5 Common Mistakes Intermediate Skiers Make on the Slope

Want to know how to transform from an intermediate skier to an advanced one? Ski expert Nick Keim shares five areas of improvement to help you grow.

Photo courtesy of Icelantic Skis
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So you’re not a beginner anymore; your skis are parallel cruising down blues and groomed runs smoothly; you’re getting down black diamonds without too much of a sweat; your mom is bragging to her friends about how great of a skier you are; but you’re still getting passed on the mountain by other skiers who are somehow both skiing fast and in perfect control. You wonder to yourself how are they doing that, and more importantly: how do I do that?

You consider the possibility of getting a private ski instructor at your local ski resort to help, but decide before going that far you will hop on the internet and see if there are any guides out there on how to become a better skier. You stumble across this article and realize you found exactly what you needed. You discover the article has all the secrets of going from an intermediate skier to an advanced skier. You rejoice and begin reading the 5 most important steps that you’ve either never heard before or need to hear again to improve your skiing technique.

1. Bend your knees!

This is without a doubt the biggest mistake any skier can make on the slopes, and the easiest skiing tip to apply. Too often, I’ll see beginner-intermediate skiers out there with a pencil stance. Standing straight, arms relaxed at their side, and knees stiff. While it demonstrates nice posture and may fit in at Buckingham Palace, skiing is too engaging of a sport for this.

Skiing is an exercise and is, in a lot of ways, very similar to boxing. Yes, boxing. The sport that is all about punching one another and the last one standing wins. Though, this isn’t the metaphor I’m trying to reach. Instead, I’m referring to the stance of the boxer. A boxer is constantly on their toes, knees bent, arms up, and ready to react to whatever is in front of them. This is where skiing is the same. While skiing you are constantly reacting to varying terrain as you descend the mountain. Whether it be maneuvering through moguls/bumps, trees or people, reacting to changing snow textures or to a sudden change in pitch angle, a skier needs to be able to react to anything. Having your knees bent engages your instincts and allows you to react to situations quickly.

The next question you might be wondering is how much do I bend my knees? Well, to be honest, there is really no right answer for this. It can largely depend on the terrain you are skiing and how fast you are going. The lower you can get, the more control you will have. Of course, there is such a thing as too low, and you definitely don't want your butt lower than your knees. In tight terrains, like moguls and trees, or at high speeds, having your knees a good deal bent (enough that you are feeling a burn in your quads) will make a huge difference by keeping you in control and bolstering confidence. Keep in mind, however, bent knees are only one step in the process of becoming an advanced skier and are almost meaningless without the below steps being used in conjunction!

2. Use your poles!

Snowboarders love to brag about how they don’t need poles. Up until you’re on a catwalk and they have to unclip out of their bindings while you cruise past them. A common misconception though is that this is the primary use and reason for poles. In reality, using your poles for speed only accounts for half of the purpose, if not less. Using your poles while skiing on-piste is a central function in skiing with proper form. You know that metaphor I used with bending your knees where I said skiing was a lot like boxing? Well, this is the second part of that metaphor. Fists up ready to punch what’s in front of you. Left, then right. Okay, that is a bit dramatic, but in reality, to be in that engaging and responsive stance, you have to use your upper body as well as your legs.

It’s not just simply using your ski poles while skiing, it is using them correctly. Every slight change in direction should be accompanied by a pole plant (pole plant being the action of the tip of your pole making contact with the snow). When carving and making big arching turns, each turn should have a pole plant associated with it. In moguls it is much more frequent; you should be planting your poles on every mogul you come in contact with. This gives you something to pivot off of, even if you are not putting much (or any) weight on your pole. Instead, it is all about balance. The act of planting your pole centers you so that you don’t accidentally lean too far to one side. This combined with bent knees can make you very agile and quick in your movements. Balanced, in control, ready for anything, a true boxer.

Often, after hearing this step I’ll see skiers plant their pole and let the pole shoot out behind them, as if they are trying to push off the snow. Remember, in this instance, you are not using your pole in the same way you do to get speed. Your goal is not to be pushing off the snow, just simply planting and moving on. At no point should the grip of your pole, or your hands for that matter, ever go behind you. A plant should be quick, and then immediately after, your poles should be up in front of you ready to make the next move. This is a very important detail of using your poles because, if that pole gets behind you, it will throw you off balance and out of control. For example, a boxer never wants their hands behind them right?

A man in a blue and orange ski jacket and pants ready to ski down a slope

Photo courtesy of Icelantic Skis

3. Lean Forward!

I’ll keep this one short as it builds a lot off of the previous two steps of bending your knees and using your poles. Bend your knees, poles out in front of you, and lean forward from the ankles. This is the proper skier’s stance. Note how I specified leaning forward from the ankles, not the hips. The best practice is to have your knees directly above the toe piece of your bindings, with your shins in constant contact with the front of your boot. That means you are pushing into your boots, and thus into your skis to increase pressure and control (more on this in step 4).

