Fun Fact #1: Used snowboard gear is usually cheap! The reason is simple: a lot of the people that show up on the mountain decked out with brand new gear end up giving up on snowboarding relatively quickly because they imagine it to be really easy. Then they try it out and it’s the Serious Bitch™. Maybe body parts are hurting, maybe it’s ego. In any case, a budding snowboarding career can be quickly interrupted because someone didn’t know what they were getting into.
My poster child for this was the couple I met in the gondola at Heavenly. They were super-excited to tell me they were trying snowboarding for the first time that day! I asked them if they had someone to teach them or help them, their reply was, “No, but how hard can it be? We’ve been skiing for 25 years!” I saw them in the parking lot as we all left, and they told me they would never snowboard again. Sigh.
Ski or Snowboard
Colorado, where I live, is unusual in that many people that go to ski resorts both ski and snowboard, just like me. If your group (friend/family/coworkers/whatever) does one thing and not the other, you should probably follow their lead. If you can choose, which one should you?
The first thing to know is that skiing is infinitely easier to learn. Some people think that skiing is easier to learn and snowboarding to master, but in my experience skiing is simply easier, no question asked. Snowboarding has an edge only in specific conditions where the width of the snowboard is useful, like in powder or slush. Otherwise, skiing is easier.
Skiing also feels a lot different than snowboarding. When skiing, you go down. You face down the hill, in the direction you are going. That makes it easier to steer, but also makes you feel like you are on rails. Snowboarding is a lot more flowy and you feel like flying. You are disconnected from the direction of motion and you don’t usually see where your board is going, you just have to trust your instincts.
Ski resorts and equipment are designed around skiers. Sitting with a snowboard on a ski lift is unpleasant, as you can’t point forward as you could with skis. Getting off the lift is easier with skis, because you don’t have to balance, you just go straight ahead.
All of that is more than made up by ski boots. They are the absolute worst torture instruments since the Spanish Inquisition. They are hard to get in, they are hard to walk around, they are painful to wear, and they are a bitch to take off.
If they invented ski boots that are not absolute evil, I would ski more. But not everyone reacts to them the same, so maybe give them a try and go for snowboarding if ski boots are not for you?
The minimum set of things a beginning snowboarder needs are:
- A snowboard - duh
You probably also want a snow jacket and snow pants, but that really depends on what the temperatures are. If it’s cold enough, you also need some kind of face protection.
If you are just trying out snowboarding, you can generally rent the first 4 items on the list directly on the mountain. Goggles and gloves you usually have to buy, but it depends. Also, a lot of ski schools provide equipment with the lesson. And if it’s your first day on the mountain, a lesson would be a good thing to take.
Snowboard and Bindings
Usually, you get the board (the flat thing) with the bindings (the things you use to strap the board thing to your boot things). That’s not a given if you buy, but definitely when you rent. Board and bindings are comparable in cost and come in a variety of flavors. You will spend an inordinate amount of time nerding out about the minute differences later, for now just know those things are important.
The bindings are attached to the board and can be usually repositioned. Repositioning includes changing stance (very important, whether you ride with your left foot downhill or right foot), spread (distance between left and right foot), and angle (how much the foot angles away from the edge of the board). Don’t get fixated on terminology and details, just know that those things make a difference and that you can easily change them any time you like.
Boots and Helmet
Some snowboarders, even seasoned ones, may tell you that you can’t ride without boots, but you can ride without a helmet. Wrong. I mean, technically you can, but riding without a helmet, especially as a beginner, is a gamble you absolutely shouldn’t take. This is coming from the guy that got a concussion so bad, on his first day of snowboarding, that I saw everything double for five months and had to drive with an eye patch.
I know, I know: you always dreamed of having an excuse to drive with an eye patch. But Halloween is just before the resorts open, so your dream of a permanent excuse for your pirate costume will not pan out. If you absolutely insiste on going without a helmet, I suggest you go to the resort-local trauma center and talk with a few of the victims of helmetlessness and their doctors.
As far as the things you have to get, the boots require a lot more finesse than the helmet. As long as the latter is solid (don’t buy second-hand helmets) and fits well enough, you’ll be fine. Familiarize yourself with the chin strap, because it’s usually fiddly and needs to be tightened - loosened. Modern helmets come with a lot of options, but on your first day you won’t care much.
The problem with the boots is that they hurt. Not as bad as ice skates, not as bad as ski boots, but it’s still awful after a full or even a half day. That is for beginners: I don’t have any problems with my boots any longer, because they got used to my feet and my feet got used to the pressure points from snowboarding.
