SKIING AND SNOWBOARDING
WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK
Skiing and snowboarding are a luxury. Overpriced accommodation, fancy restaurants and expensive lift passes quickly add up. But it doesn’t have to be that way. This little guide shows you how to think out of the box and get your pow fix cheaply.
Working The Ski Season
You want to go skiing or snowboarding in the most famous destinations but don’t have a lot of money? The most popular approach is still to find seasonal work in or around a resort. There are plenty of skilled and unskilled jobs in the industry, from lift operator to instructor to kitchen and hotel staff. If you are between 18 and 30 (or sometimes 35) years old, you may qualify for a working holiday visa in several countries with a big winter sports industry. The European Alps, New Zealand, Japan and Canada are particularly attractive if you want to combine traveling and snow sports.
The best positions are filled before the start of the season. Therefore, it’s best to search and apply well in advance, usually during the summer and autumn. Larger resorts also sometimes conduct a jobs fair a couple of months before the opening of the season. But even if that fails it’s always possible to find work on site in person. At the start of the season some last minute vacancies systematically appear. And around the hectic Christmas holidays some employees always throw in the towel. If you persevere you will be successful.
Unless you have good contacts or lots of experience you will probably have to start with a poorly paid unskilled job. But to sweeten the deals employers often throw in a free or heavily discounted season pass. Or affordable accommodation. Or free meals. Most importantly, you will also be part of a vibrant community. Many former ski bums describe the seasons spent working and riding as some of best years of their life.
Nevertheless, if you have a location-independent income or a job that allows you to save enough money over a few months, you can easily spend an entire season enjoying the snow without working at the resort.
Cheap Lift Passes And Other Ways Up The Mountain
Unless a season pass is part of your job perks, getting up the mountain is a major expense. But you don’t need to have deep pockets to buy lift passes. Fortunately this is a highly competitive industry, and there are many deals. Have a look at what’s on offer on the web. Most resorts offer significant discounts if you buy your passes before the start of the season, with usually 20-40% off. And don’t forget to check if you are eligible for a student discount. Some resorts have fairly relaxed criteria.
If you are location-independent, consider committing for a full winter. Season passes, particularly combined with discounts, offer good value. Some resorts have 40-60% off deals on weekday-only passes in an attempt to attract more off peak costumers. A 500$ pass spread over several months can easily be the equivalent of 5-10$ a day.
Another option is to head to cheaper countries. Although the piste network might not be as impressive at the European and North American super resorts, you can still have a lot of fun. And explore new countries and cultures. The emerging middle classes around the world are driving up ski pass prices, but in any case accommodation and food will remain much more affordable.
Finally, let’s not forget the cheapest way to get up the mountain: muscle power. Smaller resorts might not impress with their lifts, but if you are an amateur of slackcountry and sidecountry that bargain ski pass might be totally worth it. And if you are fit and fully equipped for the backcountry, you can forego the lift passes entirely, or only splurge on the really good powder days. Or use local transportation, taxis and hitchhiking to get you at least half way up the mountain.
Skiing And Snowboarding In The Backcountry
Backcountry is anything solely accessed by your own power. It opens up a world of near endless slopes, powder, mountains, adventure and fun. Although reserved to more experienced skiers and snowboarders, the rising popularity of the sport combined with huge improvements in technology have made it much more accessible. Unless you are using lifts to help you access the backcountry, so-called sidecountry or slackcountry, you can also save big on lift passes. As a bonus you will become really fit.
However, venturing into the wilderness is not to be taken lightly. Mountains in winter are a dangerous place and require specialized equipment and skills. Avalanches, cliffs, exhaustion and exposure can and do kill. Start with a good theoretical base of the snow pack. Follow a course or learn from some experienced friends. And most importantly, practice! Even the best courses are useless if you never dig a snow pit and never freshen up your avalanche victim search skills. Constantly applying your knowledge on the ground and learning from more experienced partners is key. Stay aware, be humble.
Heading into the backcountry also requires specialized gear. Whatever you end up calling it, ski touring or AT skiing requires boots with a walking mode, lighter skis adapted to deep snow, touring bindings and skins. For snowboarders, a pair of snowshoes and collapsible poles are sufficient to begin with. Although you will probably want to switch to a splitboard at some point. Add additional clothes and the basic avalanche tools, transceiver, shovel and probe, and you are good to go.
Buying Cheap Gear
The industry is always keen on selling you THE latest technology that will make you ride like a pro. And it’s true, snowboards and skis have come a long way since their humble beginnings. But the latest innovation and fashion comes at a hefty price. An easy way to save big is to hunt down second-hand bargains or end-of-season sales. Your skills gained from lots of mileage in the mountains will give you an edge instead.
