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Alpine Skiing 101: Intro to the Slopes

A Quick and Easy Guide to Understanding Ski Trail Types, Picking the Right Gear, and More!


An incredible view of Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana. The Mountain looms in the distance covered in snow and ski trails, with beautiful cloudy sky overhead

Big Sky Ski Resort: Big Sky, MT - Photo Credit: Tyler Gemmer


 

Wintertime may not leave you feeling inspired to get outdoors to go hiking or camping, but it's the perfect time to start planning trips for the warmer months! Pathloom is here to help - Use our All-in-One outdoor adventure travel planning app to discover new hiking trails leading to new developed and dispersed campsites throughout the entire country! Click the link to join thousands in our open BETA testing today!



 


During the cold months of winter it can seem like a daunting task to get outside, especially if you’re not used to the snow. Skiing and snowboarding are two of the most popular ways for people to remain active in wintertime while hanging out with friends. The sports combine all of the benefits of exercise with the bonus of being outdoors and in nature. However, skiing does require a certain degree of commitment; the nearest mountain is usually over an hour’s drive from most major urban areas, and the price of necessary gear can add up quickly. Whether a friend invited you to try it out this weekend, or you’re in search of a new hobby for the season, there are a few things you should know before you get started.


It’s important to understand the different types of skiing so you don’t get caught up accidentally agreeing to try the wrong sport. Alpine (or downhill) skiing is what you see at ski resorts with lifts and pre-designed trails. Alternatively you can try cross-country skiing, which is more scenic and slow; freestyle skiing, which entails flips and spins; or backcountry skiing, which is downhill skiing but in unpatrolled areas which typically requires hiking with your skis. Many ski resorts also have backcountry areas available so it’s important to not go out of bounds unless you are prepared for that level of skiing. When just starting out you likely won’t encounter this issue. Alpine skiing, which we’ll discuss in this blog, is by far the most common and typically what people think of when talking about skiing.


Jackson Hole resort in Wyoming looks extremely busy on this brisk winter day.

Jackson Hole Resort: Teton Village, WY - Photo Credit: Morgan Davis



Types of Ski Runs


While at a ski resort you might notice that every ski trail will be color- and shape-coded. These relate to the difficulty of the run:

  • Green Circle = Beginner

  • Blue Square = Intermediate

  • Black Diamond = Advanced

  • Double Black Diamond = Expert


Some resorts will offer “magic carpets'' which are short, slightly sloped runs meant for people who have never skied before. With the lifts on these runs your skis won’t have to leave the snow as you are towed to the top of the slope by a conveyor belt, rope tow (which you grab onto) or T bar (which you sit on). These can be less intimidating for beginners who have never been on a chair lift before.


Green runs (also known as “bunny hills”) will be wide and have an easy slope similar to magic carpets, allowing skiers to focus on perfecting their technique without worrying about speed. Often these runs will be groomed (i.e. a machine has flattened the snow surface), which makes for an even smoother ride.


Next up are blue runs, which will be a bit longer and a bit steeper. Skiers of varying skill levels will be on these runs, so it’s important to note that you shouldn’t just stop in the middle - instead move towards the edge of the trail if you need to take a pause.


Once you feel confident enough you can try a black run. Skiers should be skilled enough to be able to turn and stop immediately before attempting these trails, as these tend to have bumps (moguls), and might be narrow in spots.

Lastly, there are double-black runs, which are designed for skiers with years of experience. It’s likely that on your first day skiing you won’t get off the green runs, but every skier needs to start somewhere! Don’t be afraid to fall down, and don’t feel pressured to move up a level if you aren’t ready.


Crystal blue skies overhead at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington

The Summit at Snoqualmie: Snoqualmie, WA - Photo Credit: Morgan Davis



Worried About the Cost of Skiing?


Between gear, lift tickets, and transportation, cost is a significant barrier that prevents many people from starting out skiing. While it can certainly add up, there are ways to make skiing affordable. First and foremost, buying a lift ticket in advance will allow you to receive a discount. Resorts often decrease prices if you’re purchasing a week or two in advance.


If you plan on skiing more than 3 or 4 times a season, it might be worth getting a season pass. Oftentimes, a few trips are all it takes to pay off the purchase. Additionally, depending on the pass you might gain access to other mountains as well. IKON and Epic are the two big names for multi-mountain passes if you are interested in destination skiing, and are well worth the cost if you have plans to go on several trips throughout the season.


Also, avoid skiing on “peak” or “black out” days. This includes holidays such as President’s Day weekend, where days off from school or work means more people will be trying to take a little ski trip. Skiing on the weekdays will certainly be the most cost-efficient, but at the very least try to avoid these busy long weekends throughout the winter.


When it comes to equipment, many shops offer second-hand gear for sale at a discounted price that is still in good condition, including online outlets like Rerouted.co, or brand stores like evo or Geartrade. Rentals are also an option if you aren’t fully committed to purchasing gear. A convenient resource is Ski Butlers. Based out of Park City, Utah, Ski Butlers makes the process easy by delivering your rentals to you at the resort. If you prefer to look in-person, great places include REI Co-Op or local sports stores, as well as the resorts themselves - but rentals tend to be pricier on-site than if you buy away from the mountain.


