So they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – but as somebody who only put on her first pair of skis on the wrong side of 35, I beg to differ. I was, shall we say, a bit of a reluctant learner (I told the instructor on my first day of ski school through floods of tears that I was there under duress – enough said!). But I came to love the sport like no other sport I have ever tried – the thrill of learning a new physical skill coupled with the exhilaration of speed and the staggering beauty of the mountain terrain that you encounter while skiing. I often hear people saying that skiing is not for them – or that they had a bad first experience and never tried again and I wonder if things might have turned out different for them if their first experience had been as positive as mine (first day of ski school aside!). So with ski season looming I have put together my ten personal top tips for first-time skiers, based on all the things I wish somebody had told me when I went on my first ski trip.
1. Get into shape with some ski-specific exercises.
I know, right – how boring does that sound?? 😉 The thing is that unlike walking or running, skiing involves movements that most of us never make in our daily lives and therefore we suddenly put to use the lazy muscles that we seldom use in our urban lives. And when I say get fit, I don’t mean a few 5km runs – I mean getting ski-fit. I think newbies generally underestimate just how many hours of the day they will be standing in a semi-squat, putting strain on two of the largest muscle groups in the body: the quadriceps and the gluteals. Spending a few weeks before your trip in the gym doing targeted exercises for these muscles as well as core and upper body work will benefit you in two ways: firstly, you won’t get tired as fast and can enjoy more time on the snow; and secondly, the stronger your legs, the lower the risk of a serious knee injury. So get thee to the gym!
2. Do not leave home without a travel insurance policy that includes winter sport cover.
This one should be written in red. People are surprisingly unperturbed about insurance, or they assume that if they have a European Health Insurance Card, it will cover them for any accidents. Up to a point, this is true: if you injure yourself in Europe and have an EHIC card, then any hospital treatment in Europe will be free as if you had it on the NHS. However, the EHIC card will not cover the cost of ambulance or air ambulance from the slopes to the hospital; and it won’t cover the cost of flying you and possibly your family home on a new flight if you need to cancel your original flight. I had the misfortune of falling on a ski slope in France in 2014 and breaking my femur. The helicopter ambulance to the hospital cost €2,000. If I had not had travel insurance, I would have had to pay this myself. I also only got to fly home after spending a week in a French hospital, so our original flights home were useless – but the travel insurance paid for an ambulance transfer from Thonon-les-Bains to Geneva airport and for me to get home on a new flight with 3 seats to myself so I could sit with my leg straight, as well as paying for seats for my husband and a nurse to accompany me home. Your EHIC card will not cover this. Get winter sports insurance (and make sure it includes generous repatriation cover). It’s also good to program the local emergency number on the slopes into your phone (112 in Europe if calling from a mobile) – I have seen people panic in the wake of an accident and have no idea what number to dial.
3. Spend more time choosing your boots than any other piece of kit.
Before you go, you will hear horror stories about ski boots. People will tell you how incredibly uncomfortable they are; how they got bleeding blisters from their boots; or how their toes got frostbite inside their chilly boots. The very first time I tried on rented ski boots, I was so convinced that they would be uncomfortable that I didn’t even notice I had put my boot on the wrong foot! Sadly, it is true that ski boots are not soft comfy things like Ugg boots – they are a technical piece of kit that are designed to immobilise your foot and flex your ankle so that you can control your skis without breaking both ankles. But yes, it is possible to find ski boots that are comfortable enough to ski in all day. Go to a good rental store and be prepared to try on a few pairs before you choose – not only different sizes but also different makes (Salomon boots, for example, fit me like a glove but Tecnicas crush me in all the wrong places). With a correctly sized boot, your toes should feel squashed when you put the boots on, but as soon as you stand up, bend your knees and lean into the front of the boot, you should be able to wiggle your toes. If you can’t wiggle your toes, the boots are too small and your feet will be cold. You should not, however, be able to turn your foot from side to side inside the boot – this means the boots are too big. The more you can move your foot, the less you will be able to control your skis and the greater the chances of your injuring yourself.
