What To Expect

The HFO Guide to Skiing: The Basics

You've decided to go on a skiing holiday, hoorah!

Here at the HFO we haven't forgotten the feeling of excitement that comes with booking that first trip. We haven't forgotten the thoughts of "oh no, what have I done?" that come with it, either. But don't worry. We'll talk you through the basics and we'll point you in the right direction to make sure that your trip is as enjoyable and safe as possible.

What exactly have you let yourself in for?

In these pages, the HFO brings you a little of the flavour of the skiing experience, together with some background information to help you make sense of the whole business. This page is intended to give you a single-page overview of the basics. It'll give you an idea of what to expect, and it points out things to bear in mind as you prepare for your holiday. So dive right in and find out more!

Lots to learn

If you're thinking about booking your first ski trip, or if you're already booked on one, you've probably already realised that there's a lot to take in - so we recommend making a start well in advance. This page is intended to help you decide on booking a ski holiday that's right for you. And if you already know where you're going, you'll still find the information helpful. This page gets read a lot, so we've tried to make it as comprehensive as possible.

This page covers basic information for beginners. We've also put together a number of pages of more specific information which we think will help you:

Learning To Ski
Ski Equipment and Clothing
Life On The Piste
Travelling To The Resort By Air
Travelling To The Resort By Rail
Travelling To The Resort By Coach
Travelling To The Resort By Car
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Lessons are worth every penny

Learn to ski before you go skiing.

This might sound simple, or it might sound crazy - either way, it makes sense, believe me. If you can take a course before you go, you'll be far more prepared, you're likely to be fitter, and you'll have an even better time when you get to the resort. As we mentioned just now, we've put together a separate page on learning to ski.

Once you get out on the snow at the resort, booking ski lessons are still a good idea. You'll continue to learn, and skiing with an instructor is a good way to get to know a resort. As classes usually have prioroty in the lift queues, you'll often get more skiing in than you would do skiing by yourselves. And the instructors will know the best places to go, the best snow, and often the best places to eat, too.

Get the basics out of the way before you arrive

Finding out how to stay on a ski lift can be a frustrating and time consuming experience, so get the frustration out of the way without it taking up any time during your holiday. Remember - that way, you can get out on the snow faster whan you finally arrive at the resort.

If you're learning at a dry ski slope, make sure that the course includes practice in using a lift. To that end, make sure the slope has a lift. I've never come across places that don't, but holding on to a rope wound round a couple of pulleys is completely different from being pulled up a hill sitting on a rubber dinnerplate bolted to the end of a long aluminium tube...

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Where are you going?

This isn't as silly a question as it sounds. Some resorts are far better at catering for beginners than others.

For example, in France we'd say Alpe D'Huez was ideal for beginner skiers. It's well laid-out, gets good snow, and it has huge areas of pretty flat snow for beginners close to the resort. There are still enough red runs further afield to present intermediates with a challenge, so your fellow enthusiasts won't get bored if they've been before.

On the other hand, when we took some beginners to Val Thorens they had a fairly miserable experience. It has great skiing for intermediates and advanced skiers, but its unsurpassed snow record is due to its extreme altitude (the resort's at 2300 metres and some runs start 1000 metres higher up) and this caused real problems for some people. It's hard to concentrate on enjoying yourself when you're suffering from altitude sickness: people got tired quickly, and one or two had accidents that cost them a few days' skiing. A dislocated shoulder is no fun at all.

Skis or boards?

If you're snowboarding, we'd recommend going somewhere that specifically caters for boarders. Avoriaz is a good example, which has provided dedicated areas for boarders since the 1980s. Les Deux Alpes is another resort that provides a separate snow park for boards. Bear in mind that boarding can suffer from being too popular these days: the hire shops in Morzine ran out of rental boards the week we were there (so we'd recommend taking up skiing instead - but we would say that, wouldn't we?)

Check the map first

One tip is to get a piste map of the resort you're thinking of going to, so you can see where the different standards of runs are. To be honest, it's a resort's piste map that the HFO uses as the primary tool in deciding where to go. We explain the different grades of piste on our page about Life On The Piste.

If possible, find the location of the accommodation where you'll be staying on the piste map. The better places will indicate how close they are to lifts or pistes in the holiday brochure. There are few things finer than getting back to the chalet at the end of the day by skiing right the way up to the door of the boot room. And there are few things worse than having to trudge a mile across town in a damp, sweaty ski suit and clomping ski boots with a pair of heavy skis on your shoulder. Trust us: we've done both.

