Tuesday, September 15, 2020

10 Tips to Escape the Crowds at Ski Resorts this Winter

My family has been perfecting our skills in "how to survive at a ski hill as introverts" for years now. Enter a brand new ski season where we're all encouraged to physical distance and to find the "quiet spaces," and I don't expect much will change for my family. We'll still continue to avoid crowds, we'll still say heck no to a Saturday powder day, and we'll avoid busy day lodges - as we always do.

Escape the Crowds at Ski Resorts this Winter 

Below are my best tips and suggestions that we've mastered over the years. 

10 Tips to Escape the Crowds at Ski Resorts this Winter

1. Ski Mid-week 

I pulled my son out of school a couple of years ago on a Thursday for a true mid-week ski day at Nakiska. It wasn't a PD day, it wasn't a holiday, and everybody else was still in school. - and it was glorious!! 

The day lodge was deserted and we had our choice of hundreds of tables to sit at. The runs were wide open and empty, and we were still skiing fresh corduroy at noon! (Can you imagine??) We finally went in for a late lunch at 1:00 and we'd already skied more runs than the average person skis in a full day on a weekend. 

It was my favourite ski day we've ever had, and I'd encourage every family to try this at least once this winter. (School is important, but so is mental health.)

Read: Yes, Take the Kids out of School for the Day - and Go Skiing!

Take the kids out of school for the day and enjoy your own private ski hill

Tips to becoming a mid-week ski family

  • Ski local. Nakiska is our closest hill and so that's where we always buy seasons passes. I love some of the bigger hills but realistically, it's hard to get out mid-week when there's a 3+ hour drive involved just to reach the resort.

  • Go out Fridays when the kids get off school at noon. Pull them out an hour early if you have to, or skip the morning. Eat lunch on the drive out and then ski for the afternoon without having to use the day lodge.

  • Take advantage of school PD days. It will be busier at your local hill than a regular mid-week day, but still much quieter than a weekend day.

  • Powder days call for mental health breaks. If you have the flexibility to catch up on work from home in the afternoon/evening, pull the kids from school on powder days once a month. Chances are you'll be done skiing by 1:00 if you arrive early and ski hard (easier if you have seasons passes) and so you'll still have plenty of time to log some work hours when you get home.

  • Discuss work flexibility with your boss. Many of us are working from home these days so ask if you can take your kids skiing once or twice a month mid-week and arrange a system where you catch up on the missed work outside regular office hours. Now is the perfect time to discuss the idea of a compressed work week as well where you'd work more hours/day but then get every second or third Friday off. (Perfect for those half days at school)

  • Take a day off work and create a long weekend for ski getaways. Sundays and Mondays are your friends. Avoid Saturdays. You'll have a lot more fun creating your own long weekend rather than skiing on an official long weekend with everybody else. Alternately, leave a day early so you get one quiet day of skiing on Friday before the crowds arrive for the weekend.

  • Book a condo on a ski hill with WiFi and plan a working holiday mid-week. For those of you working from home, consider relocating your office for a few days. Create a blended schedule of working and skiing. This works well for kids doing online learning or homeschooling as well.

Powder days call for a mid-week trip to the mountains

2. Ski Sundays 

I'll never forget the first time I skied at Kimberley Alpine Resort on a Sunday before driving home from our weekend ski getaway. It was like a ghost town! And while maybe that wasn't normal, I've definitely noticed that ski resorts are more quiet on Sundays. 

Most families like to get out of the city on Saturday to play in the mountains, preferring to stay home Sundays in preparation for another week at work (groceries, laundry, cleaning, etc.)

You'll notice less crowds at destination hills because many families have to drive home for school and work the next day, choosing either to ski for just the morning, or to not ski at all.

Big Tip: Try to add a vacation day to your weekend so that you can ski Sunday/Monday when you go away for the weekend. Drive home late afternoon Monday and grab dinner on the way home. Either drive to the hill Saturday morning, or spend Saturday pursuing a different winter activity (XC skiing for example.)

