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Head to Mexico City and you’ll hear a lot of Spanish spoken. Go to Venice and you’ll hear people speaking Italian. Go to Munich and you’ll hear German. But, go to a ski resort in America and you’ll hear things that will leave you scratching your head. Did I really just hear someone say,”yard sale” and “brain bucket”? Skiers and snowboarders have their own way of talking. We all use these unique skiing expressions, that somehow everyone on the mountain understands. Ski slang is its own language, really. I call it ski lingo, and to truly fit in at a ski resort there are a few key ski terms you should know and understand.
This guide to the most often used skiing expression is a new skier’s dictionary of all of the popular ski phrases and skiing vocabulary words you’ll hear on the mountain.
Ski terms to help you understand a mountain’s rating system
Chances are some of the first skiing expressions you hear on the mountain won’t be unfamiliar at all – at least if you know your basic colors. What may be confusing though is how these colors are used in sentences.
“Stick to the greens, the blacks are brutal, and the blues are more like blacks.”
Mountain resorts use colors as a ratings system. Understanding this rating system is one of the most important parts of the skiers’ vocabulary that you need to know. If you don’t understand the color scale you may end up in trouble on a ski run you are not prepared for, and one on which you could get seriously hurt.
Green runs are typically the easiest runs on the mountain outside of the hills used for ski school students. If you are a beginner skier, these are the runs you should stick to until you are handling them with ease and can comfortably move to something more challenging.
Blue runs are your moderately difficult runs rated for intermediate skiers. After you graduate from greens, you’ll move onto blues.
Black runs are for advanced skiers. They tend to be steeper, less maintained, and may include obstacles like trees or boulders.
Along with the color rating you will notice different shapes on the trail signs and maps. Green runs are marked with a circle, blues with a square, and blacks with a diamond. Although you never hear greens or blues described as a circle or square, you will frequently hear blacks called a diamond or a black diamond.
Double black diamonds
After greens, blues, and blacks the mountain rating system doubles. A double black diamond is even more advanced than a black (I tend to shy away from these because I don’t have a death wish.)
Double black EX
You won’t find double black EX runs at every ski resort, but when you do, avoid them unless you are a crazy good skier or boarder. The EX stands for expert.
Ski phrases to describe different types of ski runs
Beyond the mountains rating system, here are a few other key ski terms used to describe different types of ski runs or slopes.
Traverse or cat track
These two skiing terms are used interchangeably. A traverse isn’t necessarily a run or a rating. It is more like a narrow road for skiers and snowboarders. Cat Tracks typically have a gentle grade or slope that make it easy to control your speed, although I have seen traverses rated as a black run on some mountains. A traverse takes you across the mountain and helps you get from one run to another.
Groomer is a ski term used to describe a groomed ski run or a run that a snowcat recently plowed to make the snow even and flat. The grooming lines left behind from the snowcat resemble corduroy so it is often referred to by that name, as well.
Piste / Off piste
Piste is the French word for groomed or compacted snow, but you are hearing it more and more at ski resorts in the United States and Canada, as well. Along with piste you may also hear the term off piste, which typically refers to ungroomed or even unmarked runs.
Deep and steep
You’ll primarily hear this ski term thrown around by advanced skiers bragging to their friends about the runs they’ve experienced or conquered. Deep and steep means the ski run entailed steep terrain (likely a black or double black) and deep, ungroomed snow.
Unlike deep and steep runs, long cruisers are typically long, groomed runs (often blues) that are easy to cruise down at a good speed without stopping to calculate your next turn.
The terrain park is an area of the mountain that typically includes jumps, railings or boxes and half pipes that attract those extreme skiers who like to do aerial twists, flips, and other maneuvers.
Once my favorite type of ski run until I almost blew out my ACL, a tree run is a ski run that takes you through the trees. These runs can be challenging, but can be a lot of fun if you know what you are doing.
