How to Make the Most of Early Season Skiing Conditions

We all want to get out on the mountain as early in the season as possible, but early-season can have some pitfalls. Here's how to avoid them.

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After dreaming about skiing all summer and fall, most skiers are chomping at the bit to get out on the slopes when they see that first bit of snow come down and blanket the hill. And while the first turns of the year are always magical, too often early-season days are a bit disappointing when the conditions and variety of terrain aren’t that great. As a result, it’s good to keep a few things in mind to maximize your chances of a great early season ski day.

Get a Pair of Rock Skis

The bottom of a pair of skis - they are torn up from rocks
Check out my old Atomics—too far gone even for a rock ski? You decide! Photo by Abe Feigenbaum

Early season conditions mean a lot of exposed rock and debris, so if you feel like you just can’t wait to break out some brand-new planks or maybe your trusty old favorites, you’ve got to resist the urge! Get down in the basement or check your garage and try to find an old pair of skis that are past their prime and underused. Even if they were never your favorite, it’s just not worth destroying a prime set up for some extra performance on a limited terrain day. If you come up empty, a well-used pair from a local consignment shop or ski shop should do the trick. You should also ask a Curated Expert to show you some killer deals on unused late-model skis!

Ski North-Facing Slopes

A man makes his way down a tree-lined run on skis
My brother Max getting some killer early season turns in the Tahoe area backcountry. Come on Maxy, that right hand’s too far back! Photo by Ben Currier

During the early season (and the late season too!) when temperatures hover right around freezing, the direction your slope is facing can make the difference between solid hardpack and bulletproof ice. Runs that get baked in the sun for long hours of the day are gonna get melty and then freeze up overnight. And unlike in the spring when slushy late afternoon snow can be fun, early season slush is usually riddled with tree roots and gravel.

Narrow slopes with tall trees are something else you can look for in the early season as these kinds of runs are often nicely shaded and hold snow well. Tight glades, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily a great option—even though they are well shaded. it takes longer for all the snow to filter down, and there is generally more unruly and more dangerous turf that needs to be covered up.

Ski More Groomers

A skier turns on a groomed run
Corduroy is king early in the year. Photo by Maarten Duineveld on Unsplash

It’s hard for me to say this because I like to do most of my skiing in steeps, bumps, and glades, but some early season days are just more fun when you don’t spend the whole time picking your way through rocky chutes, knocking into branches in the woods, and bouncing your legs off icy bumps. Especially on the East Coast, groomers can be lined with powerful snowmaking set-ups that make a snow type that is best skied when freshly groomed. If groomers aren’t usually your thing, you may be surprised at how fun it can be to really try pushing your carving skills and getting your skis on more extreme edge angles than ever before. Finding jumps on the sides of trails, racing with friends, and coming up with some technical goals can all be good ways of spicing up a groomer-only day.

Start Early

When there’s thin cover, the first few runs of the day are often the best. If you’re lucky enough to get a big early season storm, it’ll still fall on top of a less substantial base, and so obstacles will become re-exposed pretty quick. Get your turns in while you can still float above them. And if you haven’t had much good snow to start the year, fresh groomed corduroy is awesome to ski on even when there’s not a lot of snow, or if it’s icy or man-made. Late in the day when it’s all carved up—not so much!

Be Waterproof

I remember one particular trip to Killington that I made with my family over Thanksgiving break one year when it just rained and rained the entire time. But if you think that stopped my teenage brothers and I from getting our turns in, you’re crazy! Sometimes in the early season, you get a bit of rain on you and most of the snow around is on the heavier side and on the verge of melting. It’s gonna be wet—so come prepared. GORE-TEX on your hands is always a plus, and a great shell goes a long way. And unless you’ve got some really great ski pants, try not to spend too long sitting on the snow after a fall!

Keep a Sharp Eye Out for Hazards

A skier makes their way down a rocky and steep run
Me trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing here on an early-season day! Photo by Paul Firminger

Early-season rocks and roots have been a common theme throughout this piece, and while good decisions help mitigate some of the dangers, nothing is more important than being well-focused and cautious when skiing thin-cover conditions. Take your speed down one notch and keep a wide berth from any ski patrol hazard marks. Come over lips and bumps with some extra care—danger is often lurking just beyond.

Ski the Edge of the Run

This is good advice on any day when the snow is a bit lean, and certainly early in the year. As most skiers come down the middle of the slope, more and more snow gets pushed to the sides of the runs and piles up nicely along the borders. To ski on this piled snow, you’ll have to stay pretty close to the trees on the sides of trails, but if you can make the short quick turns necessary to do it, you’ll be rewarded with much softer snow. This kind of skiing can be a lot of fun and is another way to make groomers a bit more exciting and challenging. In addition, skiing like this is excellent practice for making quick turns in bumps and trees.

Get Into the Backcountry

Two people hike through the backcountry

First of all, backcountry skiing is very dangerous, and you should not be out there if you don’t know what you’re doing. Take an avalanche safety course, start out with guides or experienced friends, and bring the proper gear. The effort is worth it though, because once you’ve taken the right steps to prepare yourself, the backcountry offers so many different opportunities that can’t be found at a resort.

During the early season, one of those opportunities is getting to go skiing before any of the inbounds skiers can. Plenty of mountain towns get the occasional fall blizzard, and even though most resorts can’t open with that soon-to-melt first foot, there’s nothing stopping the hikers from getting out there and putting some tracks down before the onset of winter. You might have to dodge some exposed shrubbery though!

Sharpen Those Edges

This is good practice on any day of skiing, but if the conditions are going to be firm and if you’re going to be spending a lot of time on groomers, then you’ll get the most out of your day if your edges are razor sharp. If you didn’t tune your skis at the very end of last season or if you’re pulling some old rock skis out of the basement, you’re at even greater risk of having dull edges. Intermediate and advanced skiers should consider a slightly sharper tuning angle then the standard 90 degrees to really make sure those edges bite.

Stay Positive

Early-season days can go from icy in the morning to muddy in the afternoon. Maybe your favorite runs haven’t opened yet and you’re clipping rocks on the way down. Maybe it’s rainy and wet and your gear is under attack from the elements. Well, try not to let it get you down. Think of how much you missed the slopes during the offseason and think about all the great skiing to come. Try to remember all these little ways to make the most of an early-season ski day and keep in mind, a bad day on the hill is still better than a good day at work!

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Written By
Two years of volunteer experience as an adaptive skiing instructor, Level 1 avalanche certification, and a lifetime of experience out on the hill!

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