Downhill snowsports

Downhill snowsports, which include skiing and snowboarding, are popular sports involving sliding down snow-covered terrain with skis or a snowboards attached your feet.

Skiing is a major travelling activity with many enthusiasts, occasionally known as "ski bums," planning entire vacations around skiing at a particular location.


Off-piste alpine skiing in Blue Sky Basin, Vail, Colorado

The idea of skiing is very old cave paintings depicting skiers date back as far as 5000 BC! Downhill skiing as a sport goes back to at least the 17th century, and in 1861 the first recreational ski club was opened by Norwegians in Australia. The most common type is "Alpine skiing", where the foot attaches to the skis at both the toe and the heel. In "Telemark skiing" the technique is different; the heel remains unattached ("Nordic skiing"), which allows skiing in flat or uphill terrain. There are Telemark skis suitable also for serious cross-country skiing (skis were traditionally used as a means of transport in Telemark).

Snowboarding is much newer. Although people made their way down slopes by tying flat boards to both feet as far back as the 1920s, it wasn't until 1965 that the first modern snowboard was sold. Snowboarding was invented and largely popularized in the U.S., but today it has international followers, although nowhere near as many as skiing. Snowboarding initially became popular with Generation X, who brought a "skateboard punk" attitude that put them at odds with skiers and ski resorts, leading many ski resorts to ban snowboarding. Today, much of that distinction has been lost, and skiers are just as likely to be punks as snowboarders. However, a rare few ski resorts do still ban snowboards (including Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Mad River Glen in Vermont).

Other downhill snowsports include sledding/tobogganing (which is the basis of the Olympic sports of luge and bobsledding), tubing, and ski jumping.

Planning your visit

Since very few people live near a snow-covered mountain, most skiing happens at ski resorts, which offer the skiing location, equipment rental and sales, dining, and lodging all within a small village. Sometimes nearby resorts that can be skied with the same ticket are grouped together.

To ski on the mountain, you purchase a lift pass. This ticket serves as your admission, and lets you use the ski lifts to get from the bottom of the mountain back up to the top.

Naturally, you also need some equipment: skiis or a snowboard, of course, but also cold weather clothing.

Unless you're only going for a single day, you need lodging. And because you'll be getting a good workout, you will probably want some food and maybe a nice après-ski drink.


Normally children are accepted to a skiing school from 3 years old.

When choosing a destination and accommodation to travel with a toddler, consider the following:

On the slopes

The mountain is divided in to various trails (also called "runs" or "pistes" [rhymes with "least" in British English and "list" in American English]), each of which is rated according to its difficulty.

There are also beginners' slopes, also called bunny slopes, which are very short and very shallow. Some may be reserved for classes, but otherwise they are open for anyone to use. Although bunny slopes are good for a little bit of practice, they can actually be difficult due to their shallow grade and lack of length.

At the bottom of the slopes are lifts that take you to the top of the mountain. When you queue up to use the lift, your lift pass will be scanned to make sure it's valid for that day and time (although staff may not opt to scan it every single time). Then you just ride the lift back to the top of the slope, and head down the slopes again.

There are almost always multiple lifts and often crossing trails; if you're not careful, you could take the wrong lift and end up not where you started. Be sure to look at the mountain's map before going anywhere so you can be sure of where you should go on your way down, and which lift you need to take to get back up.


There are different rating systems in different parts of the world, and none are standardized; don't assume an "easy" trail on one mountain is the same as an "easy" trail on another mountain!

Be sure to check the legend and rating system at each mountain before going out on to the trails.

In North America, the usual scale is:

In Europe a similar color system is used, but not always with the shapes:

In Japan a color system is also used, although it may vary at locations catering to foreigners:


Whether it's your first time or your hundredth, the one thing you must purchase is a lift pass. It's your admission to the mountain, and your ticket to use the ski lifts to get back to the top.

Lift passes are almost always available in single-day, multiple-day, and season passes. Discounts may also be available for children, students, large groups, etc. As with any bulk purchase, a multiple-day or season pass will usually save you money if you use it enough.

