As the pale winter sun hangs over a bluebird morning sky, you stand atop a mountain peak and pull a pair of goggles down over your eyes. 2,000 feet below is a picturesque mountain town with snow-capped buildings and streets lined with pubs, shops, and enough live bluegrass music to last a lifetime. The only thing between you and a hot toddy at the base lodge is the adventure of making your way down this mountain.
If you come from a mountainous area this scenario might sound familiar. As an adventure traveler, it is a great situation to find yourself in. Ski travel can be addictive and kick-start an entirely new passion for hitting the road during the snowy months.
The images of skiing and snowboarding that dominate magazines and television tend to showcase the upper crust of the sport. Rich tourists smiling over wine and steak at restaurants in Breckenridge and Chamonix. Shaun White doing a triple cork under stadium lights at a big competition, walking away with one of those oversized checks and new Range Rover.
Winter sports, in general, tend to have a bit of an ‘elitist’ air to them. Traveling for powder is doable, even on a backpacker’s budget. In my eighteen years as a snowboarder, I have met countless people who share the same passion for snow and longing for adventure as I do.
The majority of them, unless they have a trust fund, are not driving brand new SUVs and staying in five-star hotels when they travel. There are many ways to make ski trips affordable, the most important being having your own gear. By investing in gear up front, you can travel cheaper, get more days on the slopes, and ski (or ride) more comfortably and confidently.
Like most outdoor equipment, ski gear will last for years if taken care of properly. While it is possible to rent everything each time you go, the costs add up quickly. In order to minimize on-mountain expenses and maximize the experience, having at least some core equipment that you know and feel comfortable using will make a big difference. No matter where you are headed, check the weather report and pack an extra layer!
Tips for renting
In some circumstances, such as a long backpacking trip with only one or two ski days along the way, it is not possible or feasible to bring your own gear. When renting, ask the shop about demo gear. Industry brands often send everything from skis and boards to boots and clothing to shops around the world for market testing before the product is released for sale.
This is the real deal because the gear is top quality (sometimes brand new) and often cheaper to rent for a day than the typical beaten down, mass-produced stuff found in rental shops. If possible, rent from a shop in town instead of at the base of the mountain. Both prices and quality of gear will often be better.
Tips for buying
Look for seasonal sales. Many gear shops will have a massive blowout sale in the fall to make way for the upcoming season’s new gear and want to push the previous season’s gear out the door at bargain prices. Expensive items like skis, boards, and boots can often be purchased for a fraction of the normal price tag. Online searches around the same time of year (September-October in the northern hemisphere, March-April in the southern) can often yield
What gear to buy:
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A good gear bag runs about $200 US, and will last a lifetime with good handling. Look for a bag that is large enough to fit boots and other equipment. Also, check the zippers- I had an experience this season where the main zipper broke off and left me duct taping my bag shut at the airport check-in counter. If you do not plan to fly, it is possible to get by without a gear bag, but as your travels extend past regional road trips this is will prove a solid investment.
The most important piece of ski gear to avoid renting is boots. Skiers and boarders break their boots in over time. The boots become molded to the contours of their feet and adjusted to specific preferences, something very difficult to do with a rental pair that will only be worn for a day. Learning to turn or carving down that mogul run is extremely hard to do if you can’t feel your feet.
While the fee to check a gear bag and the thought of lugging it around from airport to hotel might not sound appealing, it sure beats the alternative. Rented skis and boards receive about as much TLC from users as that rental car from the Smash-Up-Derby segment on Jackass. For anything other than lessons and the first couple of learning days on the hill, having your own skis or snowboard is imperative.
In unfamiliar territory, trust in your equipment and does wonders for the overall experience. Rentals are more likely to need adjustment or not fit right, leaving you spending more time in the shop than out exploring the terrain.
Jacket and snow pants
Again, it comes down to comfort. Few other sports require as much equipment and clothing as skiing while necessitating constant movement and the ability to react quickly to changing situations. On top of that, this sport has you out in the cold all day. Look into a jacket that reaches below the waist to avoid a surprise shot of snow hitting your back when you fall. For pants, make sure that you feel flexible in them. Bonus if the two match.
A good pair of ski socks and a warm beanie
It only takes one long day of riding with ankle socks before your calves and shins will feel like they were hit with sandpaper. Ski socks are cheap and available at any sporting goods store. They help with warmth in addition to comfort, because not being able to move your toes is very disheartening. Same goes for your ears- a warm beanie will be a useful tool both on mountain and off.
What gear you won’t mind renting
A lesson or guide
As a beginner, a lesson is key. Sure, friends will offer to teach you, but I have seen more than one relationship go downhill because someone could not figure out how to properly explain a toe-side turn and their partner spent all day on the ground cursing the sport. Even just a half-day lesson will give a first-timer the basics of standing, turning, and stopping before they get to the top of the mountain and have a breakdown.
When exploring a new resort or area, hiring a guide is a great way to find the secret powder stashes and shortest lift lines. I took a guide with me at Whistler Blackcomb this winter and ended up on terrain I would have never found otherwise. If a guide is not available or you are looking to save some cash, find a local. You will thank yourself.
Gloves, goggles, and helmet
If space in your pack or gear bag is an issue, these items can be picked up for super cheap at most rental shops. The rental crew can provide you with goggles that will best suit the weather outside- different conditions such as grey light or heavy snow require different lenses than bluebird days, for instance.