How to Ride Switch
Switch skiing is not only a fun way to experience the mountain, but it also has some really useful applications. Ski expert Garrett Gimbel breaks it down for you.
Switch skiing, which is just a fancy term for skiing backward, is a fun new way to experience the mountain, and it has some really useful applications. It can often show us inadequacies in our alpine skiing, give us a fresh perspective on the mountain, and not to mention, it looks cool and is super fun! However, switch skiing is most useful, by far, when learning how to spin off jumps, most notably any maneuver where you land backward, like 180s and 540s. So if you haven’t read our article “How to Land a Jump,” go read that first and then come back here.
Skiing switch can be extremely daunting, especially without proper instruction, so let’s break it down into 4 sections:
- Differences: Switch vs Alpine
- Going backward in a wedge
- Turning backward in a wedge
- Full parallel switch turns
Differences: Switch vs Alpine
So what is actually different about switch skiing? The answer is probably not as much as you would think! The 2 main differences are that in switch skiing you are going backward instead of forward (duh) and that you need to look over your shoulder to see where you are going. All the other alpine skiing fundamentals stay more or less the same! So the best way to learn how to go backward is generally by doing similar things to when you were first learning to ski forward, which we will get into in subsequent sections.
Going Backward in a Wedge
Find yourself a nice easy pitch, preferably a low-angle, wide-open green run that isn’t too crowded. At this stage, you will want to pick a shoulder to look over to see where you are going. When you start turning you will switch shoulders, but more on that later. When looking over your shoulder, try not to let your hips turn with your head and shoulders. Instead, your hips should remain squared up to your feet, which will give you more control over your weight distribution and make it easier to move in a straight line (which is the goal at this stage).
The next mistake that people often make is leaning forward on their skis, usually because moving backward is intimidating and they feel safer leaning away from the direction of travel. However, think about our regular alpine skiing – if you lean back when skiing forward it makes it incredibly difficult to turn our skis. The same is true if you lean forward when moving backward. You want to feel pressure somewhere around the arch of your foot to give you a nice balanced position when switch skiing. Just think about trying to stay in a nice athletic stance.
Okay, it’s time to start skiing! Since you won’t be turning just yet, you will need to use a wedge to control your speed. You can make a switch wedge by keeping the tails of your skis together and pushing your toes apart. Now that you’re moving, really make sure you are balanced over the arch of your foot. Don’t move on to the next step until you consistently feel comfortable and balanced moving in a straight line. If you find yourself turning to one side without trying, it’s probably because you are turning your hips with your shoulders and head. Keep your hips in line with the tips of your skis, and you may find it a lot easier to move in a straight line. As you get more comfortable, play with letting the wedge out and bringing your skis to parallel. Once you are comfortable moving backward in a straight line, you can move on to the next step!
Turning Backward in a Wedge
For turning, we are going to bring in two new components. The first is putting pressure on the outside foot, which is the key to turning and the exact same thing you do when alpine skiing. When skiing switch, it is really important that your turns are initiated with this outside foot pressure and not with the upper body, which is a common mistake. The second component is switching which shoulder you look over. For the most part, you will always look over your outside shoulder, which will help put pressure on the outside foot and turn your skis. So just to be clear, if you are turning to skiers right (the right side of the trail when looking down the hill), you would look over your right shoulder.
It is important that you weight the outside foot before switching which shoulder you are looking over, otherwise turning will be very difficult, and you will be locked in a wedge forever. Imagine your turn looks like a big C in the snow. At the top of the C, you will put pressure on your outside foot, which will begin turning your skis. At this point, it is important to take a snapshot in your mind of what is down the trail from you because you will not be able to see while you switch shoulders. As your skis begin to fall down the hill, you should start turning your head to look over your other shoulder. Don’t turn too quickly – you want this to be a smooth transition that finishes in the middle to end portion of the C-shaped turn.
Practice this until you are effortlessly making switch wedge turns. Play with making different turn sizes as well, from turns that take up most of the trail to extremely quick short-radius turns. When you feel comfortable, start trying to bring your inside foot to parallel with your outside foot in between your turns. This will set you up for success in the next section.
Full Parallel Switch Turns
Luckily, most of the hard stuff is out of the way, and you now have all the basic fundamentals of switch skiing. Hooray! However, while a shorter section, many people will find this last part difficult to fully commit to. So with that being said, I want to pose the following question – why do we teach a wedge before parallel? The most common answer is because it makes you go slower, which is half true. The real reason, however, is because you don’t need to change your edges. This is probably the most difficult part of switch skiing, especially if you have not completely owned the outside foot pressure early in the C-shape turn from the previous section.
So let’s break it down. Imagine you are in between turns and are traversing to the right with your skis parallel. This means you are looking over your right shoulder and most of your weight is on your right foot. Now before you can start your next turn, you have to transition your weight to the new outside foot. That’s right, I said BEFORE you even begin turning, you need to shift your weight over. People often end up wedging through this phase of the turn because instead of putting pressure on the outside foot, they push that foot out away from their body; this will unintentionally create a wedge!
So you’ve put pressure on your new outside foot and your skis are starting to turn. It’s at this point that you will begin the process of switching shoulders, but now we have to add in another step. At the same time you begin turning your head and shoulders, you also need to tip your skis onto their new edges. If you have pressured your outside foot correctly and early in the turn, this will feel relatively easy and smooth. If not, then you may find a wedge has formed or your skis are fighting you and don’t want to turn.
If you are struggling with this, it may be a good idea to dial it back for a minute. Instead of trying to link the turns together, do one single turn and come to a full stop. Then switch direction and repeat until you feel comfortable making parallel switch turns in both directions. Each turn should look like a J, so you start off skiing straight down the hill and then turn until you come to a stop. Once this feels solid, you can revisit linking your turns together.
Congratulations on making it to the end – you can officially ski switch now! I know this was pretty technical, but if you can nail those fundamentals, you will have built a really solid base on which you can progress much more quickly. Like I mentioned in the How to Land A Jump article, the world of freestyle skiing is very creative and you can make it whatever you want it to be. I find it really fun to start a turn forward, and then halfway through, spin around and finish the turn switch. The world really is your oyster, and half the fun of freestyle is just making up new and inventive ways to ski! Now that you’ve mastered switch skiing and jumping, you can move on to learning how to do tricks and spins off jumps, so stay tuned for more articles on those! And if you need any help finding the best gear for skiing switch, reach out to me or one of my fellow Ski experts here on Curated for free, personalized recommendations.