Editor’s Note (12/17/20): This story has been updated to show 2020 dates and prices.

If you’re a Colorado transplant like me, there’s a chance you didn’t grow up skiing or snowboarding—especially not in the shadow of 14,000-foot peaks. My holiday vacations and spring breaks were spent on the beach somewhere—maybe Mexico or Florida—not bracing against freezing temps on the slopes. Since moving to Denver in late 2017, I’ve tried to embrace the Colorado lifestyle in every way possible. I swim in alpine lakes, run thirteeners, and go backcountry camping. But there’s still one sport I need to master in order to feel like a true Coloradan: skiing.

Like other outdoor sports, getting into skiing or snowboarding can be intimidating and even a bit embarrassing, when it seems like everyone around you is zooming down blues and blacks while you’re stuck on the bunny hill. But this winter, I’m determined to learn everything I can about skiing and hit the hill with confidence.

From acquiring gear to learning the lingo and taking your first turns down the hill, here’s a beginner’s guide to hitting the slopes.

Step 1: Ski or Snowboard?

Ultimately, this choice is based on personal preference. “The best way to choose between skiing and snowboarding is really what the person wants to do—where their interest lies,” says Becky McDill, Araphaoe Basin Ski Area‘s snowsports manager. According to McDill, it’s easier to learn a sport when your heart is in it.

Those with prior experience in sports like surfing and skateboarding might gravitate to snowboarding, according to Greg Willis, director of the Ski & Snowboard School at Beaver Creek Resort. “Many choose one over the other based on other sports they participate in or dream of participating in,” he says. “There really is no right or wrong choice, the biggest decision is considering standing sideways going downhill (snowboard) versus facing forward (ski).”

But which one is easier to learn?

“One isn’t necessarily easier to learn than the other, but the learning curve spikes at different times with each,” Willis says. “The first day of skiing can come more naturally to many because participants can stand on both legs independently, while in snowboarding, both feet are attached to a single board which can make some feel slightly less in control during the initial stages of learning.” However, according to Willis, once you get that confidence of sliding and making direction changes, advancement in snowboarding comes rapidly. The learning curves in both sports really depends your balance and commitment to learning.

“If you try something you really don’t want to try, it’s going to be super hard. If snowboarding caught your eye and that’s something you’re interested in, then you are more motivated to want to learn it and play around with it,” McDill says.

Gates Lloyd, A-Basin’s snowsports director says that both skiing and snowboarding are examples of “hard fun.” “Easy fun” is like riding a rollercoaster, where all you need to do is buy a ticket, wait in line, and enjoy the ride. “Skiing and snowboarding take some internal motivation and commitment to get you through the learning process,” Lloyd says.

Step 2: Get the Gear

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Now that you’ve selected your sport of choice, it’s time to gear up. Although there are hundreds of brands to choose from, you only need the basics to get you through your first season on the slopes. For skiing, the basic equipment includes ski boots, skis, poles, a helmet, and goggles. For snowboarding, you will need boots, a snowboard, a helmet, and goggles.

The most cost-efficient route, especially when first starting out, is to rent gear. Although many ski resorts offer rentals, you can also visit local gear shops to rent all the necessary equipment individually or together in a package. Many ski shops will rent you equipment for an entire season, too.

In addition to skis, boards, and boots, you will of course need appropriate clothing to stay warm. Lloyd and McDill both recommend base-layers (preferably synthetic-based), an insulated layer for your lower and upper body, thin synthetic socks, and a pair of mittens or gloves. “You can spend a zillion dollars on gear, but you don’t have to,” Lloyd says. He also recommends bringing sunscreen for those bluebird days and a small water bottle that can fit inside your ski jacket to keep you hydrated.

Where to Rent

Shop: Larson’s Ski & Sport
Location: 4715 Kipling St., Wheat Ridge; 303-423-0654
Price for rentals: Season rentals start at $120

Shop: Christy Sports Ski & Snowboard
Location: Multiple Locations
Price for rentals: Starts at $40 a day for ski package

Shop: Epic Mountain Gear
Location: Multiple Locations
Price for rentals: Starts at $38 a day for ski package

Step 3: Book a Lesson

Ski lessons with Becky McDill. Photo by Dave Camara, courtesy of Arapahoe Basin

Before jumping (or falling) right in, check out the different programs that teach adults how to ski and snowboard. “A trained professional will help make the learning experience so much more enjoyable. Self-learning can take a toll on a beginner, both physically and mentally,” Willis says. Bonus: Many of the lessons offered through local ski resorts come with lift tickets or passes upon completion.

