By Amy Whitley
Heading west for a ski vacation this year?
The Rockies and Sierras are majestic and unforgettable, and, well, big.
And big-mountain ski trips call for some big-mountain preparation.
First and foremost, buy your Epic Pass and get your legs loose at a local, urban ski resort such as Mt. Brighton, Michigan, Afton Alps, Minnesota, or Wilmot Mountain, Wisconsin.
Don’t make the mistake of undervaluing urban resorts: Their proximity to home and affordability allow families to hit the slopes weekly instead of annually, which is the best way to build foundational skills.
My own kids, now all expert skiers, learned the ropes literally on a rope tow.
Once you’re ready to test your skis or boards in the deep stuff, that Epic Pass is your ticket to the legendary slopes of Colorado, Utah, and Lake Tahoe.
But before you go, here’s what you need to know to make the most of your ski adventure in the West.
When To Go
Not all ski resort experiences are created equal.
When you go on that epic ski vacation can be as important as where you go.
For instance, a late-December holiday trip will feel very different than a March spring break trip.
Here’s a monthly run-down on what you can expect in terms of lift lines, après happenings, festivals, and prices at big mountain resorts:
December: The family-friendly atmosphere during a holiday ski trip can’t be beat.
At kid-centric ski resorts such as Keystone and Northstar, families can expect a long list of slopeside and après activities, from skiing with Santa to holiday parades.
To beat the crowds, hit the slopes before December 25, as the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day tend to draw the most skiers.
Families will snag the best holiday deals in mid-December, too.
January and February holiday weekends: Yep, you can expect crowds and higher rates during holiday weekends, but there are incentives for skiers who can come early (travel on Thursday, and you’ll likely save on airfare, too) or stay through Sunday.
Holiday weekends at lively resorts like Heavenly offer the most exciting après ski entertainment amid a hopping party scene, whereas Canyons or Breckenridge offer more in the way of festivals and foodie events.
At any resort, the solid midseason snowpack generally ensures the best snow coverage of the season.
March or April spring break: Having skied at big mountain resorts for decades, I can tell you that crowd levels drop as soon as the weather improves in the low country.
What this means for you: The lift lines will be shorter, even during spring break.
Depending on your (or your kids’) spring break dates, you can expect snow conditions to be icier in the morning and slushier in the afternoons.
Consider skiing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., then taking advantage of sunny weather by hitting some village activities, such as a bungee jump or a few turns on an ice skating rink—or simply soak up the village vibe on a patio with some music and an a brew.
What To Pack
After rounding up winter outerwear, boots, helmets, and skiwear for a family, you might think you need a Sherpa to haul your gear to the resort.
Don’t panic: There are ways to cut this down.
If you’re flying to the mountains, check one large bag filled with everyone’s outerwear, including gloves and goggles.
Have each family member bring a carry-on bag filled with personal clothing, and save room by wearing snow boots onto the plane.
Chalk up any odd looks to jealousy…you’re obviously embarking on a ski vacation, whereas your fellow passengers might be headed to a business conference.
What To Leave At Home
If you’re flying, leave your skis or boards at home.
(You can also leave the helmets, which occupy a lot of room, if you don’t mind renting; they’re very affordable.)
Plan your travel day with enough time upon arrival to rent skis before your first day on the slopes.
Getting ready for skiing takes enough time already—you don’t want to waste your first morning of snow time in a rental line.
Rent your equipment from a ski shop in the resort village or through RentSkis.com, which will bring your rental skis to your condo or vacation rental door.
What To Bring With You
If you own ski or snowboard boots, bring them.
We either fit them in our large family checked bag, or have the kids carry theirs in backpack-style boot bags, which they carry onto the plane.
Our recommendation: Transpack Edge Jr. packs—affordable, rugged, and convenient.
Boots are more difficult to comfortably size than skis and helmets, and you don’t want to spend day one on the mountain fielding complaints of pinched toes or nagging hotspots.
Trust me, it gets old.
