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Snowsports are amazing, you get to see the beautiful mountains and feel the thrill of hurtling down a mountain on the snow. Skiing and snowboarding are the two main methods to get down that mountain, and the big question is, which should you try first? Thankfully I’ve had the experience of being a total beginner in both sports, so I can share with you what it’s like.
Skiing is easier in the beginning, but harder to master. Snowboarding is harder to start with but easier to progress in. Snowboarding is associated with higher maneuverability, greater potential for tricks, and a surfer culture. Skiing is associated with higher speeds and a sophisticated culture.
Which mountains you head to and clothes you buy can be guided by your decision to either ski or snowboard, so before you start planning that holiday, it’s time to school yourself on everything there is to know about the sports.
Welcome to your full beginner’s guide on these popular snow sports. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a lifelong passion for being out in the mountains during winter!
Which is Easier, Skiing Or Snowboarding?
The phrase skiing is easy to learn and hard to master, whereas snowboarding is hard to learn but easy to master is a generalization but is also generally true.
As I’ve learned from personal experience, you can have a 10-minute lesson on skiing and you’ll be able to get down a beginner slope with perhaps one or two crashes. (It’s always good to learn when there’s fresh powder. Crashing on ice is no joke.)
Skiing is more intuitive for most people, and balancing skills learned in other sports are more easily transferred. With your legs independently strapped to skis, you face forwards and down the mountain, a stance that is more natural.
However, skiing gets quite technical to master as you progress.
I’m not particularly coordinated or gifted in sports, but my friend was able to teach me how to “pizza” (a common beginner’s tactic to slow down) and “hot dog”. I pizza’d the whole time on the way down the slope. I crashed a couple of times when I crossed my skis accidentally, but otherwise, I was able to have a great time on the first day.
“Pizza” and “hot dog” are taught to total beginners so they can have a good time, but learning how to maneuver on skis takes an enormous amount of coordination and practice. Additionally, skiers go fast. Learning to control your speed on skis without resorting to “pizza” is hard and requires learning to shift your hips and legs in a controlled and practiced way.
Snowboarding, on the other hand, requires technical learning at the beginning.
In fact, I took a snowboarding class in college (wow, I feel so lucky to even write that). We did go down the slope the first day, but we spent a long time learning to skate (Moving on the board with only one foot attached). It turns out that snowboarders have to learn a new skill just to get off of the ski lift!
That first day we slowly scrambled down the slope. A lot of my classmates fell down often. We only learned how to navigate one side of our boards–heel edge.
For several weeks we learned how to snowboard and eventually, we learned how to control toe edge and heel edge and get down the mountain.
To me, it felt true about what they say–snowboarding is harder at first, but easier to progress in. Once I figured how to control both edges of the board, it just becomes a matter of practice and refining.
Picking Snowboarding Or Skiing Based On How Much Time You Have
How much time you have makes a big difference in what sport you’ll pick.
If you are joining friends for a one-time vacation in the snow, you should pick skiing.
Many people I know did not enjoy their first day of snowboarding. It’s difficult, you fall down a lot, and you are going to be so sore the next day that you won’t want to go out on the slopes, again.
If you’re on a short vacation, skiing requires less ‘down time’ (i.e., On your backside, or front side, in the snow) and you’ll get the hang of it quicker. You’ll enjoy your vacation a lot more if you can feel like you’re making progress quickly and that will be a good confidence booster as well.
If you have more time (such as if you are lucky enough to live near the slopes) you can consider either sport, as you are investing in a lifelong skill and will practice year after year, improving your skills and technique in your chosen sport.
Should I Try To Learn Both Skiing and Snowboarding?
One temptation some people have is to try everything. If you’re going on a vacation for a weeklong ski break, it’s better to stick to one sport as a total beginner. Bouncing between the two can lead to a loss of confidence as you don’t give yourself enough time to progress in either sport.
Unless you are in the mountains a lot – like multiple times a season, it is likely that you’ll stick to one sport and try to get better at it rather than try something new. If you get past the falling stage with either sport, you’re not going to want to switch between them and go back to being a total beginner in something, given that you generally have limited time on the slopes.
Reasons To Pick Snowboarding or Skiing First
Now that we’ve talked about which one is easier, we’ll go into depth on other reasons to choose one or the other, let’s take a look at the benefits and the disadvantages.