To make things worse, beginner snowboarders tend to like everything hypertight, because it’s hard enough to snowboard when things don’t jiggle. It’s a universal tendency and you probably should follow the protective instinct: just know they are likely to hurt and that it’s just a momentary thing, it will go away.
Goggles and Gloves
More optional than the items above, goggles and gloves are though relatively cheap (if bought ahead, off mountain) and are of enormous protective value. When you fall (and you will), gloves offer protection from rocks and debris hitting your skin (in addition to protection from the cold). Goggles offer protection not just from sun and glare, but also from flying things in the air, which includes rocks and ice thrown by other snow folks, and importantly wind and snow.
The only thing you have to make sure with the gloves is that they are waterproof enough. You can get away with water resistant work gloves if it’s not too cold. With the goggles, you could go with sunglasses, but remember that you will fall and glasses without restraints will, as well.
Snowboarding, like its cousins surfing, skateboarding, and wakeboarding, is a muscle memory / coordination sport. What that means is that once you get it, it’s the easiest thing in the world. But until you get it, you have to teach your muscles to react on their own, without brain input, and that’s what makes it so hard.
Imagine you are learning how to ride a bicycle. But instead of learning on a flat street, you are learning on an incline. Instead of learning on grippy asphalt, you learn on snow and ice. Instead of going straight for a while, you have to turn after a few hundred feet because the run is done. And instead of looking ahead, you are looking either up (and have no idea where you are going) or down (and can’t see who’s coming from behind). And instead of being able to stop your bike and leaning either side to step off, you have to fall on your ass every time to slow down.
It’s not easy. The good news is that your body learns quickly, although not quickly enough for you. In my estimation, it takes about three full days for you to gain enough control that you don’t fall all the time. It can be faster, it can be slower - and much of the difference lies in where you learn and the snow conditions, not your personal talent.
So, what you should learn from this is: bring as much padding as you can for your butt, knees, elbows, wrists, shoulders, and of course head. And commit to three days of trying or don’t try at all.
Lessons or Not?
I learned without lessons and I taught several people how to snowboard without formal setting. The main things speaking against taking a (group) lesson is cost and lack of flexibility. Obviously you usually have to pay, but it’s also true that you have to book and show up at a certain time.
The advantages are many. First, you will have a professional that has seen hundreds, maybe thousands of learners and will usually know exactly why things are not clicking for you, and has an idea how to communicate what you should be doing differently. Strictly related to the first item is that people generally get bored quickly with teaching you how to snowboard, and then they either drag you to places you shouldn’t be (when I learned), or just leave you in the dust to fend for yourself.
Also worth mentioning: it is a lot to ask a person to give up a day of snowboarding to spend it teaching you, because teaching is both boring and frustrating. The latter mostly because you are hurt and frustrated, and you’ll tend to be annoyed at the person that is generous enough to teach you.
So, in summary: I would definitely spend my first three days with an instructor. Private lessons are very expensive, group lessons are largely subsidized because the mountain wants you to learn, after all, and come back. Very important: Book ahead - prices can be much lower, you can book the times that are most convenient for you, and there is less risk of the group being booked out.
If you have a chance to select your learning hill, make good use of it. The most famous mountains can be terrible for beginners, and even “family friendly” mountains can disappoint. Here in Colorado, for instance, I consider Arapahoe Basin useless as a beginner mountain, because the learning hill is microscopic and the worst lines are at the only express lift, which is the only one serving beginner runs. Keystone is famous as a family friendly mountain, but its beginner run (the infamous Schoolmarm) is endless, beset with fast people going to the park or the black (expert) runs, and close enough to said black runs you might end up on one if you don’t watch it.
What should you look out for? The beginner area (bunny hill) itself is not that important, because it’s usually super short and could be anywhere. What you want to look for is green (beginner) runs that are clustered with each other, with no blue or black runs running through them. They should be short enough that you won’t call 911 because you can’t breathe, and the lift that serves them should be mostly dedicated to them.
Surprisingly to me, the two resorts that are best for beginners according to this notion here in the Summit County area of Colorado are Copper Mountain and Breckenridge, two resorts otherwise famous for their daredevil attitude and potential.
There is more that goes into deciding where to go. Cost is a huge factor, where you have to consider travel, lodging, lift tickets, rentals, lessons, and food (you are going to be hungry!). Check online before you go, especially because online prices are often (much) lower than at the resort.
