The Clumsy Beginner’s Guide to Skiing (Including Skiing During Covid!)

I thought skiing was a sport that you either picked up as a child, or not at all. It seemed more like a legacy than a skill — like you could only be part of it if you grew up in a family that wintered in Vail or Switzerland. (My family didn’t “winter” anywhere, unless you count road trips Florida to see my grandparents.)

Skiing seemed like an expensive and dangerous sport to me, but to be fair, every sport feels dangerous to me. My husband calls me “the Evil Kneivel of walking around the house” because I somehow manage to injure myself so often in the business of everyday living. But that same husband wanted us to try skiing. He knew I’d be hesitant, so he lured me with promises that, if I didn’t take to it, I could just sit inside by the fire reading books all day.

In an attempt to quell the visions of I had of myself breaking down in tears on the slopes or, worse, wrapped around a tree someplace with a compound fracture (those were the only two outcomes I thought were possible), I tried to research skiing for beginners — and I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Most of the “beginner” instructions focus on actual skiing techniques and start with the assumption that you’ve been to a ski resort before. I couldn’t find information about what I really wanted to know, which was more general than that. There are a lot of YouTube videos that will show you how to snow plough, but nobody tells you where to keep your chapstick.

This is the blog I wish I would’ve had. It’s “Carrie Rollwagen’s Beginner Guide to Skiing for Clumsy People,” not super well rounded advice by an expert. If you want that advice, YouTube is full of it — I’ve only been skiing three times, to two places. (I’ve skied in Telluride, CO, which is the kind of ski destination you plan a vacation around, and Maggie Valley, NC, which is on the cheaper side and more of a weekend destination.)

But one reason to listen to my advice is that I did learn to enjoy skiing. I mean, you get to slide down mountains, and then instead of climbing back up, they let you ride in a chair. That’s pretty neat. There’s a magic to snow that makes me feel alive, and you get to wear squishy overalls all day. I don’t have grand ambitions to do anything more intense than greens and blues (if you don’t know what the color codes mean, don’t worry — I get into that later in the blog), but I like to ski and I look forward to going, and that’s I cannot say about any other athletic endeavor.

I have lots of thoughts about what beginner skiers should know (I’ve taken notes on every trip), so this article is pretty long. Just use the headings to skip to exactly what you’re curious about (the covid-specific stuff is at the very end, so if you’re hunting for that, scroll all the way down). But if you’re worried about the chair lift, if YouTube videos are scaring you or if you’re wondering where you put your stuff while you’re actually on the slopes — this is the blog for you.

Is skiing expensive?

Yes. There’s no getting around this. I always thought of skiing as a sport for rich people because it sort of is. There are some ways to make it less expensive, but “live close to a mountain” is the big one, and I’m not sure that’s practical. Borrowing clothes instead of buying or renting will save you a lot of money, so it’s worth asking around to see if any friends have something you can borrow. The first time I went skiing, I wore my normal old REI puffer jacket and borrowed a ski bib, and they were both totally fine. You can also save money by carrying your own snacks and using a refillable water bottle instead of buying water and food.

What is the lodge like? Can I leave my stuff there? Can I hang out there if I hate skiing?

Lodges are all different — Maggie Valley’s lodge is kind of like a high school locker room with a cafeteria upstairs, and the lodges at Telluride (well, technically Mountain Village, which is the area where you ski when you stay in Telluride) are nicer and more spacious.

If you’re skiing at a place with a lot of day or weekend traffic, or it’s at a lower price point, they might have small lockers that you can rent to stash the stuff you’re not skiing with (your street shoes, keys, etc.). (The Maggie Valley lockers took quarters; they didn’t have an attendant or anything like that.)

At Telluride/Mountain Village, we rent slopeside lockers where we can keep our shoes and bags during the day, and where we can leave our skis, poles, boots and helmets at the end of the day. We love those lockers because we don’t have to carry all our equipment back every night. (They also have nice bathrooms and places to fill up water bottles.)

