Home Gear Reviews The Best Winter Running and Cross Country Ski Wear

The Best Winter Running and Cross Country Ski Wear

by Karen Ung
Running or cross country skiing in cold weather requires self motivation and good gear, but offers quiet trails in return (and stunning sunrises and sunsets in winter). With moisture-wicking base layers and waterproof-windproof-breathable outer layers, you can train on the coldest days. Here are my tips on 1) how to dress for the cold 2) what to look for when choosing gear, and 3) the best winter running and cross country ski wear for women.

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Cross country skiing in Kananaskis
Cross country skiing in Kananaskis

First: Calculate your running (or skiing!) temperature

Dressing for winter aerobic activities is tricky as you don’t dress for the thermometer, but need to be prepared for the cold. Runner’s World recommends you calculate your running temperature by adding 10-15 F (5.5-9.4 C) for easier or shorter runs, and 15-20 F (9.4-11C) for longer, higher output runs. So basically, dress for 5-10 degrees C (10-20 degrees F) warmer than the outdoor temperature – or how warm you think you’ll be after running for 15 minutes. Read more from Runner’s World here.

What about warming up? If it’s super cold out, start with a light jacket and tie it around your waist or put it in a small backpack/fanny pack when you no longer need it. When it’s -20C, I usually start out with a down sweater on. Remember to remove layers BEFORE you overheat as it’s dangerous to get sweaty in cold weather. Even if you don’t need a jacket to warm up/cool down, carry an extra layer just in case – if the wind kicks up, you’ll be glad to have it!

How to dress for winter running or cross country skiing

To keep warm without overheating, layers are your BFF. Seek moisture wicking, quick drying technical base layers (synthetic or merino wool, NO COTTON!) and waterproof-windproof-breathable outer layers. Tops and bottoms should have reflectors on them for your safety when visibility is low (low light, fog, snow).

The best winter running and cross country ski wear

Here are my top picks for what to wear cross country skiing or winter running:

1. Medium-weight technical shirt
with half zip or quarter zip for temperature regulation and high neck to keep heat in when you’re warming up/cooling down. Look for tops with chin guards or zipper garages. I wear Craft a lot for winter running and cross country skiing and love the material, shaping, and mapping (lighter insulation in armpits for example).

The Craft Women’s Long Sleeve Active Comfort Top is warm, breathable
 and has thoughtful details like chinguard and thumbholes

2. Thermal running tights keep you warm via compression and insulation. Look for fleece lined tights with an abrasion resistant outer layer. Ankle zips are a nice feature that make changing quick and easy. I have a few pairs of thermal running tights but like my SKINS best due to their graduated compression. Read my full review of SKINS DNAmic compression thermals here.

Love these SKINS DNAmic Thermal Compression Long Tights!
I actually experience less shin pain wearing them!

3. Severe weather (-20C or colder) calls for windproof running pants and thermal base layers, OR an insulated running skirt with running tights.

Running pants should be large enough to wear over base layers; too tight and you will feel cold. For double duty, invest in a pair of soft shell pants with built-in gaiters and ankle zips for cross country skiing and running! 
Craft Women’s Force Pants are great soft shell pants with boot zips –
use them for winter running or cross country skiing! 

When choosing base layers, look for synthetic, merino, or merino wool blends to keep you warm and dry. I am partial to Helly Hansen’s Warm Freeze line (poly lined merino wool) as it is high quality and does not pill (note that it fits small so you may need to go up a size). Terramar Sports’ Thermawool Base Layers are a more affordable option if you live in the US. (Disclosure: I am a Terramar Sports Brand Ambassador.)

Helly Hansen Warm Freeze base layers are so cozy and warm!

An insulated running skirt is a great alternative to running pants as it’s easier to move in and saves weight/bulk. I used to think they were useless, but they actually keep quite a bit of heat in (like a vest for your bum!)! Look for a wind resistant shell, high quality fill, side zip for easy on/off, stretch side panels, and adjustable waist to accommodate different layers underneath. Craft, Halti, and Salomon make really nice running/cross country ski skirts. I chose the Salomon Drifter Mid Skirt as it’s reversible (quilted on one side, smooth on the other) and not too thick.

The Salomon Drifter Mid Skirt has a quilted and smooth side,
elastic side panels, full side zip and adjustable waist.

