In high school, I made my bread each weekend as a professional ski instructor. For three seasons, I skied over 70 days per year, teaching group and individual ski and snowboard lessons to people ranging in age from 2 to 62. I was a member of the professional ski teacher’s union, the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), and I made $20 per hour as a 14 year-old doing it. Not bad for a weekend gig that included a free season pass and all the early-morning powder runs I could handle. So what advice to I have for those who want to learn to ski?
In this post, I’ll share everything I can think of that’s important for you to know. More importantly, I’ll talk about traditional and non-traditional ways of saving money while you learn to ski — since afterall, DailyPerk is a blog about saving money and living better for less.
Invest in Lessons, Not in Equipment
For the first few hours I spent thinking about how to approach this blog post, I was convinced I’d be telling you not to take lessons. As someone who’s taught hundreds of them, I guess over time I became disenchanted with the magic that ski instructors bring to their careers. After all, industrious people can learn most anything without lessons, right? Tennis. Golf. Computer programming. The world-famous mathematician Ramanujan taught himself complex math through a few simple texts with no teacher. If he could do that, you could probably teach yourself to ski, right?
Absolutely. But you won’t enjoy it nearly as much. And that’s why I ultimately decided the best advice I had for you is this: Invest in a half-dozen lessons as you get started and save yourself the hours of frustration that learning by yourself will take.
I’m a believer in the idea that skiing is naturally therapeutic, and that it’s one of the most graceful activities your average person can engage in. But the truth is, it is far from natural for us clunky humans. We are made to klop along, one foot after the other. Not to hurl ourselves down massive mountains at speeds upward or 30 miles per hour.
Thanks to the PSIA, the curriculum for ski education has become incredibly well standardized over the last 50 years. Before that, there were many different “right” ways to learn — something that made going from lesson to lesson really inefficient. Now you can start with any instructor, go back in a few weeks and learn to ski better with another, and still progress much more quickly than you would alone. (You’ll be asked what level your last lesson was, so don’t forget!)
The bottom line is this: Professional instructors are professional for a reason. They have to train. They are required to demonstrate competence at observing and correcting problems, and, like a good gardener, they can pinpoint problems that most hobbyists wouldn’t notice. If you want to learn to ski, save yourself the extra steep learning curve and learn to ski from a pro.
Pro Tip: If you need to conserve cash while you learn to ski (Who doesn’t?), then skip buying the fanciest new equipment. I’m sure Tiger Woods can tell the difference between a $200 driver and a $2,000 one, but most beginning golfers can’t. The same is certainly true for skiers. With the advent of parabolic (“shaped”) skis, turning and maintaining control are much easier. But these days, any ski you rent or buy will incorporate that design. (By the way, rent far from the mountain to save more money.) You don’t need the most expensive, lightest-weight bindings. And you don’t need the heated boots. Just get some safe, functional equipment and get on the hill. Invest in learning, not in crutches claiming to help you learn faster or more comfortably. You’ll learn at your own pace anyway.
Dress Appropriately, Not Stylishly
I suppose if my recommendation was to avoid the most expensive ski equipment, then you shouldn’t be surprised that I also advise against buying the most expensive outerwear. While I can say I still feel compelled to make fun of the goof balls who show up to the mountain planning to ski in jeans, I must say that the style associated with skiing and snowboarding in the modern era is one of the most outrageous symptoms of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thinking around. No matter what jacket you buy, I have no doubt I can find a more expensive, more “high tech” one. When I skied every weekend, all season long, I couldn’t help but laugh at the folks who showed up to the mountain with the fanciest clothes but then couldn’t ski. It’s absurd.
Invest in time on the mountain first, and then invest in looking cool second. I’ve seen the best skiers wear duct-taped gloves and the worst in fur-lined jackets.
Ski attire should be about practicality. Sure, you don’t want to look impoverished on the ski hill any more than you would at the mall — in both cases you’ll be surrounded mostly by strangers you’ll never see again. But you also probably don’t wear a $3,000 suit to Macy’s to pick up a spatula.
On the ski hill, wear water-proof outerwear, at least 3 layers of insulation underneath (unless you’re spring skiing and it’s 60 degrees), and a decent pair of goggles that you can see clearly out of. Get gloves that won’t be soaked if they get snowy. (They’ll be snowy all day for your first 10 days.) Wear a winter hat that keeps your head warm. Under your boots, wear a decent pair of wool socks. (These stay warm even if they get wet.), and for gosh sakes, make sure they’re pulled up above the top of your ski boots. If they bunch up, sag, or fall down into your boots, your boots will pinch and your feet will get sore. And don’t tuck any of the pants you’re wearing into your boots either, otherwise you’ll cut off circulation to your feet when you tighten them up.
Pro Tip: The best modern innovation in ski outerwear was definitely the internal snow skirt — an elastic waste band on the inside of many ski jackets which creates a seal between the jacket and the skier’s body — kind of like the spray skirt on a kayak. Get a jacket with a snow skirt inside to keep from filling your coat with snow the first time you slide 20 yards on your bottom through powder. The good news is you can certainly find reasonably priced jackets that have snow skirts in them.
Master the Snow Plow, Even Though it’s Not Cool
When I used to teach children how to ski they would constantly tell me they wanted to ski “like that guy!” pointing at a 20-year veteran, whose skies stayed parallel and who stopped like a hockey player, sliding sideways on both skis. The hockey stop is an advanced technique and it looks appropriately advanced when you see it done. But in order to move to become at all competent, you’ll first have to master the “snow plow,” also known as the “wedge,” or simply, the “pizza.”
