Cross-country skiing is a hard sport to dress for. While you may be facing sub-zero temperatures, you are also extremely active, producing heat and moisture. Getting cold is painful and dangerous, as one lap around your one-way loop can take up to two hours. Overheating is not so bad at first, but the moisture in your clothes from your sweat will ultimately conduct your heat away from you when you stop and rest. Removing layers on the trail is also less than ideal, because you have to come back for them later. Top that off with the fact that your outfit must be low-bulk, and you have yourself quite the challenge. I myself have been skate skiing for 6 years now, and I have finally collected a technical wardrobe that serves me well in almost every set of conditions. I notice quite a few skiers that could improve their choices when it comes to dress, which inspired me to create this overview of what I wear.
-10C almost all day, with flurries on and off. Moderate winds, though most of the trails are in the forest, making wind negligible. The facility was Highlands Nordic, a great trail system with plenty challenging hills.
Surprisingly, cross-country ski boots are very slim, offering little insulation to your feet. That’s why I take merino-wool ski socks that are common place while downhill skiing. You still want to be able to fit your foot in your boot, but the socks are the primary insulation. I take the over-the-calf style, just for a little extra warmth on my lower leg. If that extra insulation is unneeded, you can always scrunch the socks up by your ankles. My socks are made by Burton, but you can find a similar pair from Darn Tough, their Hunt series Over-The-Calf Full Cushion. In fact, Darn Tough may even be a better choice because of their amazing warranty and great blend of merino wool, nylon, and spandex.
Moving up from the socks, we come to the baselayer on your legs, which is one of the most important pieces. Everything on your legs must very low-bulk and flexible, as your legs are constantly in motion. With this in mind, I take my merino 200g/m2 leggings. The warmth to bulk ratio is extremely high with merino wool, and it also wicks moisture quite well. Specifically, I use the 200 Oasis Leggings from Icebreaker.
The bottom shell us usually a water-resistant, stretch layer with a little bit of insulation and a relaxed fit. Drawstrings around the ankles are a huge plus to keep the cold air out. Water resistance is not a necessity, but it depends on how much you fall. The largest concerns are flexibility and wind-resistance. Stretch or a relaxed fit is required so you don’t impede your leg movement, which makes skiing far more comfortable. Wind resistance is important when going downhill. While the trails themselves are usually quite sheltered, tucking down a hill can make your legs extremely cold if your pants are not windproof. My pants are made by Salomon, but Outdoor Research makes some great Cirque Pants that are quite similar. Both pants are stretchy, perfect for high-motion activity, and also water resistant for the occasional fall.
The properties of a good baselayer are well known: warmth, flexibility, and breathability. I usually use an HH dry piece from Helly Hansen, made from their synthetic Lifa material. This piece hits all the points mentioned above, while also being very lightweight. The elastic cuffs are a bonus to keep the long sleeves down at their full length. A slight upgrade would be the HH warm Ice Crew, which is the same Lifa material with merino wool. The HH Warm Ice Crew would be warmer, so ultimately depends on preference and the conditions.
The top midlayer is one of the most interchangeable parts of a cross-country skier’s wardrobe. This layer is the primary insulation layer, and so it can be adjusted to the environment. On this specific day, I chose to wear a light sweater that is fairly breathable. One benefit to the -10C and up conditions is that you can shed a light layer, pocket it, and keep moving. While I didn’t have to do that, it is still a good idea to have multiple layers instead of one large layer, for more options. The layer I was wearing is very similar to the Nova Top Long-sleeve by Westcomb. As long as it keeps you warm, and wicks fairly well, it will do the job.
The outer shell is important for wind-resistance, warmth, and possibly waterproofness, in wet conditions. Most people go for a softshell jacket, which is warm, wind-resistant, and slightly water-resistant. Most of the time, you can simply brush off the snow after you fall, and you won’t get wet. I, however, wanted to test the breathability of my Columbia Titanium Interchangeable Stretch Jacket. This rain jacket claims to have good breathability, and you can wear it inside-out for a different look. This jacket is new for 2017, perfectly waterproof and windproof thanks to Columbia’s OutDry technology. Warmth wasn’t that much of a concern to me, since that was covered by the midlayer. I was interested, however, in the breathability. In the morning, I wore the jacket with the more casual look on the outside. To my surprise, it did not do a great job at wicking. It felt like I was wearing a regular rain jacket inside out. In the afternoon, I tried the jacket with the rain jacket look on the outside, and was impressed by the breathability. While the jacket did not live up to its claims, the additional option of a second, urban style is still a nice feature. You just have to decide which jacket you want to wear, truly two jackets in one. In the afternoon, the jacket performed quite well, especially since it is slightly stretch. This helped with movement, and being completely waterproof came in handy when the flurries blew in. While we don't have this jacket in-store just yet, the Columbia Titanium OutDry Ex Gold or Diamond jackets are extremely similar and may even breath better.
On my head, I wore a balaclava and a simple acrylic hat. A simple hat is nice, since it is one of those pieces that you can take off and pocket to cool down. The balaclava is extremely nice to have, for the warmth of your face, and the protection from snow. It can sting quite a bit when tucking downhill while it’s snowing. One thing I wish I had were some sunglasses, to keep the snow out of my eyes. Quite a few skiers had cross-country ski visors, something I wish I had though of. Make sure that your balaclava is breathable, or it has a mouth hole, to combat the condensation from your breathing. Most people find it extremely uncomfortable to wear a wet balaclava. The Columbia Trail Summit Balaclava that I was wearing has a few holes around the mouth region, perfect for heavy breathing while exercising.
One thing that I find frustrating while cross country skiing is the restricting pole bindings on your hands. On most cross-country ski poles, there are bindings that go over the back of your hands and palm, and then the pole itself is attached in between your index finger and thumb. This means that your gloves are limited by size, since you still have to get the bindings over them. After some switching around, I settled on Gordini Challenge XIII Glove, which has Gore-Tex waterproofing and Primaloft insulation. The insulation has a great warmth-to bulk ratio, and just barely fit into the straps of the pole. I actually had to put the glove in to the straps first, and then put my hand in. The Goretex is an obvious plus, with breathability without sacrificing waterproofness. I like waterproof gloves while skiing, since I normally fall on my hands, and wet gloves are not fun.
There it is! My go-to pieces for cross country skiing. If you have any suggestions, I am always open to improving my outfit. Also, if you have any tips that you found useful, please share them with us.