How Hard is Learning to Snowboard?
In my two decades of snowboarding, I have come to the conclusion there are two kinds of beginner snowboarders. Those that it comes naturally to and pick it up almost straight away, or within a couple of days. And those that take a lot of perseverance to learn to snowboard, often a week or longer.
If you are lucky enough to pick it up naturally then you don’t have to take lessons. I never had any instruction until I’d been snowboarding for more than a decade. But as a snowboard journalist, I’ve since been lucky to ride with guides and instructors many times, and their instruction, tips and advice have massively improved my riding.
If you can’t link turns on a blue slope within a day or two, then you’re probably in the second group. Don’t despair, there is a simple answer – take lessons. You can spend weeks trying to pick it up yourself, but by joining beginner group lessons or taking some private tuition, you will greatly reduce the time it takes to pick up the sport.
Many say that snowboarding has a steep learning curve – until you get it you will fall a lot. Now that could just be a day or two, or it could be a few weeks. The good news is once you have passed this hump, progression is quick. You’ll still fall, but moving from beginner to intermediate and onto advanced is quicker for snowboarders than skiers.
Snowboarding is more about feeling and finding what works for you than skiing, which is more about technical drills that work for everyone. This is why some people pick up snowboarding quickly, particularly if you can skateboard, surf, or wakeboard already.
The Right Equipment is Key
Having a good setup for beginners will make learning a little easier. That said, most of the advice below was not around when I was learning. But it didn’t stop me, or thousands of other snowboarders, from picking up the sport before advances in equipment and understanding led to the below tips.
Choosing the Right Snowboard
Selecting the right snowboard will help you to learn. You should consider the following factors:
- Board length: Snowboard sizing is based on your weight, with all boards having a scale. Although in rental shops they’ll often stand a snowboard on its end and look for one that reaches between your chin or nose. Shorter boards are easier to maneuver and initiate turns, while longer boards offer more power and stability at speed. As a beginner, it is easier to learn on a board that is slightly too short than too long.
- Board width: Once strapped into the bindings your boots should slightly overhang the board’s edges. This makes it easier to initiate turns and maintain control. Too much overhang and your boots will touch the ground when turning, which will cause you to fall. If your boots do not get near the edges you’ll find it more difficult to turn.
- Shape: Beginners usually benefit from learning on a true twin snowboard. This is because your weight is central, and you can easily ride in either direction. True twins are normally freestyle snowboards; you’ll also find directional twin snowboards that have the same shape either way but a slightly set back (non central) stance.
- Flex: The flex refers to how much bend a board has from tip to tail, often scored on a 1 (very soft) to 10 (very stiff) scale. Softer flex is more forgiving and easier to turn making it better for beginners. Look for soft to medium flex. Stiff boards are only really suited to more advanced riders.
- Profile: The profile is the longitudinal shape of the snowboard from tip to tail. Traditionally they have a positive camber which is a concave shape with contact points towards the tip and tail, but that is quite aggressive and not very forgiving. Rocker snowboards bend the opposite way, so the center of the board is in contact, and the tip and tail are raised, making it easier to turn and very forgiving but harder to hold an edge. The best option is a combination with camber between your feet that provides control, pop and precision and rocker at the tips making it more forgiving and easier to initiate turns.
The board I learned on was stiff and directional with traditional camber. So while the ‘right’ board will make learning easier, this is not something to stress too much about, as even the ‘wrong’ board will still help you learn faster than not snowboarding!
The most important piece of snowboarding gear is your boots. They are the link between you and the hardware. If they are ill fitting you’ll have less control of the board and be uncomfortable. Foot discomfort when snowboarding tends to build, and once it sets in it can be very difficult to get rid of it. Boots tips:
- Choose the right size: Sounds simple but the shoe size you normally wear will probably be the snowboard boot size you need. If you are between sizes, try the smaller size first. Your boots should fit snugly, without pinching or having pressure points and without heel lift when you rock onto your toes. If they are uncomfortable after an hour, go back to the rental shop to change them.
- Try on multiple pairs: Each brand and model fits differently, so don’t worry about trying on various options to find the best fit for your feet. If you tell the rental shop what the problem is, they should be able to advise on a better boot.
- Wear proper ski socks: Do not wear normal socks or even standard sport socks, ski socks are not expensive and make a world of difference. Opt for moisture-wicking, breathable socks; they do not need to be thick.
