The Head First Only guide to starting to ski: equipment

So - what do you need to go skiing?

If you're going for the first time, the first recommendation I'd make is: don't spend loads of money on expensive equipment for a hobby you may find out you utterly loathe! If you can borrow things from friends or family who have gone skiing before, do it. Once you've decided how much you enjoy skiing, then you can spend a fortune on the proper gear.

Clothing basics

It's not easy dressing comfortably for skiing. You can get pretty cold when you're sitting on a chairlift heading up the mountain, or standing around waiting for the rest of your ski class. On the other hand, once you start heading downhill you'll soon warm up. So you need to dress in a way that will cope with both of these situations.

First off: the cold. Let's face it, when you start learning to ski you're going to spend quite a lot of time on the ground. Probably in a large bank of snow, trying to stand up again. So, the clothes you wear need to keep you warm when it's cold, but they also need to keep you dry when you're covered in wet snow. They need to stop snow from getting down your neck or down your sleeves, too. Your jacket should have a hood, but if you get one with the hood tucked away in the collar, make sure the bit of the collar next to your neck keeps dry. There's nothing worse than having a cold and soggy collar next to your neck when you get a chance to put your hood down again.

Then: the hot. If your perspiration stays next to your skin, then when you stop and cool down it will become cold, clammy and generally very uncomfortable. The layer of clothing you wear next to your skin - such as thermal underwear - should be able to wick away sweat. These days, there are a lot of synthetic materials that will do just that. Don't pick a cotton t-shirt as your bottom layer, because they hold water like a sponge.

Clothing styles: one piece, salopettes, or pants?

When I started skiing, everyone wore salopettes. If you're skiing in very cold weather they'll keep you warm, and if you're learning they're also ideal for stopping the snow from going up your back when you fall over. Once you get a bit more experienced however, you may find that they're not the best style of ski wear for you. In the skiing conditions that most people encounter I found them uncomfortable, restrictive, and way too hot.

On my last trip I took some salopettes with me and a pair of ski pants. I wore the ski pants every day and the salopettes stayed in my suitcase. I find them much more comfortable, and they're easy to wear.

One alternative is the one-piece ski-suit. I used to have one of these, and it kept me warm without being as bulky as salopettes and a jacket. One drawback is that if you decide to wear it for the day you're stuck with it - if it's too hot you can't take off the top and put it in your backpack. And it goes without saying that if you have to make a stop for a call of nature, make sure you leave enough time to get out of the thing.

Layers

The secret of staying warm, but not too hot or too cold is simple: it depends on the number of layers you're wearing. Several thinner layers work better than one thick one. The more layers you've got, the more control you have over how warm you keep, because you can add a layer or take off a layer as required. Again, for each layer you should be looking for clothing that will wick sweat away from your skin. Fleeces are good for this, and an outer layer made from synthetic materials like Gore-Tex or Sympatex will let perspiration out rather than trapping it in your clothes.

If you're feeling cold, you may not need to add a full layer, either - we found that a scarf can give you a lot of control over how warm you stay. Wrap it up tight with your jacket collar up high, and you'll stay nice and warm. Loosen it off with your jacket unzipped and your collar down to cool off.

The HFO's secret weapon for layers is a backpack - you can use one to carry an extra layer to put on if you get cold, and if you're too hot you can take a layer off and carry it in your pack.

Accessories

If there's only one thing you can afford to spend money on, get a good pair of gloves. They'll be subject to a lot of abuse holding on to drag lifts, getting soaked, drying out and then getting soaked again. Make sure you get a pair that will stand up to the task!

You'll also need a hat - and in particular you should have something to keep your ears warm. They can get cold very quickly when the temperature drops, and when you're skiing in temperatures of -30° C it doesn't take long for frostbite to set in, especially if the wind's blowing. You lose a lot of body heat through your head, too, so your hat is going to be very important in keeping you warm. If you do overheat a quick way of cooling down is to take your hat off for a while. One of the best bits of kit I bought was a microfleece balaclava, because it stays dry (it's made from synthetic fibres that are good at wicking away moisture) and when I get too hot in it I can pull it down and wear it as a scarf.

