PNW On Skis: The Best Gear and Tips for Skiing the Pacific Northwest

Published on 05/30/2023 · 10 min readSkiing the West coast is nothing short of unique. Curated Ski Expert Virginia G. explains why you should bump it up on your bucket list.
Virginia G., Ski Expert
By Ski Expert Virginia G.

View from skiing at Crystal Mountain, WA. Photo by Matt Zimmerman 

I grew up skiing the East, spent my youth on resorts across the Western states of Montana, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, and then landed in Colorado to advance my ski bum career in adulthood and ski the best terrain in the world. All I ever knew was ice, groomers, champagne powder, and the various forms of crud in between...the East is in a category of it's own with all the variables in one day. After spending three seasons spoiled by light fluffy snow that never seemed to lose its luster, no matter how many days it sat around without a refresh, the Pacific Northwest came calling and it was time for yet another Westward ho.

When relaying plans of my impending move to Washington, every reaction was laced with a disparaging comment about the perils of Cascade Concrete or Sierra Cement. The way people described their West Coast snow experiences, you would have thought they had skied across a battlefield and lived to tell the tale. I thought, “How bad could it really be? There’s no way the snow can be THAT different.” Well, I am here to tell you with great certainty that it is in fact THAT different…which is also what makes it diabolically awesome. It demands respect and consideration that the snows of the East and West let us skiers very loosely observe. It was clear I was going to need help to find the best skis for the Pacific Northwest.

Have you ever sleepily grabbed your narrower skis instead of your powder planks on a Colorado snow morning? Have no fear, you’ll still be flying across those mountains with a smile! Forgot to pack your base layers on a Northeast road trip and had to grab some cotton T’s at Walmart? No worries, you'll be freezing and unable to sweat all day anyway!

The PNW does not allow for such mistakes. Its lower elevations, combined with higher temperatures and humidity offer warm, damp days and heavier-than-lead snow that will leave even the hardest of core wet, exhausted, and begging for a break. So let’s take a look at what the PNW asks you to consider if you’re planning on gracing its slopes, lest an epic day turns into a disaster because you didn't have powder skis with a rockered tip meant for deep snow (but also happen to work in variable conditions).

Must-Haves

Waterproof Outer Layers

It WILL be raining at the bottom of the mountain and your ski pants WILL soak through on the chairlift. You know how snow usually stays in “snow form” and picturesquely rests in your jacket and pants’ creases? Out there, it will melt into a puddle faster than you can unzip your pit vents. Gore-Tex reigns supreme but it also comes with a high price tag. Luckily, there are more budget-friendly material alternatives like eVent and Patagonia’s H2No. And, with technology ever-improving, the list goes on!

Moisture Wicking Base Layers

You WILL sweat bullets. One top-to-bottom leg-burning run or climb out of a snowbank and you’ll be dripping. How do you prepare for that? Think merino wool or other wicking synthetic, like polyester. Check out Craghoppers Merino Base Layer Pants.

A Boot Dryer

Again, with the sweat...

The Right Skis

That mid-waist, lightweight, all-mountain ski, you know, the one ski quiver you’ve toted to every mountain along your cross-country jaunt? Yeah, that might not cut it when you finally make it past Idaho using your normal resort skis. Carbon? Shorter skis? Haven't heard of em! If blessed with a super deep day, you could be sunk, quite literally, with a waist width and a camber profile that doesn't have enough float. Some awesome powder/soft snow sticks to check out are wider skis, like the wood core Moment Deathwish Skis, the Fischer Ranger 107Ti Skis, or the Elan Ripstick. Tail rocker doesn't hurt either! It boosts maneuverability and helps you release that tail of your ski instead of being locked into a turn. My fellow Ski experts and I are happy to help you find your perfect setup here at Curated! We can even get you into some new Backcountry Skis or Telemark skis as well.

Prepare For

The “11 AM Soak”

This term I coined as the best way to describe what happens, like clockwork, approximately 2 hours after lifts open. In my mind’s eye, a team of elves emerges and armed with water hoses, gives the slopes a quick, solid soak, thereby enhancing the snow’s cement-like quality nearly instantaneously. So wake up early, grab first chair, and don’t take a break until your legs turn to mush. Some may consider this phenomenon a drag, but I’ve embraced it as an excuse to ski hard and quit early without the guilt and pangs of FOMO. Who doesn’t love crushing out some laps and having a whole day remain for late morning coffee and early afternoon beer?

Prepare To

Photo by Patrick Neil 

Sleep in a Parking Lot

Many resorts sit at the end of one-lane roads or on the side of a mountain pass, so if you want to make sure you're riding on a powder morning and not sitting in traffic behind a plow, you best make sure you’re already on the hill. Luckily for us, most mountains offer overnight lots at minimal cost and a chill car camping vibe.

Just Send it!