- Lace up properly: Ensure you tighten the inner boot and/or any extra inner straps. Then tighten any zonal lacing working from the bottom up. It is hard to do up traditional lace boots, or those with speed lacing too tightly, so do them up as tight as possible (they will probably loosen). Don’t go crazy tightening Boa boots (those with a dial). Laced up boots should feel tighter than normal footwear and offer support, particularly around the ankle. If your feet feel tingly or numb, it’s normally because the boots, or bindings, are done up too tightly.
- Heel lift: If your heel lifts within the boot, you’ll have less control of the snowboard and more chance of injury. Normally it can be fixed by tightening the boots. If it can’t be remedied, return to the rental shop for a different pair.
- Insoles: If you have a high arch or a low arch and usually wear supportive insoles, then use them. Insoles such as Superfeet, which many people use in normal footwear, can reduce heel lift and give your boots a more personalized fit.
Snowboard Bindings Setup
A rental store should set up your bindings correctly for you. But from experience, they are often rushed so it is worth checking them as they make a huge difference.
- Size: Choose appropriate sized bindings for your snowboard boots – they have a size range. Your boot should be a close fit – not loose or tight. Most bindings can be adjusted to different length boots by moving the gas pedal (under the toes) forward and moving the heel cup backward. Strap positions are also adjustable.
- Adjust binding width: The distance between your bindings should roughly match your shoulder width. Go slightly wider for better stability or slightly narrower for more maneuverability.
- Binding position: Align the bindings with the board’s inserts (the screw holes) and ensure an equal distance between the nose and tail. Most bindings have circular disks (binding base plate) to attach them to the board and adjust the binding angles.
- Set binding angles: Beginners usually start with a duck stance (front foot angled at +15° and back foot at -15°) for a balanced and comfortable position. This also helps you to ride in either direction if you are yet to figure out whether you’re regular or goofy.
- Center your boots: Check if your boots are centered in relation to the snowboard edges. First, check if you can adjust the size further (see above). If not, turn the binding base plate 90 degrees and use the holes to move the binding forward or backward. If you get this wrong, it will be much tougher to turn one way than the other. It may also lead to toe or heel drag.
- Adjust strap length and fit: Put the boots in the binding and adjust the strap lengths to be centered over the boot. It should be easy to connect the two ends and start ratcheting them.
- Test the setup: Put your boots on and strap into your bindings – if you cannot make them tight enough, you need to move the ratchets. Try basic movements like rocking onto your toes and heels to check the boot is secure within the bindings. Adjust the set up until you have no movement but can still tighten them easily.
- Highback forward lean: Most bindings have an adjustment to lean your highback further forward. The greater the angle, the more responsive your board is and the more your highback forces you to bend your knees. Less angle is a more relaxed ride but requires bigger movements to turn.
- Keep adjusting: Experienced snowboarders will adjust their bindings to improve control and comfort. I adjusted my recent new bindings three or four times on the first few runs and then made major changes at the end of the first day. If it doesn’t feel right, adjust them.
Clothing and Attire
Dress appropriately for the weather with these essentials:
- Waterproof jackets and pants: These keep you dry and warm in wet and snowy conditions. Any waterproof attire will do, but bear in mind that clothing designed for skiing or snowboarding does a much better job in extreme weather than standard waterproof gear.
- Baselayers: Wear moisture-wicking baselayers (a.k.a. thermals) to move sweat away from your body.
- Midlayers: Look for insulating and moisture wicking mid-layers for optimal warmth.
- Gloves: Normal gloves, even waterproof ones, won’t provide enough insulation to keep your hands warm. You’ll have your hands on the snow often, so they need to be fully waterproof, insulated and hard wearing. Mittens are a little warmer but reduce dexterity.
- Goggles: Mountain light varies. Sunglasses will do the job on a very sunny day, but you’ll be blind in a whiteout and will struggle in the shade. Invest in ski goggles to protect your eyes from snow, wind, and UV. There are many lens options; if you are only buying one, go for cat 1 or 2 lens as they are better in varied conditions.