Lockers will normally be at the base of the slopes, so even if you get a locker, you’ll be carrying all your things either from your car or AirBNB on the first and last days (to get them to and from the locker). If you don’t get lockers, you’ll just carry all your things with you every day. The exception to this is if you’re staying at a ski-in-ski-out place on the mountain; then, you can ski right out of your place, hence the name. (Those places will be specially labeled in the listing, so you’ll know in advance if it’s a ski-in-ski-out.)

Should I take a ski lesson?

Yes! Learning to ski is frustrating at first — there’s no getting around that. The mechanics of moving from side to side weren’t hard for me (the whole “you push right to go left” thing sounds confusing until you realize it’s just like skating, so if you’ve ice skated or roller skated at all you can probably pick that up pretty quickly). But it’s hard to negotiate life with two huge slats strapped to your feet, and getting up after a fall is something I still haven’t mastered. (That’s a huge understatement.) 

As a friend who loves skiing said to me, “I always want everyone to take a class because I want everyone to enjoy skiing.” That describes my experience perfectly: Without a class, I could ski, but I didn’t love it. It was only once I took a class that I actually started to like it. Now I take a class every time I go, and it helps me gain more confidence and control.

If you learn from your friend or family member, you will get really mad at them. They will get really annoyed with you. That’s not a great environment for learning, and those feelings could bleed into the rest of your trip — why go through that?

Can I learn to ski on YouTube?

I found YouTube videos more helpful after I’d been skiing because I could put the instructions into context better — before I’d ever skied, watching YouTube videos made me more confused and nervous. Having said that, it can be helpful to watch a couple of videos on how to get up after a fall. You could also search for how to snow plough (also called the “wedge,” or “pizza”), since that’s popular for beginners. I also like to watch a couple of YouTube videos after taking a class so I can review what I’ve just learned. (I do this back at the AirBNB, not while I’m still on the slopes.)

What do the colors codes mean?

There’s a code for how easy or tough something is — greens are the easiest, blues are intermediate, and black is advanced. A “double green” is doubly hard — it’s closer to a blue. There’s no agreed on system for determining these, though, so when you’re on a new mountain, it’s best to start with green and work your way up, even if you’ve been skiing before, so you get a feel for their ratings system. (The bunny slope comes before green, by the way — it’s just a very gradual incline where you can practice before you really do anything.) My advice is to not be afraid of staying on greens until you’re really comfortable and ready for blue. I’d rather ski on greens by myself all day than force myself to stay with a group that’s skiing runs too hard for me.

Who has the right of way on the slopes?

The skier in front has the right of way. It’s pretty impossible to ski while looking over your shoulder, so on the mountain, it’s the responsibility of the person who’s coming up from behind to negotiate around the person in front of them. This is super helpful for the beginner — you’re probably going to be floundering, and it’s doubly difficult if you’re trying to look over your shoulder all the time while you’re going back and forth across the mountain (like you would if you were changing lanes in traffic in a car). Don’t purposely ski right in front of someone just because it’s their responsibility to avoid you, and definitely look at “oncoming traffic” if you’re skiing onto a new slope (like where one slope feeds into another), but otherwise, worry more about what’s in front of you than what’s behind. (Great life lesson, too!) 

What am I supposed to do at a chair lift?

A ride on a chair lift is beautiful and magical. It can also be scary (you’re several stories off the ground in a chair that’s hanging from a wire). Lifts at different places are different, so I can’t tell you exactly how your lift will work, but here’s some advice that’s applicable to any lift: Stay aware and watch what other people are doing (so you can copy them), especially when you’re in the lift line and when you’re getting off the lift. Move deliberately and, once you decide to move, move decisively.

You’ll get into the lift line either as a single (if you don’t care who you ride with), or with the person (or people) you want to ride with. The single line goes faster, but if you’re new to or nervous about the lift, ride with people you know and ask them what to do. If you’re with a stranger, don’t worry — tell them it’s your first time, and they’ll help (letting you know when to scoot up in line, when to pull the bar down on your chair, etc.) Ski culture is very welcoming, and almost everyone will be happy to help out.

