Learning To Ski

The HFO Guide to Skiing: Start Here

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

The single most important thing that you can do to massively increase the amount of enjoyment you get out of your ski holiday is to learn to ski before you go. It's surprisingly easy to do. On this page we'll take you through the basics.

It's all about knowing the basics beforehand

To get the most out of your first skiing holiday, it's a really good idea to take some skiing lessons before you go. Then, when you get to the resort you can be a little more adventurous, and you'll get to see more of the place than just the nursery slopes in the absolute beginners class. Nice as those are, they can get boring after a day or two.

By learning at a ski slope here at home, you'll get used to the palaver of putting on ski boots, carrying skis and poles, and generally falling over. And you'll do it relatively cheaply - so when you arrive on holiday you can focus on enjoying all that breathtaking (and expensive) scenery instead.

Get those embarrassing lift incidents out of the way

Ideally, you should also get some practice in using a ski lift, as it's probably the most daunting experience that you will face as a beginner. Holding on to a rope wound round a couple of pulleys is one thing, but you'll need to know how to get on and off a Poma lift (imagine being pulled up a hill while sitting on a rubber dinnerplate bolted to the end of a long aluminium tube) or a T-bar (being pulled up a hill while sitting on a T-shaped piece of plastic alongside a fellow skier who may or may not know what they're doing).

Take it from us: using lifts the first few times can be scary, and not all of us made it all the way up to the top at every attempt. Learning how to use a lift somewhere where you won't end up waist deep in snow half-way up a mountain if you get it wrong is highly recommended.

You might not be an old hand, but you won't be a complete novice

Finding out how to do all these things 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.

You won't know it all when you arrive, we know. But it's surprising how just knowing how to put your ski boots on properly and step into a pair skis or clip yourself on to your board will boost your confidence.

Remember - by learning the basics in advance, you can get out on the snow faster when you finally arrive at the resort, and that is the point of going skiing in the first place!

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Know what you're in for

If you're out of condition, nothing will bring you up short faster than a skiing holiday.

You're going to spend a lot of time picking yourself up off the ground in the early days of your skiing career, and if you end up knackered every evening you're not going to enjoy yourself as much. You can prepare for this by making sure you're fit before you travel. As always, before you start an exercise programme, see your doctor. And don't do anything silly!

You don't have to be young to be a skier

Some of the HFO are getting on a bit these days. We're not the carefree twenty-somethings we were when we started this whole skiing lark. But we're not planning on hanging up our skis for good just yet. The oldest person we've skied with was in his late sixties. And you'll see some folks at the resorts who are older than that still gliding around the slopes. Provided you're still fit, you can still ski.

Focus on the legs

Skiing is great all-round exercise, but at the end of that first day, it's your legs that will be telling you that you've been doing more exercise than usual. The more you can build up your leg muscles beforehand, the less Deep Heat you'll need to be rubbing into your thighs before dinner. That's not a good idea when you're trying to savour the aroma of all that mountain cooking.

You should be building up your leg muscles, so why not get the bike out of the shed? Go out for a walk, take the stairs at work rather than using the lift - every little helps.

If you want a really good exercise programme, I can highly recommend learning T'ai Chi. Many of the stances and exercises are designed to build up your energy levels, improve muscle tone and stamina, and develop your sense of balance. It will benefit your skiing, as well as being good for you in general.

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Traditional British Skiing

If (like most people in the UK) you live somewhere without a regular supply of snow, learning to ski probably means a visit to your nearest dry ski slope.

The first place I ever went skiing was Sandown Park Dry Ski Slope in 1985, on a "learn to ski" course which lasted about six weeks. You don't need to buy expensive ski equipment before you go - just make sure you've got warm clothing and a decent pair of gloves.

Dry slopes can hurt

Your average traditional dry ski slope is, effectively, a mat of scrubbing brushes with the bristles pointing upwards. And they're not the soft bristles you get on a nail brush, oh no. These are hard, industrial-grade nylon. You're going to fall over on them when you're learning to ski, so wear something that will protect you.