Safety Equipment to Consider
Safety gear can help you avoid injuries ranging from a few bruises to sprains and fractures to concussions:
- Helmet: As a beginner snowboarder, please wear a helmet. Beginners often ‘catch an edge’ when the wrong side of the snowboard digs into the snow and catapults you forward or backward. If you catch the heel edge and fly backward, the back of your head can take a big hit – there is only one winner, and it’s not you. There are plenty of other head injuries you can collect on the mountain so protect your noggin! Most hire boards come with a lid, so there is no excuse.
- Wrist guards: The most common snowboard injury is to the wrist. Fortunately, wrist guards almost completely stop fractures and breaks. They don’t cost much, and you can buy them integrated into gloves. If buying separately, you must buy larger gloves to accommodate them.
- Crash pants: The coccyx is a painful place to injure, if yours is prominent or you have a bony bottom crash pants are the way forward. They also keep your bum warm when sitting on the snow or a chilly chairlift.
- Knee pads: Beginners often fall onto their knees, this is not a problem when the snow is soft, but when landing on icy snow pads will save your knees from a beating.
Mastering the Basics
The basic snowboarding skills below are your building blocks to becoming a competent rider.
On the flat
There are some basic snowboard skills that you can learn before you hit the slopes. Try them on a flat section of snow or at home on an old bit of carpet or lino. They will give you a head start once on the mountain.
You need to figure out which foot will be your front foot to determine if you are regular (left foot forward) or goofy (right foot forward). Some people instinctively know, for example, if you skateboard, surf or wakeboard it is the same front foot.
For most people, your dominant foot (the one you prefer to kick a ball with) is the back foot as it offers more control. If you are not sure, consider which foot would be in front if you are crouching to start a sprint, or which you prefer to jump off, and it will probably be the same front foot for snowboarding.
These days it’s less important to decide your stance before you learn. Most setups for beginner snowboarders are central with a duck stance on a true twin board. This means it will ride the same whichever foot leads.
This is a great thing to practice before you hit the slopes. Not only does it remove one unknown that you need to learn, but it familiarizes you with the feeling of being strapped in. Plus you may discover your bindings are not ideally set up.
- Place your snowboard on a flat surface with the bindings facing up.
- Step into the front binding with your front foot.
- Now tighten the ankle strap first, this pulls your heel into the correct position.
- Next do up the toe strap, these sometimes go across the top of your foot near the toes or act more like a cup over the end of your toes.
- Repeat the process with your back foot.
- Both feet should feel secure, so your boots will not move in the bindings. If you over tighten you’ll end up with a numb foot or pain, which is not nice.
Practice Movements Off the Snow
Once you are happy with your bindings, you can practice some simple movements on the flat, which will be useful when on a slope.
- Snowboarder position: Bend your knees slightly and ensure your hips are centered over the board and your shoulders are perpendicular to it. Then look over your lead shoulder.
- Squat: Keep the snowboarder position and squat down with as straight a back as possible. The more you bend your knees, the more control you’ll have of the snowboard. Practice balancing as you squat up and down.
- Shift weight: Put most of your weight onto your front foot by shifting your hips slightly in that direction. Then repeat for your back foot. When snowboarding on the piste, around 60% of your weight should be over your front foot. In fresh snow, you put more weight on the back leg, and the exact amount depends on the snow depth and how light the powder is.
- Rock onto toes and heels: Turning is achieved by applying pressure on the toe and heel edges. Keeping the snowboarder position, lean your weight slightly forward until it feels like your weight is all through your toes; it feels a little like tiptoeing. Repeat this by putting your weight onto your heels. This feels a little like curling your toes up off the ground. You can lift the edge a little in either direction, just be careful not to fall.
Once on the Slopes
Of course, learning how to snowboard eventually requires being on a snow covered slope!
Do not take the nearest gondola to the top of the mountain. Instead, head to the nearest beginner area and begin near the bottom of that slope.
Once comfortably sliding down, use a magic carpet to ride a longer beginner slope. If there are drag lifts or even a dedicated beginner chair, progress onto them. Be comfortable on the progressively steeper and longer slopes before moving on to the next stage.
Strapping in on a Slope
It is more difficult to strap-in on a slope than the flat, plus the steeper and icier the slope, the trickier it is. Follow the above ‘strapping-in’ advice but with the following tips on a slope:
- Hold your board: Before you secure your front foot, do not let your board slide away. Not only could it cause someone a serious injury, but it can be a very long walk to retrieve it.
