Backcountry skiing can be an incredibly rewarding way to spend your time outdoors—no crowds, untouched snow, and a skin-track workout to compliment your knee-deep powder turns. But the conflicting demands of uphill and downhill travel can make dialing in your clothing choices challenging. It’s important for your overall comfort and well-being to stay cool and ventilated while skinning, but insulated and dry while transitioning and bombing downhill. Layers are the answer, and below we outline our tried-and-true system for backcountry skiing. For more recommendations to get the most out of your season, see our collection of ski gear reviews.
Backcountry Skiing Layers
- Hardshell or Ski Jacket
- Softshell Jacket
- Heavyweight Down or Synthetic Jacket
- Ski Pants
- Ski Socks
- Liner Gloves
- Ski Gloves or Mittens
- Beanie or Hat
- Ski Helmet
Backcountry Skiing Layers
The baselayer is a wear-all-day piece of clothing that keeps body heat in while wicking away sweat and other moisture. Since baselayers—both top and bottom—are in direct contact with our skin, we prefer merino wool over synthetic fabrics for its soft feel and heat-trapping properties, but you pay a little extra for that added comfort. Merino regulates temperature better, too—the same shirt that keeps you warm in the winter will keep you cool when you’re sweating up the skin track in the spring. That said, we like to have a few different options in our closets: On the coldest days, a pair of mid- or heavy-weight baselayers provide all-day warmth; when expecting balmy spring skiing conditions, we opt for the most lightweight set. Our favorite overall pick is the Smartwool Merino 250 ¼-Zip for its impressive combination of comfort, warmth, wicking ability, and odor-fighting properties.
Moving outward from the baselayer, the next piece of clothing is a midlayer. The midlayer is the most versatile piece of clothing, tasked with both insulation and ventilation. While these are inherently very conflicting demands, many outdoor companies have refined their technology to keep us warm when we’re inactive and cool when we’re working up a sweat. Fleece and synthetic insulation are our midlayer go-tos, thanks to their excellent breathability and water resistance (especially compared to down). Our current top pick is the Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody: a super soft, stretchy, and breathable synthetic jacket that feels like a combination of a performance down puffy (minus the down) and your favorite sweatshirt.
3. Hardshell or Ski Jacket
Worn over a baselayer and/or midlayer, a shell’s main task is protection from precipitation and wind—and it should also be light enough to pack away for the skin track. Most backcountry-goers will opt for a standard hardshell jacket, but there are a number of ski jackets with more targeted feature sets that are fully serviceable as well.
The main differences between hardshells and backcountry-ready ski jackets are features, coverage, and weight. Hardshells are the more streamlined option and prioritize breathability, making them ideal for long days of touring, ski mountaineering, and spring conditions. For example, the Arc’teryx Beta LT is built with relatively thin 40-denier fabric, features pit zips for dumping heat, and checks in at just 13.9 ounces. On the other hand, dedicated backcountry ski shells typically boast longer hems and ski-specific features like powder skirts and interior dump pockets. While we love the added performance, these additions tack on weight and bulk and are not always practical for uphill travel. A couple popular options include Arc'teryx’s Gore-Tex-Pro-equipped Micon (1 lb. 8.2 oz.), which offers top-notch weather protection, and the stretch-infused Outdoor Research Skytour (1 lb. 6.1 oz.), which is a standout in terms of breathability and freedom of movement.
Some backcountry skiers will opt for a softshell over a hardshell or ski jacket. Conditions and personal preference will dictate your choice: a hardshell has unparalleled waterproofing capabilities and provides superior wind resistance, while a softshell is less weatherproof but breathes well and has a more pliable feel. We prefer a softshell in good conditions or on the skin track at lower elevations, but if weather really moves in, there’s no replacement for a quality hardshell. And in many cases, we’ll wear a softshell on the uphill and swap it out for a hardshell for the downhill. The Black Diamond Dawn Patrol is one of our favorite ski-specific softshells (complete with internal dump pockets), and we also love the streamlined Alpine Start for lightweight and breathable weather protection on the skin track.
5. Heavyweight Down or Synthetic Jacket
When you take a break from climbing to eat a snack or transition into ski mode, the heat you’ve been building while touring can dissipate in a matter of minutes. In many cases, your midlayer will do the trick to keep you comfortable, but on the coldest days, it's best to bring along a puffy parka. In this case, we prefer down over synthetic fill due to its extra loft and ability to compress into a tiny package at the bottom of our ski pack. Rab's Neutrino Pro is our favorite heavyweight down jacket, combining winter-weight warmth, decent weather resistance, and a packable design. And if you prefer the wet-weather assurance of a synthetic jacket, the Patagonia DAS Parka is a very well-rounded and capable alternative.
