The Mountains are Calling

Insight and tips for beginner snowboarders. Day 1

Snowboarding – you are either born with it, or you’re not.  Yea right.  Snowboarding is difficult, and everyone must pay homage, by way of epic wipeouts, to the snowboard gods. Persistence, practice, and preparation are key to your snowboarding success.  If you’re looking for some insight, tips, and lessons learned, from a fellow beginner, then you’ve come to the right place.

Prior to my first snowboarding trip – a trip that took years to organize due to fear, anxiety, and a lack of sadistic friends who wanted to try the sport with me  – I spent countless hours researching the internet for snowboarding tips and tricks.  I found lots of great videos on YouTube, and a wealth of information from company sites like BurtonREI, and SheShreds.co.  All of this research was helpful, but a bit overwhelming, and not always geared to a first-timer.  I learned far more on my first day than any video could teach me.   Below are some tips based on my own experiences.

  1. How to Dress
  2. Protective Gear
  3. Accessories
  4. Tickets
  5. Renting Equipment
  6. Your First Lesson
  7. Navigating the Mountain
  8. Riding the Lift
  9. What and How to Practice

How to dress

Snowboard Girl bundled up in the cold

Believe it or not, how to dress was probably the most important lesson that we all learned on our first visit, and we learned the hard way.  A day on the slopes is very different that a day of sledding your local hill.  We wore lots of layers, which is a good thing, but we wore all the wrong kinds.  We were sweaty, cold, and in pain within the first hour.  So above all else, follow this advice:

  • Fabrics – Avoid cotton, especially jeans.  Cotton on the outside will get soaked.  Cotton on the INSIDE will get soaked (from sweat).  Synthetics, like polyester, wick moisture and sweat away from your body so that as you sweat (and you will sweat) the fabric does not feel damp against your skin.  Keeping yourself dry is critical to keeping yourself warm.
  • Pants – Wear a base layer (synthetics!) under your snow pants to keep you warm.  Be sure that there are no zippers or bulky seams around your calves and ankles, as the pressure of your boots will create painful pressure points along these seams.  Ski and snowboard base layers usually do not have seams for that reason.
  • Upper body – Layer up on your upper body with a synthetic base layer, a warm mid layer (such as fleece), and a waterproof jacket.  If you get warm, you can lose the mid layer.  Make sure your jacket is long enough that you can bend over to touch your toes without your butt hanging out.  If you are snowboarding, you will spend a lot of time in that position strapping into your bindings.  Snow in your crack is whack!
  • Feet – Wear socks specifically designed for snow sports, and make sure they’re not too bulky.  They will keep your feet warm and dry, as well as prevent painful pressure points on your feet and calves.
  • Hands – Wear warm waterproof gloves, and have an extra pair.  Many people prefer mittens as they provide more room for movement and glove inserts.  Hand warmers are super hand-y!
  • Face – Bring a neck gaiter.  I generally hate gaiters, or anything around my face, but when it is cold and windy, a gaiter can be pulled up to protect your face.  I bought a fleece hood from SheShreds.co that is AMAZING.  It slides over my helmet and protects my face like a gaiter, but it is extremely soft and comfortable to wear.  (That is a true statement and not a sales pitch… buuuuuut if you use code eff30 at SheShreds.co you’ll get 10% off!)

Protective Gear

On our first outing, one person from our group refused to wear any protective gear (I won’t mention names, but it should be no surprise that the nincompoop already has a traumatic brain injury).  He sustained the most injury, including a broken wrist on one trip.  Wear protective gear!

  • Helmet – Don’t let anyone tell you that a helmet isn’t cool.  You’re going to fall, and you’re going to hit your head.  There is no “if.”  Wear a helmet.
  • Wrist Guards – Wrist guards are the second most important piece of safety equipment.  Fractured and sprained wrists are the most common injury while snowboarding.  That is because as you fall, you will tend to use your hands as a brace, and even a brake!  A wrist guard will prevent you from hyperextending your wrist, or snapping it like a twig.  Dakine makes a very comfortable pair that slide on under gloves.
  • Knee pads – I don’t ride without them!  You’ll spend a lot of time on your knees, not only from falls, but also while strapping into your bindings.  Pick up a pair of soft knee pads from your local sporting goods store, and slide them on under your snow pants.  I wear a pair of Mizuno low profile volleyball knee pads.  I don’t realize they are there, and I never go home with black and blue knees.
  • Goggles –  (Optional)  I personally hate wearing goggles, as I don’t like things on my face.  They do serve a purpose, though.  Goggles are very helpful when conditions are windy, or when the resort is making snow.  They also act like sunglasses, and cut down on glare.