Sunday skiing at Kimberley Alpine Resort

3. Get First Runs

My son and I love skiing on PD days when hills are generally quieter.We head out to Nakiska aiming to arrive between 8:00 - 8:30am. This allows us to get rockstar parking, to enjoy a deserted day lodge for suiting up and preparing for our ski day, and then to be first in line for lifts. 

The first 5 runs of the day will always be your best runs if you're at the hill for opening. You'll get the best corduroy, the best powder, and the best snow before it starts to get icy in the afternoon. 

My son and I ski hard, take short breaks, and then by 1:00pm we're ready to go. We've already had a full day of skiing by this point and we take advantage of seasons passes to leave early without guilt. We eat in the car on the drive home or stop at the Tim Hortons at the junction of Highway 40 and the TransCanada Hwy and run through the drive through.

Not a morning person? Me neither. Fortunately there are ways to make early morning starts for the resort "easier."

Read: Tips and Tricks for Downhill Skiing with Kids

You'll always get the best snow if you arrive at the ski hill for first lifts

4. Avoid Crowded Day Lodges 

Nobody likes a crowded day lodge. Learn to work around the crowds with these tips below:

  • Stay slopeside. Return to your own condo for lunch and fill your pockets with snacks for the ski hill 

  • Ski local and go home for lunch. Arrive at Nakiska for first runs, ski hard, and then leave early afternoon (eating lunch on the drive home in the vehicle.) Again, make sure your pockets are filled with snacks so you can have a late lunch or bring a backpack with you.

  • Ski local and arrive in the afternoon after lunch. Eat on the drive out and ski for the afternoon. Pack snacks and you shouldn't have to go near the day lodge other than for bathroom breaks. (And, it's usually warmer in the afternoon.)

  • Return to your vehicle for lunch. This is especially fun on warm spring days. Bring lawn chairs and a portable stove to grill hot dogs or hamburgers. And note it helps if you arrive early to get a good parking spot for this one. (note, please follow all resort protocol around this one regarding mask use, avoiding large groups with friends, and spacing of vehicles.)

  • Use warming huts and mid-mountain lodges. Carry a backpack with you and use warming huts or mid-mountain lodges for snacks and quick lunch breaks. 

    Each of the options below allows for skiers bringing their own lunch. 

    At Nakiska, you have the mid mountain lodge which has bathrooms, a cafeteria, and plenty of seating. Stagger your visit before or after lunch.

    Fernie Alpine Resort has the "Bear's Den" (a heated tent) at the top of the Elk Chair. You'll find bathrooms here and a selection of BBQ items to eat.

    Kimberley Alpine Resort has a mid mountain lodge at the top of the North Star Quad that most people don't even know about (and hence it's very quiet.) To reach the lodge you have to climb a short distance up to the left from the top of the North Star. The lodge doesn't have a cafeteria so bring your own food. You will find bathrooms though and a warm place to eat inside.

    Kicking Horse Alpine Resort has the "Heaven's Door" Yurt cafe at the bottom of the Stairway to Heaven Chair. Here you'll find food, a small amount of indoor seating, and bathrooms.

  • Choose a sit down restaurant on the hill. Restaurants with table service always feel less crowded and many take reservations as well so you'll be guaranteed to get a table. 

    At Kicking Horse, make a reservation for the Eagle's Eye Restaurant located at the top of the gondola. The food is amazing and the views are unparalleled for a ski resort restaurant. 

    At Fernie, we love the Cirque Restaurant located in the Lizard Creek Lodge near the bottom of the Elk Chair. Alternately, Legends Restaurant is located in the base area plaza and is another good option for lunch. And if you want a snack on the hill, the Lost Boys Cafe is perched at the top of the Timber Chair (Which I highly recommend!)

    At Kimberley, I'm a big fan of the Stemwinder Bar and Grill at the base of the resort. You can also grab lunch at the Buckhorn & Main Mountain Eaterie in the Trickle Creek Lodge.

The Eagle's Eye Restaurant sits perched at the top of the gondola at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort

  • Stagger your lunch and eat early or late. Ski hard with few breaks and then grab an early lunch at 10:30 or 11:00am. Alternately, load your pockets with snacks and have a late lunch at 1:00 or 1:30pm. This will not only get you a table in the day lodge, but it also means you get to ski when everybody else is eating. (For shorter lift lines.)

