Getting Kitted Out

The HFO Guide to Ski Gear

So - what do you need to go skiing?

If you're going skiing for the first time, the first recommendation is very simple: 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.

On this page we'll cover the items of gear that are required when you go skiing and we'll offer some hints and tips to help you stay warm and dry on the piste.

Striking a balance

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. You need to dress in a way that will cope with both of these situations.

Most everyday clothing isn't up to such a task - particularly if you'll be skiing somewhere where the daytime temperature can be twenty degrees below. So going on holiday with no more than a few pairs of jeans and a winter coat really isn't going to be a pleasant experience for you. You need clothes that can wick perspiration away from your skin. You need outer layers that will breathe enough for that perspiration to evaporate into the atmosphere rather than condense out on the inner lining and soak you to the skin in half an hour.

Water resistance is important

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.

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Practicality, Taste or Fashion?

When I started skiing, everyone wore salopettes. If you're skiing in very cold weather they'll keep you warm, and if you're a beginner 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.

A few years ago I went on a trip where I took some salopettes with me and a pair of ski pants. The weather was great, and I wore the ski pants every day. The salopettes stayed in my suitcase. I found them much more comfortable, and they're easy to wear.

The following year, I took the same gear. It snowed almost every day and it was the ski pants that stayed in my suitcase.

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.

In the end, it's largely a matter of personal taste. Try skiing in all the different getups (if someone will loan you them) and see what works for you before you splash out on a spiffy new outfit.

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It's materials science, baby

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.

As mentioned above, the material that each layer is made out of is extremely important. 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. Scarves and hats should also have the capability of wicking moisture away from your skin. If they don't you'll find them getting soggy and that will rapidly make you feel cold.

The HFO's secret weapon for layers is a backpack - as well as being useful for carrying a packed lunch and all those little essentials you need on the move, 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.

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Your gloves are your friends

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 have ever 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.

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Dress for the occasion

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.

Snow's so bright, I gotta wear shades

When the weather's good, you can use a pair of sunglasses instead, but while a pair of Wayfarers may look cool, they aren't going to help you see much after an afternoon on the piste.

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. The corneas of your eyes will get a sun tan and you'll come down with a nasty case of snowblindness. Make sure you get a pair that protect your eyes: snowblindness is very painful - believe me, I know from experience - and you want to make sure you don't suffer from it.

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Try before you buy

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 indeed, and the length of your toenails can make all the difference between whether you're still comfortable in your boots at the end of the day, or hobbling around in agony.

Ski boots warm up as you use them, making them expand. So although they may fit perfectly in the shop, you will need to adjust them through the day. With doing this you may find you need that you can't adjust them enough and you need to change them. A decent hire shop will let you do this.

Are parabolic skis your style? Rent a pair first, and find out. Fancy a 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!

If you do decide to try out a new way of getting down the piste, don't just rent the gear, book some lessons too. Trust us on this.

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What, you mean there's more?

Absolutely there's more. We're not finished yet. You'll need a tube of sunblock and a stick of 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.

Some of us even carry an emergency wax kit on the piste. If the snow gets really wet and the person who last serviced your skis wasn't expecting it, the snow can stick to your bases and slow you down. A quick once-over with a block of wax is often enough to transform you from pathetic straggler at the back to your more usual place up there with your friends.

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Some of us still rent gear from time to time...

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.

These days there's not so much of a saving in owning your own skis, anyway. Airlines these days charge much 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 - skis these days bear no resemblance to the ones we first learnt with (they're much wider and much shorter, for a start.) If you rent skis, it gives you the chance to try out each new thing and see if you like it.

...but not boots.

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!

An introduction to the slopes: grades of pistes, lifts, and more