A decent map will allow you to plan your activities and head out in the right direction as soon as those lifts open in the morning. These days, maps for most resorts are just a click away.

We've also provided dedicated guide pages on this site for France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria which will give you a flavour of what you can expect.

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Where are you going to stay?

Where you stay at the resort can have a profound impact on your holiday enjoyment. Whether you stay in a chalet or a hotel is down to personal preference (we prefer chalets, having stayed in some truly dreadful hotels).

We'll say it again - wherever you stay, it should have the piste in easy reach: after a hard day's skiing you don't want the prospect of a 30 minute walk back to your accommodation, particularly so if it's started to snow heavily. Of course, the walk back can be made more tolerable if there's a decent bar or cafe to stop off at on the way, so things are seldom all bad...

If you're staying at a chalet, dDon't forget that chalet staff will normally get a day off during the week. On that day, you'll be left to fend for yourselves in the evenings - so you'll need to find s omewhere within staggering distance where you can get fed and watered, unless you're the adventurous type and fancy cooking for a building full of hungry skiers (I once cooked chilli for twenty five. It was good!). Most resorts have a good variety of restaurants available, so even if nobody wants to cook it's highly unlikely that you'll starve!

We've occasionally rented an apartment and done the self-catering thing, which tends to be cheaper but you do need someone with you who's prepared to cook, you all need to make sure that things like the washing up get done, and you need to be able to get on well with everyone else!

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It's a must

Make sure that you take out travel insurance before you travel. You'll need a package that explicitly covers winter sports and related activities.

Cover isn't expensive and you can find some good deals online. It's an essential part of any ski trip. Even though it's something that with luck you won't need at all, the risks you run in not having insurance cover are huge and tour operators may refuse to look after you if you haven't got insurance.

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Getting to the resort

We cover the process of getting from your home to the resort and back in detail here:

Travelling To The Resort By Air
Travelling To The Resort By Rail
Travelling To The Resort By Coach
Travelling To The Resort By Car

When you arrive

Probably the first thing you'll need to do when you get to the resort is sort out your lift pass. You show this to get on any of the various machines that take you up to the top of the mountain. Then you ski down the mountain, find a lift, and take it back to the top where you start all over again. Some passes have magnetic strips on them, and you may need to swipe your pass through a reader before you can get on a lift. The latest technology means that in the more modern resorts you can just keep your pass in your pocket - the gate on the lift will pick it up.

Make sure you've got somewhere secure on your skiwear to carry your pass. And by this we mean something that will stay attached to you if you fall on it. Lift passes are not cheap - most of the larger resorts charge over £100 for a week's skiing - so it makes sense to look after it!

Take a couple of passport-sized photos when you go on your holiday, as you may need a photo for your pass. Most of the more with-it tour operators will sort out passes on the way from the airport to the resort, so it makes sense to have photos (and a means to pay for your pass) handy.

Another reason for sorting passes out quickly is that most resorts lay on transport for skiers around town that you can board by showing your skipass. Those buses come in very useful when it's snowing hard!

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Plenty to enjoy

You may be so tired after a day's skiing that all you want to do is slouch in a comfortable armchair with a beer or two for the rest of the evening. But if you did that, you'd be missing out.

Every resort has its own atmosphere, every country has its own culture, cuisine, customs and idiosyncrasies. Rather than researching them on Wikipedia using the chalet's wifi, get out there and find out about 'em for real!

Ask the natives

Some of the most memorable adventures the HFO have had over the years have been when we went exploring in the evenings. You can either wander around and find things out for yourselves, or you can ask the hotel or chalet staff for recommendations. They're a useful source of information as they can warn you of the tourist traps that you should avoid and if you're really nice to them, they may let you in on the places where all the fun happens...

The inevitable Après Ski

Some folks we know go on skiing holidays for the après ski as much as the skiing itself. Some sad individuals even dispense with the skiing part, and concentrate entirely on the après, which seems more than a little extreme if you ask me...

As we just said, most tour staff are well-versed in pointing you in the direction of places to go where you can get a decent meal, reasonably-priced drinks, or get on down to the latest sounds. But if you're in the HFO, that's boring!

