Learn what to expect while vacationing at a ski resort.
Ski resorts provide a diverse winter sports experience sometimes offering well-groomed downhill ski trails, rugged backcountry trails and freestyle parks all in the same spot. One of the major advantages to staying at a ski resort is the proximity to the mountain. Resorts are often ideal for families with beginner skiers who need half-day or full-day lessons. They also cater to a wide range of interests, including off-mountain activities and entertainment, such as sledding, ice skating, live music and festivals.
Despite all the amenities a resort has to offer, serious skiers are mostly concerned about the resort's snow conditions. Unfortunately, this can vary greatly from when a ski vacation is booked and the actual time of the trip. The Weather Channel, is one of many Web sites that provides current ski conditions, such as the snow pack in inches and the amount of new snowfall, for ski resorts in the United States and worldwide.
Groomed trails, or pistes, account for the majority of terrains at ski resorts. Some are short and broad (like the "bunny slope"), while others are long and curvy, running the course of the mountain. With the help of special grooming machines like snowcats and snowmakers, resort staff can keep the trails smooth and safe for visitors to use from the beginning of the season in early winter to its end in spring.
According to Ski Resorts Guide, North American ski resorts use the following system of color-coded shapes to rate the difficulty of their trails:
Occasionally, a resort will mark double-diamond trails containing cliffs, rocks and other hazards with the letters "E" or "X," indicating "extreme terrain." Only expert skiers and snowboarders should attempt these trails. It is also important for skiers to note that these ratings are not necessarily comparable between resorts -- an intermediate trail at one, for example, may be an advanced trail at another.
Many ski resorts also have freeride areas, or terrain parks, that have an assortment of jumps, rails, boxes and half-pipes for skiers and snowboarders to practice tricks. Some resorts mark these with an orange, horizontal oval. Large resorts may have more than one terrain park, and they may also have special obstacles designed just for advanced riders (e.g., an extra large half-pipe). Although rules vary from resort to resort, terrain parks are usually open to both skiers and snowboarders.
Many visitors are content skiing the resort's marked trails, but skiiers looking for more adventure can often head out into the surrounding mountains for some backcountry skiing. Best done under the supervision of an experienced guide, backcountry skiing involves using a combination of alpine and cross-country skiing techniques to explore unmarked slopes, glades and glaciers that are often blanketed with fresh coats of powder. Avalanches are common in the backcountry, though, so skiers should get information on snow conditions and weather patterns from the resort staff before heading out.
Before using the lifts and trams that carry skiers up the mountain, resort visitors must first purchase a lift ticket. Aside from lodging and meals, lift tickets are the primary expense associated with ski resorts. During the high season (mid-December through mid-March), visitors to large resorts can expect to pay between $60 and $80 for a one-day ticket. Most resorts give discounts to children, teens and seniors, but tickets typically still cost more than $50 per day. Skiers on the lookout for lower rates should consider visiting in the off-season, when prices on lodging, equipment rentals and lift tickets are considerably lower.
People who do not own their own skiing equipment can almost always rent it either at the resort itself or in a nearby town. In addition to skis, boots and poles, some resorts allow customers to rent jackets and pants. Instead of renting equipment and buying lift tickets separately, visitors can often save money by purchasing them together as part of a package deal. While the savings may not be significant for short rental periods of one or two days, they can add up over the course of a week-long stay, especially for families.
Ski resorts run schools that offer private and group lessons to people who want to improve their skiing or snowboarding technique. Half-day or full-day private lessons have the best student-to-teacher ratio, but they tend to be extremely expensive. Beginning students can expect to learn basic techniques like gliding and wedge turning, while intermediate and advanced riders can work on maneuvers like pole plants, parallel turns and carving. Many resorts also run ski camps for children, and some even have daycare services for toddlers and infants.