If you want to be assured of an awesome experience, the safest approach is usually to follow the crowd. (Have you ever eaten at a restaurant that’s completely deserted? Chances are the food, the service, and/or your overall dining experience is going to turn out pretty crummy.)

Unfortunately, this strategy backfires when it comes to fresh tracks – it’s pretty hard to find face-shots on a super jam-packed ski run.

10 Ways to Avoid the CrowdsMy husband is a savant in this department. He hates crowds. Consistently for the last 18 years that we’ve skied together, he manages to find a run with no one on it, no matter what day of the year it is. It’s uncanny.

Be Opposite-Man

I was preparing to torture him to extract the for-the-record truth about how he does it, but when I asked, he shrugged: “Just do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.”

Oh, Dave Hobson, your Zen riddles tell me NOTHING.

“Look, it’s easy if you’re naturally a contrarian.”

I’m not, so I asked his colleague at the Whistler Blackcomb Snow School’s MAX4 lessons, Ralph Forsyth, a 20+ year veteran of ski instructing and the brains behind the website and twitter feed of @SkiTipDoJour, how he does it.

Forsyth started teaching skiing in 1986, when he was 17. “I still love it just as much as when I got that first uniform,” he admits. “And my mom still asks when I’m going to finish my degree…”

10 Ways to Avoid the Crowds
Ralph’s first uniform

Take What the Mountain Gives You

Ralph’s learned a few things about the slopes along the way, and he’s happy to share them.

The bottom line?

“Take what the mountain gives you. Then you’ll always have a fun day. For example, this morning, it was -25C (-13F) and bullet-proof, so we hiked Flute and it was super fun. Last Sunday it was the same, so we did high speed groomers to the valley.”

It’s similar to the Contrarian’s approach, actually:

“If it’s -25, go skiing. If it’s raining, go skiing. If it’s dark out, go skiing. If it’s 15 minutes BEFORE the lifts open, get in the line up to go skiing. If the flowers are blooming, go skiing. If it’s lunchtime, go skiing. Icy out? Go skiing. New Years Day? Xmas Day? Superbowl Sunday? You got it.”

In other words, everybody likes to ski on the Run of the Day, mid-morning on a weekend when the sun is out and it’s bluebird. That leaves a lot of other days of the year to enjoy the pickings.

Get An Early Start 

I’ve learned from ski days, climbing trips, epic mountain bike rides, and road trips that the secret to an awesome adventure is pretty much always an uncomfortably early start.

Parting with my duvet just 15 minutes before I really feel like it and jumping straight into the gear I laid out the night before makes all the difference.

As Hobson says, “If the lifts open at 8:30, show up at 8:15. Pretty much everyone else shows up at 9.” Boom. Crowds avoided. You’re ahead of the game right off the bat.

In some resorts, you can even put your skis in the line-up to hold your spot while you go and get your coffee.

10 Ways to Avoid the Crowds
Ralph Forsyth – Whistler-Blackcomb instructor extraordinaire

Rethink the Noon Hour Lunch 

Your body clock might tell you it’s lunchtime, but if you can ignore it (when no one else is), a slew of empty chairlifts and open runs will be your reward. Feast on that, suckahs.

It’s one of Forsyth’s top tips. “Lunch early, late or not at all. Make sure you pack snacks for a pow day. The goods go to those who get up high as they can, as soon as they can, and then hike.”

Hobson also recommends skiing through lunch. “Schedule your day around it. Start at 8:15. Ski through lunch and finish at 1:30. Or have a long lunch and ski out after the lifts have closed, after trying to hit the last ride up the mountain. Then you can dilly dally and ski down just before the sweep pushes you down the mountain.”

Those are the options that are available to anyone, even those not naturally contrarian, if you can combat your Happy-in-the-Pack ways for the day.

Then you get into Jedi territory:

Be Better Than Anyone On the Mountain

When the blue runs are packed, the double blacks are often sitting empty.

10 Ways to Avoid the Crowds
Searching for fresh lines

Be Braver (or Better-Dressed) Than Anyone on the Mountain.

Invest in top quality gear, so you can ski in inclement weather – rain, windstorms, no visibility in the alpine. That’s the time to go and enjoy the entire mountain to yourself.

Be Richer Than Anyone Else. 

“Go heliskiing,” says Hobson. “Then you’ll never find a crowd.”

Or if you’re stratospherically-rich, you can hire out the mountain after it’s closed to be your own private playground. (It has happened. If you have to ask how much it costs, it’s too much for you.)