Unless you become fanatical about skiing, hiking terrain is only a skiing term you’ll hear others use. Many of the ski resorts in the United States have a handful of unmarked runs accessible only by – you guessed it – hiking. These runs are called hiking terrain. You have to take your skis or snowboard off and carry them up the mountain to ski down a short run. It isn’t my cup of tea, but to each his own.
Bowl skiing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a choose your own adventure skiing experience where you can drop off the ledge just about anywhere and ski down into a wide open bowl shape.
The bunny hill is often the very first incline that beginner skiers will go down. It usually has a very gentle slope that makes it easier to learn the basics of skiing.
The magic carpet is a conveyor belt typically used for kids or beginner skiers. You stand on it and it moves you up a gentle incline on the mountain.
Ski slang used to describe your day on the mountain
Most of the ski lingo you will hear and use will be to describe your day on the mountain when making small talk or having conversations with other skiers. Skiers and snowboarders love to talk about the runs they did that day, what part of the mountain they played around on, and what the ski conditions were like. So, here’s some ski slang to learn so you will fit right in!
Making first tracks means you are one of the first people on the mountain in the morning, so you literally are one of the first to leave tracks on the freshly fallen or freshly groomed snow.
Skiers and snowboarders love to brag. And one of the things that gives you bragging rights on the mountain is ‘first chair’. This takes dedication. It means you were literally standing in the lift line and got on the first chair of the morning when the mountain opened.
Last chair is the opposite of ‘first chair’ but equal in bragging rights. When you hear a skier or snowboarder talk about the last chair it means they skied all day until the chair lifts finally closed and they were forced off the mountain.
Everyone learning to ski will fall multiple times. But not all falls are created equal. The yard sale is a fall that results in skis and polls flying off and landing all across the run. They call it a yard sale because it looks like a bunch of random stuff scattered across a yard (or ski run) for sale. Want to buy a ski? There is one at the edge of the run by the trees. Need just one ski pole? Check out the middle of the run next to the guy with his face buried in snow.
At times a ski run will flatten out or you’ll end up on a traverse that requires skiers to use their poles and a fair amount of upper body strength to push themselves across the snow. This move is called poling – and it’s exhausting!
Apres is French for the word “after”. It means what you are doing after the ski day is over. Are you going for beers? Heading to a nearby winter activity like Ice Castles? Apres ski activities are part of the mountain resort experience. Most of our ski days must end with a cold beer for us and a hot cocoa for our daughter, who learned to ski as a toddler. Plus, lots of conversations about how great (or horrible) the day went, because again, skiers love to talk about skiing.
Ski lingo to describe the weather
Because skiing is a weather dependent activity, and the weather greatly impacts conditions on the mountain, there are a lot of ski expressions used to describe or discuss the weather.
Blue bird day
Ah, my favorite of all ski days! A blue bird day simply means a day when the sun is shining and the sky is blue.
The day after a big snow dump is called a powder day. You have a fresh foot or so of powder covering the run. A lot of skiers love a powder day. Unfortunately, I have a bad knee thanks to a bad experience skiing on a powder day so I don’t share the love for deep powder that many skiers claim. At least not anymore.
Apparently the word powder has too many syllables, so ski bums and boarders shorten the word to pow. Don’t ask me why. I didn’t invent the language… I just speak it.
This is perhaps my least favorite weather condition in which to ski. A whiteout refers to a snowstorm so fierce you can barely see one turn in front of you. All you see is white. It’s like skiing blind. Get me off the mountain! No thanks!
Lighting can change throughout the day or from day-to-day depending on the weather. When the light is flat it means there is no definition of angles, which can make it difficult to negotiate your turns or see the snow condition you are approaching. A good pair of ski goggles should be a part of your ski wardrobe to help in flat light situations.
Being married to a meteorologist, this was one of the first skiing terms I learned, because an inversion is actually a weather term. When an area is experiencing an inversion, the temperature at the top of the mountain is warmer than that at the bottom. The cold air will literally sink down and stay there. On inversion days, it’s best to stay high and ski at the top of the mountain if possible.
