From Socks to Tops: How to layer without losing your cool
The winter is a wonderful time. It might be a bit colder and darker, and the days might be shorter, but winter means snow. And who doesn’t love the snow? More than likely it’s those that don’t know what to do with it – they should all learn to ski. We’ve started this straight-up snow-focussed statistical series to guide you through skiing and snowboarding’s absolute essentials - welcome to Snow Worries.
December signals the start of the snowy season across the northern hemisphere, and with it, the opportunity to get out and enjoy what winter brings. However, skiing and snowboarding aren’t easy activities to take up. Just remember that they’re definitely worth it. The Snow Worries series is designed to bring you the right knowledge - whether you’re packing for the first ski trip to Europe, or you’ve racked up a few winter seasons already, there’ll be some useful hints and tips for everyone. These fact-based articles are all about making your winter full of skis and snowboards that much easier for you.
Humble underwear is the hero of the hill
The hidden hero of every successful and comfortable day on the hill is the humble underwear. These unseen layers are the foundation of every skier and snowboarders winter wardrobe – and not to be forgotten. We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up – from socks, to tops. Covering ski and snowboard socks, base layers/thermals and finishing up with mid-layers/insulators.
The most common mistake…
The most common beginner mistake is to head out for a day’s riding with too many layers and too much insulation. The right layering system, unfortunately, is a matter of trial-and-error for each individual. The best combination of skiing or snowboarding clothing for you will depend on your own body, where you ride, the temperature that day, how fast you’re going up, or down… the factors are almost endless. However, the following guide will equip you with the basics to make an informed decision on exactly what you’ll need. Still not sure after you’re done? Get in touch!
Ski and Snowboard Socks
The human race exists because of our unwavering ability to fix what is not broken. Many would argue that the sock has not been improved upon for maybe thousands of years. Fair enough. We’d argue that modern technologies in fabric manufacturing have revolutionised the ski sock as we know it. Nowadays, you can rely on quality ski and snowboard socks to keep your feet warm, comfortable and increase performance over the day. You’ll generally find that winter sport socks fit into two categories: tube socks and ergonomic shaped socks. Tube socks are built for those on a budget. They’re the ideal choice for a newcomer to skiing or snowboarding – someone who’s after a simple sock that won’t break the bank. Tube socks are designed for affordability, so you’ll likely find them constructed from synthetic materials that keep costs down. Ergonomic socks use some pretty high-tech construction methods to create a form-fitting sock that’ll normally feature mapped-cushioning that’s left/right specific, compression zones for performance, and blended fabrics that balance insulation and wicking-ability. Ergonomically-designed socks are pricier than tube socks, but you get what you pay for. Keep an eye-out for gender-specific socks too. Much like ski and snowboard hardware, you’ll find that a gender specific sock model isn’t just a gimmick. Male and female foot and calf shapes are fairly different so it’s a good idea to get a ski or snowboard sock that’s designed for your own foot shape.
How thick should a ski sock be?
The answer is ‘not too thick’. Some beginner skiers and snowboarders think the answer to winter comfort is super-thick socks, not the case when it comes to winter sports. Ski and snowboard boots are perhaps the most important piece of kit to get just right – ultimately, they’re the vital connection between your body and the thing your riding. If your boots don’t fit properly then you’re messing with this crucial connection, which is going to cause a lot more problems than a slightly long ski, or short snowboard. These days you can get some seriously lightweight socks that feature mapped padding in critical areas like the shin for improved comfort and a compression-fit to promote circulation and warmth. They’re also super breathable, so your feet should stay dry for the hours you spend on the hill. Thicker, mid-weight socks are designed for all-day riders with added forefoot and heel padding. Good mid-weight socks are ergonomically designed so this extra padding doesn’t interfere with your foot-boot connection. Go for a sock that suits your level – start with something hardwearing and padded. When you upgrade your boots, upgrade your socks too.
Heated ski/snowboard socks?
