Skiing is a sport most people spend a lifetime trying to master. And it doesn’t end when you step off the mountain —you have to learn a long list of dos and don’ts in order to fit in with this microculture. Take the lingo, for example: In the ski world, “dump” means a big snow, a “liftie” is the ski lift operator, and to say someone is “steezy” means they’ve perfected ski fashion, which is constantly evolving from neon onesies to neutral solids and back again. It may seem unimportant, but these cultural tells help differentiate the “rippers” (accomplished skiers) from the “gapers” (newbies) long before anyone clips in.
If you’re reading this, you likely fall squarely in the latter category, but don’t worry, as everyone has to start somewhere. Skiing may take a lifetime to master, but there are some easy mistakes you can avoid right now. To help, Travel + Leisure spoke to a ski instructor and a ski guide — two folks who love skiing so much that they made it their job. Plus, as someone who has been skiing since they’ve been walking, I have some intel of my own. To start, here are a few things you’ll want to avoid on your first time on the slopes.
1. Picking a Resort That’s Above Your Skill Level
We get it, those photos of your roommate-turned-ski bum at Jackson Hole look amazing, but you need to be realistic about what you can take on. Look for a resort with a beginner’s learning area and plenty of green runs (marked on trail signs with green circles). One good example of this is Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. Twenty-seven percent of their on-mountain terrain is for beginners and first-timers can ski down five of the resort’s six mountains.
2. Forgetting to Book Lift Tickets and Ski Lessons in Advance
Many resorts are only selling lift tickets and ski lessons in advance this year, nixing day-of ticket window purchases. But even if that wasn’t the case, sorting out lift tickets and booking ski lessons before you arrive will typically save you money. If you’ll be in town for a long weekend, ask the resort if they have a multiday pass or a lesson and lift ticket package. Or, see if the resort you’re headed to is included in the Epic or Ikon pass, both of which provide access to multiple mountains over the season and can offer serious savings for multiday or multiresort skiers. It might be worth your time to research wholesalers like Ski.com, who sell advance lift tickets for certain resorts. In some cases, you might be able to book your entire trip — from flights and lodging to ski lessons and lift tickets — with a wholesaler.
3. Not Taking Time to Read Up on the Rules of the Resort (or Understand the Trail Signs)
There are some general rules that every North American ski resort adheres to, like coding each ski run with a difficulty rating — green circles for beginner runs, blue squares for intermediate runs, and black diamonds for expert terrain. But there are also rules specific to each resort. This year, most resorts are requiring guests to wear face coverings — an easy ask, considering most skiers sport a buff anyway — and many are only seating people together on a chairlift or gondola if they’re in the same ski group.
In addition, there’s an on-resort skier code — what order you load onto the chairlift and how to ski without endangering yourself or others. This is where an on-mountain guide (a.k.a. your ski instructor) can help. “Lessons also impart critical pieces of etiquette, and introduce skiers to the terrain on that specific resort,” Jeff Dobronyi, a professional ski guide, told Travel + Leisure by email.
4. Not Knowing What Gear Should Be Rented and What to Bring From Home
There are companies that rent out soft goods (jackets, gloves, pants), but in general, most ski tourists opt to rent their skis, boots, and poles from a rental shop and bring everything else from home. If you go that route, you’ll need to buy (or borrow) a ski helmet, goggles, jacket, ski pants, gloves, and a buff (for cold and on-mountain COVID-19 protection). In addition, make sure you have thin wool socks and plenty of lightweight layers.
“Good gloves or mittens can make or break a day. It can be hard to find gloves that keep your hands warm enough,” Garrett Gimbel, Steamboat Ski Resort ski instructor and Curated ski expert told T+L by email. “Finally, I think goggles are really important. On wet spring days, cheap goggles will fog in an instant, and then you can kiss the rest of the day away because you can’t ski if you can’t see.”
5. Picking Ski Boots That Don’t Fit Well
You’re going to be in your ski boots for four to six hours, so don’t mess around when it comes to fit. Ski boots are notorious for being uncomfortable, but they don’t have to be.
“Improperly fitting boots can not only cause pain, but also cold feet and toes and poor ski performance,” said Gimbel. “Where people often make a mistake is getting boots that are too large for them, meaning they probably fit like your normal street shoes. If you have room in your boot for your foot to move around, this can cause rubbing and bruising on your feet and shins.”
6. Thinking You Can Throw a Bulky Jacket Over a T-shirt and Go
Skiing is all about layers. “Make sure you know the kind of weather and temperatures you are likely to be skiing in. You'll hate your experience if you are freezing cold the whole time,” said Gimbel.
In general, your base layer should be something warm and lightweight that wicks sweat like it’s its job (which it is). Then comes a thick layer (I prefer down), and finally, a waterproof shell to keep you dry no matter how many wipeouts you have. Depending on your ski pants, you can probably get away with a thin base layer pant that resists odor and keeps your legs warm all day long. I swear by Patagonia’s lightweight Capilene blend (merino wool and polyester).
7. Leaving the Lodge Without Food and Water
If you’re going to be out in the elements all day, you’re going to have to think ahead. There’s food and water at the resort, but it’s always smart (both from a financial and safety standpoint) to bring along a little something.
For on-mountain snacks, I swear by packaged foods that have enough protein and sugar to keep me going. A mini pack of dark chocolate and peanut butter-covered almonds goes a long way, as does a bottle of water tucked into an inner jacket pocket. I love Platypus’ small SoftBottles, which weigh next to nothing and roll up when empty.
8. Not Being Prepared to Battle the Sun
When you’re out on the mountain, your UV exposure is multiplied. Snow reflects the sun’s rays, so you’ll have to go overboard in your efforts to protect yourself from the sun above as well as the rays bouncing off the snow. The secret is good sunscreen, goggles with top-notch lenses, and a pair of sunglasses if you’re planning on an après-ski drink (a must).
I use Farmhouse Fresh’s Elevated Shade mineral sunscreen, so I can get a mini facial while I ski, and I swear by Dragon Alliance eyewear. Their NFX2 goggles come with two lenses, so you can pop on the darker lens on sunny days and the low-light option when it's cloudy. And since they weigh next to nothing, you can slip a pair of Drac sunglasses in your jacket pocket for polarized protection while you sip on that much-deserved on-mountain brew.
9. Thinking You Can Bomb Down the Hill Without a Lesson First
Both Gimbel and Dobronyi say that taking a few ski lessons will go a long way in setting you up for success. Gimbel explains that, “With skiing, getting the fundamentals nailed is so important and will help you progress on your own later.”
To start, your ski instructor will take you to the beginner zone, often called the bunny hill, to teach you the basics. “For a total newbie, the first step is to get comfortable with the basic equipment,” said Dobronyi. “We also have folks step into their skis on flat snow, feeling how their boots are secured to the ski’s bindings, which limits certain motions, like lifting your heels.
10. Letting Your Ego Take Over
Once you’ve taken a few lessons and have your skier lingo down pat, you might think you’re practically a pro. But keep that ego in check. Dobronyi said that “even expert skiers who have been doing it for years take lessons from time to time to fine-tune their technique.” He also explained, “The most difficult part of learning to ski is being comfortable with falling. Falling is an integral part of learning to ski, and realizing that falls happen to even expert skiers is an important realization to keep beginners interested and motivated to improve.”
And finally, remember to stop while you’re ahead. In ski culture, there’s a rule to never call out when you’re planning to take your final run of the day because that’s when accidents happen. Dobronyi concurs. “Call it quits as soon as you get tired, because most injuries occur when skiers are fatigued, but decide to head up for just one more run.”
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