East coast resorts rarely use this word, but head West and you’ll hear it everywhere. It’s short for “avalanche”. We’re not sure why the word went from “avalanche” to “Avi”. We’re guessing skiers don’t like words with 3 syllables in emergency situations. So, shorten the word to two, right?
Skiing is a dangerous sport, and weather variables ultimately make it even more so. The wind is one of the big dangers you will face when skiing. Wind can cause blowing snow that makes visibility low and can also cause the resort to go into a wind hold. A wind hold is when certain chair lifts will shut down temporarily due to high wind. No one wants to be on a chair lift in high winds. Ski resorts do this for your safety.
Important skiing expressions for different ski techniques and actions on the mountain
We’ve covered the ski slang used to describe a day on the slopes as well as ski terms for different types of runs, ratings, and weather conditions. But let’s now address the primary ski techniques and the different things you do on the mountain.
Cross country skiing
Cross country skiing is a form of skiing where you continually shift your weight from one leg to another on groomed, mostly flat trails to navigate across the terrain.
Downhill skiing is your most popular form of skiing, and chances are, it is what you think of when you picture “skiing”. It simply means you’re skiing straight downhill. It’s also often called alpine skiing.
Freestyle skiers tend to hang out in the terrain park or snow park. These aren’t your typical skiers. They’re your extreme skiers. In fact, freestyle skiing often involves aerial jumps and flips, sliding on rails or doing tricks in the half-pipe.
You may see one or two telemark skiers on the mountain. Named after the Telemark region of Norway where this type of skiing originated, telemark skiing involves a special kind of ski bindings that allow the heel to lift. Nordic skiing is another term used to describe a free-heel form of skiing, but can include both downhill/alpine skiing and cross country skiing.
Carve an edge
This is how you turn on skis. You use the edges of your skis to dig into the snow to turn and control your speed. Occasionally, on a day when the snow isn’t great or conditions are icy, you will hear skiers say it is difficult to carve an edge.
Shredding is one of those skiing terms that makes me feel like a 1990’s skater kid or surfer every time I say it. It simply means to ski fast.
Pizza / Snowplow
Beginning skiers have to learn to control their speed, and one of the ways ski instructors teach new skiers to do that is to angle your skis into a wide wedge with the tips touching. The shape resembles a slice of pizza and allows new skiers to plow down the snow in a (hopefully) controlled manner. Hence why the position is coined a pizza or snowplow. This is an important position to know if you plan to teach young kids to ski.
As new skiers progress in their abilities they start to move from a wedge shape to skiing with their skis parallel, resembling two french fries next to each other.
When riding a ski lift with strangers you never know their style. Some skiers and boarders will ride even the longest, slowest lift on the mountain without the safety bar down. Others, like me, bring the safety bar down immediately after the chair starts moving away from the platform. For me, this has more to do with wanting to rest my foot on the footrest to ease the soreness in my bad knee than it does safety. But either way, the respectful thing to do when riding a lift with others is ask, or at least warn, them if you want to bring the bar down.
At the end of a chair lift, the safety bar must come up. Skiers and snowboarders are weird. Some of them will wait until the very last minute to bring that safety bar up. Personally, the wait gives me anxiety. So I’m also usually the first to ask if everyone is ready to bring the bar up.
When I was first learning to ski, I was terrified of getting off the ski lift. I fell more than once. But everyone from my ski instructor to my father-in-law would tell me “tips up” when I went to dismount. If you’re a new skier and have never heard this skiing term, it means to keep the tips of your skis pointed up to prevent a face plant as you get off the chair lift.
Skiing terms to describe types of snow on which you might ski
There are so many variables that impact the condition of the snow. So, naturally there is a lot of ski slang used to describe the snow.
Early season conditions
Snow typically builds up throughout the winter. When resorts first open for the season, there may be just a thin covering of snow on the ski runs, and some of the runs won’t be open yet because they require a larger covering of snow to make the run safe. This is called early season conditions. Occasionally, during a mild winter, you’ll hear skiers and boards using this skiing term when the snow conditions are poor toward the middle of the season, as well. If there hasn’t been much snow, and parts of the mountain aren’t open yet, you will often hear people say the mountain is still experiencing early season conditions.