As long as you don’t mind gear that is 1+ seasons old you can find whole kits in good condition at rock-bottom prices. With a budget of around 500$ you can purchase all you need for the backcountry. And even much less if you plan to stay on piste. Alternatively look for sales, especially towards the end of the season if you can. 50%+ off is not uncommon, although choice tends to be limited.
If you are a beginner there is no need to book expensive lessons. Yes, they will speed up your progress, but you can learn the basics from friends, YouTube videos and watching others. The rest is essentially one thing: practice. The more hours you put in, the better. A full season can easily take you from total novice to intermediate and even further. After all, it’s the equivalent of many years of short holidays.
When you start venturing into the backcountry, the situation gets more complex. You are responsible for your own safety. Understand what you are doing, and invest a little time and money in your safety.
Ski resorts are designed to separate you from your hard-earned money. Securing affordable accommodation remains one of the main challenges of the ski bum. If you work for the season you can sometimes get access to staff accommodation. Otherwise, you will have to be creative.
Arriving early gives you some bargaining power. Many rentals don’t always find customers outside of the peak holiday season. The prospect of a guaranteed income for the whole winter can command decent discounts. Throw in a few house or room mates and rent can already be a lot more reasonable. And keep an open mind. Ask around. For years the cheapest rooms in Hakuba, Japan were above a small sushi restaurant.
Alternatively, looking for options further away from the resorts can be an excellent bet. And if you are a backcountry addict, you could end up closer to the best spots while paying less. Being based within striking range of a whole mountain range will give you more flexibility with varying conditions. For example, it is possible to find rooms and studios in the Alps for 400-1000$ per month. You will not be at the foot of the slopes, but within a couple of hours there will be plenty to do.
Another great budget option is living in a van or small RV. An insulated rig with a small heater and access to toilets and showers is all you really need. It’s a bit spartan and can even be miserable during bad weather, but gives you the ultimate freedom to follow the powder. You have to keep a low profile, but it’s an excellent opportunity.
Unless you are in really cheap destinations you will have to start self-catering on a regular basis. Period. If you have access to a kitchen that’s easy. Furthermore, restaurant food is often full of cheap oils, salt and additives. To keep your body in top shape over a whole winter you simply have to invest some time in cooking. Your budget will also thank you for it.
Even if you don’t have access to a kitchen, you can still improvise something with a small portable electric hub or even a kettle. For example, in Japanese supermarkets there is a fantastic selection of fresh noodles, local winter vegetables and funky mushrooms to cook cheap yet healthy soups.
Go Skiing And Snowboarding In Cheap Destinations
A few months or a whole season in exotic skiing and snowboarding destinations can be an unforgettable experience. And last but not least, it can also be very budget friendly. Here are a few suggestions.
Gulmarg, India. The land of Bollywood and delicious curries is mainly known for its hot tropical and subtropical climate. But the North is also home to spectacular mountain ranges. Gulmarg is located in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and has a gondola rising to almost 4000m. There are no groomed pistes to speak off, this is lift-accessed backcountry. On a perfect day, a single run can clock up to 2600m vertical meters of descent. With 8126m high Nanga Parbat in the background. And did I mention monkeys in the trees? Home to a small community of hardcore ski bums, this is a premier venue for the very adventurous.
Gudauri, Georgia. Located on the Southern slopes of the Caucasus, Gudauri is very popular with the Russian crowd. The season pass is valid nationwide and costs around 400$. Backcountry opportunities abound along the road going to Russia. Add a fascinating culture, ancient monasteries and a delicious cuisine and you have a winning combination.
Eastern Europe. There are many budget-friendly destinations in this part of the world. Borovets and Bansko in Bulgaria, Popova Shapka in Macedonia or Vogel in Slovenia all are good value just to name a few. The mountains are not as high and impressive as in the Alps, but these often underrated countries have a lot to offer. However, it can get a bit crowded with Europeans chasing powder and cheep beer.
Cheap Skiing And Snowboarding
Second-hand gear, including clothing, should cost you less than 500$ per season, assuming you take good care of your possessions. Accommodation and food will depend a lot on where you go, but 200-800$ per month should work in most places. Add the lift pass if needed. If you are fit and enterprising you can get by on 400-600$ per month in places like Gudauri and Gulmarg, flights excluded. Even in a place like Japan 1000$ a month is perfectly possible with some cunning and discipline.