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Packing for a ski vacation? Better know your layers

There’s a right way and a wrong way to make sure you stay warm on the slopes.

Westin Trillium House, Blue Mountain

The problem with learning how to ski late in life is your mother isn't around to tell you what to wear. When you've never heard of ski socks, for example, you can end up with welts on your shins after a day on the mountain. (Trust me on this.)

You know you've got to dress in layers, but what does that actually mean? And how much is this going to cost?

"You need a base layer that's right against the skin. A mid-layer, or two, then a shell," says Jackie Jacobsen, one of Mountain Equipment Co-op's product experts.

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She's been steering customers through the Canadian outfitter's racks for 18 years, and shares her insight so you can hit the slopes without being woefully unprepared.

Why does a base layer need to be tight?

Not tight, but close to the skin. A base layer shouldn't bind in your armpit, but be as snug as you can comfortably wear it. If you sweat in a loose shirt, the fabric can't do it's job, which is to wick the moisture away from your skin. The base layer is basically long underwear – its main function is to give a bit of warmth and manage moisture.

Do I buy wool or synthetic long underwear?

It depends on how much you can spend. Merino wool is less durable, but it is thermoregulating – it adjusts so naturally to your body temperature. Plus, you can wear a wool base layer for several days and it won't retain odour. Synthetics are economical, long-lasting and quick-drying. For me? I prefer synthetics on the bottom, where I don't sweat so much, and spend money on a merino wool base top.

What's a mid-layer, and why can't I just wear a heavier coat?

Layering under a shell-style jacket and pants makes more sense. It gives you more options to adapt to the weather. A shell should be windproof or waterproof, and if you're going to ski downhill, it should be both. Cross-country skiers need more breathability, so it should just be windproof.

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Fleece works well as a mid-layer, top and bottom. When it's really cold, you need more than one on top – a fleece plus a vest, for example, under your shell. We're getting a lot of good feedback for our MEC Uplink jacket as a mid-layer. It's really thin, it's insulated and offers a lot of warmth for its weight. You can get the same warmth from fleece – it's cheaper, but it is bulkier. I encourage people to play around with their layers – sometimes a fleece is too heavy and two shirts make more sense.

How much will this cost?

I always ask the customer what they have at home; you don't need to buy everything. And I recommend options – synthetic long johns are more economical and more durable than wool, for example. If the customer runs, maybe a running tight can double as the base layer for other activities. Buying all three – base, mid and shell, top and bottom – can cost you around $800, but you could spend a lot more. The absolute least is about $500 for all three, and that's when it's on clearance.

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