6 things you must know before taking a first ski trip

Nov 16, 2020

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After recently sharing what it was like to ski on opening day at the Keystone ski resort in Colorado, I got a lot of questions from would-be first-time skiers. With safe indoor entertainment options likely limited throughout this winter, getting out on a wide-open ski hill suddenly sounds even more interesting than normal.

That’s very good news to a sport that has room to grow, but the truth is, there’s a learning curve to not only actually physically learning to ski or ride, but effectively planning a successful first ski trip. That’s true in any year, but this season specifically there’s an even greater learning curve to climb to planning a first ski trip. But, it can be done.

Here are the six cardinal rules for planning a first-time ski trip this season.

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Research and plan in advance

OK, this part is admittedly harder than normal right now, but you should start any first-time ski trip plan with some serious research.

You’ll need to research whether advance ski or parking reservations are required at your mountain, what ski pass or lift ticket is best for your trip, places kids or even seniors can ski free, whether that mountain has good beginner terrain, what lessons will be available this year and also whether you can even legally enter that state without a quarantine.

While at this time, the headlining ski states of Colorado and Utah are open to tourism without quarantine, that isn’t true of all popular ski-town locations. For example, ski-friendly states such as Vermont and New Mexico are closed to visitors coming from most states.

On top of that, individual ski counties can and do have their own rules and restrictions.

Right now, Summit County in Colorado (home to Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and more) isn’t allowing more than 10 people from more than two households to share short-term lodging, like a rental home. If this holds through the ski season, that means no big multi-family ski trips all sharing one house in that popular ski area.

Even if you research all of these rules now (and you should), know it can change as your trip date approaches. You’ll want to make a mental or written note to research it all again periodically in the weeks and months leading up to your first ski trip. After your research, you’ll need to make advance bookings for almost everything this year.

Budget for ski lessons

Even if you get the best money-saving ski pass and use points and miles for a ski-friendly hotel and airfare, ski trips can still be on the expensive side. However, you do not want to cut costs on lessons for a first-time ski trip.

There is no more certain way to hate skiing (or the family member trying to teach you to ski) than to take a DIY approach to learning how to ski or snowboard. Here’s some real talk: Unless you just learn all physical activities really quickly, skiing or riding usually isn’t all that fun the first or even second day you start to learn.

It’s a fair amount of work, there will likely be some frustration and maybe even a few falls.  But — it’s absolutely worth it once you get over that initial learning hump, which often happens by the third day. You want a pro who knows how to help you (or your kids) progress as quickly as possible there to help you through those first learning steps.

Private ski lessons are far and away the best bet this year if you can afford them.

(Photo by Monet Hambrick)

In fact, at some mountains, they may be the only option for some age ranges or at certain times of the season due to COVID restrictions. You can share the private lesson with others in your travel group who have roughly the same skill set. So, if your whole family is new to skiing, one small group family private lesson may not cost any more than multiple group lessons.

Related: Right age for kids to start ski school

Get the right ski gear

This year, more than ever, you need to truly have the right ski gear to withstand the cold since the indoor capacity of the lodges will be capped.

Generally speaking, here’s the ski gear you need for each person in your party:

  • Ski jacket — This needs to be waterproof (or at least water-resistant), insulated, with available pockets and made for time in the snow. (Quantity: 1)
  • Ski pants or bibs — Again, waterproof (or at least water-resistant), insulated, pants or bibs with pockets that are made for time in the snow. This is always true, but when you are learning, you may need even more waterproofing than you will on future trips. Bibs are generally best for the youngest skiers. (Quantity: 1)
  • Top and bottom base layers — Your base layer (also known as long underwear) should be made to keep you warm in the snow and should take any sweat away from your body. You should have a top and bottom. (Quantity: 1 or 2)
  • Ski or snowboard socks — Get ski or board-specific socks made of wool that aren’t too thick. Just wear one pair — more isn’t better. (Quantity 1 per day until you can wash and have time to air-dry.)
  • Mid-layer — If you are skiing in the heart of the cold ski season, you may need a mid-layer that goes over your base layer, but under your jacket. I like to use a Patagonia-type of vest as a mid-layer, but others prefer a wool or fleece mid-layer. (Quantity: 1 or 2)
  • Snow boats — You’ll need boots you can use in the snow, but don’t confuse these with ski or snowboard boots. These are the ones you use when you aren’t on the mountain. (Quantity: 1)
  • Ski gloves or mittens — Get waterproof or water-resistant gloves or mittens made for skiing or snowboarding. (Quantity: 1)
  • Goggles — These help with bright reflections from the snow, the wind and the cold. The goggles will go over your helmet. (Quantity: 1)
  • Helmet –– Helmets are not usually required for adults but are strongly recommended. Not only do they keep you safer, but they also keep your head warm and cozy. You can rent helmets when you rent skis or boards if you don’t want to own one or aren’t ready to commit. (Quantity: 1)
  • Neck warmer and mask — On colder ski days, you will need something around your neck to keep warm. For some, this may also serve as your required mask needed during some parts of the ski day. However, others may find it easier to have an actual mask on hand in case your neck warmer isn’t great about staying up over your nose. (Quantity: 1 or 2 — obviously, if your neck warmer is also serving as a mask, you’ll need one per day until you can wash and dry.)

