Ski Base Layers: The Golden Rule for Keeping Warm
Whether you’re a complete beginner skier or an experienced mountain master, one thing always stays the same. To ski well, and comfortably, you have to keep warm.
If that’s something which has caused you problems in the past, listen closely. 90% of the time, when a friend or colleague tells me they’re having difficulty keeping their body temperature up in the mountains, it comes down to a single factor. And that, my friends, is the quality of the ski base layers they have.
A really good base layer costs a bit of money, and those that scrimp on it invariably find themselves spending more than they would have done in the first place on hot chocolates and wasted skiing time.
What causes cold?
The thing that really makes skiers cold – properly, dangerously cold – is wet clothing next to your skin. It transmits the cold more effectively to our bodies, and it evaporates too – sucking our body’s heat away at an alarming speed. It’s why polar explorers are taught a simple rule at the beginning for their careers: “If your clothes get wet, change them immediately – or you’re going to die”.
Keeping warm skiing
Not that you’re courting death every time you catch a ski-lift, of course. But all the same, on an average day, you’re going to work up a lot of heat, and if all you’re wearing next to your skin is a cotton T-shirt, it’ll be drenched in sweat by lunchtime. As soon as you stop for breather, you’ll feel the chill.
For years now, manufacturers have made ski clothing to deal with the problem – long-sleeved T-shirts and long-johns, which are designed to be worn under your fleece and jacket. Universally (and mistakenly) known as ‘thermals’, this base layer is designed primarily to keep us dry, not warm (the layers above do that), and it works in two ways. Firstly, it’s extremely un-absorbent, so it can’t hold much moisture, and secondly, it actively encourages water away from our skin, and up into our outer layers of clothing.
We’ve tested and reviewed what we believe to be the finest ski base layers available that fill the criteria described. Take a look, and maybe you’ll consider arming yourself with one of them before your next skiing trip…
According to Welove2ski’s Founding Editor, Sean Newsom, one fabric does this better than any other in the business – Capilene, designed and manufactured exclusively for Patagonia. Admittedly, he hasn’t tested every base layer under the sun, but he has worn many in his years as a ski writer, and found that nothing has come close to its performance.
His definitive test wasn’t on snow. It came in the Lake District, which is – officially – the wettest place in England.
“I took it for a walk for three hours in the pouring rain – wearing a pair of Capilene long johns under a pair of jeans. Normally, jeans are regarded as lethal by hillwalkers, because they soak up huge amounts of water, and can make the person who’s wearing them very cold.
“But with the Capilene underneath, my legs stayed almost completely dry. It was bizarre. Occasionally a rivulet of water would stream off my jacket, onto my jeans, and then down my legs – and then it would be gone, and my legs would be dry again. There was none of that clammy, chilly, dampness you’d expect, and overall my legs felt warm throughout the walk.
“Needless to say, if a base layer can work well in those conditions, it’ll cope with the average sweaty day on the mountains with ease.
“The only problem with Capilene is that after a heavy day on the slopes, it stinks. I don’t mean it smells a little. It’s so evil, given half the chance it’ll walk out of your chalet on its own and start mugging grannies on the street outside. Patagonia has now introduced ‘Gladiodor(TM) natural odor control’ to its Capilene ski base layers: but to be sure you won’t drive your ski buddies away in the course of a one-week trip, you need to pack at least three pairs. Or take some travel soap and do some night-time laundry”.
Try Merino wool
If you can’t or won’t do the above, you could invest in a woollen base layer. The garments made by the Kiwi company Icebreaker are all the rage and while they won’t keep you quite as dry as Capilene during heavy periods of exercise, they are made from a completely renewable resource, and they don’t smell nearly as bad.
It’s for this reason they’ve been such a hit with the ski-touring community: the kind who have to pack light and sweat hard in the course of their self-propelled trips over the mountains.
Or a base layer made from bamboo
‘Bamboo clothing?’ I hear you say, incredulously. Yes, that’s right. BAM is the leading name in the world of bamboo clothing offering eco-friendly and ethically-made bamboo performance wear. It’s moisture wicking, temperature controlled, anti-bacterial, anti-static and UV protective.
BAM was the first brand in Europe to start offering bamboo clothing, back in 2006. Constantly innovating, it still leads the way in the comfort, quality and performance of bamboo clothing. It’s all 100% machine washable and is easy to pack as it takes up minimal space and doesn’t crease.
Felice Hardy tested it this winter, in below-freezing temperatures on a trip to Val Thorens in January:
“I found the BAM base layer top and leggings beautifully soft, comfortable and extremely warm. The colours are lovely, and there is even a neck/face-warmer to match. The clothing is very green: for every item sold, the company plants a tree in the name of the person who has bought it”.
Cashmere for pure luxury
Peter Hardy tested the men’s touring gilet and performance jersey from Dhu Performance Cashmere, which provide a practical mid-layer without the bulk. They are both made from 100% cashmere, designed and handcrafted in Scotland. There are matching cashmere leggings, too.
Peter says: “In my time I’ve tried every form of microfibre in an effort to keep warm on the mountain in mid-winter. I find it quite extraordinary that fabric used by the likes of Shackleton and Hillary is actually the best of all! I admit to having been pretty sceptical when Dhu introduced me to it, but I am now a complete convert.
“All winter I’ve been wearing their clothing over a thin hi-tech ski base layer and dispensed altogether with my normal mid-layer. For me it’s been an indispensable accessory in a winter when I’ve experienced temperatures as low as -30C.
“Apart from warmth Dhu cashmere has a number of extremely attractive other properties. Firstly it is a genuinely breathable fabric. A few weeks ago I had to walk out at the bottom of a long off-piste run in St Anton. This involved a fairly exhausting 40-minute uphill hike, cutting steps in deep snow. At the top my companions were steaming – I was completely dry.
What about washing though? It should be hand-washed in lukewarm water – so don’t put it in a washing machine. It’s naturally odour resistant and it looks extremely smart. Like a lot of ski gear it’s expensive, but you get what you pay for. More cashmere please.
That covers the basics
The choice is yours. But whatever you go for, you’ll be doing yourself a big favour financially. Because, for most leisure skiers, once you’ve got the base- and mid-layers right, the pressure to clothe yourself in high-tech garments diminishes significantly. A pair of waterproof-ish ski pants and a basic windproof, waterproof and breathable outer shell will do you proud (with an extra layer in your rucksack for when the sun goes in).
And get a helmet, goggles/sunglasses and gloves too. Unless you’re planning to spend all day up to your neck in powder, anything more than that is just a waste of money.
What do you use?
We’d love to hear what ski base layers you swear by, and any other technical fabrics you simply can’t ski without. Tell us in the comments below or tweet @welove2ski.