Skiing in the Negatives
This past weekend I found myself in Bemidji, MN (aka Burrrmidji) visiting family with lows in the minus twenties and highs in the minus teens. Despite this, I got out to ski everyday.
First, let me start with a couple things I try NOT to do when it’s -20 °F (or maybe even below zero).
Intervals. I prefer to do intervals when it is 10 °F or warmer outside as doing intervals in sub-zero temperatures can really make my lungs burn. Towards the end of December we had a string of days with temperatures around zero and when it happened that the day it warmed up to 12 °F it was logistically difficult for me to drive to machine-made trails, I decided to do my intervals running. While I believe it is best to do intervals in the specific sport you are trying to be best at to maximize efficiency, running intervals should still be good for building the VO2 max.
Long skis. I have done some 3 hour skis at temps around "the doughnut." -20 °F is another story. On a long ski, inevitably there is sweat and those temps below zero cause that sweat to freeze which is obviously not good and can zap all that body heat quickly.
This past weekend, since I was also visiting family, I didn’t feel too bad about skiing for less time and spending more time with family. We (my husband, brother, and I) planned to ski for 1.5 hours and one time almost got to two hours. Locals may say the weather isn’t so bad and take pride in living in the ice box, but these are the same people who leave their cars running when going into the grocery store and ice fish in their heated ice houses. Given the very few people you will actually encounter out on the trail, even this short amount of ski time will make you feel pretty hardy for braving the elements for 1.5 hours!
So what to do when it’s -20 °F out in terms of clothing? It’s all about protecting exposed flesh and appropriate layering. I’m not very versed on skiing at temps these cold so most of this advice comes from trial and error.
It’s important to remember you still sweat when it’s -20 °F, especially if you overdress.
Minimize exposed flesh: My husband and I decided to go for an early morning walk on the lake by my mom’s house. Air temp was -28 °F and with the windchill it was -45 °F. For some dumb reason I didn’t wear my super warm weather hat and only wore a ski hat and one buff. Things were OK when I was walking away from the wind, but when I turned into the wind, I had an instant headache from the cold wind hitting my exposed forehead. It turns out a ski hat leaves a bit too much flesh exposed above the eyebrows. I had never had this problem before. I dug out my warm weather hat for my afternoon ski (during the warmest part of the day) with the ear flaps and was glad to discover it covered my entire forehead down to my eyebrows.
|Getting dressed inside and making sure my warm hat really covered my forehead! Photo: Erik|
Head: As mentioned above, I wore my warm weather hat in addition to 2 buffs at -20 ℉. I stacked my buffs together but you could also wear one under your hat and one over your hat. This day had a bit of a wind and so windchill was about -35 ℉. Two days later, there was barely any wind and skiing at -10 ℉ I probably could have gotten by with one buff and a warm ski hat but I didn’t test this. Erik much prefers to wear a balaclava over a buff because he doesn’t care about fashion. He figures the more you look like a bank robber the warmer you will be on the ski trail:) [Actually, Balaclavas are perfectly tailored to cover the human head and neck without excess fabric or uncomfortable tightness, and don't make you look like a wannabe world cup racer.]-your editor ;)
Exposed flesh: After putting on my hat and buffs, I had a bit of exposed flesh left on my cheeks and nose. I prefer to slather on lots of Dermatone. Vaseline works, too, and is probably cheaper. You can also use athletic tape, cut up a buff with nose and mouth holes, or wear a face mask.
Feet: The feet are always hard to keep warm. Keeping the core warm helps, as does starting warm (i.e. try not to sit in a cold car or stand around in the cold before starting). We’ve been using our Yoko boot covers which seem to help and also provide a seal when tucking ski pants under them. When it gets really cold though, feet warmers can be a real “toe” saver. You can either use generic warmers or ones specifically designed for your toes. One day I tried taping these onto my boots and covering them with the boot covers. This didn’t keep my feet warm. The next day I taped the warmers onto my socks and this kept my toes toasty. There are toe warmers that are sleek and designed to go inside the boots (and come with their own stickiness). My classic ski boots have ample room in the toes so the big foot heaters worked well inside my boots but not for Erik.
|Taping warmers onto my ski boots. I then put on my overboots.|
Hands: People who design ski gloves, lobsters, and mittens have clearly never skied at -20 °F. OK, I admittedly have cold hands and even in my ski mittens my hands initially get cold until my body warms up. So I decided to try skiing in my super warm mittens. Fortunately these have an extra tightening strap at the wrist that help keep the mittens secure. Also, because my big mittens go a ways up my forearms, my watch stayed under the mittens. Although I couldn’t easily see my watch during my ski, electronic technology doesn’t work very well at -20 ℉ and therefore by doing this I was able to keep my watch working; Erik had his watch exposed to the elements and it froze and stopped working.
|These ski mittens claim to be rated to zero and are most definitely insufficient at minus twenty degree Fahrenheit.|
|These are more like it for skiing "below the doughnut"!|
Core: I tend to get hot skiing and thus dress fairly lightly on my core. From about 10 to 25 ℉ I do well with a layer of long underwear and my Vakava ski jacket. Between 0 and 10 ℉ I might wear the same as above or consider adding another layer if it is particularly windy or if the temperature will be dropping. In the past couple years, I started wearing my ski jacket from high school when temps are in the minus single digits. This jacket is incredibly warm but doesn’t breathe very well so this year I’ve tried layering under my Vakava jacket more. I’ve always read about using a “mid-layer” but often get so hot I skip the mid-layer. Hence I did some more experimenting with mid-layers at -20 °F. I tried wearing a fleece in addition to my usual long underwear and got fairly warm so the next two days I went back to using two wicking long sleeve shirts and this seemed to be just about right. I didn’t have to unzip my jacket at -15 ℉, but I did at -10 ℉. If you tend to be on the cold side, I would highly recommend a fleece mid-layer, maybe even at warmer temps, and if you tend to be on the hot side, don’t wear fleece, not even at -20 ℉!
Legs: Similar to layering with the core, I take into account my heavier ski pants vs lighter ski pants. I wore my Vakava pants with a layer of long underwear at zero one day and this was barely warm enough but the next day when it was -20 °F for our ski, I wore my old high school ski pants which are warmer (fleece lined) and they felt similar to my other ski pants the day previous.
Yes, your eyelashes will freeze. I don’t quite know what to do about this. I wore my sunglasses which probably helped some. I suspect goggles would help more.
|Erik with some frozen eyelashes after our sunrise plus double sundogs walk. He didn't use his goggles for this walk.|
The frost from breathing will get everything on your upper body all wet- mostly your hat, buff/balaclava, upper chest, and back. This accumulates in giant white ice forms, especially at -20 ℉.
|A frosty Erik after our ski at Bemidji State Park. Erik says: don't forget the jumper cables and be sure to turn on your defrost once back in the car because your warm body will get the windows all foggy.|
|A selfie after our coldest ski of the weekend. Note all the frost build-up under my chin. Also note I was unzipped exposing my fleece, which subsequently got all frosty, too.|
|Note I have less frost under my chin on this day as it was 10 plus degrees warmer than the above photo (but still in the negatives). Also, be aware of looking like a woolly mammoth from snotsickles, as in Erik's case. Photo: Leif|
So don’t let the cold temps keep you inside. When dressed up proper as above, skiing in the negatives is amazingly pleasant. It is always good to get out in the woods with the snow in the trees sparkling in the sunlight! I had three very amazing skis in the Bemidji area and one walk (with a hibernating black bear sighting!) without getting my core cold.