Alta ski. (Rocko Menzyk)

Gearing Up for Ski and Snowboard Season

Gliding down a fluffy white slope through an enchanted winter forest is an endorphin-inducing respite from the daily routine. Organizing the necessary gear to unlock that blissful moment can be daunting and expensive. Here’s a practical guide to getting started.

For Beginners:

Rent your skis/snowboard and boots: When you’re first learning and gaining confidence, you’re better off renting gear, which keeps the upfront costs down.

If you plan to ski three days or less, daily rentals from the resort are practical. Allow extra time as it can take 30 minutes to an hour to get your boots, skis, poles, and bindings all fitted and adjusted. Arrive early to eliminate unnecessary stress, or see if you can get fitted the night before.

If you plan to ski more than three times this season, you’ll save time and money by getting seasonal rentals from a reputable shop. They’ll give a proper fitting and allow you to swap out gear mid-season if needed.

Clothes: Considering that you’re playing on frozen, crystalized water, staying dry and warm is the key to being comfortable in the great outdoors. Therefore, avoid cotton, from head to toe. It retains moisture from sweat and snow, which will chill your body.

I recommend a three-layer system:

  • Base Layer: Thermal underwear wicks perspiration away from the body, keeping you dry and thus warm. A pair of synthetics will do just fine. If you want to splurge, Merino wool is oh-so-nice and makes a great gift of coziness for a loved one.
Women’s Comet Tunnel Hoody. (www.duckworthco.com)
(www.duckworthco.com)
  • Mid Layer: On colder days, you’re going to want a mid-layer on your torso for warmth. Pick something with less bulk and more breathability to keep from overheating and restricting your range of motion. Fleece and soft shells are the common choices. However, wool sweaters with reindeers and non-cotton flannels will give you more style points in the lodge and après at the bar. As the weather warms up, luau shirts are a festive look and are totally appropriate with the mountain crowd.
  • Outer Layer: I prefer my warmth to come from the middle layer, so that my outer layer (or shell) can be used for both winter and spring. Whether you choose a light or heavily insulated jacket, the objective is protection from wind and water while breathing well to prevent overheating. Some nice features you may appreciate include a hood that can fit over your helmet, nifty pockets, and climate-control venting zippers. When choosing pants, I prefer bibs to prevent snow from going up the back when wiping out, keeping my layers from untucking, and full-leg side zippers for venting and easy access to make boot adjustments. Finally, while black and gray may be good color schemes for urban wear, vibrant colors make it easier for your friends and family to spot you on the slopes and in the crowded lodge. The brighter the better—I’m talking orange, yellow, light blue, and green.

Gloves/Mittens: Get a pair you love. They can certainly be expensive and fancy, although they don’t need to be. Dry hands and warm fingertips can make or break your day!

Socks: Here’s a point of failure easily overlooked. Your feet are what connect you to the skis. Make sure you pull those socks up nice and tight over the calf so there are no creases, and be sure there’s no cotton in that blend. While snowboard boots are more forgiving and softer, ski boots are rigid and meant to fit very snug, so a bulky sock just won’t do. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but a thin silky sock can keep your feet warmer than a thick cushiony sock, because when you tighten those boots, it’s easy to inadvertently disrupt your blood circulation. That leads to numb feet, and now you’re not having much fun!

Ski and snowboard boots are naturally quite warm, and unless it’s in the single-digit temperatures, you don’t need the thicker socks. If it’s in the budget, as with the thermal underwear, a nice pair of 100% Merino wools will keep you quite happy, though a synthetic, non-cotton blend will do the job fine. If you happen to suffer from extra-cold feet (like my wife), solutions such as heated socks and boots are incredibly effective.

While you’re at it, trim up those toenails. You want to make sure that when you flex forward in the boot, your big toenail isn’t making contact; that can end poorly. To play it safe, throw a nail clipper in your bag, and do a quick inspection before you boot up.