When your skis are pointed down hill and are parallel with one another, you’ll accelerate really quickly. To slow yourself or even stop quickly, all you need to do is keep your tips (in front of you) together, and spread your tails (behind you), effectively creating a triangle shape with your skis. To do this well, you’ll need to understand what it means to stay on the inside edges of both skis. The whole body position, when mastered, digs your skis into the snow, effectively plowing it up in front of you and creating enough friction to stop quickly. Put your tails back together to bring your skis parallel, and you’ll take off again. Simple, right?
Sometimes. Sometimes this is really hard for people to learn. That’s okay. It’s a weird position to have your body in. Eventually, your muscle memory will take over and when you think stop, you’ll automatically make this shape with your skis.
Again, invest in time on the hill and lessons from a few good instructors to get yourself to the point of being able to stop quickly and easily. Until then, little else that you can spend money on matters.
Pro Tip: Unfortunately, until you’ve mastered the snow plow, you won’t really be in full control of your skis and yourself. Learning to slide down hill really doesn’t involve any learning at all. (You could do that if you were completely unconscious – literally in your sleep.) The key to skiing well is learning to slow yourself and stop on short notice. The process of learning this will also help you learn to turn naturally, without thinking much about it, because braking harder with one leg than the other causes you to turn automatically.
Go With Friends, But Learn to Ski Alone if You Must
As a former instructor and a good skier, I’m constantly being asked if I will go with beginner friends to teach them how. Of course, each year, I oblige someone and share my love for the mountain and the snow by teaching them what I know and dredging up my old skills to recognize where they’re failing. I like doing this, but not as much as I like skiing with other expert skiers. Moreover, many good skiers don’t like teaching people at all.
With kids, it can be different. I always bring a hula hoop with small kids who are beginning. That’s because I can ski backwards well, and staying in front of them on their way down the hill — the hula hoop keeping us far enough apart to stay comfortable — is a great way to keep them safe. With little ones, it’s easy for them to forget their snow plow long enough to go careening down the hill and into someone or something. (This is very dangerous and should never be taken lightly.) Kids can be really fun to teach, because they’re used to learning, are almost always better at listening than adults, and tend to genuinely try things even if they feel they might look silly. Teaching my adult friends has proven much harder.
I often find that after an hour or two, many adults simply need to practice the basic skills the’ve learned — they simply need to invest time. At this point, I tend to cut them loose on the bunny slope (the beginner’s hill) alone. Sometimes, this results in funny reactions. “I can’t do it without you,” “What if I fall?” That kind of thing. We talk about the things they did to get up last time they fell. “If you can’t ski without me, then how will you ever become good?” I ask.
Remember that when you invest in skiing, you’re investing in yourself. Sure there’s lots of fun socialization that comes along with skiing, but the act of skiing itself isn’t nearly as social as it is about pushing yourself, learning by yourself and enjoying yourself in beauty of nature.
Pro Tip: Like pretty much all other expert skiers, I go to the mountain because I really want to get my own personal alone time with the mountain. Even skiing with other great skiers is something that mostly means being alone, I find. I guess what I’m really trying to say to you — the person hoping to learn to ski — is this: Skiing is a personal pursuit no matter how good you get. Respect that idea with those you hope will teach you. And learn to enjoy it yourself. Some people even find skiing meditative. For the last couple summers I’ve been learning to surf, and I find the two sports have this in common. They’re both all about pitting yourself against nature and pushing yourself as an individual. If you want to be more social, take up golf or curling.
Find Joy in Your Time on the Mountain
This brings me to my last point: If you want to learn to ski, learn to find joy in your time on the mountain — and find it every time you go. The more peace you get out of this sport (and the less frustration, fear and anxiety you feel) the more you will enjoy it and look forward to it. Give this concept some time to sink in, however.
The first few days you’re out on the snow will mean falling — sometimes harder than you’d like to. They’ll mean sore muscles. (This almost never fades away for skiers.) They’ll mean frustration from mentally understanding what you should be doing to improve but not being able to physically get your body to do it. (There’s a feeling you haven’t had since you were 5, trying to tie your shoe laces.) Take time out to catch your breath. Take breaks. Get a hot cocoa. Enjoy time with friends on the mountain. Remember that you have nowhere to be, no schedule to follow in order to improve. Take your time, and give yourself permission to make mistakes and to learn.
The best way to get your money’s worth out of your ski pass as a beginner is to make sure you enjoy yourself. If you make your primary goal having fun skiing today, no matter how hard it is, then you won’t feel bad about calling it a day early. This is perfectly acceptable. I’ve broken a collar bone, dislocated shoulders and suffered a few mild concussions skiing. And I can tell you that every time I was injured, it happened at the end of the day, when I was too tired to be as good as I am in the morning, but when I was still trying to push myself to be that good after a hard day’s skiing. Bad idea.
Like swimmers, all skiers can benefit from good instruction. That’s because skiing is the kind of sport that you can never truly master. There’s always something more efficient, more graceful. Even the best instructors take lessons, and even the best skiers get frustrated with their inability to do things they’ve seen or been trying to do for what feels like forever. If you enjoy skiing every day, then you’ll, by definition, be someone who loves skiing. And that’s what this sport is all about. Not fancy gear. And certainly not spending money you don’t have to in order to impress someone you’ll never see again. Save that for the mall.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn to ski? What tips do you have for saving money skiing? Share below.