When you’re getting close to the end of the lift (you’ll see the little station coming up, and you’ll see signs on the poles that tell you how to prepare to exit), pay attention. Make sure your gloves or mittens are on and that you have your poles in your hand ready to get off the lift. Move the bar up before you actually get up to the front so you’re ready to ski out of the chair. Keep the front tips of your skis up (so they don’t get caught on the ground).

As soon as your skis touch the ground at all, push yourself up and out of the chair, and ski down the little slope to either the right or the left side. The chair will keep moving, so you really do need to get up and out of the way of the chair and the lift as soon as possible. The good news is, your only job here is to get up and out of the way. You don’t have to start your run as soon as you’re out of the chair — you only need to get out of the way of the lift, and then you can rest and rearrange yourself and get ready for your run.

It sounds tricky, and it is tricky! But the worst thing that’s going to happen when you’re getting off a lift is that you fall — and when that happens, the attendants will stop the lift and help you up. It’s not really that big of a deal; it happens all the time. I’ve fallen while trying to get off a lift and, while it’s embarrassing when it happens to you, nobody really looks twice. It’s a very common thing.

What do I do if I fall?

Everyone falls, so don’t be embarrassed. If you fall, take a second to collect yourself and get your bearings. One of my big mistakes when I started (and now, to be honest) is to struggle so much when getting up after a fall that I exhaust myself. It’s better to just pause and collect yourself (and maybe literally collect your poles). I’m not going to try to explain how to get up from a fall here because, frankly, I’m not good at it. (If you take a class, they will teach you how to get up from a fall. You can also find YouTube videos showing you how.)

But I can give you a tip that I didn’t know until my second ski trip: You can pop the skis off your boots! And then you’re just getting up in boots! And that is easy! Press down on the lever behind your boot with your pole or with your hand — usually you only have to take one ski off to get up. This is not the “cool” way to get up, and you’ll still have the problem of getting your ski back on, but to me, that’s a lot easier than getting up when I’m struggling.

The thought of going too fast down a steep mountain is scary!

My ski instructor gave me a piece of advice the helps me out so much when I get freaked about about an incline: If the slope is too steep, just make it flat. What he meant by this is that, instead of pointing your skis to go straight down, just do harder turns so you’re going more parallel to the bottom of the slope than perpendicular to it. Essentially, this is just zig zagging down a mountain instead of going in a straight line down. You’ll want to zig zag down anyway, but just make your zigs and zags a lot more exaggerated. When you do this, you’ll slow way down, and the steep incline will be a lot easier.

Is it hard to adjust to the altitude?

I never felt sick from the altitude, but I did find myself very out of breath when taking the steps or going uphill, especially when carrying my skis. I read up on altitude before I went, and the advice was: drink water, get rest and eat carbs. This seemed to be true, and I enjoyed the excuse to eat carbs. Drinking excessive amounts of coffee or alcohol can exacerbate altitude problems. I just drank my normal amount of coffee, and that was totally fine (skipping coffee would’ve been a bigger issue for me). On our most recent trip, I bought some Nuum hydration tablets (I like the non-caffeinated Pink Lemonade flavor) and added them to my water at night and in the morning. They actually helped me a ton — I could tell a major difference in the morning especially.

How do I pack for my first ski trip?

I have a separate blog on what gear to pack, and I have a separate one on what to bring for a day on the mountain. But as far as luggage goes (on your flight, etc.), pack as light as possible. The gear and clothing you’ll need for skiing are bulky, but you don’t really need other clothes other than comfy lounge clothes and pajamas (I generally just bring a pair of sweats that doubles as both, and a pair of light pajamas in case the AirBNB has an aggressive heater). If you have a long plane, bus or car ride, I’d bring headphones, a book and a journal. (Pack headphones with an old-school jack if you want to watch movies on the plane and they have in-seat screens.) Bring a full bottle of your favorite pain reliever, and pack more lotion than you normally would, because the air is very dry. If you’re wearing makeup to the slopes, go minimal, and wear waterproof (your eyes will tear up because of the wind and cold, and then your tears will freeze on your lashes and then thaw, giving you mascara tracks).