  • Choose warm sunny days for skiing. Warmer days allow for patio eating or parking lot lunches at the vehicle. Spring is ideal for this!

  • Pack lunches that don't require a microwave or hot water. I always bring instant soup bowls that require hot water for lunch and my son likes microwave lunches. This year we'll each be bringing soup or pasta in a thermos so that we can bring a backpack and use a warming hut or mid mountain lodge for lunch, or return to our vehicle. My son will even be able to eat his thermos lunch while driving to/from the hill.

    Alternately, bring a thermos of hot water and store it in your car for lunch. The same goes for coffee if you need a cup for the drive home.

The Lost Boys Cafe is a great place to warm up at Fernie on a cold day

5. Dress for Cold Days

Have you ever noticed how deserted the ski hill is when it's -30C? I have, and it's beautiful (as long as you can dress for the temperature.)

Learn to dress for cold weather and you'll enjoy quiet peaceful ski days while everybody else is huddled up in their houses back in the city.

And while I'm far from an expert here, it comes down to having really good ski boots with hot pockets inside, quality ski pants and jackets, warm gloves or mittens with hot pockets inside, and layer upon layer of clothing! 

Sometimes on cold days I wear two buffs over my face just to ensure I have no skin showing. I wear a second jacket under my regular ski jacket, and I add a pair of fleece leggings under my already lined ski pants. (It helps to have a pair of very baggy "cold weather" ski pants for layering.)

Plan for breaks inside between every run or two (possible because the day lodge will be empty) and consider "not" being first for the morning lifts. Wait until it warms up by an hour or two.

Below are a couple of reviews I've written for TOBE winter wear which keeps my child warm.

Read: TOBE Outerwear Review: Youth Novus Jackets and Bib Snow Pants

Read: Guaranteed Warmth with TOBE Youth Mono Suits

Layers upon layers of clothes will keep you warm on cold days

6. Show up Ready to Ski!

Avoid the rental shop when you arrive by renting in the city ahead of time, get dressed in your car, and buy your day passes online if you don't have a seasons pass. 

Need to get the kids set up with rentals for the ski year? Check out the RCR Wings Program where you can rent a ski or snowboard package for the season and upgrade as necessary if the kids grow. 

Note, 2020-21 information has not been released yet so please contact RCR directly if interested in this program.

Need practical tips to help get you out the door and on the lifts? Check out the story below: 

Read: Tips and Tricks for Downhill Skiing with Kids

First in line for the lifts and ready to go!

7. Sometimes it Pays to "not" be First 

I love being first in line for the chairlift but sometimes you have to change your strategy, especially when skiing at resorts that only have one main chair or gondola to get you up the mountain before you can spread out.

A couple of friends have told me that they like to wait till the keeners have already loaded the gondola or the main village chairlift, and then they wait another half hour until the lift line has died down. I've seen this in action at Nakiska when the ski clubs are all lined up for the 9:00 chair. Let them go because most of them aren't trying to steal the best powder. They have places to get to so they can begin preparing for their races and training runs that day.

Unless your kids are going to be upset if they miss out on first tracks, wait until everybody is spread out around the hill and not all crowded at the base area. You can still arrive early if you're concerned about parking, but take some time to enjoy finishing your morning coffee before rushing out the door to the lifts.

Hold off until everybody is spread around the hill before fighting to get on the gondola or chairlift

I've had several people tell me that they thoroughly enjoy the last couple hours of the ski day as well after the bulk of skiers have started packing up or heading in for their apr├Ęs-ski drinks. (And Sunday afternoons are extremely quiet!)

Special note for powder days: Everybody loves their fresh powder dumps and it's not uncommon for skiers to start showing up at 7:30am to line up for first tracks if there's been 30-50 cm of snow overnight! (Especially in mountain towns like Fernie.)

Unless you absolutely need to be first in line, you're almost better to show up at 10 or 11:00am. Locals will start to leave at noon as the hill gets "skied out."

