When I moved to Colorado in 2013, I’d never been on a pair of skis in my life. The concept of being excited for winter was still completely foreign to me. I’m from the East Coast, where winter is basically three months of grey, bone-chilling misery.
Figuring out what to wear is one of the hardest parts of trying out a new sport. I admit I had an advantage – I used to work outside, so I had already shelled out some money for warm, waterproof pants. But my jacket is the same winter coat I’ve had since high school (well, I finally upgraded it in 2019). And one time I forgot those warm, waterproof pants, so I just skied in Billy’s sweatpants and everything turned out fine (fortunately I didn’t have any epic wipe outs that got me covered in snow).
Your ultimate priorities are plenty of layers topped off with warm and waterproof outerwear. If it’s not actively snowing, you’ll still appreciate waterproof layers if you fall and get covered in snow.
The most important part of any winter recreation outfit is your base layer. This is the layer closest to your skin. For skiing, it should be moisture-wicking and not too bulky. A cotton t-shirt will get wet with your sweat and stay wet, so some sort of synthetic fabric is your best bet. Under Armour Cold Gear is my favorite, but any non-cotton, long underwear type shirt and leggings will do. REI’s long underwear is actually pretty affordable. I typically wear an Under Armour top and winter running tights as my base layer.
If it’s not going to be sunny while you’re skiing, you will want to layer up a little bit more. For example, I’ve got some baggier long underwear that I’ll actually put over the running tights to really trap in all the heat. The long underwear are basically up to my armpits, so yeah, it’s a pretty hot look. But I’m using what I have!
Finish off your base layers with socks that come up to your knee. If you don’t have socks that tall, at the very least make sure they come up over your ski boots. You can test this when you pick up your boots at the rental place. If your socks aren’t higher than your boots, they’re going to bunch up and cause you a lot of shin pain. Ski boots are already uncomfortable, don’t make it worse! Wherever you’re renting skis from will have socks for sale, so you can always pick up a pair while you’re there.
Ladies, I highly recommend a sports bra so you have moisture-wicking from head to toe.
Once you’ve got base layers established, you can start adding some bulk to trap heat. Your base layer wicks moisture and keeps you dry while middle layers keep your body heat from escaping. This is why it’s so important to not use cotton base layers – they won’t ever dry out, and you’ll be wet and freezing.
Here’s the typical progression I use:
- Base Layer
- Slightly thicker long sleeved shirt
- Form-fitting fleece
My outfit is a mix of what I already had in my closet, what I’ve gotten a deal on, and a few legit investment pieces I got after deciding I did actually enjoy being outdoorsy. I got my puffy vest for $20 at the Gap outlet but also have a really nice fleece from REI that was closer to $60. Unfortunately, they don’t make it anymore, but REI still has lots of great options.
In general, try to wear one less layer then you think. I overdressed for the first few years of skiing because I was always so cold in the parking lot. But once you get going downhill (the ride on the lift will also be a little cold) you’ll warm right up, especially if you’re in Colorado and the sun is out.
I accidentally bought a snowboarding jacket back in high school (yes, I still wear the jacket I was rocking on the bus stop corner circa 2005). This means it had a pocket for goggles, and the armpits unzip (a feature I was thoroughly confused by while freezing my butt off at said bus stop, but now appreciate). These are nice features, but they’re not must-haves.
Whatever winter jacket you have is fine as long as it’s waterproof and not knee length. You do want to be able to move around in it, but let’s be real, it’s not like you’re going to be giving Lindsey Vonn a run for her money your first few times out. It’s not important to have the latest ski wear – just warm and waterproof!
Waterproof, insulated pants were probably the biggest advantage I had thanks to my previous career working outside. Ski pants can be pricey, and I already had waterproof, warm pants that fit over leggings/sweatpants and kind of fit over my ski boots.
If you have warmer non-waterproof layers, you can save a few bucks by getting rain pants to put on top of them. Rain pants are generally cheaper than ski pants, and work just as well. They just won’t fit totally over your ski boots, but that’s not functionally important (just fashionably, if you really care).
The reason you can’t just wear sweatpants is that if you fall, you get snow all over you. The snow hits your body, melts, and then you’re wet. And then you get cold. Basically everything you wear is to avoid getting cold or wet or both. But like I said at the beginning of the blog, I forgot my waterproof pants once and had to make due with Billy’s extra pair of sweatpants over the leggings I was already wearing. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t the end of the world, either!
“How bright could it possibly be?”
“It’s winter, why on earth would I need sunglasses?”
This was me (with plenty of eye rolling for effect) on my way to my first ski lesson. I stepped outside, looked up towards the mountain, and was promptly blinded. Fortunately, Copper had plenty of sunglasses to choose from that were all under $20 and not totally tragic looking.
Goggles will run you around $50 or more, so I just used sunglasses and kept a close eye on sales. I ended up picking up a pair of goggles on sale for under $20 in the off-season. Goggles are safer than sunglasses since they are less likely to shatter if you fall, so keep an eye out for sales! The less concerned you are about having cool goggles, the quicker you will find cheap ones that work just fine.
A helmet is another must-have, but one that is rentable. This is another great item to save up for and keep an eye out for sales! Ski helmets have little pads that cover your ears, so you shouldn’t need an ear warmer or other ear covering. If you find your ears are getting cold, you can really only fit something super thin like a Buff underneath your helmet. You’ll be surprised with how warm you stay, though! I also bring a beanie/warm hat and keep it in the car for the ride up and back from skiing.
For the love of all that is holy, do not forget gloves!! And hand warmers and foot warmers. But you will be absolutely miserable if you don’t have gloves. Again, it’s ideal if these are waterproof, but not absolutely necessary. I happened to have waterproof mittens laying around (thank you, going to college in West Virginia) but I’ve made it work without.
If you’re buying something new, mittens are warmer than gloves since your hand/finger heat is all trapped in one spot instead of separated out. You can easily hold onto your ski poles in mittens, so you don’t need the dexterity of gloves!
The bottom line
Any way you slice it, there’s no cheap way to go skiing. So do the best you can to borrow and beg your way into some warm and waterproof layers for your first time, and then if you decided you like it, keep an eye on sales to start stocking up on your own things.
You’re going to be colder sitting on the lift than you are skiing back down the mountain. Just remember that if the wind is in your face going up, it’ll be at your back going down! And once the sun comes up over the mountain, you’ll warm up quickly too. That reminds me – pack your sunblock and chapstick and reapply frequently, including on the bottom of your nose!