- Remove snow: Snow between your boots and bindings can be uncomfortable and impact your riding. Normally only a problem in fresh snow. Brush it off your bindings and also check your boots. Scraping your boot against the edge of the board is one way to do this.
- Sitting: Many beginners will sit down to strap on their board. With the board downslope, it is fairly easy to do so, although you will probably still need to tighten your bindings further once standing.
- Standing: It is quicker, easier (once you have the hang of it) and less tiring to strap in standing up than sitting down. There are two methods:
- Strap-in facing downslope: If the slope is very slight, snow is slushy or powdery, then you can either dig your heel edge in or create a little flat section to keep you stable while tightening your bindings.
- Strap-in facing upslope: On steeper slopes, or hardpack, it’s easier to strap-in facing up the slope. Most snowboarders are less comfortable having their back to the slope, but you only need to dig your heel edge in a little to create a secure position to strap-in. With your heels pointing downslope, they slip more easily into the heel cup (unlike sitting or facing downslope), plus your toes are uphill, so the straps are closer and easier to do up.
Start snowboarding on a Slope
On the flat, you don’t have to worry about your board beginning to move as you stand up. But on a slope, it will slide at the first opportunity.
- Standing from kneeling: Standing from a kneeling position is easier than sitting.
- Dig in toe edge: At a right angle to the slope’s fall line, dig your toe edge in and apply some of your weight onto it.
- Push up: Now, use your hands and arms to push up into your feet while keeping your weight over the toe edge of the board.
- Balance: Maintain a balanced, centered posture with your knees bent and your weight on the toe edge.
- Standing from sitting: It is tougher to stand from a sitting position. If you struggle, commando-roll over onto your knees.
- Dig in heel edge: At a right angle to the slope’s fall line, dig your heel edge in and apply some of your weight onto it.
- Push up: You’ll have less leverage with your hands and arms this way around, so you will also have to use your tummy muscles, all while keeping your weight over the heel edge of your board.
- Balance: Keep a balanced and centered posture with your knees bent and weight on the heel edge.
- Begin snowboarding: From standing, or in the same movement as getting up, there are a few ways to begin moving downslope detailed below in order of difficulty. It is worth noting that most people find it easier to move away facing downslope rather than looking upslope:
- Heel/toe slide: Release the edge with your front and back foot simultaneously by shifting your weight towards the center of the board. The edge will begin to slip, and you will slide downslope. Apply more pressure to the edge to slow down.
- Falling leaf: Shift your hips slightly towards the front of your board and release the pressure on the edge holding you in place with the front foot before the back foot. You’ll begin to slide forward and downslope at the same time. Apply pressure again to the upslope edge to stop. To complete the falling leaf, do the same in reverse so you head in the opposite direction.
- Starting to snowboard: Rather than braking part way through falling leaf, continue to slide across the slope on your edge. If you feel comfortable with the slope pitch and your speed, let more of the board come in contact with the snow (by fully releasing the upslope edge) and point the nose more downhill (by using the turning techniques below). You are now snowboarding, and your options are to brake or to turn.
Before you can properly snowboard, you need to know how to brake. We have touched on this above as it is essentially an aggressive heel or toe slide.
- Heel-side stop: Lean back and press your heels into the snow, creating an edge that slows you down, acting as a brake against the snow.
- Toe-side stop: Lean forward and press your toes into the snow, using the toe edge to slow down.
- Use the slope: When you brake, the slope is your friend. You’ll have maximum stopping power with the board 90 degrees to the slope. But you can skid stop from any angle to turn to 90 degrees for a full stop. You can even use this turning stop to point uphill, which with the help of gravity, will slow you down.
- Bend those knees: The more you bend your knees, the more pressure you can put on the edge to stop faster. If the edge is not gripping or keeps sliding out, your legs are probably too straight. A common issue is bending at the waist, not the knees.
Turning a Snowboard
The key to enjoying snowboarding and exploring the mountain is being able to turn. Fortunately, if you can stop on both toe and heel side then you already have the building blocks to turn. Stay on the beginner slopes until you have nailed turning – this means linking turns together in either direction.
- Point the way: When snowboarding, if you point your lead arm left or right, the board will turn that way. This is why you see lots of beginner snowboarders pointing where they wish to go. The act of twisting your upper body forces your hips and knee to apply extra pressure in the direction you point, causing you to turn that way.