Find Slow Lifts

Slow lifts are your best friends, says Hobson, if you can find them anymore. T-bars and fixed grips offer a less cushy, but usually less crowded, ride to terrain that gets tracked out more slowly, too.

Opt for No Lifts

Go ski touring. The crowds thin out significantly when you have to earn your turns with sweat equity and support your own choices with terrain smarts and avalanche rescue gear.

Go with an expert or a guide if you’re getting started in backcountry adventures. The first rule of touring is “Respect the Mountain” so you don’t die or kill anyone else.

Take a lesson

Benefits from the accumulated wisdom of people like Forsyth and Hobson, who ski the mountain every day, know where the secret stashes are, and instinctively find the runs that diverge in the woods. Plus, they’ll take you straight to the front of the line, every time, guaranteed.

Want to win Liftopia shwag? Share your secrets on how to avoid the crowds in the comments section below!

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  • Chris M

    If a mountain has multiple lifts at various points get away from the main lifts.
    Find the trend on the mountain. If people ski the west side in the morning ski the east side.

  • David Tolson Smith

    I always aim for the back side of the mountain at the start of the morning and the front side during the lunch rush. We rarely stand in lines and always ski during peak vacation times due to our status as teachers living in Missouri.

  • Massquatch

    I used to find it difficult to avoid crowds, especially on powder weekend days (I ski in Northern VT, where powder days aren’t as plentiful as the Cottonwoods, for example, so when it’s a powder Saturday, it can be aggravatingly crowded). But I’ve gotten better at it for one main reason: I know the resorts I ski at very well.

    So my best advice would be to know your mountain like the back of your hand. Know where people like to ski, and more importantly, know where people don’t like to ski. I’d rather ski a powdery blue square than the popular (read: crowded) black diamond everyone wants to hit up. Yeah, the blues aren’t as challenging (and not as brag-worthy during apres beer-sessions), but I’d prefer to have the open space (read: freedom) of the blue everyone waits until 11 to ski on.

    And most of all, use those secret stashes you’ve found that are hard to get to, and virtually no one knows about. There are some glades I found at Stowe a few seasons ago that are untracked (or nearly untracked….turns out I’m not the only one who knows the secret) days after a storm. They’re in bounds, but not on the trail map….perfect way to ski without crowds on snowy weekends.

    • liftopia

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  • Conor Waller

    Do Your Research!! You can do so much prepping the night (or week or month or, for me, even year) beforehand that will highly benefit you. While everyone else is gawking at the trail map, I high-tail to my laps I wanna hit. BONUS: when the group you are with doesn’t know as much, they automatically default to your decisions from your knowledge. Now, you can always ski any trail you want, even in a medium sized group 🙂

    I have a different take on lunch: eat it on the gondola. I will never wait for the atrocious lift line here relative to detachable quads, but when I do wait it’s during the only time it’s empty: LUNCH! oh wait, that’s perfect.. I can now eat all the food I packed on the gondola during lunch hours (while most of my friends were pre-gaming in Quebec, I was manufacturing PB&J’s so even my group didn’t have an excuse to go in early). Careful, though, power bars can freeze. In -15 F wind chill, I found myself angrily disposing of 2 CLIF bars and a Zone bar by throwing them out the window, only to find them stuck in my skis at the top (true story).

    Friends aren’t playing along still?? Ditch em’. Chances are you’ll find a better match lapping the terrain you wanna hit. I even do this on the hills of PA

    • Darrin McNeice

      Keep those bars in an inside pocket to keep from turning to rocks… I also carry a small, flask-like water bottle so I can have a drink/stay hydrated during the morning action and then refill it at lunch for the afternoon…

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  • Keane Horner

    Step 1 – 10: Go to Solitude.

  • Darrin McNeice

    Get to the lift early and get in line. Make sure you are first chair. If it is an unfamiliar ski area. Study the map for great trails that look like they may have some more open trees/glades to hit off trail. Use Google maps to scan the area, too. Save the ski area you are going to in the My Maps feature and drop some pins to mark the areas you want to hit. Toggle between satellite and topo view to make sure you have some run out and no terrain traps. Watch for ski area boundaries or just stay between two runs to be sure. Make sure there is a run out trail if you go too far out of the ski area boundary and check with patrol to make sure you are allowed.

    And always ski with a buddy on a powder day and wear a helmet at all times.

    • liftopia

      Hi Darrin, Great advice on how plan your routes! We liked it so much, we want to send some Liftopia shwag your way. Look out for an email from us in your inbox!

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