Ari’s Unofficial Guide to Skiing in the Cold

So, we’ve I’ve decided that it is going to be a cold Birkie. Either windy and cold, or calm and really cold. The jury is out on what kind of cold, but it won’t be a 35˚ slushfest. Thank goodness.

I realized that there may be some out-of-towners who have never skied a cold race—or never really skied in very cold temperatures at all. I say this from experience: skiing in high school in Boston, I never needed more than a pair of thin gloves. My first college race was at Mount Itasca in Colerane, Minnesota, deep in the Iron Range. It was 3˚. The race was straight up a manmade snow hill, and straight down it. The downhill was frigid. At the end of the race, unable to move my fingers for an hour, I promised my coach that the next day he’d take me to get lobster mitts. I’m on my fourth or fifth pair, and will have them on Saturday.

So there are skiers like me, who might be from New England, or the Mid Atlantic, or California, where temperatures below 0 are sporadic enough that they don’t have experience in them. (On the other hand, in the Upper Midwest, people are tired of it; this winter it has been below zero 42 days in Minneapolis, 59 days in Hayward and Duluth—including a record-setting 23 days straight—and 67 days in International Falls.) As someone who learned the hard way and have since raced a number of races in adverse, cold conditions, here are some tips to staying comfortable in the cold:

  • Don’t overdress. One mistake I’ve made time and again for my first cold (<-5) ski of the year is to freak out about the temperature, wear what I should be wearing, and then throw a down parka over that. It won’t be -20. Dress in thin layers, and don’t wear too much. For 0, I figure three pairs of long johns or race pants on the bottom, and three wool/polypro layers on the top.
  • For god’s sake, don’t wear cotton. This should go without saying. Wool is your friend. Polypropylene is also your friend, but will get stinky.
  • Keep your hands warm. You’d rather have warm hands than cold hands, so grab lobster gloves if you have them. If not, swing by a ski shop and pick some up, you’ll be glad you made the investment. If your lobster mitts are getting old, a pair of liner gloves might be the trick to not having chilly fingers.
  • Keep your head cool. You will get warm as you race. If you have a thick hat on, you’ll get very hot indeed. A thinner hat is probably fine, with perhaps a buff or a headband to keep your ears warmer. And don’t ski with your favorite hat, if you get very hot and throw it during the race you’ll probably never see it again.
  • Get a buff. It’s great because you can use it to cover different parts of your face during the race, and it’s very adjustable. I usually start with mine over my ears, cheek and neck, and then can pull it down if necessary just to cover my chin and neck.
  • Don’t go overboard covering your face. You need to be able to breathe, and nothing is worse than an ice-caked piece of cloth slamming in to your chin with every breath. The ambient exhaled air should keep your face somewhat warmer than the air around it. If you are prone to frostbite, take necessary precautions, but breathing should come first. If you keep the area around your face warm, your face will be fine.
  • Wear sunglasses or other eye protection. Even if it’s not sunny. It will be bright, and your eyes will get icy if you don’t. If they get foggy you can always perch them on your forehead, but you’ll be glad to have them in case.
  • You should be cold at the start line. When you’re standing around waiting to start, if you’re warm and comfortable, you’ll overheat and get wet during the race. This is not a good thing. If you’re chilly, you’re probably dressed right. If your hands get old, spin your arm around, the centrifugal force gets blood to your fingers. It feels odd, but it works.
  • DRY YOUR BOOTS. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is worse than putting on wet boots on race day and skiing in the cold. You’ll have cold feet, which lead to poor balance, which leads to tired legs. If your boots are moist from a ski the day before, put them on a heat vent or radiator or put a fan on them, or even put on dry socks and walk around in them—anything to get the insides dry.
  • Gents, two tricks. One, don’t shave. Facial hair is good insulation. Two, if you have an extra hat and you’re worried about certain areas “down there” just stuff it in between a couple of layers. It looks weird, but it certainly does the trick.
  • The more adjustments you can make during the race, the better. The temperature will change, and you want to be able to change with it. I do this in several ways. The aforementioned buff maneuver. I’ll sometimes perch my hat above my ears (if it gets really hot, I’ll take my hat and stuff it in my pants somewhere), it’s amazing how much heat you can dump with bare ears. I often wear a hooded wool layer, and the hood can go up or down (usually starts up and comes down) if I’m hot or cold. And zippered top layers can help you cool down if you’re overheated.
  • Your drink belt will freeze. You can heat it up, turn it upside down, put a heat pad in there, whatever. Your camelbak hose will certainly freeze. If it’s below 0, you’ll be out of luck. Above 0 you can usually keep it liquid with a few shots of Whiskey, but below 0, you’ll be drunk if it is potent enough to remain liquid.
  • You will need warm, dry clothes at the finish. Often my legs are fine, but my core is always wet from sweat. The first thing you want to do in the changing tent—before you even get that first beer!—is stip off any wet layers and put on dry ones. Which means you want those in your drop bag. And you’ll want to be warm and comfortable. I usually go with a wool base layer, a cotton sweat shirt and a down jacket on top, plus dry gloves (dry liners inside your wet lobsters can work), a dry, warm hat, DRY SOCKS and shoes. And dry pants are never a bad idea, if they get wet during the race.
Follow these fifteen or so steps and you’ll survive. I hope.

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