Ski Area: Copper Mountain
School: Ski and Ride University
Cost: Starts at $349; includes three lessons, rentals, and ski pass upon completion

Ski Area: Arapahoe Basin Ski Area
School: Molly to Mountain Program
Cost: Starts at $250; includes unlimited beginner lessons, full-day sport rentals and lift tickets

Ski Area: Beaver Creek Resort
School: Beaver Creek Ski and Snowboard School
Cost: Starts at $438; includes three lessons

Ski Area: Loveland Ski Area
School: Loveland Ski and Ride School
Cost: Starts at $412; includes three lessons, rentals, and ski pass upon completion

Step 4: Pick a Pass

Winter Park Resort. Photo by Jay Bouchard

Once you’re ready—and comfortable—to start taking turns on your own, it’s time to pick a pass. Beware: Skiing is expensive. The two main partnerships for skiing Colorado’s resorts are the Ikon and Epic passes, which cover 15 of our local ski areas:

Ikon Pass
Includes: A-Basin, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Steamboat, Eldora, Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Aspen Snowmass, and Buttermilk
Cost: $1,099 for the season pass,  $799 for Ikon Base Pass (more restrictions and blackout dates at certain resorts. See more here)

Epic Pass
Includes: Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail, Crested Butte, and Telluride
Cost: $719 for the Local pass (Note: Epic passes for the 2019–20 season are no longer available)

So how do you choose between the two? “First decision is figuring out where your friends and family are going to be skiing,” Lloyd says. “Socializing is a key factor. You want to go where your friends go.”

Apart from the Ikon and Epic Passes, skiers and snowboarders can purchase ski passes for individual ski areas or lift tickets. Ski passes usually start around $400, depending on the resort (for example, a ski pass to Copper Mountain starts at $529 for adults). Lift tickets usually run around $100 depending on the day and the ski area.

The key is plan ahead—passes for the upcoming season usually go on sale at the end of winter or early spring. The earlier you buy, the lower the price will be, according to Leigh Hierholzer, the director of marketing at Arapahoe Basin. Based on past trends, the cheapest time to buy is when the passes go on sale as most resorts raise their prices as the year progresses.

Step 5: Hit the Hill

Now that you’ve got the gear and learned the ropes, it’s time to get on the mountain. Be patient with yourself. There are a lot of variables for how long it takes for someone to feel comfortable on the slopes. “It depends a lot on internal motivation, physical fitness, the equipment, and how you’re learning,” Lloyd says. “At Arapahoe Basin, we find that if someone takes lessons for three to four days, they will be comfortable skiing on the mountain greens. They will be able to ride the chairlift, turn, and navigate mountain greens with confidence.”

What Not To Do

Aka, how to fit in on the slopes.

At five years old, I took my first ski lesson and was so bad I got kicked out of it and put on the mortifyingly embarrassing magic carpet. Things improved from there. Growing up in New Hampshire, I skied as much as possible—not always on ice!—and competed in a few freestyle competitions before moving West for college and falling in love with big-mountain skiing. After two decades, I still don’t know all the tricks of the trade, but I have learned plenty of lessons (the hard way, typically) about what not to do on the slopes. —Jay Bouchard

Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts
  • Don’t wear jeans
  • Don’t ski drunk or high
  • Always yield to people in front of you
  • Don’t overcommit too soon (Don’t let someone pressure you into skiing a run you don’t feel ready for)
  • Don’t buy food in the lodge; pack a lunch
  • Don’t tuck your snowpants into your boots
  • Avoid the “Goggle Gap” at all costs
  • Don’t go into the terrain park just to spectate, and definitely don’t stand at the bottom of a jump (you’ll get demolished)
  • Don’t let your friends ‘tune’ your equipment unless you really trust them
  • Don’t stop anywhere on the mountain where people can’t see you and you could be hit (the bottom of a large roller, for instance)
  • Don’t ride with a backpack boombox. Nobody likes those people
  • Don’t make crazy-wide turns over longer periods of time on intermediate or expert runs

Skiing in 5 Words

We asked the 5280 editorial staff to share five words about their first time on the slopes. Here’s what they said: 

“F*ck, where are the brakes?” —Spencer Campbell
“I hate this so much.” —Erin Skarda
“It’s cool to wear helmets.” —Jessica LaRusso
“Terrifying. Cold. Much. Too. Fast.” —Callie Sumlin
“Lost car keys on mountain.” —Geoff Van Dyke
“Demoted to the magic carpet.” —Jay Bouchard
“Couldn’t even do bunny hill.” —Jerilyn Forsythe
“Pretty ho-hum. I was five.” —Shane Monaghan

Victoria Carodine
Victoria Carodine
Victoria Carodine is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.