight ratio than synthetic insulationLoses insulating power when it gets wet and takes a long time to dry
Very compressibleCleaning down requires special care
Very durable; with proper care, a down sleeping bag or jacket can last for decadesNot hypoallergenic (rarely an issue)
More expensive than synthetics
SYNTHETIC INSULATIONVery water-resistant and continues to insulate even when wetHeavier and bulkier than down insulation
HypoallergenicOffers less warmth for its weight than down
Less expensive than downLess durable than down; insulating power gets reduced each time the bag is stuffed into a stuff sack
DOWN/SYNTHETIC BLENDSLighter weight and more compressible than synthetic aloneHeavier and bulkier than down alone
More water-resistant than down aloneLess water-resistant than synthetic alone
Less expensive than down alone
More expensive than synthetic alone

The big question, synthetic insulation or down? The answer depends on the same key factors that helped you to determine the choice of base layers:

What kind of activities will you be doing?

What is the temperature range of the places you are going to?

Will you be going sight-seeing or doing snow-specific sports, i.e. skiing or snowboarding?

A general guideline is that snowboarders and skiers may prefer to go for a synthetically insulated jacket because they may not require as much warmth as provided by down. The intensity of the sport helps them generate and maintain their blood circulation and warmth as opposed to someone who will be sightseeing and spending most of their time doing mildly-intensive activities, or sitting around. Synthetic materials will usually perform better in wet conditions in maintaining warmth in the case of the material becoming saturated.

If you’re taking a more relaxing and cruise-y holiday, then considering investing in down would be worthwhile. Down is unparalleled in providing warmth and the compatibility of the material makes it convenient to pack away without taking up precious luggage space.

Cotton

You may have noticed that throughout the descriptions of the items above, none of the garments are made out of cotton. Although cotton is one of the most widely used fabrics in the production of clothing, it is generally avoided in making base layers and mid layers.

This is because the properties of cotton fibres make it act like a sponge. Millions of tiny air pockets are found in the makeup of cotton which is what creates an insulating effect. However, one you start to sweat, these air pockets become filled with water and cease to provide insulation.

On a hot summer’s day, as a cotton shirt may be great for absorbing all the sweat, you may not mind being in a wet shirt. However, if it was in the middle of winter and you were sweating in your jacket from snowboarding, then having wet material against your skin might cause you to feel even colder, and potentially become life-endangering.

Another reason behind it is because cotton isn’t moisture wicking. Water is not drawn away from your skin with cotton, which makes you feel clammy and damp in your own clothes. The purpose of layering with moisture wicking fabrics is that the sweat you produce is able to move each layer of fabric, wet to dry, via a process known as capillary action. Therefore, enabling the base layer next to your skin to remain dry and retain its insulating properties.

LAYERING FOR SNOW PANTS

We’ve mainly been talking about what to wear on top, your baselayer, midlayer and outwear jacket, but what about for the bottoms? The same concept applies for your snow pants, the three-tiered layering system also works.

However, it is common for most people to just wear a baselayer and then a snow pant on top, skipping the midlayer. Since our legs are usually in motion and well-circulated, they tend to not feel the cold as much. Another reason is because it is more important to keep your core warm, your chest and torso, then your extremities. If the blood that your heart is pumping is warm, then it will also be warm when it reaches your extremities. Nevertheless, the number of layers you wear will depend on how your body reacts in the cold, therefore it is always beneficial to have layers available for use.

FOOTWEAR FOR THE SNOW

If you’re wondering what shoes to wear in the snow, insulation in footwear is a common method many manufacturers have adopted to provide comfortable snow boots that keep your feet toasty and warm. Usually insulated footwear is made up of synthetic fibres such as Thinsulate that make up the lining of the boot while the outer boot is protected by a waterproof material. Since synthetic fibres still work to insulate under wet conditions, they are usually chosen as the main insulator in footwear. If you’re deciding what shoes to wear in snow, see our Ski Boots Buying Guide.

XTM Dual Density Sock
Dual Density Multi Thickness Sock

It is a good idea to take the same approach when selecting ski socks for your snow boots. Socks made of merino wool or synthetic fibres will help keep your toes warm and dry. Cotton on the other hand, may lead to sweaty feet; preventing them from staying warm.

Hopefully these points on insulation and layering will help you make the right choice for your technical gear. Always remember, when it comes to keeping warm and dry in the snow; versatility is the name of the game. With constantly changing conditions, you need the flexibility to stay on top of whatever is thrown at you. This is where layering really works as the best technique to help you enjoy your holiday.

GET YOUR THERMALS AT SNOW CENTRAL

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 at Snowcentral 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!