Cross-country skiing is a full workout. Even though it relies on snow, you can get warm fast. Once you stop, you can get cold just as quickly. To avoid sickness and wasted energy, you need the right clothes. What to wear for cross-country skiing depends on layering, and in this article, I’ll show you how.
I cross-country ski every winter, and although cross-country skiing and downhill skiing might seem similar, you shouldn't use the same clothing for both activities. I recommend clothing that allows a wider range of motion for your arms and legs. On top of the range of motion, cross-country ski clothes need to block wet and cold weather while being lightweight.
3 Considerations For Cross-Country Ski Clothing
Thinking about the three considerations below will help you zero in on the best clothing options for cross-country skiing.
Consideration 1: The Intensity
If you plan to push yourself with cross-country skiing, you’ll want to be able to shed layers. If you’d rather casually cross-country ski to get outside in the winter, bring extra layers to match the conditions and the lower intensity level.
The intensity can also refer to how difficult the track is. Groomed ski tracks are simpler than backcountry trails with sustained uphill sections. Also, while downhills are nice, you’re not working, so body temperatures can plummet.
Consideration 2: The Temperature
You can’t cross-country ski without snow. But that doesn’t mean every day spent on the track will be freezing. In the spring, too many layers will lead to discomfort and dehydration. That’s why checking current and future weather conditions is a good habit to get into. There are many fantastic ski apps that can aid in planning for winter weather.
If you are heading out during the coldest months of the year, consider bundling up to start. Once you warm up and your body temperature rises, take a moment to shed a layer or two. Repeat the process until arriving at an ideal body temperature while cross-country skiing.
It helps to bring a specialized pack for clothing changes. I recommend a running pack or a cross-country belt. These packs hold items, hug your body, and don’t limit your range of motion.
Consider 3: Layering From Inside To Outside
Finding the right combination of layers is best approached from the inside out. I’d start with underwear. It could be short or long, depending on intensity and temperature. Then, I’d think about a base layer like long underwear and a top to help cover your legs and torso.
Mid-layers are next, like a fleece or lightweight puffy jacket. This layer supplies the bulk of any insulation you want. The final piece is an outer shell. It should have weather and wind-resistant qualities to lock in warmth and keep nasty weather out.
By starting with the layer closest to your body, you can focus on what materials will be most comfortable to wear against your skin. Comfort is the best foundation to build layers on top of.
Underwear For Cross-Country Skiing
Outdoor underwear with moisture-wicking, anti-odor properties, and breathable fabric reduces discomfort. When I started cross-country skiing, I used cotton underwear, which was a terrible choice. Cotton doesn’t dry quickly and can increase chafing and odors. Since underwear touches your skin around sensitive areas, it should be comfortable.
The moisture-wicking properties are especially important because they help transport sweat away from your body. Over time, this helps you manage your temperature regulation and stay dry.
Base Layers For Cross-Country Skiing
Base layers, like long underwear, are next. You have a top and bottom component. Again, the emphasis should be on comfort and moisture wicking. This layer will, along with your underwear, will be your first sweat defense.
Base layers are used for various winter activities that benefit from layering. Make sure to check out our article on base layers for downhill skiing for more information.
Middle Layers For Cross-Country Skiing
Middle layers are versatile and focus on heat retention in cold temperatures. For your upper body, fleece jackets, down jackets, and puffy jackets have filled this role effectively. However, on days with large temperature swings, the middle layers are usually the first layers to be removed or added back in.
For your lower body, extra layers like running tights that go over long underwear add a level of sweat protection. For high-intensity skiing adventures, I’ll just wear tights as my final leg layer. Colder days may require another layer.
Of course, selecting appropriate thin, mid-calf socks is critical as well. Socks don’t really fit into the underwear or base layer category but are quite important for warmth, blister prevention, and comfort.
Outer Layers For Cross-Country Skiing
There are two general categories for the outermost layer: soft shells and hard shells. Hard shells are usually waterproof and provide effective cold wind resistance. They are the best choice if you’re skiing in inclement weather. However, waterproof clothing doesn’t breathe. This means you could be circulating body heat and sweat for the duration of the activity.
