Let’s Review The Basics Of Layering To Deal With Changing Weather.

Sun, fog, snow all in one day. How do you dress for that? Credit: Janet Franz

Here in New England, temperatures swing high and low a lot lately, with 50-degree-plus spikes and heavy rains interposing snow squalls and blizzards. This winter seems hell-bent on convincing the last climate change denier that something weird is going on. Accurately assessing atmospheric conditions for a day on the slopes can challenge even the most seasoned skiers.

Stan Kosmider, field representative for The North Face, presented on “How to Dress for Cold Temperatures” at the Northeast Weather Summit at Stratton Mountain Resort in December. Credit: Martin Griff

Stan Kosmider, field representative for The North Face, talked with winter sports enthusiasts recently about packing for a multi-day cold weather adventure. “It could be a bluebird day, but the next day it’s pouring rain and icy,” he said. “So pack everything you own and plan on layers. You can remove or add clothes so that you never feel too hot or too cold.”

Three main layers provide for moisture management, heat retention and exterior protection.

Base: The most crucial layer for temperature and moisture control is the first one—your underwear. Skin sweats even when the air is cold, and if the perspiration soaks in to your long johns, the wet clothes will suck the heat out of your body, making you cold.

“The base layer gets moisture off your body and into the atmosphere,” explained Kosmider. This prevents excessive sweating, which can cause additional heat loss, especially when you slow down or stop to rest.

Look for under garments made of lightweight, breathable, wicking fabrics such as a synthetic (usually polyester) fiber, silk or ultra-fine merino wool. Avoid cotton, which absorbs and retains moisture, keeping the skin beneath it clammy and cold. A comfortably snug fit everywhere is essential, because to wick sweat efficiently, your next-to-skin layer must actually touch your skin.

Insulating: The middle layer’s job is to capture and retain body heat that radiates from your body, Kosmider explained. The more efficiently this layer traps heat, the warmer you will feel. Insulated jackets and sweaters come in a range of weights and synthetic and natural insulation choices abound. Down sweaters offer wind resistance but lose insulating efficiency when damp. Synthetic insulations mimic down’s efficiency, with better water resistance. Polyester fleece (not cotton fleece) is a great choice because it stays warm even when damp and dries fast. Fleece fabrics come in a range of plushness and thickness. Microfleece is thin and does a great job of wicking moisture away from the body.

For maximum temperature regulation, insulating clothing should fit close to the body, “snug, not baggy, and you should not have to size down,” Kosmider said. “The fabric should be thick enough to layer and be breathable,” so avoid thick fleece (more than 300 weight) or heavy wool sweaters. Fabrics with insulation-filled bubbles or ripples trap heat well.

Outer: The exterior layer, generally a shell jacket and pants, must do three things: block the wind, keep out rain and snow and allow sweat vapor to escape. Shells range from pricey mountaineering coats to simple wind-resistant jackets, but “even a $600 shell is worthless if you don’t have the right clothes underneath it,” said Kosmider.

Shell insulation types include down (again, warm but not waterproof), synthetic down (such as Primaloft, made from recycled plastic). “Down has the highest weight to warmth ratio, but when it gets wet it’s not warm. So, in this environment, it’s not reliable, and synthetic insulators are a better choice,” Kosmider explained. Shells with zippers and vents allow you to cool off without stripping down.

Shells may be waterproof/breathable for full-on squall conditions with high activity (they wick sweat but keep rain out) or water resistant/breathable for drizzly, breezy conditions and high activity. Avoid waterproof/non-breathable coats unless you plan to stand around in the rain (they keep precipitation out and trap sweat within). Kosmider recommends shells treated with a durable water repellent finish such as Gore-Tex – a rubberized, waterproof, breathable coating that allows water molecules to hold their shape, bead up and rolls off the surface.