The opposite of this is a thing skiers call “backseat.” Backseat is a term referring to someone who is not leaning forward and looks as though they are sitting in a chair. This puts your center of gravity on the tails of your skis and disengages your shins from the front of your boots, therefore minimizing your control of the ski. Avoid this by staying forward in your boots and keeping those knees above your toe piece.

Now, some might argue, “What about powder? I have to lean back in order to stay afloat!” Well, this leads us to step 5 and the equipment you are using. Even in powder, a backseat stance can be punishing for your control, and as long as you’re using the correct equipment, you should still be able to stay in a forward stance and stay afloat. Furthermore, having a forward stance grows ever more in importance when you have a stiffer ski, while a softer more playful ski may be a bit more forgiving to poor form.

To summarize the 3 steps above relating to proper ski form: lean forward, bend your knees, and get your poles out in front of you. Do all this and you’ll be ready to react to anything the mountain throws at you. The more you practice, the more muscle memory you’ll build, the more confident and in control you’ll get, and the faster you’ll be. If you don’t see some immediate results then that may lead us to the importance of steps 4 and 5.

4. Tighten your boots!

This one is almost certainly going to scare a lot of people reading this. It’s easy to have a fear of tightening your boots because you think having boots that are too tight will cause you severe discomfort. It can, but that likely means you’ve tightened them too much. Severe discomfort can also, and more likely than not does, stem from your boots being too big.

There is a perfect middle ground that exists that any advanced skier needs to find with their boots in order to have high performance and comfortable days. This step is all about the consequences that exist from a loose boot and how tightening will fix them. A ski boot is the bridge between you and your skis. In order to turn your skis, you must press into your boots, your boots then push into your bindings, and thus, control the direction of the ski. When your boot is loose, it takes a lot more effort to push into your boot and tell it where to go; upon tightening it the whole process becomes much more seamless, efficient, and most importantly, faster. As a result, tightening your boot actually gives you more control over your skis. This is often why advanced-expert skiers size down in their boot size (I personally drop down two full sizes!), in addition to looking for a stiffer flex boot (more on stiffer boots in step 5).

Furthermore, have you ever gotten black toenails or cramps on the bottom of your foot from skiing? It is likely (though there could be other issues, see your local bootfitter) your boot is too loose. Seems counterintuitive, huh? Well, simply put, when your boot is loose, your foot is moving around in the boot a ton while you ski, causing it to jam into the front of the boot and roll around the footbed, causing black toes and cramps. By tightening your boot, your foot stays perfectly in place in the boot which suppresses these issues, allowing more comfortable skiing. The main point of this step though is that by tightening your boot you can give yourself more control over your skis, and control is key to getting better.

A man in a blue and orange ski jacket and pants skiing fast down a steep groomer slope

Photo courtesy of Icelantic Skis

5. Buy the right skis, bindings, and boots!

No, those skis you’ve had since you were a teenager, or those skis you got from your 5’6" friend even though you’re 6’2" (or vice versa), or those powder skis you’re using on icy slopes because you got a good deal on them, are not the right skis for you. There is a common misconception that one needs to simply get a ski, doesn’t matter what ski, and will be set to take on the slopes. Ski models are wildly different, and it is possible for a ski to be right for you and not right for someone else. Depending on the terrain you ski, what part of the country you ski, your height, weight, number of years skiing, and style, the right ski for you can vary drastically.

Even with great execution of all 4 steps above, if you’re not on the right equipment, your progression will be limited. When you’re still fresh to the sport, understanding what the right gear is can be incredibly difficult, that’s why there is an amazing company that exists where you can chat with an expert that will help you find the right skis that fit your unique needs. At Curated, you can chat with experts like me, Nick Keim, and get the help you need finding the right gear that’ll allow you to progress in your skiing.

I can’t emphasize enough the difference it’ll make in your skiing, and it doesn’t stop with skis either. Your bindings and boots are also unique to you. Getting the right size boot with the correct flex will determine the level of control you will have and the amount of comfort you’ll be in after a day of skiing. Making sure you’re on the right binding will prevent you from disengaging unnecessarily or even help you avoid disaster in a serious injury. So, if you’re thinking this might be the big step you need to bring your skiing up another level, come start a chat with me or any other expert, and we will get you set up on the ideal gear.

Get out in that boxing ring – I mean on the mountain – and start practicing these intermediate skiing tips/steps immediately. Tighten up your boots, bend your knees, lean forward, and put those poles to work, and you’ll be cruising down black runs in no time. If all else fails, you may want to consider if you have the right equipment, and if that’s the case, shoot me a message here.

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Written By
Nick Keim
Ski Expert
I grew up in the Colorado mountains and was forced to start skiing by my parents when I was 3 years old. Ever since I clipped into my first bindings I've loved every second of it (maybe not so much ski school). While I also dabble in climbing, biking, rafting, camping, and surfing, skiing is and alw...
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