What to Know About Planning a Ski Trip During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ski resorts are implementing new policies for a safer ski experience

two skiers with mouth nose mask on chair lift
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There’s no doubt that this year’s ski season will see some changes—with many states seeing surges in positive COVID-19 cases, ski resorts around the country are working to make a winter getaway as safe as possible for staff and visitors. Naturally, the skiers and boarders are wondering how to prepare for a safe and enjoyable trip. 

Fortunately, within the context of the current pandemic, skiing is one of the safer activities you can take part in this year. It’s a sport that fully takes place outside (with minimal indoor needs), resorts have hundreds of acres of land that allow people to avoid contact with others, and standard ski gear (such as gaiters, goggles, and gloves) pulls double duty as safety gear. 

With the input of ski industry leaders across the country, the National Ski Areas Association (a trade association representing 320 of the country’s 470 ski areas) released a “Ski Well, Be Well” campaign for the season that outlines best practices for resorts, and many around the country are implementing these guidelines into their operations.

In addition, many state governments are developing plans and guidance for their resorts to operate safely. For instance, New Hampshire released a “Safer at Home” plan earlier this month. Colorado’s Department of Public Health and State Emergency Operations Center joined forces to release its guidance for resorts last week.

When preparing for a trip, the most important thing you can do is stay informed. "Guests should do research before and leading up to their trip, even day-of, to understand the most up-to-date information on any policies or procedures that are in place, as well as what is expected of them during their visit," says Chris Linsmayer, Public Affairs Director at Colorado Ski Country USA. "While many things will be similar at ski areas, [some] things will vary a little bit."

Read on for everything to know about this year’s ski season, and be sure to check the official websites of the resorts you plan to visit for the most up-to-date information.

Major Changes to Expect

As expected, resorts will be making changes to their usual, day-to-day operations to guarantee a safe visit for both visitors and resort staff. And that also means that some policies could change as needed throughout the season, so be sure to do your research as your trip time approaches. Here are a few changes to expect from many resorts around the country.

Access to the Mountain

Skiers who return to the slopes year after year know that resorts can be crowded. According to the National Ski Areas Association, U.S. ski resorts typically attract more than 50 million people each year. But this year, resorts are rethinking how many people are let onto the slopes each day and how they will be dispersed across peaks and runs. (Every resort is different, and policies may change throughout the season, so be sure to check for updates on the official websites before making plans.) 

All Vail Resorts will require reservations for ski days, and to start, the slopes will be open exclusively to holders of its Epic Pass through Dec. 7. Lift tickets for non-pass holders will be sold online starting on Dec. 8, but they will be limited based on the number of existing pass holder reservations each day. (The Epic Pass is valid for all 37 Vail Resorts worldwide, plus other partner resorts. Notable ones in North America include Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Crested Butte, Park City, Heavenly, Stowe, and Whistler Blackcomb.)

Reservation requirements for the Ikon Pass vary by destination (see the full list here). Arapahoe Basin, Aspen resorts, Jackson Hole, and Big Sky Resort, among others, require reservations for pass holders; however, other popular places such as Mammoth Mountain, Killington, Copper, Deer Valley, and Steamboat do not.

If you’re traveling to a place that’s not under the umbrella of these two major passes, check the details on the official site to make sure there is availability for your dates, as many resorts are altering schedules and limiting capacity on the mountain based on several factors, such as crowd management, local government guidance, and safety measures. 

In Idaho, some resorts are limiting day-ticket inventory based on historical data. Others are changing up their schedules to entice people to visit throughout the day, according to Tony Harrison, a publicist for Ski Idaho. For instance, Bogus Basin is noticing that people tend to arrive early and leave early, so they are extending its night skiing hours, which will now start at 3 p.m. (instead of 4 p.m.) and is also offering a discounted season pass for night skiing for $199. 

Capacity Limitations at Lodges

In past years, lodges could get pretty packed with cold and hungry skiers around peak lunchtime. However, that likely won’t be the case this year due to safety restrictions. In some places, lodges that allow indoor dining will have maximum capacity restrictions, and tables will be spaced farther apart. Others might only allow outdoor seating. Some might require advance notice; for instance, several of the lodges at Colorado’s Steamboat Ski Resort, such as Ragnar’s, Hazie’s, Stoker, and Timber & Torch, will all require reservations even during the daytime. 

