Skiing in Scotland: A Guide
From the correct way to dress for the slopes to the delicious tricks to keep you from panning it every five minutes, here's a guide to skiing on Scotland's slopes
There’s nothing quite like the first ski day of the season. The unmistakable waddle of the ski boot strut, that first tentative warm-up run, and the whisper of skis across untouched powder with the wind in your face; no matter how cold the morning, it’s always magical.
As someone who doesn’t come from an outdoorsy family, and with no real athletic inclinations, being bundled into a snowsuit as a toddler and having wooden planks strapped to my tiny feet seems like an odd choice for my less-than-adventurous childhood. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was almost 30 and I wasn’t allowed outside after dark, but my parents decided I should learn to ski almost as soon as I could walk. With a limited amount of actual fear and a low centre of gravity, I was surprisingly graceful on skis and yet terribly clumsy on two feet.
Despite our bracing Scottish winters, it’s a common misconception that skiing is an activity you need to go abroad to experience; we picture snow-capped Rockies, iconic Swiss Alps, or a picturesque chalet somewhere in Austria. Maybe it’s our proud nation’s general inability to deal with even the slightest sprinkling of snow on the roads, but we often forget that the same mountain ranges that cyclists and hillwalkers head to in droves in the summer are perfect for swishing your way down on a pair of skis as soon as the temperature drops below freezing.
Skiing in Scotland
Part of the charm of Scottish skiing is the unpredictability, which is great for those who live relatively close to one of the five resorts scattered around the country and can leave at short notice. Every year, Scottish skiers embrace spontaneity, take impromptu sickies from work and skip classes as soon as weather reports predict a fresh dump of snow.
For west coasters, Glencoe isn’t far from Oban, and is also where to go to find hobbit huts at base for a ski-in and ski-out vibe. Glenshee is the best bet for skiers in the Central Belt, at just over an hour away from Perth. 22 lifts and 40km of varied terrain is spread out over three valleys, in what is by far the largest ski area in Scotland.
Near Aviemore, Cairngorm Mountain is the best known, with 30km of runs as well as off-piste skiing at the Head Wall of the Coire Cas. In the Eastern Cairngorms, The Lecht is best for beginner and novice skiers; as the smallest of Scotland’s resorts, the outdoor centre is very family-friendly, serviced by 12 lifts and a magic carpet. Nevis Range, near Fort William, is the newest and highest Scottish ski resort, with groomed runs overlooking the north-facing aspect of Aonach Mòr.
Layer Up: Dressing for the slopes
It’s instinct to panic-grab your thickest jumper and bulkiest winter jacket, but layers are more efficient for staying warm without channelling the look of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. A thermal base layer top and bottom, a lightweight fleece, thick ski socks, a waterproof jacket, salopettes, and a pair of mittens stuffed with hand warmers are all you need to stay cosy and dry for a day on the mountain. You’ll want to be able to bend your knees, so do *not* wear jeans under your ski pants.
Rental shops will ask what kind of terrain you’ll be riding, your level of ability, height, weight, and what kind of experience you want to have. Beginner skis are shorter and easier to manoeuvre, with more flex and a low-torque binding release. Skis with a wider waist are better suited for floating over soft powder snow, but if you’ll be skiing mostly groomed runs, a carving ski will make your turns smoother and more effortless. For an all-terrain ski, a middle-of-the-range 95-105mm base can take you anywhere. You’ll find that experienced skiers may own several pairs, swapping them each day dependant on the terrain they want to tackle.
Ski boots need to be relatively snug but comfortable; never be tempted to rent a pair that are slightly too big or too small, because a second pair of socks won’t make up for the agony of an ill-fitting boot.
One of the best pieces of ski equipment you can buy is a ski helmet; in some resorts they’re mandatory, as even the most experienced skiers can wipe out. Personally, I also find a ski helmet will keep your goggles firmly attached to your head, they’re perfect for keeping your ears warm, and won’t fly off into the distance on a windy day like a projectile bobble hat.
Try to pre-book your ski rental online or locate somewhere closer to home rather than on the mountain; ski hire shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow will be less expensive and more likely to have the right size of boot and length of ski for you.
Pizza, French Fries and learning how to fall
A few years ago, I went to Glenshee with some friends and was completely baffled as to why they all kept muttering “pizza then french fries, pizza then french fries” under their breath on their way down the mountain.
In skiing terms, ‘pizza’ refers to the wedge shape formed by bringing the front tips of the skis together while applying pressure to the inside edges; it's the go-to move for beginner skiers wanting to turn, slow down and stop. As you become more confident, you can try shifting your skis into a parallel position in between turns, and eventually maintaining your ‘french fries’ and carving to turn. To start out with, there will be far more pizza in your life than french fries, and that’s OK. They’re both delicious.
If you somehow find yourself fighting a losing battle against gravity, it’s helpful to know how to fall. If at all possible, try to fall with your torso uphill from your skis and boots; once you’ve come to a snow-covered halt and dusted yourself off, position your skis pointed across the slope so you can stand up without taking off on an uncontrolled downward trajectory to the bottom of the mountain.
Reading A Piste Map
Step one: learn to read a map. Get your head round piste classifications – these refer to the grades given to ski runs by level of difficulty, from easy to expert.
Classifications can vary from country to country, but in general green runs are for absolute beginners who have never skied before, blue runs are slightly more challenging, red runs are intermediate and black diamonds for advanced skiers. In Canada and the US, there are no red runs, so a blue square could mean anything from a gentle novice run to something quite advanced.
When I was a kid, my older cousins and I went skiing every winter like all good Canadian children. It was during that delightful era in the 80s when adult supervision was optional, and all of our parents had opted for a day in front of a roaring fire over leading half a dozen small people aged between four and ten down a mountain. We were shipped off to a group lesson for the morning, and then sent out into the wilderness to babysit each other.
None of us knew how to read a piste map. None of us knew how to read a map at all. The older kids sent us young‘uns down first to “scout out” the terrain, which meant we skied on ahead and hoped for the best, like miniature crash test dummies. It taught me how to problem solve, to tackle bumps with confidence, and to never trust my cousins.
Groomed Runs, Moguls and Going Off-Piste
Snow grooming is a process of manipulating and flattening snow with a snowcat, tractor or snowmobile to maintain and compact hills, and to spread fresh snow over the piste with giant rakes. You can always tell a freshly groomed run by its corduroy-like appearance.
Moguls are formed by snow being pushed up into mounds as skiers repeatedly make turn after turn along the fall line (the best path down the hill). These bumps become more pronounced with heavy traffic and, as downhill skiing is a series of hypothetically linked turns, this can result in a mogul field. The key to tackling bumps is rhythm, and to commit to your turn. In very icy conditions and poor snow quality, a good skiing hack to remember is that there is always snow on top of a mogul.
Off-piste or backcountry skiing is where to find the untouched powder, between trees and challenging terrain on unmarked and unpatrolled areas; some are accessible from a ski lift, but more often than not they involve a bit of a hike.
Most European and Canadian resorts permit off-piste skiing but will post warning signs. Japan doesn’t prohibit or forbid venturing outside marked boundaries, yet nobody strays on to the backcountry at all. It’s best to buddy up even if you consider yourself to be an expert, as snow conditions and changes in terrain are unpredictable.