The other thing you'll need is equipment. This largely falls in to two categories: skis/snowboards, and cold weather clothing.

Skis and snowboards

For skiing, you need the following:

Snowboarding requires a somewhat different set of equipment:


All the other gear you need is not specific to the sport, but is just meant to keep you warm and safe:

While you're at it, don't forget winter clothing for the rest of the trip. When carrying things to and from your car, going out for dinner, or lounging around your room, you'll want street clothes suited to the cold weather. Warm pajamas are a good idea, as it can be difficult to keep bedrooms warm at night in some lodgings. Don't forget boots or other shoes suitable for walking through snow and ice.

Buy or rent

Renting is more expensive even after just a few days, but until you decide you're committed enough to the sport to purchase your own gear, it makes sense to rent for a few trips.

Before you rent, check what clothing is available in the rental package. Some places don't offer clothing rentals (jackets and pants), meaning you'll have to buy your own.

Even with an "all-inclusive" rental package, there are some items that are rarely included, which you'll have to buy for yourself: underclothing, socks, head and face warming, and sometimes gloves and goggles.

On a budget

In general, skiing and snowboarding are not the cheapest of activities. However, as with most travel activities, careful planning ahead can save you a good deal of money.

Do without

See also Stay healthy below

A few items are not strictly necessary or can be substituted, but not many.

Wearing regular sunglasses, or no eye protection, is possible if it's overcast and not too bright out.

If you're visiting a "warm" location (air temperatures above freezing) and tolerate cold well, you may be able to skip some of the layered clothing and face/head protection.

Beyond that, it's not a good idea to skip any of the equipment. Although "warm" mountains always have beginners who think they can get away with just wearing jeans, you run a real risk of frostbite and permanent injury doing this, not to mention being miserable after your jeans soak up several hours worth of snow.


There are many types of skiing within alpine skiing, from contests to downhill (going straight without turns) to moguls (going around the bumps). Cross country skiing is usually also available. Nowadays most resorts allow snowboarders as well, but if you plan to do so double check beforehand.

Most resorts also offer a variety of other activities such as horseback-riding and ice skating. There are also usually great stores for shopping and wonderful restaurants in the area that are worth looking into after a day of hitting the slopes.

Ski resort areas are also frequented during the summer months because of their numerous hiking, mountain bicycling, etc. opportunities.


Teach yourself

Get ready

Before hitting the slopes, you'll need to get dressed. Most of the equipment is simple and straight-forward to put on. The legs of your snow pants usually have an elastic inner layer ("gaiters") that goes over your boots to keep snow out. Snow jackets may have similar layers to seal your gloves. Helmets usually have a slot at the back to hold the goggles' strap in place.

Attach your lift pass where it's easily visible; some jackets have a spot meant just for this, but otherwise attach it to a zipper, pants belt loop, or somewhere else on your front. Usually zipties or metal hooks are provided to attach it to the jacket's fastener or zipper.

If it's convenient, you may be able to take what you need with you (e.g., wallet for purchasing lunch) and leave everything else in your car or hotel room. Otherwise, there are usually coin-operated lockers where you can leave your street clothes, valuables, etc.

Getting around in skis is pretty easy. Lay the skis on the ground, and then simply step in to each one toe-first. They'll click in to place, and it releases the catches that keep them from sliding around when they're unattached (this applies to the typical downhill skis, there may be other types of bindings). Once you have them on, you can shuffle around on flat ground or even move uphill a bit by pushing off like an ice skater does, or using poles if you have them. Some skis allow freeing the heel for still easier movement.

Snowboarders need a way of freeing one foot for propulsion on flat ground, so typical snowboard bindings just have quick-release straps that hold your boots in place. One strap goes over the top around the ankle, and the other goes over the toes (either directly above, or straddling the top and front corner of the boot's toe). The "highback" is a plastic support for the back of your leg, which can flip down on many bindings for compact carrying and storage; it supports your leg, forcing you to bend your knees a bit and giving you more control over your turns. Raise the highback into position, locking it in place if required on your bindings, and place your foot in the binding as far back towards the heel as you can. Strap in your front foot (left if you ride regular, right if goofy) and leave it attached all the time, but don't do anything with your back foot yet. You'll need your back foot free to push yourself around on flat ground. You can glide for a short ways by standing your back foot directly on the board, adjacent to (not in) the binding; this is a skill you'll need to learn in order to dismount lifts. Before heading down a slope you have to strap in your back foot, and release it again at the bottom to ride the lift.

