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What To Know As A Beginner Skier In Banff

Updated: May 7, 2023

So ... you've never skied before (or you still feel like a beginner), and the first time you try it will be in Banff, Canada. I get it. It feels daunting. I mean you're literally going to a country that's known for its winter sports.

Or perhaps you're Canadian and simply haven't given the whole skiing thing a whirl yet. It might be nerve-wracking doing it in your own country because everybody else already does it. Well, it's time to put those fears to rest with some helpful (and detailed) information.

I went to Banff as a first-time skier in January, which means I'm going to pave the way for you in this post so that you feel comfortable and confident before you get there. Even if you're super hyped and have no fears whatsoever, learning about where you're going before you get there is always a good adventuring plan.

What You'll Find In This Post


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Photo taken by Gene Rodgers
General Tips For Beginners

The following words of wisdom are not just for rookie skiers going to Banff. Instead, this section focuses on basic tips for all beginners, though particularly those who are skiing in North America.

Learn Some Basic Ski Knowledge.

You don't need to know too much terminology or too many facts about skiing until you decide you want to make it your hobby, but there are some basics that require your understanding.

Get To Know The Types Of Runs

Let's start with the types and levels of runs in North America. It seems like they're categorized based on their steepness and terrain, though not every resort will categorize them in the same way. But what you need to know is that certain colors (and their shapes) symbolize the type of slope you're on or want to go on.

  • Bunny Slope: a small slope for novices and children (not technically a run)

  • Green (circle): Easy

  • Blue (square): Intermediate

  • Black (diamond): Advanced

  • Black (two diamonds): Expert

So, obviously, you want to start on the green runs after you feel good on the bunny slope. There are usually maps when you get dropped off by the ski lift to make sure you're on the run you want to be on, and along the way, you'll see other colored signs and arrows, so you likely won't ever accidentally go on the wrong run.

Also, if you start on a green, you should be able to take a green slope all the way down to the bottom. Runs don't seem to go from easy to hard; rather, there are harder runs that might have an easy run somewhere in them. (For example, I did a few blues that turned to greens halfway through.)

Get To Know Some Ski Terminology

I've bullet-pointed below the terms I found helpful to keep up with other skiers:

  • Snowplow (aka Pizza): when your skis are pointed inward to slow down or stop

  • Parallel (aka French Fries): when your skis are straight, or parallel

  • Powder: fresh, dry snow (it's a good thing!)

  • Lift Pass: they allow access to ski lifts, gondolas, etc. (you can learn more about this in the ski lift section)

  • Quad: a chair lift that carries four people

  • Traverse: skiing back and forth perpendicular to the slope rather than skiing straight down

  • Moguls: bumps of piled-up snow usually only found on intermediate, advanced or expert slopes

  • Catwalk: a narrow trail that joins two slopes or goes down the entire mountain (this term isn't THAT necessary, but I did ski down some catwalks and many people called them that, so knowing this term will mitigate confusion)

Photo taken by Gene Rodgers

Dress for success.

In this sport, what you wear matters. You don't want snow getting in places it shouldn't. You don't want to feel uncomfortable or be worrying about your clothes when you should be thinking about how to ski. And, in all honesty, ski wear can make you look pretty cool, and when you know you look good, you're only more confident!

The ski equipment company will provide your skis, poles, boots and helmet (and yes, you should get a helmet), but it's up to you to figure out the rest.

Here are some items I would buy or borrow beforehand:

Ski Jacket: My husband and I went all out with our ski jackets since we know we'll be using them for the rest of our lives. The brand we chose was MONTEC. I love love love my jacket, and I couldn't recommend this company enough! It was so warm that I only wore a light long-sleeved athletic shirt underneath, there are zippers all over to hold small items, open up the neck area, make the armpit area more breathable, etc. Oh, and the jackets come in a lot of cool color options, too!

Snow Pants/Overalls: Any kind of snow pants/overalls will likely do, but right now I'm going to try to specifically persuade you to get overalls. I'm not a fan of pants falling down when I'm falling down, so overalls were the right move. Snow also failed to get in any places that were uncomfortable (which was due to my ski jacket, too, but the fashion choice I made for my lower half definitely helped). My snow overalls are something I've owned for years from Magellan Outdoors, a brand under Academy, but find a pair that's best for you!