- Turning down slope: You learnt in the stopping section how to turn upslope in order to brake. Turning downslope is similar but involves switching edges. You need to point the board downhill and completely release the uphill edge, and then transition onto the opposite edge by shifting your weight over it. The new edge then becomes the uphill edge and can be used to slow down.
- Pump your legs: When turning you should be at your lowest in the middle of the turn to apply most pressure to the edge. Conversely, you should be straighter (but never straight legged) as you transition between edges. This helps release the pressure and minimize the risk of catching an edge. You then begin to squat again as you engage the new edge.
- Catching an edge: During the transition from upslope edge to downslope edge, there is a moment when your board is flat, often pointing downhill, during which you pick up speed. If you get the timing of moving onto the new edge wrong, you can catch it in the snow, catapulting you forward or backward. This typically happens if your downslope edge engages in the snow at close to a 90 degree angle to the fall line.
- Sliding turns: So far, we have been discussing sliding turns in which you brake as you turn to slow you down. You can almost come to a stop, even turning slightly uphill, before you point downhill to transition between edges.
- Backfoot/Slash turns: An easy but very tiring turn is to use your backfoot to steer by aggressively swinging your back foot forward and back. Heel-side is pushing your heel out in front of you. On the toe-side, it’s swinging your foot toes down behind you. This type of turn is good for emergency stopping in terrain/conditions you are uncomfortable with. Experienced snowboarders still use it, but only sparingly as they have less control and it uses up a lot of energy.
- Carving turns: An advanced form of turn when you hold an edge and do not brake. If you get it right, you’ll actually speed up through the turn. This and other turning techniques will be covered in future articles.
Riding the Chairlift: Tips for Smooth and Safe Exits
Chairlifts are designed for skiers, they are easy on a snowboard – but only when you know what you are doing:
- Prepare: As you approach the chairlift, undo your back foot from the binding and lower the high back to stop it from catching under the chairlift.
- Sit on the sides: As a beginner try to be on one of the outside edges of the chairlift to give you more room.
- Pre-pick up: Position yourself in line with the approaching chair, gliding smoothly (or waddling!) into the loading area to stand with your board pointing in the direction of travel.
- Sitting: As the chair arrives, sit back and let it scoop you up. As you sit, lift your board to avoid it catching in the snow as it will twist to point across the slope.
- Safety: Put the safety bar down and lean your board on the footrest.
- Pre-exit: As you approach the top, lift the safety bar and twist your body so the front of the board is pointing in the direction of travel.
- Dismount: As the board touches down, stand up, put your back foot on the stomp pad or between the bindings, and glide forward.
- Steering: Try to steer with your front foot using your toes and heels. You’ll have more control if your back foot is next to the front binding. You can then slide it back against the binding if required. Come to a stop as soon as it is safe to do so.
- Exit the area: Move out of the unloading area quickly to avoid collisions.
- Follow rules: Learn and adhere to the FIS Rules of Conduct for skiers and snowboarders to ensure your safety and that of others on the mountain.
- Stay alert: Be aware of your surroundings, especially other skiers and snowboarders.
- Ride your level: Stay within your skill level and progress gradually. You will only improve by trying new things, so you need to push yourself. But avoid obviously dangerous situations and big leaps in difficulty.
Using Draglifts: Tips
I don’t know any snowboarders who actively enjoy drag lifts (also known as surface lifts or T-bars and button lifts). But you’ll need to use them and to master them.
- Get ready: Line up to the lift correctly. Remove your back foot from the binding and keep your snowboard parallel to the lift line.
- Waiting: Wait for the person in front of you to grab the T-bar or button lift and move forward before you start. There are often lights to indicate when you should go to give them enough space.
- Positioning: Move forward. There may be a little gate to trigger to release the bar, or on a fixed line surface lift (more common in beginner areas), you need to get into position and wait for it with your board pointing in the direction of travel and your backfoot stood behind the heel edge
- Grabbing the bar: Grab onto the main bar approximately a body length above the T-bar or button. Quickly put the button, or t-bar, behind your front leg’s thigh and step your back foot onto the board.
- Pick up: As the lift pulls forward, the pressure will be on your inner thigh, hold on with your lead hand and put your free foot on the stomp pad or pushed against the back binding.
