First, Learn to Fall: One Gear Expert's Take on the Basics of Snowboarding
Learning to snowboard is not an easy feat. Snowboard expert Tess Kohler offers some simple tips to help you feel in charge as you learn the basics of snowboarding.
The first three years of my snowboarding career were spent securely on my bottom. I slid down the bunny hill inch by careful inch, landed squarely on my backside unloading off of every chairlift, and spent long moments sitting on the hilltop, gazing into the midwestern countryside as my older sister and her friends cruised past me cooly. As damp snow seeped into my hand-me-down snow pants, base layers, and finally underwear, I cursed myself for ending up once again in the predicament of how on earth to descend the gentle slope in front of me. To the trained eye, it was clear that snowboarding was not going to be my sport.
Learning to snowboard is not an easy feat – let me assure you. As board sports go, it is among the most popular, engaging, and accessible activities to do come wintertime. It is a sport entrenched in community spirit and a love of the outdoors. It is every bit worth the pain and frustration at the start. We have all been there, and before you let your frustration take over, or let others tell you that riding may not be your sport, take a look at these simple tips to help you feel in charge and competent as you learn the basics of snowboarding.
Believe in You
First and foremost, the best advice I can give anyone is to approach this new activity confidently. Believe in yourself, believe in your body’s capability, and learn to focus on you. There will most certainly be other riders ripping past you, making what to you is difficult look ridiculously easy. Ignore those people. Your friends or family members may progress at a rate faster than you. Ignore that. Learn to focus on yourself, and spend time building your skill set and competence step by step. We may all ride up the chairlift together, but at the end of the day snowboarding is a solitary sport.
Having clothing and equipment that are the proper size and suited for the climate can make a world of difference.
When it comes to apparel, the two main goals should be: keep warm and stay dry. I like to achieve this by incorporating multiple layers of clothing into what I wear so I can add or subtract layers as I warm up or cool down. Breathable long underwear, or base layers, made of a wool or synthetic fabric are a good place to start. These will evaporate sweat and help regulate your body temperature. Throw on a fleece or lightweight puffy coat for warmth under a waterproof jacket or shell, and fleece pants if your legs run cold under your waterproof snow pants. Mittens or gloves are a must, and I recommend splurging on a pair with a GORE-TEX waterproof lining. Your hands will come in contact with the snow, so it is best to ensure they say dry and thereby warm. A hat, or better yet a helmet, keeps your ears warm, while wool socks keep your feet toasty. Ski goggles are great at preventing wind and precipitation from obstructing your view and help give clarity in tricky snow conditions. If you have a pair, great, if you don’t, sunglasses will work in a pinch.
Many beginners choose to rent or borrow a board, snowboard boots, and bindings when they are just starting out. Check out our article What Size Snowboard Should You Get? for pointers, so you can ensure that the hand-me-down board in the back of your sister’s closet will really work for you.
The bunny hill isn’t just for the kiddos and trust me when I say that the magic carpet is your friend. Don’t feel pressured to try difficult runs until you feel ready, even if that means spending a day surrounded by three-year-olds in onesie snowsuits, while your friends take face shots in fresh powder. It takes determination to continually go down the same gentle slope, but it is this perseverance to improve that will help you in the long run.
When you do head up on the chairlift, make sure there will be at least one run that you are confident tackling. Start with those green circles, or nice easy catwalks. Look at a trail map to ensure you know where you are going or follow a trusted friend. Finding folks who enjoy the same runs or travel at a similar speed will make the learning process more enjoyable. Never feel pressured to keep up with the pack or take on a run you don’t feel ready for. Be confident in voicing your needs knowing that real friends will listen and respect them. Especially if those needs involve a hot chocolate and french fry break by the fire.
Discover Your Stance
One of your feet will serve as your predominant “front foot” and the other will be your “back foot.” Which foot is in front determines your stance. If you skateboard, surf, or wakeboard, you probably already know your stance. If you don’t, you may need to play around a bit to figure out what feels most comfortable to you. For me, I ride with my left foot in front because it feels the most natural – this is known as “regular” stance. I learned to ride alongside my sister who rides “goofy” stance with her right foot in front, because that felt better for her. The pro shop where you rent will ask for your stance so they can adjust the bindings accordingly, so have an idea of which foot you’d prefer in front before you get there. Feel free to try both out on the hill and let your body tell you what it prefers. Don’t hesitate to stand on a board in your sock feet, imagining yourself traveling at speed with your left foot first, then your right. Soon your stance will feel second nature.
Strapping In and Standing Up
You’re suited and booted and ready to glide. Find a flat area to strap your front foot into your front binding while keeping your back foot on the snow so you feel secure. Stand upright, bend your knees, and put your back foot on the board in the middle of your two bindings. If that feels comfortable, push yourself forward with your back foot gaining a touch of speed and again let your back foot rest on the board. This gliding on flat land, or a slight downhill slope, is an excellent way to prepare you for what movement on a board will feel like.