Thermal Underwear/Long Johns/Fleece Leggings: You'll want to wear a pair of thermal underwear underneath your ski jacket and pants/overalls. This will help keep you warm and ensure nothing rubs your skin that shouldn't.

Waterproof Gloves/Mittens: I wore some gloves from Columbia, which worked really well for me, but there are plenty of other companies you can purchase them from. A lot of avid skiers prefer mittens. Unlike gloves, which have separate openings for each finger, mittens only have two sections, one for the thumb and one for the rest of the fingers. There can also be different levels of warmth for gloves/mittens. I found that overall my hands became pretty warm while skiing, but on the really cold days, I could have used some additional warmth, so it's up to your discretion.

Polarized Goggles: We bought some cheaper ones off Amazon from Outdoor Master. They worked well, so this is likely all I'll need for a bit since I'll only be skiing once a year in the future, if that. Just be sure that your goggles are indeed polarized so that you protect your eyes not only when you fall but also from the sun.

Ski Mask/Balaclava: I thought I was going to need a hat under my helmet, but that wasn't the case. First, it would be too thick under the helmet. Second, your head gets pretty warm in there anyway. Instead, consider buying a balaclava, or ski mask. These are lighter, go over your head and also cover your chin/mouth, an area in which I was definitely cold. If your ears are still chilly in the helmet, this will also add an extra layer of warmth for them.

Socks: I made the mistake of bringing wool socks for skiing since I figured I'd need them to stay warm and protect my shins. However, they were waaay too thick and hot to wear with my ski boots since the boots have to be nice and snug. So I switched to my breathable hiking socks from Darn Tough. I'm sure there are better socks out there for skiing that aren't as light as the ones I was wearing and perhaps some that safeguard against bruising, but mine still got the job done.

Sunscreen and Chapstick: I know these aren't clothing items, but you should put them on when you put on your clothes every day. It might be cold and snowy on the mountains, but you can still get a sunburn (especially because the sun reflects off the snow) and a windburn on any parts of your face that aren't covered (most likely your chin area unless you wear a balaclava). You should also consider putting the Chapstick in your ski jacket so that you have it throughout the day.

There are probably plenty of other skiing clothing items that experts would be able to tell you about, but these are all the things I needed to ski for the first time. Just keep in mind that Canada can get really cold, so it's not a bad idea to bring some other warm winter wear with you just in case. You can keep it in your car or purchase a locker at the ski resort. And, of course, if you forget any of these essential items, you can always buy them in the town of Banff or at the ski resort.

Photo taken by Gene Rodgers

Go to ski school.

I know it can be expensive, but I do think it's worth it because it will ease you into skiing. Even if there is someone in your group who could teach you, I have three arguments for why you should still start with ski school:

  1. The instructor will teach you the PROPER basics. Anyone else who is not trained to train might skip over some things and then wonder later why you're still not catching on.

  2. You won't feel like you're burdening someone else. You're paying the instructor to teach you, eliminating the guilt factor that can come from taking up a friend's or family member's time.

  3. The instructor will have a lot of patience with you ... whereas someone you're close with might not. (You all know what I'm talking about here!) Even when they assure you that they'll be patient, frustrations can always boil over.

Keep in mind that your skiing companions can always help you out after you learn the basics in ski school if you don't want to pay more for additional lessons.

So now that I've persuaded you to go to ski school, it's time to talk about what ski school will likely look like, whether you're a kid, a teenager or an adult.

Ski School Itinerary

I can only tell you what ski school is like from my personal experience at Lake Louise Ski Resort in Banff. But this should still give you a good idea of what to expect.

Our instructor first went through the basics with us: how to latch into your skis, what a snowplow is, what parallel is, how to turn around in skis, how to walk in skis, etc. From there, he took us to a tiny decline and had us lift one foot, balancing on the other leg, and told us to go down it. I learned how important this exercise, or having your weight on one foot, is when I began to turn going down the slope later on.

After that, we practiced walking up an incline and turning, learned how to slow down and stop, which is by snowplowing or turning, and were taught how to use the magic carpet, which is what they call the little, extremely slow treadmill that takes you up the bunny slope.

Finally, we learned to turn while going down the bunny hill, and once we became more comfortable with it, moved on to other parts of the bunny hill, including a section with slopes on either side that we traversed.

