How to learn to ski and snowboard (The right way)

Here are some tips before you head to the slopes.
skiing on a slope
From learning from the pros to learning to fall, here are the basics. DepositPhotos

Every winter, after the first snowfall in the mountains, hordes of skiers and snowboarders begin their seasonal migration to their favorite ski lifts and powder-covered resorts. And to uninitiated onlookers, the way they glide down groomed trails often seems effortless. But everyone had a first day on the mountain and learning to carve a clean line after dismounting the chair lift takes time and effort to learn.

And while there’s not a right and wrong way to learn how to ski or snowboard, David Handy, the director of the ski school at Nordic Valley ski resort in Utah, says there are certainly more efficient ways. So if you’re ready to put boots in bindings, here are his tips for kicking off the season right so you can spend more time on the slopes and less time learning the hard way.

The case for taking lessons from an instructor

Handy learned to navigate the slopes “the hard way.” Largely self-taught, he spent years snowboarding, falling, getting back up again. Each fall brought a new, painful lesson. “The first time I was ever on a mountain, I remember for hours I was just beating myself up on the snow,” he recalls. But the day he took his first lesson as an adult 15 years later, “It completely transformed and revolutionized my riding.”

It put a voice to and concretely identified what he had or hadn’t been doing for years–and almost immediately made him a better rider. Lessons, he intimately understands now, have the potential to cut a significant amount of time and pain from the learning curve.

But more than that, lessons help beginners understand the rules of the mountain. Like trail etiquette for hikers, ski etiquette helps keep everyone safe on the hill. Lessons are useful for learning things like how to dismount a ski lift properly, how and where to stop, and who has the right-of-way on the downhill (anyone in front of you).

And while you may be able to learn plenty from friends who are more experienced skiers, neither Handy nor Richard Walter, the head of Ski School Arlberg in St. Anton, Austria, home to perhaps the first modern version of a ski school in the world, recommend going that route. At best, your companions may impart their bad habits or improper technique, and at worst, they’ll leave you high and dry at the top of a route you’re not experienced enough to safely complete.

Select a ski slope

The very first thing to do after deciding you’d like to start referring to yourself as a skier or snowboarder is to decide when and where you’re going to learn. If you’re headed to a ski resort for winter break or there’s only one resort with a ski school near you, that decision is likely an easy one.

But if you have a wealth of options nearby, you may have to narrow it down. To do so, Handy recommends identifying a resort that has plenty of beginner-friendly terrain. Because while a world-class destination may offer glittering lodges and picture-perfect photo ops, if it doesn’t have plenty of beginner routes, you won’t have many places to practice once you finish your lessons for the day.

Smaller, beginner-friendly resorts are also frequently less expensive, so if you’re learning on a budget, they’re an excellent option.

In addition to terrain, Handy recommends finding a resort with a ski school that is PSIA-AASI certified. This is a certification for American ski instructors that indicates lessons are built around a standard curriculum designed by lifelong skiers and boarders who outline the best, most efficient, and safest ways to teach. 

Other countries may have different certifications, but most will signify the resort abides by long-approved practices for teaching.

Get your gear

Naturally, you can’t hit the slopes without skis or a snowboard, but there’s plenty more you’ll require, including boots, warm clothes, and, at many resorts, a helmet. But Handy doesn’t recommend running out and buying it all outright before your first lesson (or even your third). After all, all the gear required could easily total over $1,000 and that’s a big investment to make in something you’re not certain you’ll love or even want to do again.

Instead, Walter suggests renting the gear you need, which nearly every ski resort offers. Some larger resorts even have high quality outerwear you can rent during your visit. Staff will help get you fitted for everything to ensure you’ll be as comfortable as possible.

Just make sure to dress in plenty of layers so you stay warm. If your toes tend to get cold, check out socks or ski boots with warming systems, Walter says.

Be prepared to fall

You’re practically guaranteed to fall when you’re a beginner, but, “There are definitely good and bad ways to fall,” Handy says, chuckling. The biggest mistake people make, he points out, is that they try to catch themselves by putting their hands out to break their fall. That’s what leads to broken and sprained wrists which are the most common injuries among skiers and snowboarders.

Instead, tuck your arms and fall on larger, sturdier body parts, Handy advises. On a board, if you fall forward, land on your knees and make your forearms your second point of contact, not your hands. If you fall backwards, roll from your butt onto your back like a turtle with your chin tucked.

If you’re on skis, fall to the side, landing on your butt, hips, and sides to keep from getting twisted up with your skis and injuring your knees and legs.

Don’t rush the process

Sometimes the process of learning how to ski and snowboard can be not only physically painful, but mentally exhausting. Falling, watching 6-year-olds cruise effortlessly past, and a lack of speedy progression can all get you down if you let them. So go in with a good attitude and, “Don’t have high expectations the first day,” Handy recommends. Give it at least three days of lessons and practice and don’t push yourself too hard or beat yourself up if you’re not where you think you should be.

After all, Handy reminds, “Snowboarding and skiing should be fun.”