How do I attach my lift ticket?

The lift ticket is the pass that gets you on a chairlift. You want to attach it to your clothing in a place where it’s easy to access, because you’ll be getting it scanned every time you get on a lift.

At Telluride, we had Epic Passes — those are plastic, kind of like credit cards. If there’s no hole punched it it when you first get it, go to an information desk or a counter where they sell the passes, and they’ll punch a hole for you and give you a small plastic loop to use to attach it. (Some jackets, pants and helmets have pockets for passes, but mine don’t.)

At Maggie Valley, they give you sticker lift passes that you attach by threading a wire hanger through your zipper and covering it with the sticker (here’s a diagram showing how to do it). If you’re skiing in warm weather and think you might drop a layer, remember to attach your pass to your pants instead of your jacket — you can’t reattach a sticker pass, and if it’s on your jacket, you won’t be able to stash your jacket in a locker. (This isn’t an issue with a plastic pass like it is with a sticker.)

How much water do I need to drink when I ski?

Staying hydrated on the slopes is extra important because of the altitude, and we bought collapsible water bottles that were perfect because they’re easier to stash in a jacket pocket than a water bottle would be. Telluride has water refill stations all over the place (even during covid), so we saved a bunch of money using these instead of buying water. I think these refill stations are pretty common in Colorado (they have them at the airports there, too), but check before you go if you’re depending on this. (I didn’t see any in Maggie Valley.)

Should I put my phone in a waterproof case when I’m skiing?

Nope. Most phones are water resistant now, and it won’t be in snow enough to matter. I wouldn’t keep my phone in my back pocket, because I’m afraid it could get smashed if I fell, but other than that, it was fine — most everyone brings their phones with them on the mountains. (You’ll want to selfie, duh.) Do not bring earpods! I’ve seen so many people hunting for a lost ear pod that fell into the snow. They are small and white — you will not find them when they fall into white snow.

Skiing during covid: Do I have to wear a mask?

At least where we skied, they were pretty strict about wearing a mask on and around the chair lift (including the line to get onto the lift). We didn’t have to wear masks while actually skiing; just when we were around people at the lifts. We mostly used Buff gaiters, but I kept a regular cheap paper mask in my pocket because it was easier for me to breathe with. I still wore my gaiter a lot of the time, but when I was hot and having trouble breathing because of the altitude, it was really nice to have the paper one with me.

Whether or not you have to wear a mask around town or on the lifts depends on the restrictions at the time you go, and on where you go — be sure to check up to date information about the county you’re visiting, just like you would anywhere during the pandemic. For what it’s worth, we felt very safe skiing, even in 2020, because skiing is a naturally socially distant activity, and, in Telluride at least, they were very diligent about limiting crowds, both on the slopes and inside restaurants.

Skiing During covid: Is eating outside too cold?

Eating outside in the snow is pretty popular even when there’s not a pandemic, but depending on what’s going on with covid, it might be required. (It was required on our first Telluride trip, but not on our second.) It was actually pretty pleasant, though: You’re all wrapped up in cozy clothes, and when you’re skiing, you can actually get pretty warm. Eating outside is actually lovely, and at least at Telluride, you don’t even have to wait — as long as an outdoor table is free, you grab some chairs, scan the QR code, and order from your phone immediately.

You can do this!

Check out my blog on what to wear when you ski, and my other one on what’s in my bag on a ski day. (I may also do a blog on my favorite spots in Telluride, since I’ve been twice, and am planning another trip for next year.) There are a lot of details involved in a ski trip, but it all starts making a lot more sense as soon as you’re there and doing it. It really is fun, and very worth it! I was scared of getting injured, and while it is possible, going slowly and learning from everyone I could (including my instructors, my family and even other people that you meet on the lift) really helped. And if all else fails, you can always read that book in the lodge.

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