How to Ski in the Trees: 10 Steps to SuccessPublished on 10/06/2022 · 9 min readLooking to ski some more trees this winter? First, check out these ten tips from Ski Expert Luke Hinz for staying safe and having fun while skiing in the trees!
Photo by Noah Kuhns
“To Ski in the Trees, or Not to Ski in the Trees? That is the question.” I’m quite confident that if Shakespeare had been a skier (and let’s be honest, he would have been a ripping skier), Hamlet would have been a much different experience than it is today. So it’s probably a good thing he wasn’t a skier. But for the rest of us who dare to take to the slopes, it's a solid question. There’s a good chance that during your days exploring the trails at your favorite ski resort, you’ve stopped and gazed longingly at the trees bordering your favorite bump run or your favorite groomed run. Maybe you’ve fantasized about what untracked powder and challenging lines await in the greenery. And perhaps you’ve wondered, wisely, if you have the skis skill to venture into the wild beyond and find out.
While the cut and groomed trails of a resort are the perfect place to hone your skiing skills and build your confidence, tree skiing brings a whole other perspective to skiing. There is something undeniably magical and mythical about laying down fresh tracks in open glades and under the boughs of towering green giants. Nonetheless, the thought of navigating between so many immovable obstacles can be weighty, and you would be right to pause; without a doubt, tree skiing presents its own hazards and dangers. But with the right approach and a bit of patience, it can provide endless enjoyment and open your eyes to what is possible while sliding down snow with two pieces of wood attached to your feet. In this article, I’ll lay out my favorite tips for dipping your ski tips in between the trees.
1. Ski with a Partner
This is not a technical tip; instead, it is a safety tip. Tree skiing obviously involves skiing off of the groomed trails, where there are far fewer people to see you. The terrain within trees is also harder to access, especially for Ski Patrol. And if you are skiing in tight trees, it can be easy to lose your location. This is why we always recommend skiing with a partner.
Together, look over a trail map, scout an exit, and make a plan to ski close to each other at all times. If you happen to lose your partner in the trees, a quick holler is usually enough to locate them. From personal experience, I once wrapped myself around a tree and severely injured myself, having made no plan with my partner. He only realized something was wrong when he reached the lift and realized I was still missing. Luckily, another skier found me and called Ski Patrol–consider that lesson learned.
2. Don’t Go Early Season
Tree skiing, much like cigarettes and Tide Pod Challenges, can be hazardous to your health. Trees, it turns out, are very thick, very sturdy, and quite immovable; in the event of a collision, the tree will most likely win out (as stated above, I have personal experience with this). But even more hazardous than the trees is what lies at the base of them. Throughout the summer months, branches and boughs fall to the ground, and even dead trees will tip over. And when the snow base is still thin, these obstacles can lurk just underneath the snow surface. If you are not careful, it can be easy to slip a tip under a fallen tree. Such a maneuver can bring you to a screeching halt and can cause very severe harm. So while you may be itching to duck into your first tree line, it's best to wait until the snowpack is deep and healthy, and everything underneath is covered up.
3. Work Your Way Up
Maybe this seems obvious, but if this is your first run skiing in the trees, don’t head straight for the steepest and tightest trees on the mountain. Instead, look for trees with a more mellow slope angle, as well as more thin and spread-out trees that will be easier to navigate. Many tree runs are also listed on trail maps, and just like most trails at a resort, they can be anything from a blue intermediate run to expert double-black diamonds. If it is hard to tell what a tree run looks like from the trail map, ask a liftie or a resort ambassador; they will be more than happy to help you out and point you in the right direction. Once you are comfortable skiing in the open trees, there is plenty of opportunity to wiggle your way through tighter trees.
4. Don’t Look at the Trees—Look Between the Trees
I’ve found that when I point at an area of the mountain and tell friends or family not to ski there, inevitably, that is exactly where they ski. The same holds true for tree skiing. If you are looking at the trees, that is where you will end up. Instead, look at the spaces between the trees and naturally that is where you will aim your skis. Keep your eyes up and focused ahead on where you want to end up.