To compensate for limited seating availability, many lodges are coming up with new ways to feed skiers. Bogus Basin and Kelly Canyon in Idaho will implement a system that enables guests to order food online from their phones for pickup at the lodges. Two other resorts, Grand Targhee (just across the border in Wyoming) and Tamarack, will introduce food trucks this season. 

Chairlift Changes

Operation of chairlifts, including speed and line management, will vary based on the specific resort policies and crowds, but expect changes to how those are loaded. Riding the chairlift with skiers from another group (a practice typically encouraged or enforced in past years to cut down on wait times) will be discouraged this year to maintain social distancing, which could lead to longer lines and reduced operations. Guidance from several states also require that gondola capacity be limited, and windows remain open even in inclement weather.

Mask Requirements

Most ski resorts require face coverings in all indoor and public spaces, including chairlifts and lines, lodges, and shuttles. Fortunately, skiing is one of the safer sports in this respect since many people wear some form of face-covering during the day while on the slopes. However, a thick gaiter might not transfer comfortably to indoor places like lodges and restrooms, so be sure to pack a lighter, more daily-use face mask that you can switch to for those moments. 

Planning the Logistics of Your Trip

Ski vacations require a lot of planning and coordination, from the lodging to the lift tickets to gear rentals and flights if you’re not within close reach of a resort. And this year will require even more diligence in checking to make sure you’ve checked all the boxes. Booking early is key, says Linsmayer, and that goes for almost everything, including rental pick-ups, ski school classes, and more. Use these tips to ensure as stress-free of a trip as possible.

Lodging: Again, book early. That’s never been truer than it is in the era of COVID-19, as options might be limited where you’re headed due to safety measures and potential capacity restrictions, and buffer times between guests. While each type of lodging has advantages and disadvantages for a ski trip, the best this year is likely a ski-in-ski-out; though usually the most expensive, this option puts you right at the base of slopes to avoid shuttles or cars, and most are cabin or condo-style, meaning you’ll have more space and a kitchen for cooking. 

Dining: Like lodging, restaurants in ski towns may face restrictions, from capacity limits to takeout and delivery only. While those options might suffice for dinner time, you’ll also want to think about lunch since changes at slopeside lodges mentioned above could limit your food options. Consider buying groceries when you arrive at your destination and packing a lunch for the day to eat on the chairlift, at the end of a run, or in your car.

Gear: Some on-mountain rental shops may be closed entirely or only open on a reservation system, so if you don’t own your own gear, research rental shops to see their specific policies. As for bringing your gear to the slopes, don’t assume you will be able to store your things in lodges or lockers—many resorts are trying to cut down on time spent indoors. In that case, plan to pack light for the day or leave your extra belongings (such as a change of shoes or extra layers) in your car. 

Transportation: While many ski towns have excellent transit options to shuttle riders to the slopes, we recommend renting a car this year if possible. Following in suit with other indoor businesses, shuttles will likely also have capacity limits for how many riders they can pick up and take to the slopes, meaning you’ll have to wait longer for a ride. Plus, a car is a safe option to avoid contact with others and is ideal for storing extra gear or items you might need throughout the day. 

A Shift From Traditional Ski Getaways

The 2020-21 season will likely see a rise in demand, but not necessarily for the typical ski trip. Instead of spending most days on popular resorts' main runs, some winter adventurers will opt for a more secluded type of trip. 

“We anticipate a large increase in backcountry winter experiences, everything from backcountry skiing to hut trips, snowshoe, snowmobile, and much more,” says Caitlin Johnson of the Colorado Tourism Office. The “more” she’s talking about includes activities such as snow biking, skijoring, curling, and even hut and yurt getaways for those looking to unplug. “We want to ensure folks are enjoying our incredible backcountry but are doing so safely and responsibly with the proper education, equipment, and guiding services.”

Johnson also expects a surge of interest in smaller, lesser-known resorts in Colorado, such as Cooper, Monarch Mountain, and Wolf Creek, for those looking to avoid the crowds at more popular places like Vail or Breckenridge. 

Brad Wilson, president of Ski Idaho, which represents 18 resorts, is also excited about the potential for smaller resorts this season. “I love small ski areas,” said Wilson in a press release. “And if there's any place to social distance, it's here in Idaho.”

As you start to plan your winter trips, learn more about the best places to go and what to see and do with our guides to a Colorado winter getaway, a Northeast winter vacation, and the best ski resorts in North America.

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