Ski School Lesson Options

The ski lessons are split into adult classes and kids classes. From there, if you're a beginner, you can do private or group lessons. There were three of us beginners on our Banff trip, so we signed up for a private lesson for all three of us since we wanted to learn quickly but not individually.

We only did the most basic beginner's class, but there are a variety of lessons for a variety of skill levels to choose from. So, for example, if you do the basic one but still want to have a trainer with you the rest of the day or on your first green or something, you can purchase another lesson.

Ski School Cost

Rates depend on what type of lesson you want and for how long. They're not cheap, but you can always look at all the options to figure out which one will be cheaper for you if money is an issue. (Expect to pay at least $100; some lessons cost five times that.)

Push past the fear.

I found that half the battle when learning to ski is in your mind. When you look down at even a green slope, it can seem terrifying. In fact, I was pretty paralyzed when I got to the top of my first one. Even as I got better, at the beginning of each ski day, I would spend the first run trying to get over my fears: of going down a steep incline, of falling off a cliff, of skiing over ice, of breaking something, etc.

The problem with being scared as you ski is that you start thinking about what you're worried about rather than your technique, taking each movement step by step or not thinking at all if you've already had plenty of practice. This can create a gain of unwanted speed, which means you'll freak out even more, and will likely cause you to fall just to stop yourself or could cause some of the fears I just mentioned to happen.

When you push past the fear and learn to stay calm, however, you can think more clearly or not think at all. And the more you do that, the more fun you'll have and the faster the movement will click.

Photo taken by Gene Rodgers
Banff's Ski Lifts 101

I don't know about you, but I've seen plenty of videos of people missing ski lifts or getting knocked down by them; some even take out other skiers as they fall or slide down the mountain. They're really funny, but they didn't quite have the same comedic effect right before I went skiing for the first time. Instead, they made me a little nervous.

But the truth is, at least in Banff, there's nothing to worry about. Although the lifts can have slight differences when it comes to how many people can ride them and your dismount, they're all pretty tame.

So let's begin with the step-by-step process of riding a ski lift: line up to get on (a worker will scan your lift pass); get in a lane to get on the lift; when the chair lift for the group ahead of you goes past you, follow behind it to the line on the ground and stop; let the lift kind of scoop you up into it; make sure you're in one of the designated seats so that you, or someone with you, can pull down the safety bar so that no one slips out accidentally; put your skis on the footrest that that's connected to the safety bar; enjoy the ride; as you get closer to the end of the lift, take your feet off the footrest and raise the safety bar; get ready to dismount; when your feet are close enough to the ground, slide off and be on your way.

Understanding these basics can be helpful, but here are some additional tips to mitigate any potential issues:

  • Don't rush. There's no reason to hurry if you're not ready to get into a lift yet, even if you're worried about the fact that there are people in line behind you. The chair lifts come constantly, so no one cares if you're new and slower. Plus, the moment you rush could be the reason you fall. I had no issue on the ski lift except one time, and it was because I panicked and darted out to the line. It was just my husband and I and we had gotten to the front of the ski lift as an empty chair was already moving through. I wasn't ready, but due to miscommunication, my husband decided to go quickly and try to catch it. So then I tried to do the same but got hooked on his poles and went tumbling. The moral of the story is this: if you're worried about making it, wait for the next one.

  • Line up in your lane beforehand. There might not always be time, but if you can choose which lane you want before getting to the front and communicate that with the others in your group, everything will go much smoother.

  • Keep your poles in your own lane. If you put them on the outsides, they'll be in the other skiers' lanes, and that will simply trip up your companions and create a disaster for all of you.

  • Prep your mind and body before dismounting. Don't tense with nerves. Instead, get in a somewhat athletic skiing stance physically and mentally. For me, that meant getting my poles out in front of me, bracing my core and reminding myself to bend my knees a little as I got off the lift.

  • Try to stick to your "lane" when you dismount. Remember that there will be others getting off with you. If you're all going in the same direction when you get off, just be sure to dismount like you're still in a lane. If you're going in different directions, be sure to communicate that with the others on your lift, especially if you don't know them. From there, you can figure out which way to go or head to the middle instead of to one side if you're nervous about hitting them.