Accessories

Recommended, but not a necessity:

  • Cell phone battery brick and charging cable – Your phone’s battery will likely drain faster than usual due to the cold.  Putting your phone in an inner pocket will help prolong the battery’s life, but bring along a battery brick for an easy recharge.
  • Backpack – I wouldn’t recommend riding with a backpack on, but bringing a small backpack to hold your necessities will help ensure you don’t forget anything important.  We all bring our backpacks with extra gloves, chapstick, chargers, etc. and throw them in a rental locker (around $8 for a full day).  My family loves Dakine, their quality and warranty are top notch.  We all have the Dakine Mission backpack.
  • Chapstick – A must, in my book.  Hand lotion, too!
  • Snacks – The ski resorts are really expensive, and the food is not always great.  I find myself snacking instead of eating full meals when I am really active.  Throw some snacks in your backpack to hold you over between meals.  Drinks, too!
  • Hand warmers – Hand warmers do their job.  Throw them in a pocket with your cell phone to prolong the battery life, or to keep a little extra heat inside your jacket.

Packing snowboard gear into a backpack

So now that you have gotten yourself packed up, and double checked to make sure you had all of your gear, let’s head to the mountain.

Tickets

Check ticket rates online before purchasing at the window, as the ticket window will most likely not help you choose the most cost conscious bundle.  Ticket prices fluctuate depending on the day and even time of day.  There are often bundles for first timers that include a lift ticket, rental equipment, and a lesson.  Purchasing tickets online may save you time, as well.  There are usually a few discount packages, too:

  • Season passes – Season passes are expensive, and are really only beneficial if you live close to the slopes.  We typically go snowboarding 3-4 times per season.  With season passes I calculated that we would have to go at least 10 times before we broke even.
  • Discount plans – Our local resorts offer a discount plan, called the “Advantage Card.”  We can use it at 3 different local resorts.  There is a cost for purchasing this plan, but it will save us approximately 40% on lift tickets for the entire season.  We calculated that by our second visit we would have saved money.  Our third visit, and beyond would be significantly cheaper.  If you plan on visiting the local slopes a few times per season, a discount plan is worth the splurge.
  • First-timer discounts – After our first lesson (which was bundled with our rentals for first-timers), we were given the option to purchase a discount plan, at an even more discounted price.  In hindsight, this was a great deal that we should have jumped on.  If you are planning on visiting at least twice more in the season, consider these plans when offered.  Our resort offered an even steeper discount to the Advantage Card price, plus an additional free lift ticket AND lesson on the next visit!  This offer was only available the day of our first visit, and we missed out.

Renting Equipment

If you need to rent equipment, be sure that you are purchasing the package deal that includes your lift ticket, rental and lesson.  It will be cheaper, and the ticket office may not point it out.  Some slopes offer “performance” rentals.  I can’t comment on their actual performance, but there really is a night and day difference between a rental board and a good beginner board.  It may be worth the few extra bucks to rent the nicer board.   Head on over to the rental shop to fill out a rental waiver.  The shop will size you up for the right board and set the bindings up according to your stance.  If you prefer to ride with your left foot forward, your stance is “regular.”  If you lead with the right foot, your stance is called “goofy.”  Make sure your boots fit snuggly, but not too tight.  If you later realize the rental boots are too tight, go exchange them.  Your feet will thank you!

Your First Lesson

Don’t set the bar too high on this “free” lesson.  While the resort likely offers one-on-one lessons, your bundled lesson will be a bare bones group lesson.  The instructor should teach a small group how to:

  • Strap into your bindings
  • How to move around on flat ground with one foot strapped in
  • How to perform a basic heelside and frontside turn
  • How to stop yourself by using turns
  • How to get on and off the beginner’s lift

Navigating the Mountain

A map of various trails at Liberty Mountain ski resort

Liberty Mountain Trail Map

Before you head off on your own, go check the mountain’s map to familiarize yourself with the slopes and trail names.  Most importantly, take note of the skill level required for each trail.  Green trails are beginner friendly, blue is for intermediate and advanced, and anything black is expert level.  Keep an eye out for trail signs as you are coming down the mountain, as trails often interconnect.  A beginner level hill may have a left turn that takes you down an expert trail.  Do NOT overestimate your ability.  Stick to green trails as a beginner.  I just returned from a trip with my cousin, who is a veteran skateboarder but first-time snowboarder.  It was his 2nd run ever and he accidentally took a wrong turn down an expert trail.  I am pretty certain he died twice before he got to the bottom.

Riding the Lift

I think every beginner would agree that the lift is the scariest part of learning to ski or snowboard.  I have ridden the lift countless times, and I’m still nervous about getting off of it!  In reality, it is not that bad.  You should note that the beginner area lift moves a bit slower than the other lifts on the mountain… so before you move off the bunny hill, make sure you are comfortable getting on and off the lift.

Two snowboarders crash into each other after getting off a chair lift.

