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First Time Guide To Skiing Out West

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Updated May 8th, 2024

winter park resort ski trail sign

You’ve been skiing at bit at Mt Holly, or your small local ski resort, and you’ve taken some road trips to up north or Vermont. Someone introduced you to the Warren Miller film and you’ve seen some out of this world scenes from resorts out west such as Jackson Hole. It’s time for your first time skiing out west. You start looking into it and there are so many choices these days for where to go.

A guide to your first time skiing out west.

If you can parallel turn and ski the blue and black groomed runs in Michigan you can absolutely handle the blue groomed runs most places out west. Here is a first time guide to skiing out west to help you decide when and where to go. Everyone should have a great trip their first time.

If you don’t have anyone to go with, that should not hold you back from the experience of skiing out west or anywhere else.

Which resort to choose

The first big choice for your first trip out west is deciding where to go. I would recommend sticking to one of the large resorts such as featured on the Epic or Ikon pass. I would not recommend going to a resort that is known for its advanced terrain such as Snowbird. Advanced has a different meaning out there than it does around the Great Lakes.

Pick somewhere big, popular and easy to get to

The main multi resort areas out west are Denver, Salt Lake City, and Lake Tahoe. The 3 of these all have many ski resorts in close proximity. They are all easy to get too from large airports. There are other regions such as Seattle/Vancouver, New Mexico, and Yellowstone (Montana and Wyoming). These tend to take a bit more effort to work out flights, transportation, and housing.

On your first trip, you should probably stick to Denver, Salt Lake City or Lake Tahoe. They all easy to get too, have decent amounts of accommodations, a nearby town or city, and terrain that is skiable by the average intermediate skier who can competently parallel turn.

Good first choices

utah snowy mountain scenery

Transportation once you’re out there

From Denver, there are shuttle services to get you from the airport out to the ski resorts. If you’d like to take in more then 1 resort while your there or you’re trying to save money on accommodations then driving may still be needed. From Salt Lake City, the drive up I-80 to Park City and Canyons is not that bad unless they are currently getting a severe snowstorm. The ability to go to downtown Salt Lake City during your stay opens up a lot of dining and entertainment options you won’t have if you’re stuck at Park City.

Driving out west

If you find yourself irritated at drivers on I-75 or I-95 during a snowstorm and complain about their lack of snow driving skill, be prepared to become that inexperienced person if you choose to drive during your trip. I-70 in Denver and I-80 in Salt Lake City can get a lot of snow very quickly during storms. I-70 has very steep grades going over Loveland Pass to get to where most of the Denver ski resorts are.

During snowstorms, tire chains may be required and enforced. If you travel to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco you’ll go over Donner Pass on I-80. During snowstorms, they have chain control where tire people will be there along the road to install and then remove chains for a fee.

loveland pass ski resort scenery

What will the runs be like?

The biggest change you will encounter out there is the length of a run. An average run out west might have a vertical drop of 1000-2000 feet. Boyne Mountain in Michigan has about 500 feet. If your in Pennsylvania, the small ski areas are similar. All the runs will be 2 to 5 time longer before your getting back on the chair for that needed break. Almost every run rated black in the state of Michigan will be rated a blue intermediate run out west. There are very few runs here in Michigan that have the steepness out there. The few I can think of are Mount Bohemia, Mont Ripley, and the steep pitches on the double black runs at Blue Mountain.

Altitude is real

The second factor out there will be the altitude. At places such as Breckenridge, the base area is over 10,000 feet. If it’s your first time out there you might want to spend a day in Denver before going further up.

On a trip a few years ago, we took my mother in law to Pikes Peak immediately from the airport. Pikes Peak is a bit over 14,000 feet. We went from Detroit to Denver to the top of Pike’s Peak by lunchtime. I’ve been to out west altitude many times and had some lightheadedness. My mother in law had to see the medical staff at the top and got on oxygen until the train left to go back down the mountain. The altitude effect is real. You will get winded doing things like walking across the parking lot with your ski gear on.

Seventh heaven at Blackcomb Mountain

Where to ski to prepare for it.

We don’t have anywhere here with any altitude. Your preparation skiing should consist of getting a lot of vertical drop. My favorite prep weekend is Bristol Mountain, New York with their 1200 foot vertical and high speed lifts. You want to find somewhere with a decent vertical drop and steeper runs. It’s hard to get much work out in if your local ski hills are 300 foot vertical without any real steepness. It just won’t get your legs in shape no matter how much of a death march you do, skiing run after run after short run.

What time of year to go.

If you are going for that mythical big powder dump, January and February are the best months to go. The temperatures are much colder to go with it. If you’re interested in the sunny bluebird skiing days where you get a tan on the mountain, March is the best time.

There is no guarantee of getting a snowstorm while you’re out there no matter how hard you try to stack the deck in your favor with the time you choose. Colorado has only delivered a very few times for me on many trips out there. I have friends that claim to get powder days on almost every trip they take. It’s still a roll of the dice no matter when you go. The deepest powder days I’ve ever had have been at Whistler in April and Nubs Nob in December.

canyons resort lift ride

How to pack for your first time skiing out west.

If you are taking skis out there then you need to check a bag. There is just no way to avoid it. If you are skiing narrow under the foot elliptical carving skis then you should consider renting at least 95mm underfoot all mountain skis. They will make skiing deeper snow, if it happens, much more enjoyable. They also make any ungroomed run as well as slush also more enjoyable. Rental boots are usually terrible because they are soft and broken in by hundreds of different foot shapes, so you’ll want to take those out with you either way.

Look here to learn more about what to wear skiing.

Look here to learn more about renting vs buying skis.

Pad your skis with your clothes

When packing your ski bag, your base layers and mid layers can be slid over your skis to pad them from each other and the outside world. You’ll want to strap the skis together so the edges don’t grind the whole way out and back. Most airlines allow you to have a separate ski and boot bag and only count it as a single bag. They usually do still count them together for weight.

I have a 2 pair of ski roller bag that can accommodate boots also when only carrying one set of skis. When doing this I’ve found I can get all my clothes for a 2-4 day trip in around my skis as well as helmet, boots, and pools and still get under the 40 lb limit for Spirit Airlines.

See our guide to the best boot bags for some boot bag options.

Stuff your pockets on the way home if needed

On your return trip, everything will have gained moisture/weight. If you were close to the weight limit on your way out, start loading up your coat pockets and backpack with enough items to clear the weight limit for the trip home.

Backcountry Skiing

If you are taking a longer trip out west and want a special experience that goes beyond resort skiing, check out 57 Hours Adventure Tours. They offer many backcountry skiing tours in the Western US, Canada and around the world.

See our guide How Much Does a Ski Trip Cost? to learn more about ski trip expenses.

Doug Ryan Portrait Skiing 200x200

Ryan Craig
Co-Founder & Chief Editor

I am a total gear nerd and love learning how things work and thinking about how they could be improved. Nothing excites me more than trying out new gear. I’d rather spend 3 hours taking my bike apart and learning how to change something than go to a bike shop. These days, I reside in Michigan by the Great Lakes and go skiing, biking, and boating as much as possible. Visit our About Us page and learn more.


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