Essential Gear

  • Skis and boots (poles are optional)

  • Helmet and goggles

  • Gloves/mittens

  • Long underwear (warm under layers – non-cotton)

  • Fleece jacket

  • Shell waterproof jacket

  • Insulated snow pants

  • Ski socks (long socks will also work – non-cotton)

  • Neck gaiter/balaclava

Optional (but recommended) Gear

  • Trail map

  • ID and money

  • Hand warmers

  • Beanie

  • Snacks

  • Chapstick

  • Sunscreen

chair lifts wind their way through the trails at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, with a pristine view of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in the distance

Loon Mountain: Lincoln, NH - Photo Credit: Tyler Gemmer



Safety on the Slopes


Even though you’ll be exercising, the cold temperatures can creep in, so it’s essential to layer up. Fleece underlayers will keep you the warmest, especially paired with waterproof/water-resistant outer layers. It’s recommended to avoid cotton because it isn’t sweat-wicking and will absorb and retain all moisture, which will just end up making you colder. If not properly dressed, you’ll risk getting frostbite or hypothermia, and will likely just spend the day warming up in the lodge - or worse! The first sign that you should go inside and warm up is if your hands and feet start to feel numb or tingle. This means that circulation has slowed, so they are not receiving enough blood. Common signs after this include bluish skin (particularly your lips!), shivering, and exhaustion. Get indoors and get toasty as quickly as possible! If conditions persist, make sure to get checked out by a medical professional.


Many skiers are unaware when first starting out that even in the dead of winter, it’s still possible to get a sunburn. When the sun is out the UV rays reflect off of the snow and can still cause a lot of damage if you aren’t careful. Sunscreen, as well as sunglasses or goggles with UV protection, are the best ways to protect yourself from the sun. Similarly, chapstick will save your lips on those days where the cold air is biting. Chapstick with SPF will keep you safe no matter the conditions.


Everything else aside, safety is the most important piece of skiing. As previously mentioned, never go on a run that is above your skill level. This is to protect yourself as well as other skiers or snowboarders around you. Imagine you are driving on a highway going 60 mph. Odds are you’re expecting everyone else to be going 60 as well, so it throws you off guard and creates an unsafe environment when someone is going 40, or even 80 mph. The same goes for the mountain. Running into someone meandering down the hill and going slowly from side to side because they aren’t ready can be very dangerous. Similarly, more advanced skiers know to avoid green runs, or at least slow down, because it’s a place for people to learn and ski slowly. Always be aware of your surroundings and watch out for other skiers. Be conscious of your stamina so you don’t get overtired and start skiing out of control. And make sure to always wear a helmet!


Mountains stretch for miles from the summit of Mt Hood resort in ORegon

Mount Hood Meadows: Mt Hood, OR - Photo Credit: Morgan Davis



Seasons and Conditions


Depending on if you’re skiing on the west coast or the east coast, the best time for good conditions will vary. The west coast, typically, has more mellow and consistent weather, allowing for snow to dump without icing over. Also, the dry air in Utah and Colorado allows for snow to remain light and fluffy. On the east coast, however, snow tends to compact down and get really hard, making it a bit more difficult to dig in and turn. Ice tends to run rampant on east coast slopes as well, which can make it tough to keep your speed down.


Ski season on the east coast tends to start and end earlier than on the west coast due to the difference in weather and snow conditions. Many resorts on the east coast will be open by mid November, but the season doesn’t typically last much longer than late March. Whereas on the west coast, many resorts will open mid-December and stay open through April. It’s even possible for these resorts to stay open even later (Squaw Valley in California has historically stayed open until July)!


If you’re skiing on the west coast, plan for everything to be wider, longer, and steeper than if you were on the east coast. In short, there are more mountains on the west coast. Because the Rocky Mountains are so vast, there’s space for more runs while still allowing for beginner slopes to be as wide as necessary. The Sierra Nevada mountains offer plenty of resorts as well. The mountains out west are far taller, so there can be chairlifts in the middle of the mountain - meaning experienced skiers can go the whole day without ever going back to the base, and can tackle the long journey back to the bottom only when they decide to leave. On the east coast it’s common for runs to be obstructed by trees, requiring you to be able to make quick turns, given they don’t span the same acreage.


While you often want to avoid icy conditions, that might not be possible on the east coast. However, skiing in less than ideal conditions can help you improve your technique. Not every day on the mountain is going to be sunshine and powder, so it can be beneficial to practice in severe conditions in order to be prepared for less than ideal days. Also, because the mountains on the east coast are smaller, the lift lines will likely be shorter too. This gives you the chance to ski numerous runs a day without worrying about traffic.


 

Regardless of where you ski or your skill level, you’re bound to find a community if you spend enough time on the mountain. Chatting with people in the lift lines and on the chairs is your best opportunity to meet a local and get some advice. The employees are also going to be a great resource if you have questions about the resort or want to know more about a particular run. Skiers are a unique group excited to get up at the crack of dawn to exercise. Even if it’s raining, it’s rare to find someone in a bad mood. Skiers just want to share with the world what everyone else is missing out on. So get out to the slopes, give skiing a try for yourself, and experience how much fun it can be!


 

Guest Blogger Morgan Davis is a Senior at the University of Washington, pursuing degrees in Communications and Psychology - and an avid skiier. We hope to feature more of Morgan's work in the next few months!

 

Wintertime may not leave you feeling inspired to get outdoors to go hiking or camping, but it's the perfect time to start planning trips for the warmer months! Pathloom is here to help - Use our All-in-One outdoor adventure travel planning app to discover new hiking trails leading to new developed and dispersed campsites throughout the entire country! Click the link to join thousands in our open BETA testing today!



 


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