4. Only buy the gear you absolutely have to
The first time you go skiing, you have no idea whether you are going to take to it like a duck to water, or hate every second of it, so rushing out and buying every expensive bit of ski clothing in town is probably not a good idea. Unless you know you will be using it again for outdoor activities, try to borrow a good quality ski jacket rather than buying one (but do get a proper waterproof ski jacket, not just a cheap supermarket parka!) – ditto a pair of waterproof padded ski trousers (salopettes). But other than that, try to use what you already own and just layer it up to increase the warmth. As a general rule, I wear an underlayer which can either be a thermal if it is very cold, or simply a tight T-shirt (with or without sleeves, depending on the temperature) and leggings (Uniqlo do a great and reasonably priced range of thermal leggings and tops called Heattech). Then I wear a fleece (again, try to have a fairly fitted one that’s not too bulky) and then the jacket on top. You will probably need to buy waterproof warm gloves too as these are fairly specialist items and cold hands are a real killjoy when skiing. Helmets and boots can be rented together with your skis. Good sport sunglasses with UV protection are essential, and goggles are necessary if you are going to be skiing in poor weather conditions.
5. Let’s talk about socks.
I have seen people turning up for ski holidays with all manner of socks, from ridiculously thick woolly hiking socks to expensive ski racing socks to novelty cartoon socks. You would not think that socks would make such a big difference to your skiing experience, but you’d be wrong. If your socks are too thick, you will end up with numb feet as your tight boots and thick socks cut off the blood supply to your feet; but if your socks are too cheap and thin, you risk painfully cold feet. And don’t even THINK of wearing two pairs on top of each other – that way lies blisters! It will seem like a silly indulgence at the time, but rather invest in at least one pair of good quality wool ski racing socks (Smartwool are my favourites) plus a pair of cheaper thick ski socks (Decathlon is good for this) and that way you can try both in your rented boots and choose the most comfy. If your feet aren’t quite the same size you can even wear the thick sock on the smaller foot and the thin sock on the larger foot to even out the fit of the boots.
6. How to carry your skis.
One of the things I hated most about learning to ski was the unfamiliarity with every item of kit from the complicated boot buckles to the chair lifts to the heavy, unwieldy skis. Not only are you walking through the resort like some sort of camel with an achilles tendon problem in your ski boots, but you also have to learn how to pick up, secure and safely carry your skis without decapitating yourself or somebody else – and the worst is that everybody seems to know how to do this with ease… except you. There are really 2 basic methods for carrying skis that leave you with a free hand for holding onto hand rails, carrying helmets and poles or whatever else you need to do – and I have put together 2 short videos below to show you how it’s done. Both will make you look less like a newbie and feel significantly less flustered 🙂
In the first method, you slide the skis together with the bases facing each other and “clip” them together before balancing them on your shoulder. Even when clipped together, they do sometimes scissor alarmingly, but you can buy a Velcro band from the ski shop to hold them together.
In the second method you also “clip” the skis together but then you use your ski poles as a makeshift carry handle and carry the skis like a suitcase.
7. Wear a helmet (and lots of sunscreen!).
The first time I skied back in 2007, pretty much the only people on the slopes wearing ski helmets were the kids in ski school. Fast-forward a few years to the tragic death of actress Natasha Richardson after a relatively minor fall and now almost everybody on the slope wears a helmet. I must confess that I was reluctant to buy one. I reasoned that I don’t ski very fast, I never go off piste and that even a helmet won’t save you from a broken back. I am also slightly claustrophobic and hated the idea of my entire head being encased in something – I was worried I’d never even hear the snowboarder as he careered down the slope out of control and towards me! The truth is that you don’t need to be going fast or off piste to fall; and refusing to wear a helmet because it can’t encase you in an all-encompassing protective bubble is ridiculous – preventing some injuries has to be better than preventing none! I’ve also come to realise that helmets protect you not only from yourself but from other slope users who might collide with you at high speed. I spent a lot of time choosing a helmet, visiting every shop in the resort and trying on dozens – but in the end I found one that is as light as a feather, fits like a glove, doesn’t impair my hearing – and keeps my entire head warm. Bonus! And for the bits that are not covered by a helmet, slather on the highest factor sunscreen you can find and don’t forget your lips! Not only does the thin high-altitude air not provide much of a filter for the sun’s rays, but all the white snow reflects the light back up at you so you get a double whammy of UV rays. Take precautions and carry a small tube with you to reapply during the day.
