Beginner Skiing Guide

Trip Orientation, Clothing and Equipment Hints

A Conversational Guide for Parents

“Going Skiing!” – probably one of the most popular activities that Scouts do (and with reason – it’s a lot of fun!) Troop 111 has been going skiing for at least 20 years, and perhaps even longer than that. During that time frame, we have taught at least 250 novices how to ski – and your son is next! Fear not – every Scout has returned a skier (and so will yours.) Our beginner training/preparation has three parts: (1) An “Indoor Orientation Course” held here at the Scout Hall between 2 and 4 weeks ahead of time; (2) Properly equipping your son for the expected/possible weather conditions (your job, but discussed in detail below); and (3) Basic instruction at the resort by experienced Adults and Senior Scouts (and rarely, by formal ski instructors at the resorts.) Now for an overview:

Locations – For Troops in Northern Virginia, day trips are limited to western Virginia, West Virginia, western Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. There are about a dozen decent slopes within a four hour drive, with the closest being about 90 minutes away. Of course, the further you’re willing to drive, the more likely you’ll run into excellent conditions – and nothing’s worse than driving to a resort only to find slush or ice. Note that all the following comments refer to these dozen (“local”) resorts.

Time frames – Most ski resorts try to open before Christmas, in order to take advantage of the Holiday crowds (all at premium rates, of course.) In order to meet this deadline, most resorts will start blowing snow as early as possible in late November/early December, varying dependant on when the sustained night-time temperatures stay below about 28 degrees, or the arrival of a few early season snowstorms. However, note that “open” is a very relative term. The biggest liars in the entire business world are the local ski resort operators. You may freely translate the following terms: Exceptional = Average, Excellent = Fair, and Good = Stay Home. In addition, you may divide the “number of slopes open” by three in order to get the actual number of slopes you can ski on (many of the “open slopes” are actually very short cut-back trails from one major slope to another.) It’s all a game designed to get you to come regardless of common sense – and experienced skiers all know how to play it (usually, we call friends who live near the slopes for the “real skinny.”) Don’t get suckered listening to “ski reports.”

Now why this lecture? Simple – we try to do our “beginner ski trip” during the Christmas Break (i.e., between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when the Scouts are all out of school), and we might cancel the beginner ski trip if we know we’re wasting our time, or (more likely) change the locale from a close resort (like Whitetail or Liberty) to a more remote locale (like Wisp, Blue Knob, or Seven Springs, all 4 to 5 hour drives) to ensure ski-able conditions. In the latter case, this can both stretch the day (to up to 20 hours start to finish) and significantly increase the cost (more expensive resorts, more gas, an extra meal or two, etc.) All this will depend on the weather leading up to the “big day” – so you need to be flexible.

Weather extremes – Over the last 10 years, Troop 111 has experienced temperature extremes from 20 below zero to 65 degrees. That’s air temperature, not wind chill. Wind chills on the coldest days have exceeded 60 below zero on the tops of the mountains. This is not a lot of fun when you’re swinging 30 feet up in a ski-lift chair. We try not to subject our beginners to conditions like this, but even the close-in local resorts can be pretty cold, especially when it’s windy. This is one of the reasons why you need specialized gear. This is also the reason, by the way, that we do an “Indoor-Orientation” here in Arlington before heading for the slopes – teaching the Scouts the basics is easy (if somewhat boring) in a warm Scout Hall, but somewhat more “challenging” on a freezing cold beginner slope.

In addition to the temperature and wind extremes, we have also experienced driving snow, pouring rain, freezing rain, and painfully brilliant sunny skies. Snowstorms and sunshine are ideal, whereas any form of rain (short of drizzle) is an unpleasant mess, with freezing rain being a real hazard warranting immediate cancellation.

OK, given all those preambles, let’s talk about clothing and other equipment:

One of the things that can really spoil a Scout’s first skiing experience (and make sure he never goes again) is going poorly clothed and equipped. Although some aspects are similar, going skiing is NOT the same as going winter camping. You cannot send your son out wearing standard winter clothing and expect him to do OK, even for “just” a one-day orientation trip – especially if the conditions are extreme. Anyone who has seen the endless advertisements for ski gear can probably already sense this – and there’s a reason for all that expensive stuff (and it’s not just to look cool in the lodge.) Let’s check it out:

1) Come Wearing “Travel Clothes!” – not your ski stuff!