This set up, with only your front foot strapped in, is how you will get on and off a magic carpet, rope tow, or chairlift. Being able to glide comfortably up to the lift will set you up for success in getting on. Keep your knees bent and your body relaxed while getting on a chairlift or carpet, and if you feel yourself falling, try not to take anyone else down with you and move out of the way quickly.
Sitting on the top of the hill, strap your back foot into the back binding. Keep your board perpendicular to the slope, you want to stand up at a standstill. To stand, slide your booty close to your heels and use your leg muscles to propel your body weight upward. This will take practice, so don’t be afraid to ask a friend for a hand or find a different method that works for you. Some folks prefer to flip their board and body 180º once strapped in, so they are kneeing in the snow and looking uphill. Experiment and don’t be afraid to look silly!
The folks at The Snow Pros have excellent free snowboard videos that represent what these movements look like. Here, Chris from the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, walks you through the steps outlined above:
Learn How to Stop
Using your heel-side edge as a brake is a great way to slow down as well as a good first step in learning how to carve. Start by standing with both feet strapped in, looking downslope with your board perpendicular to the hill. Bend your knees and get comfortable with this position – this is what stopping will look like. As you let your forward foot begin to take center stage leading you downhill, keep your board flat and body upright. Point your board at an angle on the hill, not facing straight down. Once you have a bit of speed, push your back foot forward as you bring your board perpendicular to the hill yet again. Your heel side edge should dig into the snowpack and skid a bit as you slow yourself down. Voila.
Turning back and forth, known as carving, takes a lot of practice. A good place to start is by using the skills we learned above with stopping. Starting on your heel edge, with your body facing downslope, move your board so that you are descending at an angle and then dig your heels into the snow to stop. Try it again. These are known as garland turns. They should also be practiced on your toe edge. To do this, start with your body facing the hillside and shift your weight so that your board again begins descending at an angle. Then press your weight into your toes to dig the toe edge into the snowpack and slow you down. Once these two moves feel comfortable, you can start making a wider C turn on both the toe-side edge and the heel-side edge. As C turns begin to feel comfortable on both sides, you can begin linking the two sides into one big S, which is carving.
Make sure you keep your body in an athletic stance: shoulders square over your hips and upper body moving in line with the lower body. Look where you are going with your head, not your shoulders. The movements described in the above paragraph took me at least three years to master. This is a process, and spending time working on your skills step by step until they feel comfortable will help you improve in the long run. The Snow Pros have a great visual representation of this process here:
Bend Your Knees
Then bend your knees some more. The tighter your muscles are clenched, the more unstable and out of control you will be. This especially applies to the moment right before a fall. I strive to keep a healthy, generous bend in my knees at all times because it gives me more stability as well as more power. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t be bending over at the waist. Stacking your shoulders, hips, and heels in one vertical line will help keep your butt tucked under. Then bounce those knees and stay low.
Learn to Fall
Learn to fall so that you can do it safely. One of the best ways to injure yourself riding is to brace a fall with your hands. When you hit the ground at speed, hands first, your wrists take a beating and could easily be sprained or broken. Avoid bracing your fall like this and protect those delicate wrist bones. On the other hand, falling backward onto the tailbone could lead to bruising or even breaking your backside. The best way to protect against injury when falling is to loosen the body up and not get rigid. The human body is generally very good at protecting itself. If you stay loose and let your body take you where it knows to go, you might tumble a bit, but you should remain injury-free. Falling a few times on purpose will make the concept of falling a whole lot less intimidating, which in turn will allow you to push yourself further without fearing what might happen.
Take a Lesson
There are real people at almost every resort out there with a wealth of knowledge in snowboarding technique. Tap into that knowledge by signing up for a snowboard lesson. Be it a group or individual session, you are bound to learn far more in person than you could possibly glean from the internet. Lessons tend to get bracketed into the category of “for young people only,” but trust me when I say, they are certainly not. The best instructors will get you feeling comfortable on the hill, while giving you tips on how to improve and guiding you through the steps to build your skill set. Seek these instructors out. Even some tips from a trusted, patient friend can go a long way.
Don’t give up on yourself. Keep working on your skills, keep falling, and keep picking yourself back up. It took me a hell of a long time to be able to make it down even the bunny hill, and I thought about quitting every single time I was out there. But the important part is that I didn’t. Believe in your ability and continue to try and try again. Learning something new requires bravery and intention. Remember to be patient and kind with yourself as you take on this endeavor. With time and energy, you will undoubtedly improve. I am so glad that I never gave up trying.
Fourteen years later, and I still find myself gazing out from the top of the mountain, my butt planted firmly in the snow. These days, as I strap my right foot in, I take in the view of the horizon and admire the glistening sparkle of the sun on the snow. As my pants begin to dampen, I recognize the energy it took to get me on the hill, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to experience winter on my board. Snowboarding has taught me a lot about self-confidence. That little brace-faced tween in the blue fleece jacket may not have known it at the time, but tackling the basics of this sport has given me strength of mind and body, and a faith in my own tenacity. I stand up, dust the snow off my behind, grateful that I’ve stood up after every fall. Left foot forward, I cruise down slowly through the crisp winter air.