Another tip is to bring pack your ski socks in your boot bag, and then change into them just before you put on your boots. Feet sweat considerably, and starting your session with a clean, dry pair of socks will maximize comfort.

Lessons: Coaching is the quickest way to get you comfortable with stopping, speed control, and maneuverability. Lots of resorts will bundle lessons with lift tickets. If you live within driving distance of a local “learning” hill, splurge for five consecutive Saturdays. You’ll establish muscle memory and confidence, and be ready to cross into the intermediate and expert realms—and plan a trip to a bigger resort.

Intermediate/Expert

As your speed and precision increase and you develop your style, you’ll want to put your money into the gear best suited to pursue your favorite terrain.

Boots: Whether you’re skiing or riding, boots are the most important piece of gear, even more than the board(s) themselves. If your boots are too big, your foot will bang around the inside as you start to ski faster. Too small, and your feet will feel numb.

Boots and socks at the Smuggler’s Notch Resort. (Pat Kelley)

Don’t skimp here with your time or money. Make an appointment with the best boot fitter you have access to. Seek out an expert preferably with at least a decade “on the bench” (kind of like a judge), or an apprentice with direct access to the “master.”

You’re going to spend a few hundred dollars, so get your money’s worth. Plan for one to two hours for a proper fit, which could include setting a custom foot bed or boot liner. Try to go mid-week, or early morning if you go on the weekend. While occupationally patient, boot fitters tend to deal with a huge crowd the weekend before a holiday, and it’s basically chaos. Try to avoid that scene, but if it’s unavoidable, bring a book and headphones, and be patient. (And it may not hurt to ask how your boot fitter likes their latte and show up with a little care package!)

Boot fitting is the essential part to gearing up for the sport, so get it right. After a few days of skiing, it’s normal to do a follow-up visit after your boots “pack out,” as great boot fitters are able to make minor tweaks that can lead to more comfort, confidence, and enjoyment.

Helmet: If you’re committed to spending ample time on the hill, then go get yourself a helmet. They keep you warm, keep your goggles in place even on wipeouts, and will give you the confidence to push a bit past your comfort zone.

Goggles: As your speeds increase, you need goggles to protect your eyes and keep your face warm. There is a huge spectrum of price points and varieties. First and foremost, find a shape that works well with your face and your helmet, and covers your glasses if needed. Decent goggles will be double-lensed and enable airflow to prevent fogging; however, the degree to which they accomplish this can be the difference between a $30 and $300 pair.

You’ll pay substantially more for spherical lenses over standard flat lenses; they look great and are better at venting. Your budget will determine if this is where you want to splurge. Another option worth considering is interchangeable lenses or multiple goggles if you ski in a variety of light conditions, from night skiing to full sunshine. Alternatively, you can certainly use your sunglasses on bright, warm days and use a versatile tint, like amber, if you can only manage one pair.

Water Bottle: With all the fun you’re having, it’s easy to forget that you’re exercising out there and sweating a bunch. Couple that with high altitudes, and you need to remain hydrated. Go with a small water bladder or mini flask that you can keep in your chest pocket. Fill up in the lodge, and take swigs on the chair between runs.

Ski Pass: If you can get enough days at a single resort or with a multi-resort pass to make it cheaper than a la carte, splurge for unlimited skiing. The more time you spend on the slopes, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll enjoy it.

Skis/Board: It may seem counterintuitive to advise against buying skis, but you don’t actually need to own your own. If you’re flying to fun destinations, baggage costs for skis could exceed the renting costs of high-performance skis, and renting will also save you the trouble of lugging them to and fro. You’ll also want different planks for different conditions. If you do choose to commit to a pair (or multiple pairs), make sure you love them, and buy them for the conditions you’ll mostly be skiing in. While deep-powder gear may be aspirational, it may not be too practical if you’re mostly skiing on man-made packed powder. When in doubt, choose an “all-mountain” pair. Also, try before you buy and get them from a knowledgeable shop, as you’ll want them to adjust the bindings to your boots with the confidence that it will be done properly.