A major mistake made by many beginners is coming to the assembly dressed ready for the slopes – thereby getting nice and sweaty in the Parish Center, and then again in the car or van on the trip up, and instantly freezing as soon as they step out into the wind at the resort. All ski clothes should be kept in a small duffel bag, and changed into at the resort! Yes, there are locker rooms to change in; you’ll need a dollar’s worth of quarters to rent a locker. The tougher Scouts change in the Troop vans, and save the quarters for the video-arcade; that’s up to them. The travel clothes are also worn on the way home, rather than the wet/sweaty gear he’s been skiing in all day. Travel clothes should be appropriate to the conditions here in Arlington upon departure – no need to go looking like Nanook of the North; you’re going to be in a heated vehicle, after all. Use common sense.

2) Basic Clothing (excluding feet, hands and head)

Use the “layer concept” in your selections. In Boy Scouts, layering means layers of clothes that can be added or removed as needed to suit the temperature. In normal conditions (temps in the teens, with no rain), this means a layer of lightweight thermal underwear (synthetics are best), followed by a cotton/synthetic blend of pants/long-sleeve shirt, followed by a fleece or wool pullover (no pants), followed by a winter jacket and snow-pants. Note that everything has to fit together, easily – clothing that’s too tight cuts circulation, and also binds freedom of motion, not good. If your son looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy, he’s in trouble. With luck, the only thing you’ll need to buy are the snow-pants, and even that can be substituted for with a pair of thick bluejeans covered with water-resistant wind-proof nylon pants. If we were going in really extreme conditions, I’d cover all this with a rain-suit for absolute wind- protection, but that shouldn’t be an issue for a beginner ski-trip.

Avoid 100% cotton and any loose-weave clothing! – blue jeans, blue-jean (denim) jackets, sweatshirts, sweat-pants, gym socks, and other cotton clothing are very poorly suited for skiing, unless covered with nylon or some other water-resistant and windbreaking material. Cotton is a negative insulator when wet – meaning you’re better off wearing nothing at all versus wet cotton – and is therefore extremely dangerous in wind-chill conditions.

Note that everything has to have your name written on it!!! Every year, we end up coming home with the vans looking like a scene out of Ellis Island during the 1920’s. …and every year, I end up throwing away (or donating to the Junior League) dozens of items of orphaned clothing – some of it damned good stuff – because “it doesn’t belong to anyone.” Please, please, please, take a few minutes and put your initials on/inside your clothes – especially the more expensive and more anonymous items. A dark blue sweatshirt, a pair of standard thermal underwear, a dark knit hat, a ski mask, a wool scarf, a pair of generic ski goggles, etc., without initials or names will be history if left in the vans or otherwise misplaced.

3) Feet and Hands

Ski Boots are insulated, but not real well. We always order everyone’s boots 2 full sizes over their current accurate size (more on this below), in order to allow the use of proper socks. Feet should be protected as follows – one pair of polypropylene, followed by a thin pair of cotton gym socks, followed by one pair of thick wool or synthetic/wool combination. This is enough to stay reasonably warm for a single day. Again, these items should be put on there, not here, and changed for the trip home.

Hands are similar – avoid any thick-weave cloth gloves, including mittens; you’ll freeze to death. Likewise, any very thick gloves of any type are a bad idea; you’ll have difficulty grasping the ski poles. The best possible gloves are those incorporating both Thinsulate insulation and Gore-Tex water protection. Warning – Not Cheap, although bargains can be had during the upcoming Christmas sales. With luck, you’ll already have one or two pairs that will do. One trick I’ve seen some Scouts practice is the use of standard latex gloves either under a pair of decent gloves or (much better) between layers of two pairs of thin gloves worn simultaneously. Other Scouts just bring two pairs of gloves, and replace the first after they get wet; this isn’t a bad idea, and also works. Again, mark names or initials on all gloves.