8. Resist the urge to be taught how to ski by family and friends.
It never ceases to amaze me that people think it is A-OK to strap 2 slippy planks to their feet and barrel down a mountain at speeds that easily reach 50km/h or more without having proper professional training. Every time I hear somebody say “oh I learnt from my friend – he’s a really good skier – and after that I developed my own unique style”, I make a mental note never to be on the same mountain as them if I can help it! Nobody learns to swim, drive or walk properly in an afternoon – so why would skiing be any different? Being taught by a partner is a sure-fire recipe for divorce; and being taught by friends usually results in stories of having to take off your skis and slide down a black slope on your bum in terror after being taken up there as a joke by “friends”. Ski schools employ professional instructors who can not only ski well but have been taught how to explain skiing skills and concepts to learners, plus they have to be patient with you (unlike partners!) and will never make you do something beyond your abilities for a laugh. If you learn properly from the start, you don’t have to unlearn bad habits later on, and the social aspect of a ski school class is always fun. If you really want to progress quickly though, splashing the cash on private lessons is your best bet.
9. Manage your expectations – and persevere.
Nobody ever thinks that they should get behind the wheel of a car without a single lesson because they will be a “natural” at it. Ditto swimming. And yet for some reason, people think that some atavistic natural skiing ability will come to the fore and that within the hour they will be whizzing down the slopes like a pro. Let me assure you that this is not going to happen. Skiing is, hands down, the most frustrating thing I have ever learnt to do. Nothing you are told to do (lean forward in your boots! point your skis directly down than 90- degree slope!) makes any sense in the context of your normal day-to-day life. The first few days will be a combination of frustration, fear, swearing (or is that just me?!) and a lot of falling down. You will see three-year-olds who have mastered this skill and will look disdainfully at you as they ski past and you flail about on your back in the snow like a cockroach with ice lolly sticks glued to its feet. The first couple of days will Not Be Fun. But then suddenly on day three or so, you will realise that you can kind of do this and that you won’t die. Don’t give up before this point.
10. Beware the last run of the day.
It is true that the more time you spend on the snow, the more your skiing will improve. But this does not really hold true on a daily basis. Once you get the hang of skiing it is easy to want to ski all the hours of sunlight that God sends, from first lifts in the morning to last lifts in the evening. I know I have certainly done this! But the truth is that your best skiing of the day is probably done and dusted by lunchtime. For the first few runs, you are finding your legs and then there are 3 or so golden hours of skiing in the morning when the pistes are fresh, your legs are fresh and all is well with the world. After lunch, you are probably feeling less alert after a large tartiflette and a glass of mulled wine under the belt, plus when you stand up from lunch, you suddenly realise how tired your legs feel from the morning’s exertions. Add to this the fact that the snow is by now probably churned up and choppy on all the busy slopes; skiers and boarders sharing those slopes may have had a substantial amount to drink; fading afternoon light; and insanely busy home runs back to the resort – and you have a recipe for disaster. You might want to do a couple of gentle post-lunch runs and then head home, but I would definitely avoid tackling anything challenging after lunch or waiting until the lifts are about to close and everybody is rushing down the hill at Mach 2. Rather head home a little earlier, maybe have a massage or a soak in the tub and live to ski another day.
Whether you are a seasoned snow-bunny or planning to hit the slopes for the first time this season, there is something for everyone on offer at the London Ski & Snowboard Show taking place this weekend at Battersea Park. Watch freeride competitions on the man-made Mount Battersea real-snow jump; taste Alpine wine and beer; meet Team GB snow stars like Chemmy Alcott; chat to the experts about everything from boot fitting to ski holidays; or enjoy Michelin-starred Alpine dining in The Lodge pop-up restaurant by Angela Hartnett. The show runs from Thursday 5th to Sun 8th November and promises to be loads of snow-themed fun. I’ll be popping round there on Saturday – you will find me wherever the tartiflette stand is 😉 Tickets are available online at £26 for an all-day adult pass and £52.50 for an all-day family pass (2 adults and 2 children).
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:
- A guide to skiing in Obertauern, Austria
- A gourmet ski weekend in the Dolomites
- A guide to skiing in Trysil, Norway
- Chalet Hotel L’Ecrin, Tignes from Helen
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