What to wear in Switzerland in winter
Your plane ticket is booked, you’ve decided where to stay and you’ve started a list of what you want to see. But now you have to figure out what to pack.
What will you need for your first time experiencing a Swiss winter?
Avoid that last minute packing scramble with your essential guide to what to wear in Switzerland during winter.
First things first … it’s all about the layers
Anyone living in a cold climate will tell you the trick to dressing smartly is layers. Layers take some practice (how many you need will depend on the weather and how sensitive you are to the cold), and they can be very annoying (losing the layers is why we are all so happy for spring to come around) but essential for surviving the varying temperatures of a Swiss winter. Outside may be 0C but inside it is close to 20C thanks to amazing central heating.
Before I get started, a little disclaimer:
Pants are what us Aussie’s and Americans call trousers. So if you are British don’t get confused and think we are talking about undergarments!
Remember your own personal thermostat and the climate you are coming from. Some people really feel the cold and will need more layers, others are always hot and will need less.
What to wear in Switzerland in Winter
Bring good walking shoes, ideally waterproof with good tread for slippery wet (and sometimes icy) streets. If you are up for bringing along more than one pair, I would also suggest a pair of leather boots which are nice for city trips. For very cold days, consider a wool insole for extra warmth.
If you are going to be spending most of your trip in the snow though, I would invest in snow boots. These boots are waterproof, have a wide tread, and come up to calf height which will help avoid getting your pants wet. My favourite are these Ecco boots.
Can you wear sneakers with warm socks? Sure, but I can't promise you won’t get cold and wet feet, not to mentioning slipping in the snow. Can you wear Uggs? Sure, but I can’t promise they won't get wrecked from all the salt and water on the streets.
Thin socks will just not do in cold temperatures, so make sure you invest in a good pair of warm ones. On very cold days I will pair my winter shoes with a pair of ski socks, but if the temperatures are just over 0C, a good thick sock is enough. Make sure you have your socks with you when trying on your winter boots, to make sure the shoe fits correctly with the thick layer.
When traveling around the city, I prefer to wear leather gloves in winter as they not only keep my hands warm but I also find them less cumbersome. However, if the weather is very cold or you plan to head up into the snow then a good pair of waterproof and very warm gloves are essential.
The moment the wind picks up you will be very happy you brought your warm hat. Make sure whatever you choose comes down over your ears. If you'll be on the slopes, a balaclava will come in handy and fit nicely under your ski helmet. An alternative to a hat is a fleece lined headband that covers just your ears.
The moment cold weather arrives, everyone brings out their scarfs - great for not only keeping your neck warm, but also if the wind picks up you can use it to protect your face. With little kids though, I like to avoid the traditional scarf and instead use neck warmers. If you are skiing, avoid scarves altogether and stick to neck warmers, which are also great to pull up over you head for added warmth on super cold days.
You may be tempted to leave your sunglasses at home, but *if* the sun does shine, it shines very bright, so even in winter sunglasses are a smart thing to bring along. Especially if you intend to spend time anywhere near snow. On our recent trip to the mountains instead of sunglasses we used ski googles for little Z.
The Swiss call them “unterliebli,” in Australia we called them singlets, and the Britsh undershirts or vests - whatever you call them they are a great additional layer to have on a cold winters day. My kids know they aren’t to leave the house in winter without one on under their shirts. If you plan to by outside all day or are really sensitive to the cold you may consider wearing a merino one.
If you are just sticking to the city, I think you could almost get away without thermals, or just a thermal singlet. But if you are heading up to the Alps, good quality thermals are an essential base layer - either synthetic or merino wool. We have ours from Odlo, but there are plenty of brands out there to choose from.
Your everyday clothes shouldn’t be too thick or you will be cursing the central heating at lunchtime. A good bet is jeans, or thicker bottoms and a long sleeve t-shirt/blouse. Ladies, if you like you can consider dresses and leggings, but make sure those leggings are thick enough.
Thinner cardigan, jumper, pullover:
For a chilly day bring along a thin cardigan for between your clothes and jacket. Make sure it is thin but warm so it doesn't feel overly bulky.
If you plan to participate in snow sports consider packing a thinner long sleeve sports shirt that you can wear under your ski jacket (and under your fleece if it gets really cold). They often have a zip that comes up nice and high on the chest to keep all skin parts covered and protected.
Thin zip up fleece (no hood):
A great added layer for those really cold days is a thin fleece. I like to avoid fleece jackets with hoods when layering as they will just add more bulkiness.
A jacket is such a personal decision and deciding which one to purchase will depend on whether you will use it again or not. If I had to buy just one winter jacket I would purchase a ski jacket, as it can be used in the city and the slopes. They will protect you from piercing cold winds, from a bit of rain and are thin enough that you don’t feel like the Michelin Man.
If budget and suitcase space isn’t a problem consider bringing along an ultra light down jacket as well, they are expensive but will keep you very warm. But whatever option you do go with, make sure you leave enough room for a layer or two underneath.
Ski jacket and overalls (or ski pants):
If you are going to be spending a lot of time in the snow, bring skiwear. I agree with Tanya from Moms Tots Zurich (check out her kid specific ski clothing suggestions here) that with kids, the brighter the ski outfit the better - that way you will easily spot your kids zooming down the slopes. As for ski pants, my teenager will not wear overalls and prefers snow board pants. But the rest of us prefer ski overalls which may be annoying when it comes time to go to the bathroom, but we don't have to constantly hike them up on the slopes.
What would you add to the list?
SFT Readers suggest:
Stacy: The Swiss have excellent outdoor gear, and those rain outfits, either separates or the all-in-one, can be a great alternative to snow gear if you dress the kids warmly underneath. Especially great for small kids who don‘t ski. Sometimes for just snow playing/sledding I put the little one in „gefüttert“ rain pants (fleece lined) since that strap that goes around the shoe keeps it in place better than ski pants, which tend to hike up and they get snow in the shoes. Also if you are in Switzerland January is a good time to shop the sales for next year’s sizes, and end of season too.
Gundula: I’d add a proper cream. We use the Weleda cold weather cream which adds a good layer of protection to your skin. Once on the mountains we also add a dash of sun screen onto the nose and cheeks - just those parts that are particularly exposed, not the whole face. (We still want to profit from the sun for our own Vitamin D production.) And last but not least: the swiss really work in layers. If you speak in the shops about the 1st, the mid (2nd) and the outer (3rd) layer, the shop assistants are much quicker in navigating you to the right area.