Using a lift

Beginner's slopes sometimes have a "magic carpet" lift. This is basically a conveyor belt in the ground, which is simple to use even with no experience. Slide closer and closer, and when it's your turn, just step onto the belt with your skis or snowboard. At the top, the snow will be packed to create a downward slope right at the end of the lift. Lean forwards, and let the momentum push you off the end onto the slope; you may have to nudge your way forward a bit in order to slide down.

"Bar coming down"

Not all ski locations require you to lower the safety bar, but even where it's not required, remember that it is called a "safety bar" for a reason. Although preferences about whether to use the bar or not vary, common courtesy means that if any one person on the chair wants to use it, no complaints will be made.

When lowering the bar, particularly if no one else has made a move to, warning your chairmates "Bar coming down" or "Mind your head" is polite, so that no one gets bonked on the head.

The most common type of lift for many slopes is a chair lift, an open-air bench that lifts 2-4 people into the air. Getting on these is the easy part. After queuing, when you're second in line, you'll wait behind a marked line so the preceding chair can pass in front of you. As soon as it does, shuffle your way up to the next "wait here" line. The chair will come up behind you, and you just plop your bottom in to it as it scoops you up. Lift your feet so your skis/snowboard don't drag until you're up in the air.

Getting off a chair lift is a bit trickier. As you approach the top, there's a bit of an uphill so you don't catch your skis/board, followed by a flat section. On skis, just point your skis straight forward; on a snowboard, turn so you're ready to move forwards (torso facing sideways), and put your back foot on the board next to the bindings. When you reach the flat part just before dismounting, put your weight forwards so you'll be stable coming down the hill. As the chair moves forward it will give you a bit of a push down the hill, and you're off. Once on flat ground, move out of the way as soon as you can so that others can dismount without running in to you.

Many beginners have a hard time dismounting without falling, so don't feel bad about it. But, if you do fall, try to fall forwards away from the lift and other people. If you stop too close to either, the lift operator will slow down or stop the lift to make sure no one gets hurt, which delays everyone else. It's a normal (sometimes frequent) occurrence, particularly on beginner slopes, but it's good etiquette to do your best not to delay others.

Tackling the slopes

NOTE: When on the slopes, people ahead of you have right of way. This means that it's your job to avoid anyone in front of you. Don't go so fast that you won't be able to stop or move away from someone in front of you.

When you do fall which you will, as a beginner try to avoid hitting others or getting in the way of people behind you. If you fall or stop in the middle of a trail, either get moving again within a few seconds, or move to the side of the trail so you're out of the way while you get situated. Don't stop where you're not visible to others, such as just past a hill or around a corner.

Now it's time to head downhill. As you do, always lean forwards. Your instinct is to stay "upright", but because you're on a downward slope, you're actually leaning backwards. This leaves very little weight on the front of your skis or snowboard, which gives you less control and causes you to go faster. If you lean forwards, keeping your weight on your front, you will be able to control your speed and direction much easier. It feels unnatural at first to lean so far forward, and you'll require constant reminding, but it will help your technique immensely.

On skis, beginners are often taught "french fries to go fast, pizza to slow down". When your skis are parallel to each other ("french fries"), you'll accelerate downhill or coast on flat ground. To slow down, point your skis towards each other in front like a disconnected V ("pizza" or "wedge", also called "snowplow" because it does kick up a lot of loose snow). Don't let your skis touch each other or cross; that's a sure-fire way to lose control and fall. This basic "french-friespizza" technique is easy for kids and adults to start learning with, and is enough to let you regulate your speed and even do basic turns.

Once you start to get the hang of it, work on controlling your speed by zigzagging across the slope, rather than snowplowing in a straight line (which breaks up a lot of the nice powder). As you get more advanced, you should learn how to stop and turn by keeping both skis parallel and sliding sideways, much like how ice skaters stop.