Which Ski Resort And Runs To Start With

The three main mountains and ski resorts near the town of Banff are: Mt. Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village. These are a part of the Ski Big 3 pass, which I will talk about in a future Banff guide.

You'll likely do ski school at the Lake Louise Ski Resort. That said, I don't recommend going on the green runs there your first time off the bunny slope. Many of Lake Louise's greens are pretty steep, and some have cliffs on one side as you go down. After you've practiced, you can avoid these cliffs with no problem, but when you're new and don't know how to turn quickly or stop, they could definitely be an issue — and be paralyzing. Lake Louise was also where I went down a mountain too fast because I was too scared to slow down. I did a nice flip at the bottom then landed on my back.

Now I don't say all of this to scare you. Rather, I want you to know that Lake Louise will be a great place to go after you've had a little more practice than just ski school on the bunny slope. In fact, I went back to Lake Louise on my final day and had a blast there.

So, the questions remain: what ski resort should you go to and what slopes should you start on? I suggest Mt. Norquay or Sunshine Village, and if I had to give you just one recommendation, it would be Sunshine Village.

Sunshine Village has some excellent greens for beginners. There are no cliffs, the runs aren't very steep and the greens are nice and wide. Two greens we found that are great for beginners are located on Mount Standish. You can get there by taking the gondola to the very end. The greens I recommend are: The Dell Valley and Rock Isle Road. Both of these can be accessed via the Strawberry Express Quad lift. The Dell Valley is off to the right. Its trail is very flat at the beginning then gets steeper as you go along. Rock Isle Road is off to the left. It starts out steep but gets flatter as you go along.

We also tried Creek Run into Prune Pickers Pass (via the Standish Express Quad ski lift on Mount Standish). It was a fun and fairly gentle green.

If you decide to go to the Mt. Norquay Ski Resort first instead of Sunshine Village, it'll be simple to locate one of the easiest greens (Cascade) because it's one of the first things you'll see when you walk past the buildings. Cascade is short, very wide, but a little steep at first, which is why I suggest Sunshine Village. However, it's a lot of fun to practice gaining speed on it.

These run suggestions I've made are all greens. But once you're feeling confident with the greens, don't be afraid to try some blues! I did a few at Sunshine Village and Lake Louise.

So, with all of this in mind, here is my itinerary for beginners in Banff after they've gone to ski school:

  • Day 1: Sunshine Village Ski Resort

  • Day 2: Mt. Norquay

  • Day 3: Lake Louise

  • Day 4: Sunshine Village (our group just really liked this one, but you can do whichever ski resort you liked best if you pay for more than three days)

Photo taken by Gene Rodgers
Fun Facts I Observed As A Beginner

When you're a beginner, you notice things about an activity that others who have been doing it for a while forget. Here are a few things I observed:

Walking in ski boots is a pain, but it's funny to watch other people do it. You can't bend your ankles in ski boots, so everyone tromps around like they're giants in slow motion. Most of it's more funny than painful, but going down the stairs is definitely difficult and uncomfortable.

You don't really need your poles to ski. It's one thing to watch skiers during the Olympics or competitions not using their poles, but the reality of skiing is that you don't necessarily need them to ski. I'm sure you learn more about how to use them as you progress, but even most of the little kids learn without poles because the movement comes from your lower half and the skis.

When you DO need your poles, it's a workout. Now, you do use your poles to push yourself forward after you've lost speed, and they especially come in handy when trying to get to the ski lifts. All of this requires you to dig your poles into the snow and push forward with your arms, so it will get you sweating!

You can just leave your skis and poles out when you take a break. There are ski racks in front of the resorts where everyone stands their skis and poles during lunch or if they're waiting on other people. It's nice going somewhere where you know nobody is likely ever going to steal anything since they all have their own gear.

You have to read a lot of maps. There's a map at the bottom and/or top of every ski lift to help you get where you want to go and also make sure you're going down the right slopes. The runs are labeled by their colors and shapes. The red lines are ski lifts and gondolas. They're not difficult to decipher, but I never thought about the fact that I'd be reading maps consistently before I skied for the first time.


Well, that's all for now, folks! But if you have questions about my experience in Banff as a beginner skier, please don't hesitate to contact me. And as far as other first-time-in-Banff things go, I'll be posting a guide soon.


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