4. An insulated vest adds warmth without bulk and allows your pits to breathe. Look for a lightly insulated vest made with synthetic material and lightweight fill (primaloft/down). Nice to have features include a zipper garage/chin guard, zippered pockets, and inner zippered pocket to keep your phone warm.

I love my Outdoor Research Cathode Vest! It has just enough fill
to keep me warm when I’ve moving fast in cold weather.

5. A windproof-waterproof-breathable running jacket is a must for sub zero weather as windchill can literally chill you. At -10C, a 30 km/hr wind can feel like -20C! Other nice-to-have features include drop tail (longer back), chin guard, and thumbholes. Make sure it fits over your base layer and vest!
The Craft Defense Running Jacket is wind and waterproof
with reflective details for night running.

6. To keep your feet warm and dry, look for waterproof trail runners/running shoes with grippy soles to help grip snow and ice. I have been wearing Saucony runners with thick socks, but am considering buying the highly rated Saucony Peregrine 7 Ice+ Running Shoes. Runner’s World and Gear Patrol say the Saucony Peregrines offer the best traction on icy surfaces (for nonspiked runners). 
Women’s Saucony Peregrine 7 Ice+ Running Shoes
 have a super grippy Vibram “Arctic Grip” Sole.
7. High quality, wool blend running socks (no cotton!) cushion your feet where needed, wick moisture, and stay in place to prevent blisters. Choose crew socks for extra warmth. I have Smartwool Women’s PhD Run Cold Weather Mid Crew Socks for and love them.
Smartwool Women’s PhD Run Cold Weather Mid Crew Socks for the win!
8. Avoid brain freeze with a beanie or earband with windstopper outer material and soft fleece lining. The Under Armour Elements Fleece Beanie is wind resistant, soft, and warm. 
Under Armour Elements Fleece Beanie

9. A neck gaiter keeps your neck cozy and prevents cold drafts going down your shirt. I like my merino wool Buff for its warmth and natural anti-stink factor.
A Buff is super versatile – wear it as a neck gaiter, face mask, or even a beanie!

10. Traction devices will save your butt – and other parts – while running on icy sidewalks. Yaktrax Run are popular and affordable. Kahtoola Nanospikes are another great option. I already have Kahtoola microspikes and Kahtoola K10 light crampons for hiking and am super impressed with the quality of their products.
Kahtoola Nanospikes provide excellent traction on icy sidewalks.
11. Windproof-breathable gloves / mittens are a lifesaver in cold weather. Keep your hands cozy with Nike Therma-Fit Elite Run Gloves and use your phone without removing your gloves. For colder weather, wear ski gloves with zippered hand warmer compartments or mittens.

Nike Women’s Therma-Fit Elite Run Gloves

12. Hand warmer packets are great to keep on hand just in case. They are air activated so they start working as soon as you open the package, but need 15-20 minutes to reach maximum heat so pop them in your mitts/gloves before you leave the house if it’s a super cold day. We have tried a few brands and like Little Hotties best. We have found they are really warm for 6 hours in -20C before losing effectiveness, and last even longer in milder temperatures. Available at Amazon and Costco.
Stash Little Hotties in your pocket, purse, car, and backpack
for those crazy cold days! They’re lifesavers!

13. Sports sunglasses not only protect your eyes from UV, they block the wind and cold! Look for wraparound sunglasses with vents like the Oakley Radar EV Path. If you’re out in temperatures below -20C (good for you!), ski goggles provide more face protection and won’t fog up.
The Oakley Radar EV Path have vents to prevent fogging up.

14. Technical underwear for the win! You’ve gone to so much effort to wear breathable, moisture wicking clothes, don’t forget what’s closest to your skin! Avoid cotton and wear a sports bra and underwear made of synthetic material. I really like the SKINS DNAmic Compression Speed Crop Bra for its balance of support and comfort. You don’t feel too squished and the wide straps are really comfy. For underwear, Patagonia’s Barely seamless underwear is amazing. Look for it on sale at MEC or REI.
SKINS DNAmic Compression Speed Crop Sports Bra
SKINS DNAmic Compression Speed Crop Sports Bra

Additional winter running gear

Remember to carry a headlamp, ice cleats, and extra clothes for changing conditions. A hydration pack or fanny pack with water bottle, and gels/snack is important too!

The Petzl Tikka Headlamp 200 Lumens – Black is compact, effective, and reliable.

Keep warm out there and let me know if you find some fun trails for running or cross country skiing!

The best winter running and cross country ski wear
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