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How to dress for cross-country skiing

To squeeze the maximum enjoyment out of every time you get after it in the mountains in winter you need to make sure your clothing matches the conditions (i.e., cold, snow, wind). And like trail running or alpine skiing, cross-country skiing is also subject to the challenges of winter weather. In this article, we’ll provide you with expert advice on choosing the right clothing for staying comfortable while you ski.

Group cross country classic

The basic ideas behind choosing your cross-country ski clothing

When choosing your cross-country ski clothing you need to keep in mind two important things:

  • The intensity of the activity: mellow laps around the track, Nordic backcountry skiing, competition, skate skiing or classic cross-country training?
  • Outside temperature: Freezing cold or beautiful spring day?

The intensity of the activity 

For the most part, cross-country skiing is an intense activity. So despite the cold, choose clothing that is breathable rather than warm (too hot). Forget your alpine ski clothes because they will be too hot for a sporty session of skate skiing or classic cross-country skiing. (Learn more about the different disciplines of cross-country skiing).

If you’re a cross-country skier that really goes for it, don’t wear too many clothes. Remember that when you get out of a warm car it always seems colder outside. Many skiers hit the track with a lot of clothes on just to start peeling them off after only a few minutes of skiing.

When you go for an easy lap around the track or Nordic backcountry skiing in cold weather you might want to throw on an additional insulating layer like a thin fleece or an insulated jacket.

Outside temperature

Just like waxing your cross-country skis, adapt your clothing for the day based on the outside temperature and general weather conditions.

If the weather is especially cold? Wear a slightly warmer cross-country ski jacket (like a softshell) or an extra layer under your usual jacket. Wearing tights under your pants or under your regular tights can give you the extra warmth you need for your legs. A ¾-length undergarment (stopping just below the knee) is also a good option because it will keep you from having too many layers between your ankle and your shoe.

Men’s Tights | Women’s Tights

Is the wind blowing? Wear a windproof, softshell-type windbreaker (Windstopper) and pants that are thicker than your tights to protect your legs.

Men’s midlayers | Women’s midlayers

It's spring and the temperatures are rising? Wear thin tights and clothing that is very breathable to keep from overheating and to avoid excessive sweating, which will make you feel cold later. You might also think about adding a sleeveless vest to complete your outfit.

The 3-layer system (aka layering)

In most outdoor sports, the principal of the 3-layer system is a good guideline to follow when choosing your clothing. However, in cross-country skiing you usually only wear one layer on the bottom and one or two layers on your upper body.

To find out more about the 3-layer system and how to adapt it to your outdoor sports activities, check out our article: How to properly dress using the 3-layer system

Bad weather in nordic ski
men nordic skiing

Cross-country ski clothing: well-dressed from head to toe!

Head: headband or thin beanie

For sunny days or intense workouts, wear a simple, lightweight headband.

A light beanie can add more warmth if you need it. Forget your big wool beanie because it will be too hot!

Some skiers also wear a thin neck gaiter to protect them from the cold.

Men’s beanies and headbands | Women’s beanies and headbands

Upper body: jacket and base layer

Against your skin, wear a lightweight, breathable base layer to wick away sweat.

If you feel the need, or feel that you are cold during your workout, add a light cross-country ski jacket that will also protect you from the wind.

If conditions are really cold, you can add a vest or lycra jersey between your base layer and your jacket. An alternative is to wear a heavier jacket as long as it is also breathable.

Having a warm jacket or down jacket ready to go when you finish your session will help you keep from catching cold when you have stopped.

Men’s ski jackets | Women’s ski jackets

Bottoms: Tights or pants

For high-intensity workouts or when you’re out in mild conditions, wear cross-country ski tights. Winter running tights will also work.

Cross-country ski pants are popular for low-intensity workouts or in cold conditions.

For cruisy days on the track or Nordic backcountry skiing, a softshell-type, cross-country ski pant will generally be the best choice.

Men’s Nordic ski pants | Women’s Nordic ski pants

Men’s cross-country ski tights | Women’s cross-country ski tights

Hands: gloves or mittens

  • Very thin gloves should be used for high-intensity training or for warm conditions. Running gloves can also be used.
  • Thicker gloves are better for cold conditions or for less intense workouts.
  • A pair of mittens or 3-finger mitts are preferable in winter conditions or if you are sensitive to the cold.

 Men’s gloves and mittens | Women’s gloves and mittens

Feet: warm socks, thin socks

In cross-country skiing, thin socks often reaching to mid-calf, are the most comfortable and the most popular. Knee-length alpine ski socks are generally too warm.

If you have cold feet choose wide boots or loosen your laces a little – even if it means losing a little precision on the skis – to promote blood circulation.  

Men’s socks | Women’s socks

Carrying your stuff when you’re on the track: wear a belt

We recommend carrying your water, a little bit of food and your personal items in a cross-country ski belt slung across your back where they will be protected from the cold and wind.

A backpack hinders the movement of your arms every time you push on your ski poles and quickly becomes uncomfortable. Trail running vests usually don’t work too well either because the flasks on your shoulder straps leaves your water exposed and allows it to freeze.

Men’s Nordic skiing belts and backpacks | Women’s Nordic skiing belts and backpacks

To summarize, don’t overdress for cross-country skiing even if it means you’ll feel a little cold in the beginning. This will prevent you from having to take off and carry any layers you don’t need. And if you still feel cold after your first warm-up lap, don’t panic! It’s very easy to bail in cross-country skiing so there’s nothing to prevent you from going to the car to get an extra layer!