On a snowboard, you first need to stop and strap in your back foot. Once you do this, you can try to stand up, although keeping your balance while doing so may be difficult. For beginners it may be easier to hold your board in the air and roll over on to your stomach, so that you can stand up backwards instead of forwards.

For snowboarders, "forwards" means turned to the side with your lead food (left foot if regular, right if goofy) furthest down the hill, and your back foot furthest up the hill. Likewise, "sideways" actually means having your chest or back facing straight down the slope. Turning "sideways" is how you stop: turn so your chest is facing straight down the slope, and rock back onto your heels so the the long part of your board digs in. (You can do a "toe-side stop" as well, by facing up the mountain instead of down and digging in with your toe edge instead of your heel edge. Beginners usually prefer heel stops, since you can see where you're going.) You can also use this technique to go down the slopes slowly: control the pressure on your heels to limit the amount of braking you get. But as with skis, this is called "snowplowing" and you should advance beyond this technique as soon as possible, since it's slow, takes up space, and flattens a lot of powder.

Turning is done by "carving" a long edge of your board in, either toe-side or heel-side. A good way to start learning turns is to do a "falling leaf". This is a simple way of zigzagging your way down the slopes like a leaf falling from a tree. Facing "sideways" looking down the mountain, start on the far right side of the slope. Get moving, but stay on your heel edge so that you track from right to left across the slope. When you reach the left edge, stop. Now repeat the process, this time going from left to right. You can stay on your heel edge, which seems easy (and requires less work) but isn't ideal, because you're actually switching which foot you have in front. Instead, try to switch to your toe edge, this time facing up the mountain. (If you ride goofy, you'll have to reverse left and right in order to use the same technique.) The falling leaf technique is much better than snowplowing: it doesn't kick up as much powder or get in people's way, and it's a stepping stone to the next step.

By now you want to get a little more speed. To do that you'll need to start pointing yourself straight down the slopes. When you feel you're going fast enough, turn (whichever direction you like) and come to a stop. Then point yourself down the slope again. These are called "J turns", "C turns", or "garlands", because of the shape it makes when you do them in succession.

As you get more advanced, you can learn to control your speed by making S-turns back and forth to lose speed rather than sliding or stopping. To do this, you need to learn to connect turns, transitioning from heel to toe, and toe to heel. The trick is that you don't go from a turn directly to the other kind of turn. If you do, the edge of your board will dig in, and you'll be violently flipped over. Instead, you have to straighten out first and get your board flat on the snow for a bit before starting the turn in the opposite direction.


Virtually all ski resorts have a ski school where you can sign up for lessons. It's recommended that you learn to ski at a smaller, cheaper mountain nearer to your location before going off to a major ski resort, so you won't have to pay a large fee (at least for a skipass) to just use the bunny hill (which would be the same more or less anywhere).

Some tips that can help you in choosing a right skiing school:

Stay safe

Ski terrain can often be very dangerous and can lead to hazards that can potentially injure or kill a careless skier. Do not ski any terrain that is above your skill level and pay attention to all signs and ski patrol instructions. Always ski in a group, or let someone know where you will be. Start each day with some easy slopes to warm up, instead of skipping directly to the hardest trail you think you can manage.

Heed avalanche warning signs and avoid areas where avalanche buildup can occur. If an avalanche does occur, ski sideways to get out of its path. If you can reach a tree or rock, hold on to it for as long as you can; even 1-3 seconds can make a difference.

Injuries are common for beginners, as everyone falls down a lot when they first learn to ski or snowboard. Wearing a helmet of course provides protection for your most important body part. But also pay attention to your wrists and knees. Beginners often try to catch themselves with their hands or knees, leading to sprains or broken wrists. You can wear a wrist guard or knee brace if you're sensitive in these areas, but the best solution is prevention: learn to spread yourself out and fall as flat as you can, distributing the impact across your body rather than concentrating it in your hands or knees.

