Slopeside savvy: Smart advice for planning winter sport trips

My family got hooked on winter sports 10 years ago. My wife and I, both skiers, took our boys to our house in Western Maryland for a winter break trip. While you may not think of Maryland as a premier ski destination, our home sits atop the Old Line state’s only ski resort.

This trip, we had decided to put our boys, then 7 and 9, in all-day ski school for the first time. After all, skiing is a sport for all ages. With them in school, we’d be free to ski at will. Good parenting combined with free time for us is a win-win.

The first morning, we dropped the boys off early and headed to the lifts for a few carefree runs. We arrived back at the bunny hill at noon to check in. We asked how things were going, and the instructor told us that Jack and Clay wanted to be let out of ski school. “Surely they aren’t ready yet, are they?” I asked, suspecting youthful hubris. To our surprise, he replied, “Absolutely.” I watched as two eager faces looked up the mountain.

Incredulous, we went to the top of the bunny slope, where we watched both boys make graceful wide turns under control. There was no turning back—we were now a winter sport family. We headed off to the lifts for nerve-wracking fun as we skied all afternoon as a family. (If you haven’t skied with kids before, they tend to fly down the mountain with youthful fearlessness).

A lot has changed in 10 years. Our oldest quickly ditched the skis to become an accomplished snowboarder, while our youngest went on to join a ski team and loves terrain parks as much as the rush of a Double Diamond. As our family illustrates, even for the inexperienced, skiing can be a fun, easy way to unplug from electronics and spend time outdoors together.

Whether you’re a snow sport family, a once-a-year vacationer, or brand new to the slopes, some simple advice for planning your destination and packing your gear can help make your next winter trip a success.


Location, Location


When you’re choosing where to ski, there are many factors to weigh, from geography to terrain to accommodations. Here are a few considerations that top our family’s list.

  1. Destination: If you ask people where to go for a ski vacation, the mountains of Colorado, California or Vermont quickly come to mind. Dig into the options, and you might be surprised to know there are almost 500 operating ski resorts in the US to choose from.1 If you think the West has the lock, you are wrong. New York has more resorts than any other state, with 52 ski areas, followed by Michigan at 44 and Colorado at 31.2 And while the East Coast boasts a large range of destinations, the West has claim to both the oldest operating ski area (Howelsen in Steamboat, Colorado) and the newest (Cherry Park Resort in Utah, opened in 2015).3
  2. Resort ownership: A newer trend to consider in vacationing is ownership. The trend for ski operators is to purchase groups of mountains across the country and offer options for privileges at other resorts owned by the group. For instance, sleepy Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin is owned by Vail Resorts Inc., which means weekend skiers in the Midwest also have incentive to go to Stowe, Vail, Alfton Alps or Park City. For a complete list of ownership groups, check out the NSAA listings.
  3. Terrain and tracks: While time and distance play in to the choice on where to ski, so do terrain and park features. When we travel, we have to select a park that can satisfy all of our family’s needs. While Alta in Utah is a premier ski destination, it doesn’t allow snowboarders. In our case, our younger son likes to spend time in terrain parks, while the rest of us carve groomed runs.
  4. Conditions: Time of year and snowfall are also important factors. Thinking about a Spring Break trip? Spring skiing resorts reflect a combination of elevation and weather that makes it a quality experience. Mammoth, Park City, Northstar or Sunday River frequently make the lists of good spring skiing destinations.
  5. Fun for non-skiers: If not everyone in the family is up for mountain time, check out the growing number of resorts that are investing in activities (beyond just shopping and dining) for the non-skiers in the party. From climbing walls to spas to sled dogs, these activities are also fun options for everyone, for après-ski plans or bad-weather days.4 Fodor’s list of the top 10 resorts for non-skiers highlights a few great options.
  6. Decision time: Being in insurance, I love an algorithm. And wouldn’t you know there’s one to help you blend various elements of objective data into an indexed ranking, allowing you to pick a ski resort based on what drives you—with a scientific twist. The site is called Zrankings and it’s a favorite of hard core snow-sporters (and snow nerds). Want to rank a resort on snow quality or by region? There is an indexed ranking for that—along with information on everything from true snowfall to driving distance from the airport to peak times for weather conditions. When I check out a new mountain, I always check the full report.


Gearing up


Whether you board or ski, the 2017-18 season brings new options for your tackle. Last year the industry had an estimated 54 million skier visits and that number should climb as 9.2 million active winter sporters head out to the slopes this year.5 6 Of those, almost three quarters choose skis, while snowboarders account for just over a quarter of riders.6 Whatever your sport, here are some options you may want to consider before hitting the tracks.

  1. Slimmer skis: In recent years, skis have been getting wider and longer as powder skiing has become the rage. These skis are designed for floating over deep, ungroomed powder. They make wide turns and require an open area, making them popular out West. This year, however, manufacturers are turning more attention to skis designed for carving. One of the hottest designs, according to Teton Gravity and Research, is a 90-waisted all-mountain ski with a flat tail and nearly no rocker. Even the powder skis are slimming down, with the widest model this year at 115 underfoot versus the prior year’s max of 120.7
  2. Surf’s up for boarders: Snowboards are getting updated, too. Surfboard enthusiasts and builders are now influencing snowboard designs, which means boards that harken to surf boards with a big noses, tapered tails and swallowtail designs for various surfaces, hard or soft.7
  3. Snow skating picks up speed: A recent trend is one influenced by skateboarders. Snow skates, which are simply skateboard decks attached to small single skis and ridden without bindings, are fast becoming a favorite. The skates bring skateboard style tricks to slopeside terrain parks. Snow skates aren’t new—in fact, they were introduced in the 1970s. But they’ve been making a comeback as more people learn how to ride them, boutique manufactures gain traction and resorts agree to let visitors use them on the slopes.
  4. Tips for renters: If you have older skis or boards, or no gear at all, no problem. You can rent them at the resort, but you’ll lose precious time in lines and get little choice of equipment. Instead, save time and money by renting from your local ski retailer. Such shops tend to be flexible on rates and time. Ours charges only for days skiing, but will let us have skis for a week at a time. Plus, you’ll get a chance to test out new skis (usually last year’s models) and better boots.


On the slopes


For staying in touch, using a location-based app on your smartphone can save considerable time and stress. (“Find my friends” is a great choice for iPhone users.) Apps like these can be invaluable when trying to meet up during or after a day of activity at a large or crowded ski resort.

With abundant snowfall predicted in the Rockies and above-average snow projected in New England, 2017-18 looks to be a promising winter season.8 These days, it is harder and harder to get the family to unplug from electronics, spend time together and be outdoors. A winter sports mountain provides many moments of quality family time.

Christoph Ritterson is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).