Show up at 10 or 11 on powder days to avoid crowded lift lines at the base

8. The more Advanced the Run, the Fewer the Crowds

Ever notice how busy the green beginner runs are at a ski hill, but go off onto a double black mogul run and the crowds disappear. 

Learn to ski moguls, glades, and other advanced terrain and you'll see far fewer people on the ski hill. Even learning to ski intermediate runs helps immensely with avoiding crowds on a ski hill. 

You'll never be fighting crowds on a double black run with moguls!

Myself, I'm not an advanced skier, but I do like groomed black runs. And while they are busier than the ungroomed terrain, they're still far more peaceful than a groomed green or blue run.

Need some help getting off the bunny hill or graduating to the next level?

Read: Take your skiing to the next level in 5 simple steps 

Move up to groomed black runs to escape the crowds

9. Ski the Outside Runs at your Resort

Every hill has its "perimeter runs" that see less traffic. Maybe they're a little bit further to reach, they might require a long traverse to exit out of, and snowboarders may occasionally encounter flat sections that require a bit of speed to get through, but they are often very peaceful (and usually my favourite runs at any ski hill.)

Some of my favourite perimeter runs at our local RCR resorts are below:

Nakiska: Unfortunately most of the perimeter runs here are either used heavily for racing/training or else they're extremely busy (being easy blue cruisers.) 

I have found Lower Mapmaker to be quite peaceful if you're trying to get to the bottom of the gold chair, but other than that, Nakiska is where you'll need to up your game to get off the cruisers if you want to avoid crowds. 

If you can see some easy gladed runs, head for the trees off the top of the gold chair and you'll find plenty of space to spread out from beginners hanging out on the lower mountain.

It's easy to spread out in the Nakiska glades

Kimberley: Peace and solitude is easy to find at Kimberly as soon as you head to your left off the top of the North Star Quad and climb up towards the mid mountain lodge. Everybody else heads right towards the other chairlifts and the upper mountain. 

My favourite runs in this area are Moe's and Boundary. They're fun blue cruisers and beautifully groomed for intermediate skiing.

On the upper mountain, look for Notre Dame (off the Ridgeway Traverse.) There are several flat sections that snowboarders won't love, but you're guaranteed solitude if you make it all the way over.

The perimeter runs at Kimberley Alpine Resort are glorious!

Fernie: I could ski Falling Star all day! This run starts from either the top of the White Pass Chair or lower down from the top of the Timber chair. It's a fun blue cruiser and is the longest run on the ski hill at 5 km in length!

Off the Elk Chair look for Holo Hike, an easy intermediate run that passes through two tunnels at the bottom. 

Holo Hike is a fun intermediate run at Fernie Alpine Resort

Kicking Horse: I don't have any personal favourites to recommend here because I went with the crowd on my last visit seeking out easier terrain, but a good rule of thumb would be "the longer the hike, the fewer the crowds." With 5 bowls, 85+ inbound chutes (many requiring a hike,) and 120+ trails you're guaranteed to find a space to call your own here. 

You won't be fighting crowds when you have to climb a staircase to reach double black pitches

10. Get up and Away from the Base as Fast as you Can

Unless you're skiing with young children and need to stick close to the beginner area at the bottom, you'll want to stay clear of the closest chairlifts to the day lodge.

At Nakiska, head for the Olympic Chair and then load the Gold Chair where glades, moguls, and even some steep groomed terrain awaits you.

At bigger resorts, ski the backside, ski off the lifts that are the furthest away from the day lodge, and look for hikeable terrain where you'll leave 90% of the crowds behind. (Kicking Horse is amazing for this.)

Escape to the backside or remote bowls at ski resorts

A good long traverse works wonders for escaping crowds (and Kimberley Alpine Resort has two of these off the Easter Chair.)

At Fernie Alpine Resort, head to the Cedar Bowl where your only escape comes from a ride on the Haul Back T-bar. (guaranteed to thin out the crowds.) I also love heading to the North Ridge, a glorious steep black run (often groomed,) off the Boomerang Chair.

These kids love skiing the South Ridge at Nakiska, accessed via a long remote traverse

Recommended Reading 

Disclaimer: This story was written in partnership with RCR Resorts.

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