Regarding fitness, both sports require a relatively good level of fitness and of balance. Skiing is more demanding on the legs, thighs, and lower body, whereas snowboarding requires more core strength as you turn using your hips and shoulders. Although, snowboarding requires more strength to get out of the snow as I’ll share in the list.
Reasons To Pick Skiing
- Because your skis are separate individual items, your legs are apart and independent, free to move on their own. This enhances the amount of control you have and helps you to recover balance relatively quickly at slower speeds. If you start to destabilize, you can use your other leg to regain balance.
- More natural feeling facing straight ahead and down the mountain
- Mastery of the sport is more rewarding because it’s difficult to get there
- Easier to learn the basics
- Easier to get on and off lifts
- Beginners spend more time on their feet and stay off the snow
- Skis can get crossed without sufficient control of the legs. Moving both legs in harmony is difficult and takes time to learn, so beginners can find themselves tripping over their skis.
- Hard to move beyond the slow plow (“pizza”) turn
- It takes many seasons to master
- Hard learning to carry skis and poles without knocking someone out
- Stopping is more difficult for beginners
- You can’t go off-trail easily with beginner skis
Some of this was inspired by this post, but also from my personal experience.
Reasons To Pick Snowboarding
As a snowboarder, you are attached to one plank, so movement is more restricted and can take some time to get used to. Snowboarders can have a harder time staying on their feet and spend more time in the snow than skiers as a beginner. If you haven’t done any type of skateboarding or surfing, the snowboarder stance is not intuitive at all–to go down is to face away from downhill.
This sport is all about learning to master the edges. There are two basic types of turns every snowboarder has to learn to make, both front and back-facing turns.
- As you progress, having your feet attached to the same board becomes an advantage, and you don’t have to worry about skis crossing.
- Easier to go off-trail on beginner boards
- No poles are required – your arms are free to help you balance
- Snowboarding boots are way more comfortable
- Easier to stop – just sit down
- Only one board to carry when not on the slopes – much easier than four items for skiers (skis and poles)
- Easier to progress after beginner level achieved
- Less likely to suffer leg injuries
- Snowboarding has a massive amount of horizontal control–you can carve through the snow easily back and forth once you get the hang of it.
- Legs are stuck together on the same plank and can feel restrictive. If you feel yourself losing your balance, you will most likely fall and not be able to regain it easily.
- Learning to get off the ski lift usually means a lot of falling
- Having to strap your board on and off before and after ski lifts
- Easier to get stranded on flat sections because you don’t have poles to propel you
- Longer to learn as a beginner
- More time spent falling and on your butt in the snow (you’re going to be really sore)
- Harder to make sharp (jump) turns as a beginner
- Coccyx and upper body injuries are more common
- More determination required
Mindset For Learning Either Sport
How quickly you adjust and how steep your learning curve is for each sport are determined by a few factors.
- Age: generally, younger people pick up the skills faster, but it’s never too late to learn
- Strength and fitness: Good leg and core strength helps you to progress quicker
- Balance: helps you to react quickly to movements and changes
- Attitude towards risk and levels of fear: fear and timidness can hold you back
Now you know what you’re getting into physically. You can decide what sounds more appealing and what will work in your time frame and for your lifestyle. Speaking of which, we’ll have a look at the cultures surrounding each sport and the type of lifestyle typically associated with each one.
Culture and Associations Around Skiing and Snowboarding
Just as with any sport, there are certain traditions and associations connected to skiing and snowboarding. Little cultural norms and practices, some of which are common to both skiing and snowboarding, and others of which are distinct between these two snow sports.
We’ll have a look at the background and current expectations around the sports so that you’re more aware of the culture you’re participating in when you choose one of these sports.
Skiing Culture and Background
Skiing has its roots forever ago, with the oldest known skis dating back to between 8000 and 7000 BC. Skis have been found in northern Europe from this time, and those living in climates with snow have been using some form of skis for many years. The first competitive skiing races were in the mid-1800s, but the sport only became popular as a recreational pastime in the 1930s with the development and installation of ski lifts (source).
This ancient history has allowed time for the sport to become more refined.
Skiing has a refined and dignified air about it. To snowboarders, they might consider the culture preppy.
As far as clothing goes, this attitude is reflected in the more classic sense of style accompanying it, clothing is typically in bold, solid colors that contrast with the snow and is close-fitting to allow easier movement and a streamlined form for traveling at speed down the mountains.