Some resorts are particularly friendly. Here in Colorado, Loveland used to have an everything package that included lift ticket, gear rental, lesson, but also clothing (jacket, pants, gloves).
Alright. So you followed advice and got all the gear you needed and wanted. You get to the mountain and… Wrong! Before you get into the car, make sure you know about current weather conditions both on the route and the mountain. You need to make sure you know the night before, because that will determine what you need. In particular, you should look out for extreme cold and storm conditions, because they will make everything less fun.
You show up and you have everything you need. Now the people with group lessons stand to the right and wait until it’s their turn.
No Lesson, No Teacher
People without lessons. If you are alone or with other people that have no experience, watch videos. Seriously, that really helps. Go to your preferred purveyor of online clips, they have a trillion videos for beginners. Watch the videos before you leave, watch the videos while you are being driven, watch the videos when you are having a hot cocoa in the lodge. Watch the videos. Every time you watch again, you’ll understand better what they are trying to tell you.
No Lesson, But Teacher
If you are with people that are trying to teach you. Be kind to them. You are going to be frustrated, you are going to be hurt, you are going to be annoyed at other people on the mountain. That includes them. You should know that nobody is trying to murder your or injure you, and that your friend/spouse/whoever that is trying to teach you (a) is doing as best as they can and (b) at the very limit of human emotional endurance. If you have to be a wreck, let it happen on the snow and not in your mind. Never forget to be grateful to someone who preferred getting bored with you than having fun alone.
On your first day on the mountain group lesson, you’ll probably have a goofy and silly instructor that has taught much, much worse students than you. They will do a cursory inspection of your equipment, but unless you show up in catastrophic conditions, they are not going to critique much.
Your first runs are usually going to happen on a magic carpet. You move to the bottom of the bunny hill, unstrap your hind foot (whichever it is) and put the board on. Then you step on it and let is glide up. Make sure you leave enough room ahead of you in case someone falls in front of you, and check how far the person behind you is.
Stepping off is the hardest part at first, because you go from a controlled motion to a sudden stop-and-glide. Don’t freak out if you fall the first few times, it means nothing.
The hill itself is going to be at a very low pitch that you can easily walk up. Pick the side that is less steep at first (the instructor will direct you). If the sides are the same pitch, pick the wider side. If they are the same width, pick the straighter one. If they are the same straightness, pick the one where you can see past the end.
The instructor will do their best to help the entire group. If the instructor is not talking to you much, it’s usually because you don’t need talking to. Take it as the compliment it is, it’s not that the instructor doesn’t like you. Just continue doing your thing and be happy that most people in your group are worse off than you.
Ignore everything here and listen to what your instructor tells you. Period.
End of Lesson
If you started in the morning, it’s going to be lunch time. If you started in the afternoon, it’s going to be closing time. By now, you will probably feel lots of pain. If you are lucky, it’s going to be mostly in soft areas - buttocks, mostly. Ankles and shoulders are usually normal, too - especially the outside of the shoulder.
Monitor headaches, as they could be the result of concussions. Concussions can be very serious, especially if repeated. Don’t go snowboarding after you had a concussion, it could be fatal. Seriously, I speak from experience.
Shoulder injuries should concern you. The tendons that attach the shoulder to the clavicle in particular, are somewhat weak, and can cause bad injuries. Get them checked out, especially if the injury is on the blade/top of the shoulder.
Ankle, wrist, and knee pain need to be monitored, too, but mostly because you don’t want them to get worse. Snowboarders generally don’t have a lot of those, but beginners can fall in weird ways.
A lot of people try snowboarding, a lot of those give up after the first day. Some people do so because it’s cold. If that’s you and you had the correct clothing, then you may just not like mountain sports. Nothing wrong with that.
If you didn’t like it because you got hurt, take it easy. Everybody gets hurt on the first day, more or less, and if you liked the sport, the pain is temporary.
If you like it, I still suggest you don’t buy new gear. Get used gear, last season gear, discounted gear. That’s because in my estimation your first season is when you are most likely to destroy your board, in particular. So, getting something you don’t really mind getting destroyed is a good idea.
In the long run, snowboarding is amazing. You meet new people and make new friends all the time, you have something to look forward to when the days are short and cold, and you get an amazing workout that is fun. Particularly good is that you can’t snowboard for hours on end, as you have the natural breaks coming from the lifts.
As a sport, snowboarding is relatively expensive. Your gear will last long enough, usually, but the ski tickets/passes are pretty steep. Travel and lodging are also huge expenses.
But trying it is not that expensive, and if you have more time than pain commands, you’ll probably find it amazing fun!