4) The Head

Treated as a separate category because of its importance. Approximately 40 percent of your body heat is lost through your head, so insulating it is critical. It’s also the easiest way to self-regulate temperature – I often put all my headgear on going up a lift, and take most of it off at the top (unless it’s really windy out.) A pullover knit or fleece hat is best, especially in really cold conditions. A headband is good for more moderate conditions (the “windstopper” type headbands are particularly good).

With luck, your coat has a hood in it; in fact, if you have a choice, pick one with a hood – it’s an easy way to give yourself some extra insulation (so long as you don’t fill it up with snow falling down all day!) With respect to the face, use of either a full face mask, or the combination of a ski-mask with a regular pullover hat will work; however, avoid face masks or ski masks that force you to breathe through the mask – you’ll rapidly soak the front of the mask with condensed breath and saliva, and it will be a cold misery to wear – and in extreme conditions it will eventually freeze solid. Pick the ones that have a hole for the mouth, or cut a hole in your ski mask; whatever works for you. Some Scouts avoid a face-mask altogether in favor or some kind of scarf; again, whatever works for you.

If you have a choice, try to pick a coat that has some good sized pockets that can be closed with zippers. These are better because they enable the skier to carry extra gear to put on, or a secure place to put stuff that has been removed. Jackets that are rain-resistant and wind-proof or wind-resistant are also much preferred.

Next are goggles/ski sun-glasses – an absolute must have item. These prevent your eyes from “tearing up” from wind while skiing, and therefore give you much better vision (kind of important!!!) I prefer goggles, but you need to find a pair with good side ventilation, or they’ll be fogging up all day (a standard problem!) There are some wipe-on chemical treatments that will help this problem, but (in my experience) they don’t work very well. Note that goggles are a lot cheaper to buy here as opposed to at the resort. Good goggles, by the way, also help keep you warm.

Sunglasses are ski-resort coolness personified. Many skiers now forego goggles in favor of these tight wrap-around sunglasses that sit very close to the face (thereby offering some wind-protection, although not as good as goggles.) I’d avoid these because of the expense, but that’s up to you – they do work OK, and your son will look incredibly cool. If you choose sunglasses over goggles, MAKE SURE they are UV-opaque – sunlight reflects very well off of snow, and will damage unprotected eyes. Do not confuse the darkness of sunglasses with UV-protection; they have nothing to do with each other, and in fact wearing very dark sunglasses that are not UV-opaque is MUCH WORSE for your eyes than not wearing sunglasses at all.

In any case, goggles and sunglasses should not be really dark – but rather medium tinted. If they*re too dark, they make the slope difficult to see in poor lighting – like the cloudy days we often get here in the east. Hard-core skiers usually have three sets of goggles or sunglasses – one clear or light yellow, one medium gray-tone, and one dark – so that they can adjust to the conditions as needed.

All extra clothing and gear should be kept in a small duffel bag or daypack that can be left in one of the Troop vans or with the lodge-sitting adult(s) while at the resort. This way, the Scouts can dump gear, or get gear, as needed. Again, these duffels or daypacks should have the Scout*s name prominently marked on them.

That’s it on clothes. Although this may seem excessive, please keep in mind that we are hoping for the best – and preparing for the worst. The Scouts can easily take stuff off at the resort, but it’s real difficult to put things on if they’re sitting in your closets 150 miles away! Always buy here as opposed to there; resorts make a fortune selling gear – at premium prices – to unprepared skiers. And please remember to put your name on everything – the most expensive gear is the stuff you have to buy twice.

5) Fitting Ski Boots

Properly fitted boots are critical to Health and Safety for skiing. Past experience has proven that most Scouts have absolutely no idea what their proper shoe size is, and will give us values ranging from 1 to 5 sizes off (no, I’m not kidding!) This is a broken ankle or twisted knee looking for a place to happen, and is also why we formally measure each Scout with an actual scale prior to faxing our boot sizes to the resorts. We add 2 full sizes to the actual measurement to allow room for the sock combination, as detailed above; again, past experience has shown that this works for 90% of the kids, and we can substitute the remainder at the resort as needed (although it often takes a lot longer.) We will also be weighing the Scouts, and getting their heights, both of which impact on the length of the skis he’ll be getting. Note that we never, ever accept telephoned foot, height or weight measurements!

– Dr. Bob
(Troop 111 Scoutmaster 1998-2008)

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