If the weather isn’t threatening, a soft shell jacket is my preferred choice. They’re water-resistant, breathable, and stretchy, which won't limit your range of motion. Softshells help you regulate temperature better than hard shells, but since they aren’t 100% waterproof, they will get wet in heavy downpours. Most soft shells provide decent wind protection as well.
Soft shell and hard shell jackets usually come with a pants component. The most convenient options have ventilation zippers and large side zippers. The side zippers allow you to slip these layers over your cross-country ski boots without having to take them off. You’ll still need to unclip from your skis while changing.
Cross-Country Skiing Accessories
In addition to the main layers, there are many useful accessories you can add for extra warmth. All are, of course, additions to a setup that includes clothing layers, boots, and the best cross-country skis.
Hats For Cross-Country Skiing
I always bring a fleece headband or beanie for nordic skiing adventures. They are especially useful at the beginning when you haven’t increased your body temperature yet. They’re also easy to remove or add back on as the intensity and weather dictate.
Gloves For Cross-Country Skiing
A thinner set of cross-country ski gloves are useful for cold conditions. When I go out, I want warmth and dexterity without too much bulk so I can hold cross-country poles. Five-finger gloves, liners, and even mittens can help. Keep in mind that if the gloves are too warm or large, you’ll be removing them often.
Neck Gaiters For Cross-Country Skiing
I lose a lot of heat in my neck, so I recommend a neck gaiter for skiing. A buff or balaclava will help cover any gaps between your head and the collar of your outer layer. Like other accessories, they’re easy to remove or add on as the weather changes.
Socks And Ankle Gaiters For Cross-Country Skiing
People think you need heavy socks for winter activities. That's only partially true. You do want thicker socks than liners. However, socks that are too heavy can increase sweat production. If there’s too much moisture there, your foot will slide around and collect blisters.
Hiking socks can work well for cross-country skiing. If you’re skiing through deeper areas of powder, an ankle gaiter can stop snow from slipping in over your boots.
Sunglasses For Cross-Country Skiing
Snow does a great job of reflecting sunlight, so you should have some form of sun protection on you. You can use some of the best ski goggles out there, but I recommend a pair of sports sunglasses. Sunglasses are smaller, weigh less, and can be adjusted easily.
Best Fabrics For Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiers know how important finding the right clothing is. Take a look at the points below to make sure you're getting the best options.
Best Fabrics For Cross-Country Skiing
Ideal cross-country fabrics do a few things really well:
- Block the wind
- Help retain warmth
- Wick-away moisture.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester are great options that cover all the bases. Some types of wool, like merino wool, even have natural odor-fighting qualities, which makes them very attractive. Polyester doesn’t, but it’s often cheaper than specialized wool offerings.
2 Fabrics To Avoid For Cross-Country Skiing
Cotton is a big no-no for nordic skiing because it doesn’t wick away moisture. Exercising in sweat-laden cotton is a surefire way to increase discomfort. I’ve made this mistake many times. Down jackets can be a mid-layer, but they are usually too warm and don’t insulate when they’re wet, which limits their uses.
Gore-tex is also something I would consider avoiding. It’s great for cold conditions and storm skiing but has zero breathability. For long aerobic exercises, Gore-tex will help increase your body temperature. Overheating leads to excessive sweat, which could then freeze once you take the Gore-tex off.
Cross-country skiing is a fantastic activity if you dress appropriately for it. Here are my biggest clothing takeaways:
- Think lightweight. Bulky clothing is hard to layer and limits your range of motion.
- Think about layering. Is it easy to peel a layer off if you get too warm? Or add one if you get too cold?
- Think about the intensity of the exercise. Can a layer of clothing wick away moisture?
- Think about the weather. Big temperature swings are common in the winter.
- Think about accessories. Hats, gloves, sunglasses, and gaiters all help to round out the ensemble.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.