- Balance: Keep your weight centered over your snowboard with more weight on the front foot. Bend your knees slightly and lean slightly forward.
- Steering: Use your front foot to steer. If you need to move left or right, apply pressure with your toes or heel, respectively.
- Riding the drag: Look ahead and not at your snowboard. Your shoulders and hips should be aligned with the direction you are going. Avoid making sudden movements or shifts in weight.
- Dismount: At the top, remove the bar or button, but try to hold onto it for a second or two as you can use it to pull you towards the exit as you begin turning to gain some momentum.
- Exit: Always get out of the lift exit area as quickly as possible.
- Falling: When you fall (you will), let go of the bar or button and try to move out of the way to avoid colliding with the person behind you.
- Practice makes perfect. Don’t avoid surface lifts as you’ll need to use them to access good stuff on mountains.
What Are the Best Ways to Improve?
- Practice: You won’t improve without actually snowboarding. So ride regularly, focusing each session on improving specific skills and setting achievable goals.
- Lessons: Take lessons from certified instructors to learn proper techniques and build a strong foundation. They will correct bad habits and identify areas for improvement.
- Ride with friends: Follow snowboarders who are better than you. You’ll pick up tips and be pushed to ride faster and take on more difficult terrain.
- Snowboarding groups: No shredding buddies? Then join a group or club to ride with peers and stay motivated.
- Visualization: Imagine yourself successfully executing maneuvers. Run through them in your mind, even doing the movements away from the snow.
- Bend your knees more.
- Warm up and stretch before hitting the slopes to help avoid injuries.
- Stay relaxed and loose. Being tense makes snowboarding much more difficult.
- Look/point in the direction you want to go; your body will naturally follow.
- Bend those knees (so important it needs saying twice).
- Away from snowboarding, get fitter, stronger and more flexible.
Is Learning to Snowboard Expensive?
Yes. There is no escaping the fact that snowboarding is a costly passion. But most snowboarders would happily make sacrifices elsewhere for more slope time. Beginner costs can be managed by renting gear, borrowing stuff from friends, and taking advantage of off-peak rates at resorts. Also, many resorts have free beginner lifts, so you can avoid buying a lift pass those first few days.
How Long Does It Usually Take for a Complete Beginner to Learn Snowboarding Basics?
This varies greatly. Most beginners can learn the basics in three to five days. But some pick it up almost immediately, and others take a few weeks of lessons.
Can I Teach Myself to Snowboard?
I did, so yes. But while self-teaching is possible, lessons with snowboard instructors will help you to learn more quickly. And I highly recommend tuition if you don’t pick up snowboarding quickly, as you’ll learn much faster.
What Is the Best Age to Start Learning How to Snowboard?
The same as skiing, some children start snowboarding from when they can walk. But while some places offer lessons for three-year-olds, others don’t start until children are older, sometimes even ten.
Traditionally, this is because you need core strength to snowboard, which young children lack, and the steeper learning curve is thought to make learning more difficult. But schools such as Mint Snowboarding have been teaching kids from three since the noughties and have created plenty of cool shredders well before they are ten.
In theory, it’s never too late for adults to begin snowboarding – I started aged 26 and have made a career writing about it. But as you get older, the frequent beginner falls will hurt more. But I know people who learned in their late fifties, and I know at least one snowboarder who is still riding at almost eighty!
How Can I Overcome Fear or Anxiety as a Beginner Snowboarder?
Getting better is the main way to overcome fear, so take private lessons. A couple of hours with an instructor receiving one-to-one tuition makes a huge difference to your confidence.
How Do I Know When I’m Ready to Move On to More Advanced Slopes?
How Do I Know When I’m Ready to Move On to More Advanced Slopes?
It hurts when you fall, and you fall often when starting out. So beginners develop a fear of falling and become tense, which makes snowboarding so much harder. The main challenge is getting over the steep initial learning curve, but once you get snowboarding, it suddenly becomes much easier, and progression is fast.
Learning to snowboard isn’t easy, but becoming fairly good isn’t hard. For most people, the effort-to-reward ratio is really good – put in a few days of learning, and you’ll get a lifetime of enjoyment. If you’re thinking about learning to snowboard, just get out there and give it a go – I wish I’d begun sooner. Happy shredding, everyone!