What’s the Difference Between Elevation and Vertical, and Why Should You Care?

Two stats get tossed around in the ski world: elevation and vertical. But which one matters more, and which do you need to know when planning your next ski trip?

Chairlifts run up a tree-covered slope.

Photo by Micahl Knotek

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Maybe you’ve heard about some of Colorado’s famously high-altitude ski resorts, many of which boast elevations in the eight, nine, and ten thousand foot range.

Or maybe, you’ve spent some time around serious skiers who like to brag about how much “vert” they got that day (it seems to get bigger every time they tell the story, right?).

And maybe, just maybe, you’ve found yourself a bit confused trying to decipher which one means height, and how on earth are you going to know if the vert your buddy got is respectable or not?

Well, you’re in luck, because you’re not alone.

Elevation and vertical (vert) are both useful stats and can indicate what to expect from your ski experience, and with a little understanding, you, too, will be able to seamlessly tell the difference.

Elevation

We’ll start simple: how far above sea level any given point is is the elevation.

Elevation is a fairly basic measure for a ski resort or mountain. Take a resort like Breckenridge—its base elevation is about 9,600 feet while its peak elevation is just a hair under 13,000 feet.

What does that mean?

In simplest terms, if you could line measuring sticks up at the base and peak, perpendicular to sea level, then each of these sticks would be 9,600 feet and just under 13,000 feet long, respectively.

Elevation = height above sea level.

Vertical Drop (aka “Vert,” aka “Elevation Difference”)

A chairlift cuts up a ski slope.

Photo by Raisa Nastukova

Here’s where it might get confusing: vertical is actually just the difference, ideally, skiable difference, between the peak and base of a ski resort.

In the Breckenridge example, a base of 9,600 feet and a peak just under 13,000 feet equates to a vertical drop of just under 3,400 feet.

Note: You may see vertical drop referred to as vertical, vert, or elevation difference. They all mean the same thing.

Basically, vertical is a more useful measure of how “tall” a ski resort is, because, after all, it’s the amount of elevation change that you’ll be able to actually ski. In other words, a ski resort with an elevation of 10,000 feet but a vertical of 150 feet is going to be a lot less fun than a resort with an elevation of 2,000 feet and a vertical of 1,800 feet.

I’ve seen folks assume that Colorado resorts are all the “biggest in the country,” because many of their elevations top out at 12,000-13,000 feet. Unfortunately, this isn’t the right way to interpret that since many of these “tall” resorts have verticals in the 2,000-foot range, while plenty of non-Colorado resorts (Snowbird, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, etc.) may have verticals of 3,000-4000+ feet.

Vertical Drop = Peak Elevation - Base Elevation

Miles Skied

Another question some folks ask, in particular after enabling an app like Ski Tracks on their phones, is, “what’s the difference between miles skied and vertical?”

Miles skied is the actual distance you skied, while vertical feet is the sum of the verticals of all of the runs you skied.

Colloquially, “miles skied” is not a brag stat as much as vertical is. You can add up a lot of miles on long winding groomers; but vertical, on the other hand, means you’re charging down and back up to get more runs in.

Side Note: “True” Mountain Vertical

A view of a ski hill.

Photo by Kateryna Nemchenko

Alright, so by now, we know the difference between elevation and vertical. And as skiers, we know that, nine times out of ten, more vertical is a good thing. So it seems to reason then that in order to have the best ski trip ever, you should go to the resorts with the biggest vertical?

Wrong!

For many reasons, seasoned skiers know that vertical is not the only measure on which to pick or judge resorts.

Snowfall, terrain, crowds, I could go on—there are about one million other factors that go into that decision, many of which you’ll appreciate the more you ski.

This leads me to one of my personal favorite mountain measures: true vertical.

Stay with me for a minute, because the “vertical” I mentioned in the section above isn’t always all it’s cracked out to be.

Nowadays, so many ski resorts engulf multiple peaks, with multiple base areas, and even some only-hike-to terrain. What this means is that the entire vertical of a resort may not truly be accessible, such as on one single run or in other cases when it is but it’s just via an extremely long, boring traverse.

I’ve seen and skied multiple resorts with hefty “verticals,” which are technically true because of the elevation difference between their highest peak in one area and the lowest base area in a completely different, inaccessible spot on the mountain. But when you ski these mountains, the most you’ll ever get in one run is significantly less.

Why Should You Care?

A chairlift runs up a foggy mountain.

Photo by Viktor Hanacek

True mountain vertical should be one factor you consider when choosing a resort to shred, and in many cases, it doesn’t need to be a deal-breaker.

In fact, if you think about it, many of the lift infrastructures at today’s resorts end up creating zones where you may only be lapping 1,000 feet of a resort’s 2,000+ vertical. So by no means should true vertical be a deal-breaker, unless you’re someone who craves long, leg-burning runs that go on forever.

After all, what is the best ski resort?

Simple. The one you’re skiing!

How to Research Yourself

If you’re interested in evaluating or confirming the true vertical of a particular mountain, there are a number of options out there.

True-up Mountain Vertical

A number of years ago, I found a website called MountainVertical.com, which has been an incredible resource for evaluating resorts beyond just what’s listed on the trail map. I’m not sure how updated it is, but it’s a good starting point if continuous vertical is what you’re after.

The website details its methodology and verification process, so those interested in learning more should check it out. It also includes a great repository of trail maps and an overview of how they measure the true-up vertical for a particular ski resort.

Just keep in mind that true vertical is not the only factor to consider, especially if you’re after other things like powder, a family-friendly vibe, affordable lodging, etc.

Trail Maps

Many trail maps list the peak and base elevations of various points of interest of the resort. You can compare these to get an estimate of true vertical for a particular line, zone, or face of a resort.

Google Maps

Finally, if all else fails, you get an estimate of the true vertical of a particular resort the manual way with Google Maps.

By enabling “Terrain” mode in the overlay section, you’re able to zoom in and see approximate elevation lines at different points. Useful if you pan around a resort on Maps and compare the tops and bottoms to get a good idea, especially since Maps nowadays shows the actual trails of resorts.

Putting It All Together

When you dig into it, the difference between elevation and vertical is really quite simple. Both are important measures, but vertical does seem to be the more practical to use when evaluating ski resorts.

So, next time you hear someone bragging about how much vert they racked up that day, make sure you ask them, “was that true vertical?”

If you have any other questions about ski terminology or want to get geared up for your next trip to the slopes, be sure to reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated. We'd be happy to help!

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Written By
Matt B.
Matt B.
Ski Expert
Back in middle school, I dragged my dad to my school ski club's intro meeting to learn more. I'd be lapping a tiny Southeast Michigan hill with a whopping 350' vert, but man it sounded fun. Unfortunately younger me didn't take the chance, because when my parents said I'd have to kick in half of my a...
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