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  • Writer's pictureKyra Whitelaw

A Guide to Skiing during COVID-19

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

In many ways, skiing is the ideal pandemic-era activity. With most skiers naturally wearing masks and socially distancing on the slopes, it’s one of the few activities that adheres to current public health guidelines.

Ski and snow
Photo courtesy of Alex Friedman

Nonetheless, those planning their winter ski adventures should be aware of the changes happening at ski resorts across the country as the mountains adapt to COVID-19 regulations and try to limit transmission risk at their facilities.

Below, you’ll find a guide to common practices you should expect to encounter at many American ski resorts. However, you should make sure to familiarize yourself with the specific protocols at the mountain you are visiting. Resorts will vary in their exact procedures and policies.

1. Advance Reservations Required

In an effort to limit capacity on the mountain and prevent crowding, many resorts are moving away from day-of ticket sales. Most resorts require that you buy lift tickets and reserve particular days of skiing ahead of time. Parking reservations, equipment rentals, and lessons may also need to be booked in advance. Popular dates, including on weekends and over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday, may fill up fast, so it’s best to start your planning as early as possible.

Photo courtesy of Kyra Whitelaw

If you’re hoping to do a lot of skiing over the course of the season, a season pass may be the most economical and convenient option. At many resorts, season pass holders get priority on reservations, and these passes also often come with discounts on other resort services and amenities.

For those having trouble getting reservations, some resorts will guarantee reservations to guests who stay in resort-owned lodging. At other resorts, booking ski lessons can get you a lift pass for the day.

If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, try to avoid skiing over the holidays or on weekends. Instead, see if you can make weekday trips. Also, consider checking out smaller resorts that are farther away from population centers, harder to get to from major airports, and less touristy. Especially with the challenges of domestic travel, discovering a small local mountain instead of making the flight to a bigger and more popular resort might be wise.

2. Flexible Refund Policies

You may feel hesitant to make ski trip plans given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic. State and local governments are constantly adjusting their regulations in response to the virus’ spread and it is impossible to know, in advance, what will be open and to what extent. To address these concerns, ski resorts and travel companies are proposing new policies that offer increasing flexibility for guests. For example, many mountains are offering their season passes with fewer constraints and a variety of refund opportunities. These may allow you to secure your pass with reduced risk. Definitely be sure to check carefully what the refund deadlines and exact requirements are if you are hoping to get your money back.

Airlines and accommodations are also offering more flexible booking options. Several major airlines have gotten rid of flight change or cancellation fees while many hotels are guaranteeing no-penalty cancellations. Airbnbs and other condos, which are popular for ski vacationers, may vary significantly in their refund policies, but with careful searching options can be found that provide low-cost reimbursements for guests if their plans have to be cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

3. Restricted Gear Rental

Ski lift
Photo courtesy of Kyra Whitelaw

Renting gear at the mountain may be more of a hassle than usual due to capacity restrictions on retail establishments. In addition, ski shops have to clean and disinfect all rental equipment between customers, slowing down operations. Advance reservations may be required at rental shops. If you need to rent gear, you should try to rent at less trafficked shops away from the mountain or even at local outdoor gear stores near your home. Depending on how many times you plan to ski in the season, purchasing your own skis and boots is often economical and will improve your skiing experience. Buying used gear on platforms such as Switchbackr make buying your own equipment easy and cheap!

4. Reduced Locker Room Access

Snow covered car
Photo courtesy of Alex Friedman

Many resorts are severely limiting access to locker rooms, either completing shutting them down or restricting their capacity. Even if locker rooms are open and the number of people allowed inside at a time is reduced, it is best to avoid these small indoor spaces. This means that you should plan to arrive at the resort ready to ski, fully changed, with ski boots on. Accordingly, try to drive to the mountain in your ski clothes, perhaps putting on your snow pants and ski jacket once you arrive. A small tarp, rug, or even plastic box lid can serve as a place to stand when you’re in your socks and putting on your ski boots so that you don’t get them wet.

5. Mandatory Masks

At most resorts, guests will be required to wear face masks in all indoor and outdoor public spaces. Guests may be allowed to remove their masks when actively skiing. Many resorts have employees standing in lift/gondola lines and dining areas actively enforcing mask policies and reminding guests to pull their masks up over their noses. Guests may have their passes revoked if they continue to violate mask policies. All employees will also be masked.

Photo courtesy of Kyra Whitelaw

While wearing some sort of face covering is normal for most skiers, you should choose your mask carefully given new research about the efficacy of different mask designs. Buffs, neck gaiters, balaclavas, and bandanas are popular choices for skiers, but studies have questioned their effectiveness in protecting against virus spread. N95s, surgical masks, or cloth masks are better at filtering out coronavirus particles. If you want to go with your traditional ski face covering, consider layering it with another higher performing face mask or, at least, folding it over to create more layers of protection. You might also want to bring an extra mask or two to swap out if your mask becomes wet with snow, perspiration, and breathing. A wet mask is less effective at filtering out respiratory particles.