The HFO have suffered through meals where the service was abysmal (despite us being the only customers), we've paid exhorbitant prices for cups of tea in Switzerland, and we've been to nightclubs where French hopefuls with antiquarian guitars and a severely limited command of the English language massacred most of Sting's published works.

When all else fails, there's always the local cinema: the HFO particularly enjoyed seeing "Une Poisson Nomme Wanda" at the Rex Cinema in Morzine back in the 1980s and learnt considerably more French swear words than we'd ever encountered at o-level. The point is, those are the experiences that stick in the memory, that make you appreciate being out in the mountains with a pair of planks (and in extreme cases, can persuade you never to stay in that resort ever again...)

But even if we do have unpleasant experiences from time to time, sooner or later we remember why we're here: skiing is great!

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Walking will be hard work

You're up in the mountains. The air is thinner. Your bloodstream won't have as much oxygen in it, so physical exercise is hard work. You may think it's tough on the slopes but it's nothing compared to a trudge up the hill back to the hotel after a hard day's skiing or boarding.

You're also wearing a lot of clothing that is designed to keep you warm and it's an effective insulator. So when you do any exercise, you're likely to get hot and sweaty. Your goggles will steam up. Your skis will feel heavier and heavier.

This is why we gave you all that advice about using a piste map to pick your accommodation carefully. This is where it pays off.

Use the shuttle buses

So don't make life hard for yourselves. Use the shuttle buses laid on by the resort. That's what they're there for. As we already said, most of them are free to ride if you've got your skipass with you.

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Don't buy your gear to start with

However enthusiastic you may be about taking up skiing as a hobby, you shouldn't spend loads of money getting your own skis, board and boots right from the start. Rent them first, so you're sure that it's the pastime for you before you lay out a lot of money.

In these days of climate change, it's also worth remembering how expensive your own skis were before you clatter down that trail that's turning to mud before your eyes. If there's little snow in the resort, rental places tend to switch stock to stuff that nobody's going to worry too much about trashing.

On the first evening (or the following morning) you'll go and rent your skis, sticks and boots from a local shop. In most cases, your tour operator will have negotiated a preferential rate at one of the local agencies (if they haven't, find out why not!)

When you're asked how heavy you are, and what sort of skier you are, be honest - the shop staff will set your ski bindings based on what you tell them. Bindings allow the skis to come off when you fall, and can prevent nasty injuries such as broken legs. You want them to work as well as they can!

Top tip #1:You can buy small rubber clips that hold your skis together. These come in very useful when you have to carry your skis, and it means you can keep the poles in your other hand for balance.

Top tip #2:When you put your skis over your shoulder, remember to look behind you first: simple to say, but there's always someone who doesn't and you don't want to end up in hospital before you've even got on the piste!

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Watch that altitude

You may be tempted to go for it on the opening night - but you're at altitude, you've probably had a long day travelling, and you'll be subjecting yourself to enough cruel and unusual punishment in the morning. Our advice? Don't overdo it!

Most places we've stayed supplied a house wine with the meal. In most cases, the stuff was ideally suited to cleaning paintbrushes and removing varnish. You may be better off visiting the local supermarket and providing your own beverages. There are exceptions, of course: full marks to Alpine Elements, who provided an extremely good selection of reds and whites during our stay with them.

Then, of course, it's off to bed, ready for that first day's skiing bright and early - as soon as the lifts open!

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Thieves go on holiday too

We're sad to say it, but just because you're on holiday it doesn't mean you can't become a victim of crime. And not just at home (getting back to find your house has been burgled is not pleasant, as I know from personal experience). Take steps to make sure that nothing bad happens to you. Don't share the fact that you're going away on social media, for instance. Save the bragging until you get back.

When you travel, keep an eye on your luggage. It's only common sense that you shouldn't leave your belongings unattended out in the street. Sadly enough, thefts do happen, and we'd much rather they don't happen to you.

Similarly, if you stop off for a refreshing beverage during the day's skiing, just make sure you keep your kit safe: you wouldn't want somebody else strolling off with it. When we ski in a group, pairs of us will usually swap a pole and a stick and place them far apart. A potential thief is far less likely to stroll off with a couple of mismatched bits of kit because it takes more effort than lifting the nice shiny new pair that somebody's left in the rack.

Learning to ski