Leave the cotton at home

Cross-country skiers know clothing essential to success, fun

Posted: Friday, November 10, 2000

There's nothing worse than being cold and wet while skiing, and that's why there's nothing worse than wearing cotton while skiing.

"One thing beginners have to know is not to wear cotton," said Stephanie Kind, a ski coach at Kenai Central High School. "They'll be falling down a lot, and cotton gets cold and wet pretty fast. That can ruin the experience."

Even those who manage to stay on their feet for most of a ski should be extremely wary of cotton. Moisture not only comes from the snow, it also comes from the body in the form of sweat.

"One of the amazing things about skiing is how hot you get," said Skyview High School coach Kent Peterson. "I've been skiing at 8 below zero, and when I got done, my clothes were still soaking wet with sweat."

In order to take care of that sweat, both Peterson and Soldotna High School cross-country skiing coach Sarah Tureson recommended a multi-layering system for cross-country skiing. Throwing on a nice warm parka is fine for walking from the front door to the car, but it doesn't work for outdoor winter activity.

The layer closest to the skin should be polypropylene or any of the numerous garments that wick moisture away from the skin. This layer should fit tight enough to the skin to wick moisture, but it should not be so tight that it restricts movement.


Skiers have to dress to stay warm, dry and protected from the wind.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We have a saying that says cotton kills," Tureson said. "If somebody on my team shows up with cotton against their skin, they don't practice."

Base-layer garments vary in cost, comfort and washability, but Tureson said somebody looking hard enough could get a polypropylene shirt and long underwear for less than $20.

"You only need a couple of sets," Tureson said. "You've just got to keep them clean."

The second layer is for warmth.

"That should be some kind of fleece jacket or fleece vest," Tureson said. "Fleece and wool make good layer stuff."

Both fleece and wool jackets can be had for less than $20 by the astute bargain hunter. Fleece has the advantage of being lightweight, dry and a capable wicker.

Wool also is a great insulator, plus it can absorb some amounts of water and still retain insulation. However, it does not wick well, and if it takes enough water, it can begin to lose warmth.

The middle layer should be tight-fitting but should not restrict movement.

"Baggy, loose clothes don't work in skiing," Peterson said.

For many, those first two layers may be enough. Alan Boraas, a former high school ski coach, said if it is 20 or 25 degrees outside, the skier only has to put on enough clothes to stay comfortable when sitting in a 60-degree room.

"You definitely want to feel a little chilly before you start skiing," Peterson said.

However, as winds begin to gust, temperatures begin to drop and wet snow begins to fall, skiers will need the third component of the layering system -- a shell that keeps out or resists wind and water.

"Some of those windproof pants or jackets can cost $100, but if you look around you can find them for less than that," Peterson said. "We tell the kids to have windproof pants and then a jacket with a shell."

Tureson said the shells should all be relatively lightweight. Anything lined with a lot of insulation will be too warm.

Next, the skier needs apparel for the feet, hands and head.

For the feet, Tureson recommends a polypropylene liner sock. Since ski boots are warm, any synthetic fabric sock over the liner sock should keep the feet toasty. In fact, Peterson said, his feet usually get too warm when he wears synthetic socks.

The biggest mistake a skier can make is to wear too many socks and cut off circulation to the feet.

For the head, Tureson said, a lightweight hat is a must.

"We also have a rule that if there's no hat, you can't practice," Tureson said. "Even standing around for a minute, a lot of heat is lost through the head."

Also, don't make a fashion statement with the hat by getting one with all sorts of appendages.

"A couple of new kids had a hat that was getting in the way of their arms," Tureson said.

Peterson said if the hat doesn't cover the ears, earmuffs should be worn under the hat. Tureson added that when temperatures really dip and winds start gusting, a balaclava under the hat is good for protecting the skin.

On the hands, Tureson and Peterson said their top skiers have special cross-country ski gloves. These gloves are made of a wicking material to keep the hands dry, plus have fabric on the palm to help grip the pole.

If those gloves aren't used, most light gloves will do.

"If they have big mittens or huge wool gloves, it's really hard to control the pole," Tureson said.

Peterson had a few final tips for skiers. For males, he said, wind briefs are invaluable. Since staying warm in the winter is moisture management, he also suggested getting layers with zippers on them so heat can be controlled throughout the ski.

"Glasses or some sort of eye protection also can be important," Peterson said. "You don't realize it when you're out there, but when you get in from the cold you realize your eyes are really stinging."

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