6. Enforced Social Distancing

In line with public health guidelines, ski resorts will be enforcing six-foot social distancing. While keeping a safe distance from other skiers is easy on the slopes, everywhere else it is important to remain vigilant.

Resorts will be enforcing social distancing in lift lines. On chairlifts, related parties are allowed to ride together, while single riders will be offered the option of riding alone. If you are comfortable riding with other unrelated guests who are not in your household, most resorts will require you to ride on opposite sides of a quad chair. In gondolas, unrelated single riders may be allowed to sit alone on opposite sides of a car or will be required to ride alone. Gondola window must remain open to allow for air flow. At some resorts, lower mountain chairlifts may open earlier in the day, giving guests more time to spread out across the mountain and prevent crowding.

7. Limited Dining Options

Ambassadr Laura Ippolito snacking between runs.

Dining and warming up in indoor lodges are the parts of skiing that will be most impacted by the pandemic. At some resorts, indoor dining will be available, but at a significantly reduced capacity according to local regulations and six-foot social distancing guidelines. You may have to make reservations ahead of time for indoor dining options or wait in long lines as indoor seating is extremely limited.

As an alternative to traditional indoor lodge dining, resorts are increasing their outdoor dining capacity. This will mainly consist of grab-and-go or takeout options combined with increased outdoor seating capacity across the mountain. Many resorts will also be requiring cashless payment as a way of reducing virus surface transmission. Some resorts have adopted apps for pre-ordering food. In order to avoid going inside to buy food and spending huge sums on resort lunches, consider packing lunch. Sandwiches, granola bars, and other snacks can be kept in jacket pockets, or in a small backpack or Camelback worn while skiing. Outdoor heaters will likely become widespread, but you should still consider the limited availability of indoor warming space and plan accordingly.

Ski resort
Photo courtesy of Kyra Whitelaw

Particularly in places where indoor seating is completely banned, such as in parts of California, making alternative warming plans on very cold days is important. Bringing hand and foot warmers and wearing extra layers can help mitigate the cold, but sometimes a heated indoor break is necessary. Retail stores, which remain open across the country, may offer temporary relief. For great comfort, you may decide you need to make a trip back to the car for a midday lunch and warming break; however, parking can be far from the mountain, so if this is your plan, make sure to arrive at the mountain early in the morning to secure the best and closest parking spots.

8. Smaller Ski School Operations

Ski lessons are always a great option for skiers of all levels looking to improve their skills and discover new terrain. Most resorts will continue to offer ski lessons, although often at lower capacity. During lessons, social distancing will be enforced between instructors and guests. As such, group sizes will be reduced, with a maximum around five students per instructor on average. For those concerned about being in any group setting, private lessons are also available. Many ski lessons will require advance reservations.

Ski instructors, just like all resort employees, will undergo daily wellness checks, including, at many resorts, a temperature check, to ensure that they are healthy enough to work. Any employees who exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19 or who have been in contact with an infected individual will be required to stay at home. Participants in ski lessons will be required to fill out a health screening before their lesson.

Ski lessons
Photo courtesy of Kyra Whitelaw

9. Changing Local Regulations

Every state has different COVID-19 rules and regulations. Ski resorts are in constant conversation with public health authorities to tailor their policies and procedures in adherence with local guidance. As virus spread changes, local regulations along with ski resort policies will adapt accordingly. Every resort will be slightly different and you should be sure to read about the policies in place at your resort before you go so that you can be prepared. These policies should be clearly posted on the resort’s website.

You should also make sure to look at COVID-19 related travel regulations if you are planning to travel domestically to your ski resort. Some states require a two-week quarantine for visitors from certain states, though in some cases this quarantine time can be reduced with a negative test. Check each state’s official website before you head out to make sure you are in compliance.

Photo courtesy of Kyra Whitelaw

Summary: Tips for Planning your Trip

  • Reserve your lift tickets, equipment rentals, ski lessons, and parking ahead of time.

  • Avoid the crowds by booking less popular dates or less popular resorts.

  • Check refund/cancellation policies before making major purchases and look for flexible options.

  • Avoid renting equipment on the mountain.

  • Plan to come to the mountain ready to ski instead of relying on changing in a locker room.

  • Always wear a mask. Seek more effective masks than traditional ski face coverings and bring extra masks.

  • Always observe social distancing guidelines, in lift lines, on chairlifts, and in gondolas.

  • If possible bring your own food. Plan to eat outside, and consider warming options accordingly.

  • Check the policies of the particular resort you are planning on visiting as well as the relevant local and state authorities before you go.

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