If you forget ski socks, hats, or facemasks at home, all of the above can be bought on-site.
Some rental services offer jacket, ski pant, and glove rentals—check out GetOufitted, which delivers full outfits and accessories right to your hotel—if you really want to travel light.
What To Expect
The first sight of big mountain skiing can be intimidating.
The ski trails, terrain parks, and wide-open faces may seem endless…and that’s only the front-side.
Don’t try to ski the entire mountain in a day or even a weekend.
Grab a ski trail map, and study it at your night-before-skiing dinner.
Identify just a few sections of the mountain on which to concentrate, plus individual priorities, such as terrain parks (start with beginner features, marked with a green oval).
You’ll also want to determine where to break for lunch: We prefer upper or mid-mountain lodges where crowds are lower than at base lodges.
Will you be packing food or buying on the mountain?
If packing full lunches, bring a day bag or backpack and rent a locker at the base lodge where you start your day.
Or, simply slide sandwiches in your pockets so you can eat whenever you get hungry and save the real eating for your après time.
Don’t forget to plan how you’ll get to the slopes, which can be a feat in itself if you don’t know where to go.
If you’re staying in ski-in, ski-out lodging, you’ll naturally begin your day at the nearest base area.
If you’re arriving by car, start at whichever village lodge makes the most sense for your family; perhaps this will be the base lodge that hosts the ski school drop-off point or the lodge with lifts that service only beginner terrain.
Look for family-friendly drop-off lanes, or consider valet parking if it’s offered.
If your resort has a bustling village, you might be better off shuttling in early (ask about mountain shuttles at your hotel; if you’re staying in a condo or vacation rental, check into free town-operated buses such as the Summit Stage), grabbing breakfast in the village, and walking to the slopes.
Before you get on a lift, take a look at your map or the nearby signage to determine whether the chair services the terrain you need.
Ask the resort employee—the “liftie”—standing at the chairlift.
He or she is there to help you board the chairlift safely, including small children who may need assistance.
If you’d like to familiarize yourselves with the mountain before embarking on your own, take a free mountain tour and ski with a guide for up to two hours.
Nearly all big mountain resorts offer these, which usually meet at a base chairlift at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Look for signs, check with a resort information desk, or ask an official resort ski ambassador in the village.
Should The Kids Take Lessons?
If you have access, regular weekly lessons at a home ski hill before your trip are invaluable.
In our experience, that’s the best way to help kids learn how to ski.
Once you’ve arrived at a big mountain resort for a family vacation, consider a family private lesson.
Many families assume private sessions are out of their budget, but do the math: Most allow up to six people in one family lesson, which can be cheaper than putting the kids in multi-day group lessons.
During private lessons, kids learn in double-time, and ski coaches also play the role of guides: You’ll get a private tour of the mountain while enjoying front-of-the-line access to the lifts (which is key during peak times like holidays).
A private lesson can be the most relaxing, stress-free way to ski a new mountain.
Remember those crowded holiday weekends we discussed above?
This is the ideal solution.
If you do opt to enroll the kids in group lessons, know their ability levels before arrival.
If they’ve taken weekend lessons at a mountain like Brighton or Afton, the kids’ ski instructors there can tell you their levels, which you can convey to the ski school at your destination mountain.
If not, peruse a ski ability guide like Keystone’s.
Nothing takes away the fun of skiing like struggling to keep up in a lesson that’s too advanced.
How To Get In Shape
Worried that you’re not fit enough to tackle the slopes?
Don’t sweat it.
Before you buckle into your boots, Click here for a conditioning regimen by John Cole, director of human performance for the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail.
The Bottom Line
No matter when or where you go for your big mountain ski experience, your preparation begins at your Midwest (or any home) resort.
Hone your skills, take some warm-up turns, and test out new equipment at your local mountain before hitting the big powder.
Most of all, don’t be intimidated.
The mountains of the West are big, the powder is deep, the landscape is vast.
And make enough memories for a lifetime.