If you don’t know if you’ll love skiing, and don’t want to go out and buy all of that at once, you rent basically all of the snow gear you need for you or your kids as a bundle. While I don’t have a specific rental source to recommend from personal experience, an online search for “rent ski clothes” should reveal a variety of options. It’s also common for friends and family members to borrow ski gear from each other, too, especially for kids where sizes change so quickly.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

For ski or snowboard boots and gear, it’s normal to rent that for a first trip. Many once- or twice-a-year skiers and riders continue to just rent that gear forever, so you don’t ever have to buy if you don’t want to. If you do buy, I’d start with buying ski boots, as a good fit there is worth a lot. Do not ever keep ski boots that are hurting your feet as you may end up losing your toenails.

I’d recommend renting from a company that will bring the boots, skis and board to you, as opposed to you having to go into a rental shop. Set that up well in advance of your actual trip.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Location matters: Here’s why a ski-out location is suggested

You don’t have to stay at a ski-out spot to have a great first ski trip, but I’d argue you should strongly consider it. This is another one of those things that is especially true this year. Just like learning to truly have fun on skis can take a few days, getting good at managing all the “ski stuff” takes time too. Having the stamina to last a full ski day can also be tough.

If you have a ski-in location, you can easily take breaks, not have to haul gear very far, be close to ski lessons, etc. Again, with indoor mountain lodge facilities potentially limited this year, being actually on the mountain may be quite the handy midday alternative to have somewhere to warm up, use your own facilities, etc.

Park Hyatt Beaver Creek (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

There are plenty of ski-out properties where you can use your hotel points, so this doesn’t have to be a budget-busting decision.

You probably won’t ski every single day

Skiing or riding are both very physical activities and they use muscles you probably don’t use in your everyday life. Unless you are in top physical condition (or are just young and can push through anything), expect to want to give your legs a break after a couple of days on the slopes.

If you have a five-day ski trip planned for your first time, do yourself a favor and consider taking that middle day off. Sleep in, go snow tubing, stretch, maybe even get a massage if they are available, and take it easy before getting back out there to finish off your trip. There’s usually plenty to do in a ski town other than just ski.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

I also recommend getting to town at least 24 hours before you plan to ski if you are at all prone to altitude sickness — or don’t yet know if you are prone to it. Get settled, get your gear, hydrate really well and hit the slopes once you know you feel alright.

Big-name mountains aren’t necessary for a first trip

Yes, back bowls, terrain parks and such can be amazing, but probably won’t be used for a first ski trip.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with heading to major mountains such as Vail, Park City, Breckenridge, Steamboat or Aspen-Snowmass for your first ski trip (though there are actually a couple of mountains such as Aspen Mountain that wouldn’t be great first-time choices). However, you don’t have to start at the top.

Any mountain with lessons, some wide-open green runs and snow is just fine for a first ski trip if you want to save some cash and keep things simple.

Skiing in Maryland (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

It can be intimidating to plan your first-ever ski or snowboard trip, but it will also be intensely rewarding. Don’t worry if it isn’t all perfect the first time, there’s plenty you can do to make the next ski trip even better. But you have to start somewhere, so start researching and you still have time to get a jump-start making this the year you get out on the mountain and learn to ski or ride.

Featured image by miralex/Getty Images

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