5. Stay Centered and Balanced
If your first ski instructor drilled you on how important staying centered and balanced is on the slopes, it’s even more important when skiing in the trees. When faced with new and challenging terrain, skiers have a natural tendency to lean back on their skis, but in reality, this is the exact opposite of what you should do. By leaning back, your front edges will actually lift off the snow surface, giving you significantly less control over your skis. Instead, bend your knees, maintain an athletic stance, and drive your turns through your knees and hips. You should feel your shins pressing into the front of your boots. This, in turn, drives the front edges of your skis, ultimately giving you control over where your tips are pointed and where they end up.
6. Take Your Time
This is not a World Cup race, and you don’t need to treat it like one. Race gates are thin, hollow, and flexible—trees are quite the opposite. While it can be exhilarating to race through the trees, keep in mind that the consequences of a misstep are severe (the giant scar on my elbow and my missing PCL will back me up on that argument). So take your time and enjoy yourself and the scenery, especially if you are just getting into tree skiing. Also, navigating between trees can be taxing, so make sure to stop often and rest if need be.
7. Mix It Up!
While skiing on groomed and cut trails is all about consistency and rhythm from one turn to the next, skiing in the trees is very much about improvisation and forward-thinking. There is no clear-cut run between the trees, and that’s partly what makes skiing through them so exciting. One area may require a short, tight turn, whereas the next turn might need to be longer and rounder. Trees force you to adapt to the environment in front of you, so before you attack them, make sure you are comfortable making turns of all shapes and sizes, as well as at varying speeds.
8. Be Wary of Your Poles
Poles are a great benefit to any skier, but in the trees, they can be a hazard if you are not careful. Of course, they are absolutely necessary to safely and confidently navigate between trees, but you need to be careful that the baskets at the end don’t get caught up in limbs or low-hanging branches as you speed past. Much like a fallen tree beneath the snow surface, a basket getting caught in a tree would lead to a sudden and violent halt, and could potentially lead to a dislocation. Some skiers even recommend removing your poles’ straps from your wrists before skiing in the trees so that they will easily slip out of your hand in the event that they catch on something.
9. Avoid Tree Wells
You may be asking, what is a tree well? In areas that see large volumes of snow, tree wells are the small area at the base of a tree that do not collect as much snow, due to the branches above blocking much of the snow from falling directly underneath the tree. As such, falling snow will form high walls surrounding the base of the tree and a concave basin will form inside the walls. This can lead to several hazards, such as a skier falling into the well and the walls may be too high to climb out of. Tree wells can also tend to be made up of unconsolidated and loose snow that is a sugar-like consistency which can be surprisingly hard to climb in. On top of all this, skiers on a powder day can tip over into a snow well and end up with their head lower than their feet, unable to remove themselves. It may seem hard to imagine, but there have been multiple fatalities due to people falling into a tree well and suffocating in the snow. This is one more reason to always ski with a partner who can help extricate you if such a situation arises.
10. Wear a Helmet
I know, I know, I sound like Safety Steve. But truly, your brain is your most important organ and you should treat it like such. The best way to do so when skiing in the trees is by wearing a helmet. Branches are truly thicker and heavier than they appear, and you can’t possibly be aware of every single one of them within your line of sight. It is not uncommon to hear branches scratching across your helmet; a healthy reminder of why you are wearing one in the first place. Along with a helmet, make sure to wear goggles as well. Not only do they provide superior clarity and field of view than sunglasses, but they also offer much more protection to your eyes in the event of a fall.
And lastly, have fun! Laying down your own tracks between trees on a deep powder day is an ethereal and unreal experience, completely unrivaled in this, or any other lifetime. Hold onto it, then head back to the lift and go do it all over again!
If you have any questions regarding the best skis to tackle trees with, feel free to reach out to me or any fellow Ski Curated Expert.