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How to Dress for Cross-Country Skiing in Yellowstone

snow-covered trees and ground contrast with the dark waters of the Firehole River at Old Faithful

Yesterday was my first full day home at Old Faithful.  After breakfast, I checked the temperature outside—six below zero—and got dressed to head out for a quick ski.  I felt it was my moral obligation to take advantage of the knee-deep, powdery snow before I tackled any of my other chores for the day.

Nordic (a.k.a. cross-country) skiing is fantastic fun and great exercise.  Yellowstone’s beautiful landscape, variety of trails, and dry snow make this one of the best cross-country ski destinations for beginners and veterans alike.

I had never skied before my first winter in Yellowstone, back in 2006.  When I was just starting out, it took a while to figure out how much I needed to wear.  My body generates enough heat while skiing that I am most comfortable wearing a lot less than you might expect, given the outside temperature.  Having learned that lesson well, my first thought upon seeing yesterday’s -6°F temperature was, “Oh, it’s not cold at all!”

That might sound strange, but a temperature within several degrees of zero is ideal for cross-country skiing, as far as I’m concerned.  When I’m going to be active in these “normal” cold weather conditions, here’s what I wear, from the skin out:

Upper body

  • Sports bra.  Wicking synthetic.
  • Midweight long underwear top.  Merino wool or synthetic.  I like the versatility of a zip turtleneck.
  • Lightweight softshell jacket.  Will keep you from getting wet if (when!) you fall down or if it’s snowing.  Also blocks the wind well.  You don’t want this layer to be heavily insulated.

Lower body

  • Undies.  Merino wool or synthetic.  NO COTTON, ever, not even here!
  • Light- or midweight long underwear bottoms.  Again, merino or synthetic.
  • Winter running pants.  Mine are stretchy, breathable, and wind-blocking, with ankle zips that help me get a good seal around my boots.  Softshell pants work well too; wool pants can be great in cold, dry conditions.  Gaiters can be helpful, depending on what pants I’m wearing or if I’m going to be breaking trail, but I don’t wear them every time I go out.

Extremities (head, hands, and feet)

  • Fleece headband or lightweight fleece hat.  Wool is great here too, of course.
  • Sunglasses.
  • Midweight gloves.  I don’t like big, bulky downhill ski gloves, but I definitely want more than a liner.
  • Heavyweight wool socks.
  • Insulated cross-country ski boots.

This works out to mean just two main layers on my torso, and another two on my legs.  That may not sound like much, but through trial and error I have learned that it’s plenty—as long as I’m moving.  Stopping, though, changes the game.  You’ll want to add extra layers before you get chilled.

It’s always prudent to carry along a backpack with some essentials:

  • Extra warm layers.  I usually carry a puffy down jacket, a thicker hat, a spare pair of socks, and a pair of toasty overmitts, at a minimum.  Depending on conditions and how long I’m going to be out, I’ll sometimes bring along a wool sweater, fleece pullover, and shell pants, as well.
  • Hand and toe warmers.  Many folks I know just pop these into their boots or gloves at the beginning of their ski.  I like to have them as backup, but I don’t actually use them too often.
  • Map and compass.  GPS is fun but I’m old-school and don’t like relying on anything that requires batteries, since they often don’t perform well in the cold.
  • Emergency kit including firestarting supplies, space blanket, knife or multitool, headlamp, and first aid essentials.
  • Water.  It’s easy to forget to drink in the winter, but it’s crucial to stay hydrated.  Skiing generates sweat, and Yellowstone’s high, dry air really sucks the moisture right out of the body.  I keep a water bottle in an insulated pocket in my pack, surrounded by my warm layers.  Other ways to prevent your bottle from freezing include packing it upside down (ice won’t form around the opening that way) or bundling it up inside a makeshift cozy of wool socks.  Having a thermos with hot tea, cocoa, or coffee is a nice treat for longer trips.
  • Snacks and lunch, as appropriate.  Skiing burns a lot of calories.  Food = energy = warmth.
  • Lip balm with SPF and miosturizing sunscreen.  These provide protection from both sun and wind.  Carry extra and reapply.
  • Two bandannas or handkerchiefs.  I keep these readily accessible in my pockets.  One is for wiping the inevitable running nose.  The other is for wiping down fogged sunglasses.
tips of my skis point toward a bison about 100 yards away

The highlights of Yellowstone skiing are also the hazards. Watch out for wildlife and yield to animals. Here, I’ve stopped about 100 yards away from a bull bison (just visible at top).

snow-covered bison in road, Yellowstone National Park

This picture was taken from essentially the same spot as the previous photo. I was testing out the zoom on my new camera. Not bad!

Different people experience exertion in cold weather in very different ways.  This list of what I wear and what I take along with me is just a suggestion.  I know folks who ski regularly in layers that would leave me dripping with sweat.

Sweating profusely is something to avoid.  Sweating—well, sweating happens.  That’s why it is so important that your base layers effectively wick moisture away from your skin and insulate well even when they are wet.  But you need to pay careful attention to yourself to make sure you’re not getting too warm.  As soon as you stop or the wind kicks up, all that moisture can get you chilled very, very fast.

Looking pretty happy after my first ski of the year. Here's to many more! (Thanks to Rita Garcia for the photo.)

Looking pretty happy after my first ski of the year. Here’s to many more! (Thanks to Rita Garcia for the photo.)

I have been writing this while sitting in my kitchen in the pre-dawn dark, enjoying the yeasty scent of bread dough rising on the counter.  I didn’t intend to wake as early as I did, but when I found myself wide awake at 5:00 am, getting moving felt like the right thing to do.  Now that it’s getting light out, you’ll have to excuse me.  I’m heading out for a quick ski.  I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike Howe #

    Fabulous, loved reading that, thanks Cathy

    December 8, 2013
  2. Phil #

    Great article. I found this very helpful.

    January 24, 2014

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