Head, Face, Fingers and Toes

It’s not a myth that body heat escapes through the head, hands and feet. If you’re skiing or snowboarding, you should be wearing a helmet, which will keep your head warm. Look for a helmet with vents to let the heat out on warm days. For very cold days, don a skull cap or balaclava made of wicking fabric, because heads sweat, too. Liner socks and liner gloves keep feet and hands dry. Pack extra liners for extra sweaty days. A neck gaiter or face mask keeps the wind off cheeks and nose. Buffs serve the same purpose and work well as a headband to cover up “helmet hair” apres ski.

Product care

Ski clothes can be costly, but well cared for garments will last for many years, and layers will work best if cared for properly. Tiny pores in water-repellent fabrics become clogged with dirt and oils from skin, requiring periodic washing to remove debris and revive their breathability. Gore-Tex makes a special detergent for its products, but any liquid detergent without dyes, scents or fabric softeners will work. Dry garments in the dryer—without fabric softener— to reactivate the waterproof coating.

Down garments should also go into the dryer, without fabric softener. Use low heat, and place tennis balls or toddler’s shoes in the pockets to thrash the garments around so they will fluff up.

You can’t control the weather, but if you bring all your layering choices with you to the slopes, you can easily adapt as conditions change.



  1. Nice informative article. In addition to this, I wear snowmaker gloves when it rains. These are available from http://www.chssnowmakers.com if you scroll all the way down on the site, you will see the link for the gloves. Rubber gloves with a removable fleece liner. The Achilles Heel of a rainy day is wet leather gloves. You can eliminate this with these gloves and the layering and Gore Tex clothing that you recommend. I will be wearing it all tomorrow. Another ski day in the rain.

    • Pat, Thanks for the tip about snowmaker gloves! One of the journalists at this presentation (Northeast Weather Summit) inquired about snowmaker gloves. I will share this information with him. I hope you got some snow yesterday. Complete change of weather in Vermont!

  2. I try to keep up with the latest fashion trends…

    Lately I’ve been doing sort of a punker/snowboarder outfit.

    Keeps me dry and warm.

    BUT (not that butt) as I tend to be a bit wider than I’d like, the pant legs keep growing. Hence the punker/snowboarder outfit.

  3. After many years as a patrolman I used that experience in writing a number of articles on how to pack for a ski trip. The information above is pretty much spot on. I no longer worry about skiing in the rain as having been retired from patrolling for 30 years I can pick and choose my days and why would I want to ski in the rain. I’ll leave that to the kids who are happy to cut a hole for the head in the bottom of a garbage bag to go over their regular ski wear. One request of my friend Janet. Please do not refer to those of us who are skeptical of global warming as deniers. We are simply good researchers who agree with Dr. Richard Lindzen, head of climate science at MIT who stated that “Anyone who believes a trace gas such as CO 2 controls the climate believes in the tooth fairy.” Check web sites such as icecap.us and climatedepot.com and get the facts. As to sea level rise the tidal gage in Portland Harbor a few miles from my home read the same in 2014 as it did in 1947 and the tidal gage in Brooklyn shows a average rise of 11 inches per century! There has been no significant warming for 30 years but the warmists are panicking as no one is interested in wrecking the economy for their doom and gloom forecasts, none of which have come true. Remember Al Gore told us the Arctic would be ice free five years ago.

  4. Please get your facts straight before you publish incorrect and misleading info to the general public.

    ” Kosmider recommends shells treated with a durable water repellent finish such as Gore-Tex – a rubberized, waterproof, breathable coating that allows water molecules to hold their shape, bead up and rolls off the surface.”

    Gore-Tex is NOT a “finish/coating” applied to the exterior and it is not “rubberized”. It is a micro-porous breathable membrane usually bonded to an inner surface (to avoid wear).

    • Hi Chuck, thank you for paying close attention. I could have done a better job of explaining how Gore-tex works. In my research, I found that Gore-Tex is composed of stretched polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which is more commonly known by the trademark Teflon. The Teflon coating is bonded to the inner layer of the fabric. This creates an inner membrane with very small pores (around 1.4 billion pores per square centimeter). Each pore is approximately 1/20,000 the size of a water droplet, making it impenetrable to liquid water while still allowing the more volatile water vapor molecules to pass through. The outer layer of Gore-Tex fabric is coated on the outside with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment.

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