Powder / pow
It’s soft, it’s fluffy. It’s what die hard skiers want. Usually, you’ll hear skiers and snowboarders talking about all the fresh powder or pow pow on a ski day after it snows a lot overnight. Skiers love and appreciate fresh snow, because the sport can’t survive with it.
Want to go fast? Look for these runs! At night, a machine called a snowcat will roll over the snow and leave lines in it. These runs are usually skied off fast so go early if you want to ski them.
This is what happens after it warms up and the overnight temps are above freezing. It’s like skiing in a Slurpee. Avoid this at all costs! Or, wear a bathing suit.
Crust / hard-packed
This occurs after a few days of melting and refreezing . The extra water content from a melt can really stiffen the snow when it freezes at night. Also known as “bulletproof”. It’s hard and not fun to fall on.
Dust on crust
Take hard snow and add a light dusting of snow on it. It’s like that. It can be deceiving to the eye.
Resorts in Utah and Northwest Colorado, like Steamboat, brag about their snow so much that they coined this term. It’s a type of really light, fluffy snow that is perfect for skiing. Unlike actual champagne, you don’t need to limit yourself in this.
Falling on this will hurt. It’s like ice and it has no “give”. Check your insurance policy to see if you have good coverage on days like these. Or find the bar.
Corn snow is a skiing term used late in the season. This type of snow looks like “corn meal”. Kinda mushy. Hard to turn in. Feels like glue. No fun. Usually a sign that the ski season is ending.
“WTH are these? Who put these all over the run?” If I had to define moguls, I’d simply call them bumps. Big bumps in the middle of a ski run. They form when a run is not groomed and when skiers push snow around while making turns. Over time, the snow begins to build in places and before you know it, you have a run full of moguls that look like someone buried a VW Bug under the snow.
Sounds self explanatory. Thin coverage happens early or late in season when there’s not much snow on the ground. DO NOT WEAR YOUR GOOD SKIS ON THESE DAYS.
Other ski terms you may hear at a ski resort
Whether you snowboard or ski, here are a few other key ski lingo terms commonly used at ski resorts across the United States.
This is another bragging point for many skiers and snowboarders. A lot of people will track their vertical feet for the day to show how much terrain they have skied. Ski resorts will also tout the number of vertical feet as an enticement for skiers looking to ski steep, tall mountains. One of our favorite ski mountains, Big Sky Mountain Resort in Montana, has one of the highest verticals in the United States, which makes many people think it’s a mountain for advanced skiers only. But don’t be afraid of verticals. There are usually plenty of runs at every mountain that are designed for beginner and intermediate skiers.
Ski resorts with steep terrain prone to an “avi” will have to ensure safety inside the resort. So from time to time you may hear what sounds like an explosion on the mountain. It’s called blasting. Ski patrollers will intentionally trigger a small avalanche with dynamite so skiers or boarders won’t trigger it later in the day and end up injured or worse.
Ski bums are those who prefer to do nothing but ski to the more typical actions of adulthood, like working, buying a house and investing in retirement. These snow-loving slackers will settle for mediocre housing, low-paying jobs, and living on a diet of Top Ramen to spend their days on the slopes.
Simply a shortened title for ski lift operator – the guys and girls who operate the chair lifts. Many lifties are, as defined above, proud ski bums.
This is a ski term for a helmet. Helmets protect your brain, thus it is your brain bucket. A helmet is an essential part of any ski wardrobe. Don’t ski without one!
Talking the talk on any ski mountain
Every mountain has its own unique atmosphere and there are certain skiing terms you’ll hear only at certain mountains. But ultimately, this dictionary of skiing terms will help you talk the talk and make your conversations on the chair lifts with your fellow mountain lovers a lot less confusing.
What other ski terms would you add to this list? Add yours in the comments below.
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This guide to the top ski expressions and ski lingo was first published in January 2019 and updated in September 2021 to include even more awesome ski terms and ski slang!