Snowboarding started much later than skiing and only became an Olympic sport in 1998, but it already has almost as many participants as skiing does, though this is in decline. Its enormous growth in popularity has stemmed in part from its connection with surfing and skateboarding, with lovers of these sports transitioning into the snowy winter version: snowboarding.
The precursor to the modern snowboard developed in 1965 and really grew in popularity during the 1980s. As it is newer and more modern, borrowing from skiing, surfing, and skateboarding cultures, the dress code associated with boarding is also more modern, with streetwear rather than a classic style. This includes brighter colors and patterns, less traditional fit of clothing, including less form-fitting, baggier pants, and jackets. (source)
Therefore, when you’re snowboarding the feel and experience of the culture includes phrases like “dude”, and “totally”, often associated with surfer culture.
Growing up, it was always the feeling to me that snowboarding was cool, in the same way that surfing and skateboarding are cool. That mindset definitely transfers to how it’s perceived.
To snowboarders who perceive themselves as cool, skiers might perceive them as juvenile.
Costs and Exclusivity
Both of these sports are known to be expensive, so there is a degree of exclusivity around them. The costs associated with them often make the sport less inclusive than some others. Firstly, the areas in which it can be done (i.e., Snowy mountains) are less abundant than other sporting areas.
To get to them often requires travel to other states and sometimes even countries, and then further travel to the mountains, followed by mountain transport. Lift passes alone can be pricey, varying at different resorts, but easily between $40-120 per day.
Aside from this, you either need to own your own equipment or rent – also not cheap. This can be simply the skis and poles or snowboard and boots, or also include the helmet, goggles, jackets, and pants, or other outerwear. Once you have got to the mountains and you have your equipment, there is also the food and drinks that you buy on the slopes.
Food and drinks are often sold at a premium in the mountains due to the remote location to which food is required to be transported.
Add to all this the cost of accommodation if you’re staying overnight, the dinners, après ski drinks and other costs, this is definitely not a cheap weekend or week away. If you’re a total beginner and need to have lessons, this will be added to your bill.
Having said all this, if you can afford skiing or snowboarding, there is no better way to spend a weekend in winter than breathing in the fresh air, enjoying the sunshine on the slopes, and collapsing into bed each night after some good exercise. It seriously beats sitting indoors in a grey, cold and wet city.
The (Un)Written Rules For Beginners
Sometimes written as rules of the slope, sometimes not, but just taken for granted that this is the way things operate, these are some things you should know before heading onto the slopes so that your fellow winter mountain lovers don’t hate you and you can fit right in. While it may look like your first time on the slopes, you won’t act like it’s your first time!
- Always look up the slope before heading onto it. Whether this is at a lift or in the middle of the slope, people coming from above have the right of way.
- Never stop in the middle of the slope. Obviously, if you have an accident, you don’t choose where to crash, but try to get to the sides as quickly as possible. If you need to wait for a friend or are just feeling unsure of yourself and need to take a breather, don’t just stop in the middle of the slope, but pull over to the side.
- If you fall off while getting off a lift, move yourself and your equipment aside as quickly as possible so the person behind you will not fall off too.
- If someone below you has fallen and you ski past a ski or pole that belongs to them, pick it up and drop it off on your way past. It is much easier for that person not to have to climb back uphill to retrieve items. You should also check in and just see that they’re okay.
- The person in front of you has the right of way. Suppose you see them making a turn but keep going straight and cut them off, not cool. Go the opposite way and give them space to ski at their own pace in their own direction. It’s your responsibility to avoid them, even if they change direction to what you think they’ll do.
- Just as with any other queues, don’t cut the line for the lift!
- Be confident in your stopping and your control of yourself before progressing onto the next slope level. Don’t push yourself to a slope that’s too difficult for you. You will end up likely just annoying other skiers or getting in the way if you can’t properly stop or turn to avoid people. You need to be confident in your ability to react quickly to changing situations.
- Don’t wave your skis around or put them onto someone’s skis or board in the lift queue. Similarly, don’t overlap your skis or board onto someone else’s in the line. It’s annoying and prevents others from moving. Give each other space!
- If you want to wait to ride a lift with your friends, don’t hold up the line or cut it, but wait for them outside the line and then all join at the same time.
- Respect local slope restrictions: Some slopes are kept just for skiers since snowboarders tend to carve up the slope a lot more than skiers.
Can you ski and snowboard at the same place?
