Every ski resort in New England, including my favorite in Vermont, had a great week while I was sitting at my desk at work a while back, watching online hours away. Sixteen inches of new snow in total blanketed the region over four consecutive days, leaving the mountain fully loaded and 100 percent open. Endless acres of woods were beckoning, too and, judging by the heavy traffic making its way north on Friday night, everyone in New England had gotten the memo.
The anticipation was palpable. Winter had returned with a vengeance after a couple weeks around the holiday period that predominantly featured warm temps and considerable amounts of the ‘R’ word. When the system that dumped all this new snow finally moved away, the cold front that took its place ushered in sub-zero temps. Yes, winter was back!
The weekend was everything I could hope for. Snow everywhere I wanted to go. And no lift lines, which made no sense to me. What happened to the mass exodus of people heading to the mountain to ski? The parking lot in the main base area was jammed. When I stopped in the main lodge for lunch on Saturday, the answer hit me like a wall of people blocking the entrance. Here was where everyone was, crowded in the lodge to escape the cold and wind chill outside. They were choosing chicken nuggets over impeccable skiing conditions.
I shouldn’t complain, as skiing right up to get on the lift all day is a dream come true. But come on, people. I get that many don’t like the cold, but just because it’s below zero out there doesn’t mean you will be uncomfortable. With all the technological advances in ski equipment and apparel out there today, no one should feel uncomfortably cold under normal New England circumstances.
It’s time to inventory your gear. Let’s start from the inside out.
Base layers: Your preparation for arctic conditions begins here, and you have choices. If you’re guilty of spending too much time in the lodge on those bitter cold days, double things up by combining your lightest, thinnest base layer with a heavier weight, insulated option on top. Heavyweight layers (250 grams per square meter of fabric and above) provides the most insulation and should be worn a bit looser and over a thinner layer. Be sure your first layer has moisture management properties so as not to trap dampness against your body, which will have you roaming around in the lodge and looking out the window all day long.
Look for fabrics containing Merino wool, synthetics like Polypropylene or a blend of both. Wool offers the best moisture-wicking properties. Also consider rocking a one-piece base layer with a hood over your thinnest first layers to seal out the cold completely. The thin hoods can be worn beneath a hat and your helmet, but more on that later.
Socks: It’s not rocket science here. Do not wear cotton. Do not double up your socks. And do not go without socks at all. Select a sturdy wool, synthetic blend with stretch features that will fit snugly without slipping. People swear by Darn Tough in these parts, and it’s for a reason. There also are some terrific compression socks out there designed for active winter mountain use that promote blood circulation.
It is critically important that your ski boots fit properly, most likely more snug against your toes than you think is necessary. You can have the best ski socks in the world but if you are clamping down boot buckles really tight to keep your feet from sliding around in your boot, you will be cutting off circulation to your feet, and they will get cold as a result.
If you find that your toes are a regular problem area when it’s cold — as so many people do — consider investing in a boot warmer system. Both Hotronic and Therm-ic are good options and worth the money when you consider how much more you’ll enjoy skiing for longer periods of time. A tip when installing the system: Avoid mounting the battery packs on the backs of your boot, as seems to be by design. Mounting them here puts them in direct line of many low-running chairlifts slamming into them when you board and they could be knocked completely off before you know it. Mount them to the outside (ankle bone side) of the top of your boots, if possible. It might take a little ingenuity on your part to snake the wiring around the boot liner and then contend with the power straps.
Toe warmers also are an effective option (that I swear by) and less expensive in the short term. Simply stick them to the top of your toes (over your socks) before putting on your boots. There also are the type that stick along the bottom of your foot. Just use care that they don’t get all bunched up when putting your ski boot on. And keep your toenails trimmed. Enough said there.
Puffies/shells: If you’re wearing a traditional “3-in-1″ ski jacket,” one that combines insulating layers with a more weather-proof outer shell, you might want to consider dropping the bulk and splitting them into separate garments or layers. Down or synthetic down (PrimaLoft, Coreloft, Thermoball) jackets come in a variety of insulating weights designed to trap body heat, some with hoods, that can be customized to your comfort given the weather that day. They can be worn as your outer layer when there is limited precipitation and/or wind.
When temps drop below zero, you’ll want a shell jacket to wear over the puffy. These jackets are not insulated, allowing them to remain thin and versatile. They come with a variety of technical features tied to cost that make them waterproof and windproof. Shop for one with a hood and use it. They’re designed to easily pull over ski helmets and will stay in place when zipped all the way up. You’ll still have room to rotate your head, too, but if you prefer skiing with the hood down, as I do, at least be sure to pull it back over your head for chairlift rides up. It’s truly amazing how much warmth you’ll preserve by using the hood.
Your ski pants should combine a degree of insulation on the inside with a bulletproof protective shell on the outside. Look for pants that can be unzipped along the inside and/or outside legs to dump heat when necessary but that are airtight when locked down. Consider wearing a pair of nylon shorts over your underlayer to gain added protection against frozen chairlift seats.
Helmets are vented on top and adjustable to accommodate a knit cap underneath, which is highly recommended on cold days. While I personally do not like the added layer of a turtle fur around my neck, they are constructed in a variety of thicknesses and when worn properly can add another layer of protection for the back of your neck and chin. Facemasks might not be pretty but they certainly can protect your nose and cheeks from frostbite on the coldest of cold days. Venting at the nose helps eliminate goggle fogging. Also, get yourself a container of Dermatone or another balm that will provide protection from sun, cold and wind for your lips and face.
Finally, gloves/mitts address the most common part of the body to suffer in the cold — our fingers. Mitts are warmer, save for the thumb, but many skiers like myself prefer independent fingers for the feel of the ski pole.
There are battery-pack systems out there to inject warmth into gloves and mittens, but if you don’t have those, hand warmers that can either rest in your palms or zip into a dedicated compartment are a must. The best offer quality builds featuring weather-proof, durable leather or synthetic leather, ample insulating liners that are fixed or removable, and not so much material so as to sacrifice dexterity.