DON’T STOP… even when your legs are burning and you feel like you have nothing beneath you but a pair of pathetic noodles with no stability, just keep skiing. Because when it’s heavier snow, and you stop to take that break in the middle of that run because the alternative might be to collapse, you will come to a dead halt, unable to escape from the wet, heavy, snow-walled hole that you just created for yourself. In this moment, momentum does not exist and you will be humbled to the point of questioning the entirety of your skiing ability. And yes, I know this from personal experience.

So now that you know the pitfalls of skiing in the Pacific Northwest—and how to avoid them—let’s get back to that diabolical awesomeness so you might actually be stoked to explore it!

Did you know that the sound of PNW snow is like that of nowhere else? Imagine standing at the top of Crystal Mountain or Stevens Pass, and “hearing” its weight as you slice through it with your skis, creating a thunderous squeak of compression. As you bounce from turn to turn, a guttural whooshing sound follows your trail, and you can’t help the propulsion to exclaim, “woot woot!” You’re never really floating above the snow, you’re floating in and through it, forging a tunnel that you pray gets you to the bottom before you have to stop. And when you do, the satisfaction and glee ignite as you turn around, look back up, and say to yourself, “that was awesome”.

PNW Ski Areas to Explore

The Pacific Northwest often gets overlooked in the ski community, with a combination of factors contributing to its lesser reputation; the mountains aren’t as “impressive”, the snow is “imperfect”, and the resorts offer less vertical, acreage, and amenities. It lacks the allure of those Eastern destination resorts which populate the pages of ski magazines, and it never went on to adopt its own version of “Ski the East”, a brand, phrase, and regional culture that not only fuels the pride and loyalty of its own skiers but entices those to visit from the outside. But I’m okay with its lesser reputation because that betters our chances of enjoying it in solitude.

From where I’m sitting, a day skiing in the Pacific Northwest can be nothing short of epic. The rush you get from dominating waist high concrete is unparalleled; it has a locals only energy, consistent and significant snowfall, and the lower elevation and warmer maritime climate mean you’re never cold or short of breath (and let’s be real, that’s a really nice feeling).

Central Oregon

The city of Bend, OR, is located in central Oregon and has a couple very different resorts nearby—Mount Bachelor, and Hoodoo. Bachelor is one of the PNW's largest ski resorts in terms of skiable acres, longest ski season, and fantastic glades, and has arguably the best groomers in the region as well. Hoodoo has a relaxed, small resort vibe that can't be beat, and often has some crazy-looking rime ice growing off of their lift poles and trees!

Mt. Hood

Head north to Mount Hood, past Government Camp, and you have a plethora of options. You could visit the Timberline Lodge, famed for serving as the exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel in the movie The Shining, along with having one of the longest ski seasons in the world. Mount Hood Meadows has the best variety in the area, ranging from easy beginner runs to some tight and technical glade skiing. And if you're still not tuckered out after a long day skiing, grab lift tickets for the largest night ski area in the US at Skibowl.

Snoqualmie

Pass Portland and jog up I-5, and you're into Washington State. You can't miss night skiing at Snoqualmie, an hour's drive away from Seattle proper. Or you can always visit one of their four interlinked ski areas—Alpental, with the most vertical drop and some of the gnarliest expert terrain, steeps, and chutes in the world, Summit West for beginners, Summit Central and Summit East for intermediate skiers.

Indy Pass Resorts Areas

Heading a bit east, you can visit a couple wonderful Indy Pass Resorts, such as the White Pass ski area and Mission Ridge ski resort (just 20 minutes from Wenatchee). Both have a much more relaxed atmosphere than some larger resorts, and copious gorgeous views on a clear day. White Pass has some of the best intermediate groomers and tree runs, while Mission Ridge specializes in groomers and high-quality snow (when it does fall). I would say Mission Ridge and Bachelor are the top two in the PNW when it comes to groomer quality.

Backcountry Skiing and Mt. Baker

At the northernmost tip of the US PNW, there's endless backcountry skiing, some of the deepest snowpack in the world, and the Legendary Banked Slalom for snowboarders at Mount Baker (nearest "big" city is the charming Bellingham, 1 hour and 20 minutes away). Clear views of Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, Shuksan Glacier, and the surrounding North Cascades are not to be missed, but don't come by often. Consistently deep (and often heavy) days are one of Baker's specialties!

Whistler-Blackcomb

And to top it all off, head north into British Columbia and flash that Epic Pass to ski the pride of North America and of Vail Resorts—the great Whistler-Blackcomb. This resort is actually two large resorts rolled into one, connected by the scenic Peak 2 Peak gondola. With massive acreage, long runs, and a variety of terrain for all skills and abilities, you could spend a week at each mountain and still not ski all of it. This is a true ski resort, with slope-side lodging and fancy après available for those with deep pockets.

And now that you’re armed with survival tips and stoke, dial up your Google maps and start studying those states furthest up and over to the left. You’ll see a bunch of red bubbles appear on mountains you never knew existed and are so worthy of discovery!

If you have any questions or are looking to find the right gear for your next PNW adventure, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Ski experts here at Curated.

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