You’ve probably seen skiers and snowboarders on the same slopes before, whether in real life or on-screen. But does this mean all mountains were created equal for both sports? While yes, in short, it is possible to share snow space and is common to see, some resorts have gentler slopes, fewer flats, or more parks that may or may not appeal to you more.
Not all resorts welcome snowboarders, including Vail, Alta, and Deer Valley in the US. This is largely due to the way that snowboards affect the snow. They have a different impact than skis do and tend to push the snow down the mountain, and the way that they turn doesn’t blend well with skiers. If you’re looking to try snowboarding, make sure that the resort you’re planning to go to is open to board riders.
By the way, pro tip for Alta–they have free night skiing on one slope. This is a fantastic way to learn to ski without buying a season pass.
Tips for Beginners in each Sport
Here are some pointers – of things to make sure you do and things that you should not do before skiing or snowboarding for the first time. Learn from the mistakes and experiences of others and have as seamless a first experience on the slopes as possible.
- Do some research before you go. Like reading this article! Also, like looking at the slope layout for resorts. If you’re going to be there for a week, make sure that there are enough beginner slopes for you, and you won’t be stuck repeating just one or two.
- Arrive early if you’re joining people who are already more advanced than you. This will give you a chance to become familiar with the resort layout, rent your skis and get organized.
- Don’t push yourself too hard! Yes, it’s new and exciting and does require you to extend yourself to a certain degree, but don’t overdo it. Take the time to learn the proper technique, and don’t be in a rush to progress. You could end up actually lowering your confidence and not wanting to get back onto snow. (I have friends that don’t want to snowboard, now)
- Wear layers – there’s nothing worse than having to think about being too hot or cold or wet on the slopes. You want a good base layer, mid-layer, and then preferably something wind and waterproof.
- Rent your equipment. You don’t need to rush into buying shiny new things for a sport you haven’t even tried yet. Resist the temptation and just rent to start with.
- Pack snacks and water if you are skiing with a backpack. You are working out at altitude and certainly, get hungry and thirsty in between mealtimes. Of course, most places these days have snack shops where it’s easy enough to just buy something between runs.
- Make sure you’re in shape and fit before the season starts.
- Wear sunscreen. It may be counter-intuitive in the middle of winter, but it’s worth it. With the reflection of the snow, the UV factor in the mountains is high, and a goggles tan on your face is the last thing you want.
- Don’t give up! It can be really discouraging the first day, especially for snowboarding–if you stick through the beginning pains, you will have a sport that you can come back to for a long time. I’ve unfortunately seen many people get really discouraged the first day and never come back.
- Take professional lessons—at least a couple. While your friends or family, or partner may be able to demonstrate, it is unlikely they’ll be able to teach you all the technical skills you’ll need. It’s a good idea to start with a couple, then give it a go on your own and then have some more once you’re feeling comfortable and ready to progress with your technique.
- Take your time! Don’t rush trying to get to the bottom of a slope or progress onto more difficult ones. It’s not a time trial at the beginning, but more about taking the time to really perfect your technique and get the basics right.
- Don’t worry about looking like a beginner. There’s nothing worse than pretending to have ‘got this’ when it’s clear to everyone you don’t. Lose the attitude, accept help from people because everyone has been there!
- Resist the temptation to fall onto your hands. You will fall, guaranteed. Try not to break it with your hands, as you could end up hurting your wrists or arms. Rather, try to fall into the snow with your body. This is also why a waterproof jacket and waterproof pants are essential for you.
- Sit down while strapping and unstrapping your boots. More advanced boarders make doing it while standing look super easy. But chances are, in the beginning, you will lose your balance and fall over. In the middle of all the people at the top or bottom of a lift. Save yourself the embarrassment and just sit down, to begin with, then stand when you’re all un/buckled up.
Inspired in part by this post.
So there you have it. Please bear in mind that this article is all about downhill skiing.
Those planning on cross-country skiing, which uses different clothes and different skis on different terrain, and backcountry skiing (or boarding), which involves hiking up a mountain and skiing down, and is usually for more advanced snow enthusiasts, typically do so with some downhill skiing or boarding already under their belt. These are other sports that can be revisited once you’re comfortable in the snow.
Snowboarding and skiing both have their pros and cons, but those who participate are usually quite loyal to their sport. There are no special skills required for either, and both can be learned. As to the question of which you should try first, there is no right or wrong general answer, but rather go with whatever you’re drawn to, have always wanted to try or try and feel more comfortable doing. Now it’s time to get out there and conquer the mountains!