If you injure yourself on patrolled terrain, ask a fellow skier to fetch the resort's ski patrol for you. Lift operators can help contact them. Mark the location of an injured person by planting skis or snowboards in an upright cross (like an "X") just uphill.

Stay healthy

See cold weather and altitude sickness.

Skiing takes place in some of the most treacherous terrain in the world under very cold conditions. Be sure you are properly protected against the cold so you will not suffer from frostbite or hypothermia. When you are skiing you will be exposed to the elements all day and need to act accordingly. If you feel particularly cold, particularly if you begin to shiver, call it a day and head indoors to warm up.

When the sun comes out, the reflection from the snow around you can cause serious problems as well! Be sure to wear snow goggles or sunglasses to protect your eyes from snowblindness and wear sunscreen to protect yourself from sunburn. Snow can reflect more than 50% of the light that hits it, so wear sunscreen even if it's cloudy outside! You'll thank yourself later.

Consider packing some anti-inflammatory painkiller to deal with minor soreness and aches. Other items to keep in your first aid kit might include ice packs or heat pads.


Après-ski (French for "after skiing") is a fancy word for "going out drinking after skiing". Once the sun goes down, everyone's day is pretty much done (unless there are lighted ski trails, but even these are only open for a few hours), so there's not much else to do except party.


Because of their remote location, lodging in and around ski resorts tends to be expensive, with prices dropping off the further from the slopes you get.

The most highly-regarded lodgings are ski-in ski-out. Literally, this means some kind of ski trail abuts the lodging, and you can step out the door, strap on your skis, and get to and from the slopes entirely on the snow. (This may be more difficult for snowboarders, because the trails to the lodging may be rather flat, and without poles like skiers have, snowboarders are likely to coast to a halt.)

However, not all ski-in ski-out lodgings are actually ski-in ski-out. Many times, this merely means that the location is close to the ski slopes, but a bit of a walk may be involved. Or it may mean that only a select few units in a building are ski-in ski-out.

The appeal of ski-in ski-out is that you don't waste any time trudging back and forth from the slopes. When you want to take a break, you can return home and leave again later with almost no time lost.

For a bit less money, you can choose lodging that's near the slopes, but not ski-in ski-out. You'll have a few minutes' walk or maybe a shuttle ride, but you still don't have to worry about driving, changing boots, and locking up your car.

As you get further from the slopes, prices continue to drop. There's usually a sharp difference between lodging on and off the mountain. If you lodge off the mountain, at least twice a day you'll have to traverse the road up to the ski resort. These are generally long, narrow, winding roads that may take 15 minutes to half an hour or more, depending on how far away you stay.

The extra driving may not sound like much, but a short mid-day rest can do wonders for your stamina, letting you stay on the slopes longer overall. This option becomes increasingly impractical if it takes you half an hour or more just to get to and from your lodging.

However, every resort is unique, so it pays to do some research. In some locations, driving to the ski resort doesn't take long, and it may be very practical and economical to stay someplace 10 minutes away for much cheaper than lodging on the slopes.


Major skiing destinations include:




North America


United States of America

  • Bear Paw
  • Big Mountain
  • Big Sky - This is a large resort area located 45 minutes south of Bozeman. This has two mountains, lots of lifts, including "The Tram," a gondola to the top of Lone Peak. Pick a clear day for an unparalleled view of the Spanish Peaks and incredible expert skiing. Winter and summer resort activities available.
  • Blacktail Mountain
  • Bridger Bowl - 20 minutes north of Bozeman, this is a locals' mountain with 7 lifts. Most of the mountain is intermediate level and above, including "The Ridge," a hikeable area to the top of the mountain and accessing a wide variety of expert terrain.
  • Discovery Basin
  • Great Divide
  • Lookout Pass
  • Lost Trail Powder Mountain
  • Maverick Mountain
  • Montana Snowbowl - Located 20 minutes from Missoula.
  • Moonlight Basin
  • Red Lodge Mountain Resort
  • Showdown, Teton Pass
  • Turner Mountain
  • Yellowstone Club - A private ski and golf community located next to Big Sky.



See Winter sports in Australia

New Zealand

See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, January 31, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.