How To Ski Trees Like a ProPublished on 03/06/2021 · 8 min readSki expert Conor Doyle overviews everything you need to know as you get off the groomers and into the glades.
Photo courtesy of K2
So, you’ve started to get comfortable on groomers all over your favorite ski resort. You always see people heading off the corduroy and skiing through the trees. You've found yourself on the mountain on a powder day, and now you think you’re ready to take them on. Awesome! There a few things to keep in mind as you start to dabble with skiing glades. As long as you keep these things in mind, you will be skiing trees all over the resort in no time!
Make Sure You Have the Right Equipment
Before you get anywhere near the trees, we want to make sure you’re doing it safely. Two keys for that are a good helmet and some sturdy goggles. Your helmet is going to make sure you protect your head, whether it’s from going down or accidentally getting a little too close to a tree. The goggles are to make sure you are protecting your eyes. There will be a lot of branches out there that you can crush through with your body, no problem, but one to the eye might just end your day on the mountain early!
The other thing you may want to do before getting into the trees is take off your pole straps. That's right, those nylon loops at the end of your ski poles can actually make skiing trees a little bit more dangerous. If you end up catching a pole on a tree limb, sapling, or root, you won’t want to be attached to it! If you are, that can spell trouble—dislocated shoulder kind of trouble.
What to Expect in Trees
Tree runs can vary from super spread out, open and low angle, to steep and tight. You want to make sure you are headed into a set of trees with a type of run you are comfortable with. There are a few things that you will definitely want to keep an eye on in the trees. Because of the shade, tree runs can get icy, especially later in the day. Make sure you can stay under control and avoid any obstacles!
Another big thing you need to know about is tree wells. These are deep "wells" that form at the base of large pine trees from snow building up around them. They can be big enough to completely surround a person, so that is why you always ski trees with a partner! This partner can look out for you and you can look out for them if anything goes wrong. A good rule of thumb is to stay clear of the base of pines of any kind because tree wells can be hidden by large branches and surrounding snow. If you do fall in, stay calm, make an air pocket for yourself, and continue to stay calm until your partner gets to you.
Know Where You’re Comfortable
Now you are out on the mountain! Before you head into the trees, assess where you feel comfortable when you are skiing on-piste (groomed runs). If you are only comfortable on green and blue slopes, it may not be time to head into the trees yet. The trees are always going to be more challenging than the runs they are connected to. Here’s a good way to look at it: the trees are always at least one level harder than the run you are on. That means trees on green are really blue. Trees on blue are actually black diamond, and on and on with double and triple blacks.
If you are feeling comfortable and in-control on a run, then feel free to get into the woods!
Take It Easy at First
It’s time to get in there! Choose a trail that looks relatively wide and has a relatively low angle. This will make sure you have plenty of room to make turns and don’t need to worry about building up too much speed. Start your first few runs with long turns going between large gaps in the trees and keep your speed in check. Ski these low-angle trees just like you would anything else. Make sure to make wide turns and keep your knees over your toes and shins pressing into the boots.
This is a great time to remember to pole plant on your turns. Before you begin to make a turn, reach your pole out and plant it in front of you. You will now use this pole as a center point to turn around. So, if you are going to be turning to your right, reach your right pole out in front and turn around it. Make sure you are aiming toward an opening and you’ll be golden!
Watch Where You Want to Go
As you start to get more comfortable, start to pick up some speed and really envision the gap you are skiing into, not the trees you are going around. You will almost always follow where your eyes are looking… that means if you are staring at the trees, you are going to hit one!
As you track your way through the trees, make it a point to look only at the gaps you are going to be skiing into. By doing this, you are giving yourself a target to shoot for and you will start to be able to feel the trail that goes through the glade. This will help you to get more speed and start to feel even more comfortable as the trees get tighter and maybe even steeper.
But just because you look at a gap, doesn’t always mean you will fit! Make sure you experiment with different sizes of gaps and holes between trees before taking them on at full speed. There is nothing worse than slamming your shoulder into a birch tree because you thought you could fit through the gap that ended up being just a little bit too tight.
Get Comfortable Going Down
Now you are probably starting to feel pretty comfortable—that’s great! Maybe you want to start taking on even steeper terrain and see how it goes. Before you head up the lift to get into more challenging woods, make sure you are comfortable falling. That’s right, you need to make sure you can go down safely and when you want to.
The worst thing you can do in a too-steep glade is decide that you are just going to see what happens. That is a recipe for an injury and a really bad time, especially because you are going to be harder for ski patrol to get to when you are halfway down a tree run. That is why we want to be sure that you’re comfortable getting on the ground safely.
This will be just like when you go down on groomed runs. You slow down, lean into the uphill and drop onto your uphill hip. This way, you have your skis dug into the snow below you and you can stop and reassess what to do from there. But make sure you aren’t in the way! Trees can be thick and it’s hard to see when someone has gone down, so make sure you are off the trail and try to get back on your feet as soon as you can so others can see you!
Break Up the Run
Even though you are back on your feet, that doesn’t mean you have to start moving again yet! Take a minute and gather yourself. It can be intimidating to look at a whole tree run at once, especially if it is really pushing your skills, so break it into parts. Take the trees a few turns at a time and keep your speed under control. You can always take breaks and reevaluate. This is how you are going to build up the confidence to really start ripping those steep glades!
Start to Think Three Steps Ahead
Now you are feeling good, taking some speed, and getting comfortable navigating the branches, roots, and ruts that come with tree skiing. Now, it is time to start linking sections together! This means you need to not just think about where you are about to be going, but where you will be heading after that. This is when you will really start to see the forest through the trees. Imagine that you are on a trail and these turns are just connecting each piece of the trail together to keep you heading in the right direction. This will keep you moving at a good pace and feeling more natural and comfortable ducking in and out of the trees. You won’t have to worry about your next move because you already thought of it three turns ago. This is when trees can become something totally unique and really, really fun—and that means that you are officially a tree skier!
Whether you are headed out to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to take on Closets and Shadows or staying with something a little more low-key at your local hill, just remember to take things one step at a time. Skiing trees isn’t a race and the actual skiing is the fun part—not getting to the bottom! So, take a chance the next time you head out, go into those trees, try a new line, and get creative in the aspens. If you are thinking about getting out on skis for the first time or just need a new pair, drop me a line. I will make sure we get you on something that can rip trees for your next time out!