The pinnacle of ski and snowboard sock design, these foot coverings come with built-in battery packs that heat your feet as you ride. These modern-day miracles are keeping skiers and snowboarders’ toes toasty the world over. Consider a set if you’re susceptible to chronically cold feet or Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Thermals & Base-layers: Bottoms and Tops
Getting the right underwear is the foundation for any layering system. The first rule is, and always will be, no cotton. That’s because a base layer is really there to do one thing – wick sweat from your body and dry as fast as possible. Cotton doesn’t dry quickly at all, making it potentially dangerous in some situations. Secondly, it’s essential that base layers fit snugly around the whole body, like a second skin. This means that moisture is wicked away from the body quickly and doesn’t have chance to evaporate directly from the skin’s surface. So: no cotton, and really tight. Thirdly, remember that the base layer will act to keep you warmer than otherwise (because of the second-skin thing) but they’re not explicitly designed as ‘insulation’. Some may use insulating ‘hollow fibres’ but in order to keep snug on really cold days you’ll need to layer your second-skin with air-trapping garments to stay warm.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at our fabric options…
There are really two categories of material that are used for constructing a killer base layer: natural fibres like Merino wool, or synthetic fibres like Polypropylene and Polyester. However, a third ‘hybrid’ category is becoming increasingly popular. A hybrid base layer (as you may have guessed) is constructed from a natural/synthetic blend to benefit from the best of each fabric. You’ll find that almost all base layers will include a stretchy weave to keep garments tight to your skin without restricting movement.
This woven wonder is a long-standing staple of quality woollen clothing. Merino has been the pinnacle of sheep-grown fabrics for centuries. The past decade or so has seen a huge increase in popularity of Merino as a second skin base layer fabric. Merino is softer and finer than other wools and has excellent antibacterial properties, so it won’t stink in ten minutes. However, like all wools it doesn’t dry very quickly. This is Merino’s biggest downfall, but every fabric has its place. Merino is great for slower days on the hill, when you might not be highly-active all day. Ideal for ski/snowboard coaches, when you’re filming or lapping the park slowly, or just having a more relaxed day on the mountain. Merino is more expensive than purely synthetic fibres, as a result of how labour and land-intensive it is to produce but it’s also warmer and won’t smell as much.
Not all synthetic fabrics are the same. The genius of a synthetic base layer lies in the way it’s constructed. Polypropylene and Polyester fibres are engineered to increase wicking and evaporation properties. You’ll often see manufacturer’s giving their own fabrics a proprietary name/names in order to set themselves apart. Don’t get deceived here – it’s easy to fall for a tech-sounding name – do your research on each garment and remember ‘you get what you pay for’.
Mid-layer Insulation Co-ordination
Thermal insulation works by trapping warm air. The more trapped air there is the warmer the garment will be, but the bulkier it’ll be too. We can break insulation down into three key types: down, synthetic, and other natural fibres like wool. A mid-layer is definitely optional, unlike a base layer or socks. There are a wide variety of thicknesses, fabrics and fills available to tailor your insulation to the conditions. Bear in mind that depending on the temperature and time of year some people choose to ride without a mid-layer at all.
Synthetics: Fleece and Down-imitators
There are 2 key types of synthetic insulation: fleece and down-imitation filled jackets. As a rule, these synthetic garments will be cheaper to their equivalents constructed from natural fibres. Not all synthetic insulators are created equal. Just like synthetic base layers, you get what you pay for. Synthetic fleece will work best under an outer shell because they offer little wind-resistance themselves, meaning any trapped warm air will be moved away from your body.
Synthetic down insulators are great for wetter, windy days (very common in Scotland). They’ll normally be constructed with a weather resistant shell of varying durability to offer more protection from the elements. As a rule, it’s not good practice to layer over a synthetic down shell. It’ll compress the insulation and greatly reduce any warmth the layer provides, too many shell layers will reduce any breathability as well.
Natural materials: Down and wool
A wool insulator nowadays is far from a cable-knit jumper. You’ll most often see Merino feature in a wool mid-layer, and often blended with a synthetic fibre to increase elasticity and durability. They function very similarly to a synthetic fleece – working well under a weatherproof shell when the weather is cold and wet.
Down mid-layers are constructed from a shell that’s insulated with duck or goose down, they are more wind-resistant than fleece or wool as a result of said shell. These layers work best in very cold and dry conditions. It’s becoming common to see hydrophobic down fillings used. Hydrophobic down is coated so it repels water, very effective at keeping you warm in wet and cold conditions but there’ll be a hefty price tag as a result.