  • Getting ON the lift – Line up to board the beginner lift.  An operator will instruct you when to move forward to prepare to board.  There is a line that you stand at, and the chair will slowly come up from behind you, allowing you to comfortably sit down before ascending up the mountain.  Pull the safety bar down that is above your head and sit back.  If you are boarding with a skier, watch out for poles, which can get caught up in people’s legs.
  • Getting OFF the lift – As you near the end of the lift you will see a sign telling you to
    lift the bar and prepare to unload.  When it is safe to do so, lift the bar and gently
    scoot yourself sideways so that your board is pointing straight ahead of you.  As your chair and board reach the snow, quickly put your back foot on your stomp pad (or brace against the inside of your binding), point your board straight and stand up.  The chair will gently push you away from the lift.  There is usually a long, straight run out, allowing you to stop, and preventing you from becoming a runaway train.  The main objective when getting off the lift is to get your board underneath of you and just try to stay upright and balanced.  If you fall getting off, try to get yourself out of the way quickly.  The lift operator will be watching and will stop the lift as necessary to keep you from getting run over.

What to Practice

Once you get off the lift for the first time, it is all downhill from there (ba da bah)!  The hardest part is over.  Here are some tips on what to practice, and how to do so:

  • Relax – The best piece of advice that I can offer is to try your hardest to relax.  Accept that you might fall, and it won’t be that bad if you do.  My riding improves significantly after the first run, or after the first fall, when I finally begin to relax.  Tensing up is guaranteed to make me fall.  Relaxed, bent knees will make it easier to initiate turns and correct mistakes.
  • Look where you want to go – Be sure to look where you want to go.  Many beginners tend to look at their feet.  There is a saying that goes “look down, fall down.”  So keep your head up and turn your head in the direction you are pointing the board.
  • Pointing the board – This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are some important things to know about where and how to point your board.  When you want to move forward, your board needs to face down the mountain.  How much you point it down the mountain will affect your speed, but to get moving, you need to point it down the mountain at least a little bit.  Put a little bit more pressure on your front foot to get your board moving.  It will seem like you will start moving very quickly, but in reality, you are probably not even at walking speed!  Once you start moving  you should start putting pressure on an edge.  This is almost instant.  You don’t want to ride with your board completely flat on the snow, otherwise you will be likely to “catch an edge” and unexpectedly faceplant.
  • Active edge – Always make sure that the edge you are engaging is the one facing up the hill.  Think about if you were walking down a steep hill in shoes.  You would probably lean back a little, right?  If you leaned forward, you would trip and roll down the hill.  Same rules apply to snowboarding.  If your butt is facing up hill, then you should be using your heelside edge.  If your tummy is facing up hill, use your toeside edge.  This will come naturally, so don’t overthink it.
  • Check the brakes – Once you get going, your turns are actually what you will use to brake.  Chances are, on your first few runs, you are probably going to go down the hill riding the brakes the whole way down.  That is actually a great thing to do!  If you find yourself slowly skidding down the hill while trying to stop or stand still, press on your edge just a bit harder to make yourself stop.  This is great practice for learning how much pressure you need to turn and stop. As a matter of fact, I would recommend you do this before practicing turns!  You will quickly realize if you are more comfortable making heelside or toesdie turns, and that will become your go-to move while learning.
  • Heelside vs. Toeside turns – I am most comfortable on my toeside edge.  I visualize myself stepping on my tippy toes.  If I find myself slowly skidding instead of stopping, I press a little harder until I stop (imaging myself reaching a little taller on my tippy toes).   I am least comfortable on my heelside edge.  When I initiate a turn on my heelside, I first soften my knees and let the front knee open up a little, as if it were leading the way.  Then, instead of imaging pushing my heels down, I envision picking my toes up.  This forces my heel to go down, but gives me better control.  If I am skidding on my heels, I bend my knees and point my toes up even higher.  While sitting in a chair, cross your legs and point the foot that is dangling towards the floor.  Now point it to the ceiling as high as you can, without moving the rest of your leg.  Notice that your heel pointed sharply down when you pointed your toes up?  That is exactly what I think of doing when I do a heelside turn.
  • Focus on turns – Initially, your turns should take the shape of a nice, swooping J, where the curved part of the J is where your board turns until it is slightly facing up the mountain, bringing you to a stop.  Ultimately, you want to be able to link turns.  That means that you can successfully connect heelside and toeside turns, so that the path your snowboard takes looks like a wide S.  It is ok, and expected, for you to come to a complete stop after one turn, before initiating the next.  Eventually you will not need to stop in order to connect the turns.

Whew!!  Hopefully you survived your first day with your body and sense of humor intact!  Do not push yourself too hard on day one.  It took me several visits before I felt comfortable with the basics.  I still fall occasionally, but for the most part, I am now quite comfortable on the green trails.  I’m even playing around with riding switch and tiny tricks.  I am not going to push myself to ride the blue runs just yet, as I am enjoying my new-found confidence on the green trails.  Give yourself credit for a job well done on your first day, and start planning your next visit where you can keep working on those turns!  Check back for more tips before your next visit!

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