As we've already said, the HFO are firm believers in taking a backpack out for the day, but you should be aware that they can be a bit inconvenient on chairlifts or some of the smaller gondola lifts. As an alternative, a small bum-bag or fanny pack can provide a lot of the benefits without being quite as cumbersome.

Coping with the weather

The weather plays a big part in whether you're going to feel comfortable when you're skiing. It's all very well seeing the pictures in the brochure of smiling families enjoying blazing sunshine with all that snow, but the thing about ski resorts is that they tend to get a lot of snow, and you're likely to be skiing while that snow is falling. Get clothing that can cope with this: if possible it should be made of a material that snow will fall off easily. Your outer layer should be designed in such a way that you're not going to get snow in your pockets, or down the back of your neck.

Most importantly, wear clothing that's waterproof. That includes your gloves and hat - there's nothing worse than skiing with damp, clammy gloves and a hat that's soaked up all that melted snow. Remember too that if you're really unlucky you could be skiing in rain, so when we say waterproof we mean waterproof, not "shower resistant."

When the weather's bad, you'll need a pair of goggles. Get a pair with a decent vent system, but don't believe anything you read about goggles that claim never to mist up. If the weather's bad enough, and you're hot enough, they will steam up. Whether you go for yellow lenses or grey is up to your personal preference - although when the light's bad I find I can see a little bit more detail on the snow in front of me with yellow ones.

When the weather's good, you can use a pair of sunglasses instead, but make sure you get a pair that protect your eyes: up in the mountains, there's more ultraviolet light bouncing off the snow than you get at home, and if you're not wearing wraparound shades (or glacier glasses) then all that UV will get to your eyes. Snowblindness is very painful - believe me, I know from experience - and you want to make sure you don't suffer from it.

Boots, skis and sticks

As we have already said, you should rent equipment rather than buying it if you've never been skiing before. If the rental shop's any good, you should end up with equipment that's suitable for your ability level and new enough to be comfortable and safe.

Before you rent your boots, make sure that your toenails are clipped. Ski boots fit very closely, and the length of your toenails can make all the difference between whether you're comfortable at the end of the day, or hobbling around in pain. And don't forget that boots warm up as you use them, making them expand. So although they may fit perfectly in the shop, you may find you need to change them once you get out on the slopes. A decent hire shop will let you do this.

Are parabolic skis your style? Rent a pair first, and find out. Snowboard or monoski? You wouldn't buy one of each before you made a decision, would you? Perhaps you've been seduced by the dark side, and want to try your hand at boarding? Head down to that rental shop and try before you buy!

Everything else

No, we're not finished yet. You'll need sunblock and lip balm to take with you on the piste. Your lips can get very chapped up in the mountains, and you'll want to avoid this so you can enjoy all that apres ski food in the evenings, won't you?

Get small packs that you can put in a pocket and take with you on the slopes - if you get hot, you'll sweat it off and need to apply more.

Skipass holders can also come in useful, although the latest technology in passes relies on magnetic card readers, so in some resorts you can now just keep your pass in your pocket.

Moving on

Once you've decided that you like skiing, the first thing you should get is your own boots. Ahhh, the difference it'll make to your skiing. Make sure they're comfortable, make sure they fit, and don't forget to keep your toenails clipped. When your boots fit properly, it can make all the difference!

It's probably not worth getting your own skis for the first few years. As your abilities improve, you'll find that you rapidly outgrow the skis you were comfortable on the year before. Airlines these days charge more for carrying skis than they used to, so you may not save money over renting a pair. And, of course, if the conditions are poor, why chew up your own skis? Technologies change, too - if you rent skis, it gives you the chance to try out each new thing and see if you like it.

The HFO guide to learning to ski Back to top
Copyright 2003-2005 Chris Harris

Return to: The HFO home page Chris's home page