6. Ski Pants
Similar to a ski jacket, we prefer to wear a pair of non-insulated, weather-resistant or weatherproof pants while backcountry skiing. For folks who tend to heat up quickly when exerting, breathable softshell pants might be the way to go; if you opt for waterproof hardshell pants, it’s helpful to have side zips to dump heat on the go (the Patagonia PowSlayer is a good example). For a nice middle ground, a stretch-infused hybrid like the Outdoor Research Skyward II offers serviceable protection alongside better breathability and mobility for the demands of uphill travel. And if you’re worried about moisture creeping its way in at the waist, it’s worth considering a bib—the Arc’teryx Micon and the Outdoor Research Hemispheres are two of our top picks.
7. Ski Socks
Ski socks have a higher price tag than a pair of everyday or hiking socks, but they’re worth every penny. They typically come just below the knee for full coverage underneath boots, and often offer additional padding in rubbing- and pressure-prone areas. When choosing between heavy or lightweight socks, consider how much space you have inside your ski boots. If they’re already snug, it’s best to stick with a thinner pair, no matter how cold it is outside (a fit that is too tight will compromise circulation and the ability to keep your feet warm). We prefer ultra-soft merino wool or wool blend socks like the Darn Tough Over-the-Calf Padded Light for their impressive comfort and softness. And a pro tip: Wear a different pair of socks for the drive to the trailhead, and only change into your ski socks immediately before putting on your boots. This will preserve your ski socks for ultimate dryness and warmth.
Like a baselayer top or bottom, a liner glove is a great way to add warmth with minimal bulk. Additionally, liner gloves are quick-drying (a great attribute for overnight ski mountaineering missions or hut trips) and can come in handy for tasks that require more dexterity than a ski glove offers, including small adjustments on boot buckles, stripping skins, and undoing zippers. While it might seem easiest to just go bare-handed, touching cold metal equipment is far from comfortable (and can be downright dangerous at times). We’re not super picky about which liner we use and prefer to keep it simple and affordable with an option like the Black Diamond Lightweight ScreenTap Gloves.
The varying demands of backcountry skiing can require a quiver of gloves, including a waterproof, insulated shell for the downhill and a breathable and dextrous option for uphill travel and transitions. Your resort glove might double as your downhill glove, but keep in mind that it should be fully waterproof as you won’t have the luxury of stepping inside the lodge to regain feeling in your fingers. For the coldest and snowiest of days, we prefer an ultra-protective glove with a gauntlet (the Hestra Heli is one of our favorites), but some backcountry-goers will get by with a more affordable and streamlined design like the Showa 282 TemRes. And many ski gloves boast insulation in the form of built-in liners, which is great for layering.
But when you’re building up a sweat or fiddling with your ski boot buckles, it can be nice to have a dextrous glove that offers more warmth and windproofing than a thin liner. The Outdoor Research Stormtracker Sensor has become one of our favorites, and many backcountry skiers will opt for a leather work glove-inspired option like the Black Diamond Tour (remember that you’ll occasionally need to apply a leather conditioner like Nikwax to maintain the waterproofing). Finally, when choosing between gloves and mittens, know that gloves make it easier to perform fine motor tasks like tightening buckles, gripping ski poles, and zipping zippers. But if you’re prone to cold hands, mittens might be your best bet (your fingers warm each other).
It can be a challenge to keep your head and ears warm all day in the mountains, and our preferred method is to bring along two separate options. We’ll often wear a lightweight hat or headband for uphill travel and swap it out for a warmer, non-sweaty beanie for the descent (sometimes just a helmet will suffice). Unlike standard beanies, our favorite ski-specific options are thin and tight-fitting, great for fitting underneath a hood or helmet. Merino or merino wool blends are ideal, but we also have a soft spot for Skida’s stylish hats and headbands (which are made from synthetic materials). And on sunny spring days, a standard baseball cap can provide needed protection from the bright rays.
11. Ski Helmet
Though not technically a layer, we’d be remiss not to mention helmets here (after all, they do provide a great deal of warmth in addition to safety). While some backcountry skiers choose to forego helmets since they’re not skiing as fast or as aggressively as they would at a resort, bringing one along is well worth the weight if you ski steeper lines, enter trees, or approach rocky areas. There are a number of backcountry-specific models available that prioritize a low weight and minimal bulk without compromising on protection. The Salomon MTN Lab Helmet is our top pick for the backcountry, and it doesn’t hurt that it can also play double duty at the resort. It’s also common for skiers (particularly ski mountaineers) to wear a lightweight climbing helmet like the Petzl Sirocco, which has been certified for ski-touring use.
A Final Note on Layering
Everyone is different when it comes to cold-weather layering and preferences. While some shed layers as soon as they start moving, others require hours of constant activity to maintain warmth. We encourage you to use this list as a starting point and to develop your own system based on your specific needs. Maybe you prefer to wear softshell pants with no baselayer underneath, or run so cold you need long underwear plus an insulated ski pant. Maybe you need two midlayers, or none at all. It may take several ski tours to nail the perfect arrangement, but soon you’ll discover what works well for you and what you can safely and comfortably leave behind.