I'd recommend wearing heavy denim jeans or something similar. Don't wear tracksuit bottoms as they won't protect you enough; falling over at even moderate speed will remove them (and several layers of skin) quite quickly. Not pleasant at all.

You should be wearing ski gloves, too - the thicker the better.

Stay safe

It's worth emphasising that you should take things easy on a dry slope. Most of the people I know who have injured themeselves while skiing have done so on dry slopes, not on snow.

For a start, you need to learn how to fall over without injuring yourself, and the main thing to avoid is putting your hands out to break your fall. Your instructor will explain what to do.

So, are dry ski slopes any good?

My dry slope course was well worth it - getting all of the basics out of the way beforehand means that you can get out on the snow faster when you finally arrive at the resort.

More importantly, learning to ski on a dry slope also has a hidden psychological advantage. When you start skiing on real snow, you'll find that it's not only far easier than skiing on bristles, it also doesn't hurt as much when you fall over.

Believe me, I did a lot of comparative testing for a couple of years.

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It's the real thing

These days, of course, it's possible to learn in the UK on real snow at places like the Tamworth Snowdome. These are indoor ski slopes in refrigerated buildings, so you get all of the experience of skiing on real snow (except, it has to be said, for the view!)

If you have a centre that offers this near you, why not sign up for some lessons? It's an ideal way to prepare for your ski trip.

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Learn from a professional

There's a lot to learn when you start skiing for the first time, so if you can do some of that learning before you get to the resort, you'll have more time available for enjoying yourself.

What are the basics that you should be learning? We've already discussed the fact that you need to know how to put on your boots, and adjust them so that you can ski properly and in comfort without crippling yourself. Then you'll need to know how to put on your skis and take them off again. This isn't as silly as it sounds, because downhill skis attach to your boots with special bindings which will let go of your boots if you fall and stop you twisting your ankles or breaking your legs. You need to make sure your boots are correctly placed in the bindings, otherwise the bindings won't work properly. And, of course, skis are designed to travel downhill with little or no resistance, and you don't want them doing that while you're trying to put them on!

You'll need to learn how to turn round on skis, how to move uphill on skis, how to get on and off a lift, and then - finally - how to go downhill. It's important to learn how to put your skis in a V shape (a position known as a snowplough for obvious reasons) because this will let you control your speed. Then you'll learn how to make snowplough turns, which should be enough to get you down most beginners' slopes.

From there, you can learn how to make stem turns and then parallel turns, and soon you'll be zipping down the mountains with the rest of us.

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Know your limits

Once you arrive at the resort, be realistic in what you attempt to do: don't rush off thinking you know it all. You may not be aware that most skiing injuries happen not at the beginning of the holiday when people are tentative (i.e. safe) about what they're attempting, but at the end, when we tend to get a bit reckless.

Trust us: nobody important will think any less of you if you don't make it down a black run by the end of your first week on skis. Don't take risks. Stick to what you're comfortable with and you'll arrive home from your holiday fit, with no broken bones, and fired up about going back next year and doing more, rather than vowing never to put on another pair of skis ever again.

Watch out for yourself

Keep an eye on how you feel. You're likely to be doing far more physical work than normal, and you're likely to be half way up a mountain where the air is thinner, so your heart will be pumping faster to get the same amount of oxygen round your body. Even if you have improved your fitness level, remember that your resting pulse rate will increase for the first few days, but you should gradually acclimatise.

If you feel dizzy or woozy, don't be an idiot and press on with everyone else. Head back down the mountain. If you continue to feel unwell you should seek medical attention.

Keep on learning

When you do get to the resort, why not book some more lessons? It doesn't matter how good a skier you become, you can always learn more.

Taking lessons at the resort means that you'll continue to improve in ability, and you're also likely to be taken to where the best skiing conditions are. Don't forget too that in many resorts, ski schools have priority in the lift queues, so you'll spend less time lining up and more time actually skiing. The end result of all this should be an enjoyable experience that you'll want to repeat.

After all, you're there to have fun!

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