Skiing in Europe

Ever wondered what it’s like skiing or riding in Europe? The Alps are a tantalizing place full of stunning views, awe inspiring peaks, quaint towns and epically amazing ski resorts. Aside from the different scenery, European skiing offers many cultural idiosyncrasies and skier habits compared to what we’re used to seeing in North America and this article seeks to explore a few of them. 

Comparing Alps & Rockies

This article is written from the perspective of a long time American skier visiting and currently living in the Alps. I’m writing this article from the base of an Austrian Mega-Resort called Kitz-Ski in the Tirolian Alps. While most of the photos and references for this article come from where I am currently skiing, I’ve also had the pleasure of trying out many other ski resorts in Europe over the years and what is written below is a broad summary of my observations. ~Zack Phelan~


Way more skiers than snowboarders

In the States we’re used to a healthy split between skiers and snowboarders. Most ski areas (except the 3 holdouts that only allow skiing) have a fairly even mix of skiers and snowboarders, and even the odd mono-skier, tele-skiers, snow skates and sometimes ski-bikes. The European Alps however are not quite as diverse, and a very high percentage of patrons on the slopes stick with the traditional two planks instead of just one.

Ski tracks

Skiers prefer to stay on-piste

Most ski town residents in America know where the powder stashes are at their local ski area, good snow that remains untouched for days after a storm… but at most European ski areas the powder goes untouched for much, much longer. Many European’s struggle to ski off-piste, or at the very least choose not to. Now I’m not saying they don’t ski the freshies, I’m saying that the ratio of powder hounds to groomer groms in most of Europe is far lower than North America and those who can ski the steep and deep can enjoy fresh turns in easily accessible areas for many days after a dump.


The lifts are way nicer

Aside from a select few mega-resorts in North America, most don’t hold a candle to European ski areas when it comes to infrastructure. In the Alps 6 & 8 person bubble chairs are the norm, 10-12 person gondolas at every base area are a given, trams and funiculars abound! Why are the lifts so much nicer here? Well just about every lift manufacturer in the world resides in Europe, so the overseas shipping costs just aren’t an issue. That, and lift quality and customer satisfaction is paramount here, the skier experience is important to most European ski areas, not like the money hungry mega-resorts we see in the U.S. that would rather squander your money rather than upgrade a lift to keep the lines down.

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Goat at a ski resort

You’re probably skiing on someones farm

Ski areas in America are usually located on either private land, or are operated on National Forest Service land. Either way they’re protected and pretty much only used for skiing or downhill biking purposes throughout the year. Well, not in Europe. Excluding the high altitude glacial ski areas, many resorts here are operated seasonally with cooperation from local farmers. Seeing tractors driving around the streets, smelling manure or even encountering a random farm animal is the norm at Austrian and German ski areas, and if you go off-piste, you better watch out for those barbed wire fences!

Ski trail sign

Trails are numbered, not named

North American ski areas for the most part will name most of their ski trails, with the names usually reflecting something that’s unique about that resort or region. Well in most of Europe, they take the lazy way out and just give the trails a number, and like everything else over here, sometimes they’re sponsored (Audi). Resorts here also implement a different trail rating color system than in North America, as we are used to the standard Green, Blue, Black and Double Black, much of Europe does a Blue, Red, Black scheme. 

Snowy Trees

Tree skiing is not really a thing

Most powder skiers in the U.S. love them some trees! A ski area that has quality glades is coveted in America, and stash hunting in the woods is a common past time for many skiers and boarders. Well, Europe, not so much. Many ski areas here are “high alpine” which means most of the pistes you’re skiing on are above the tree line. For those areas that significant tree zones do exist, none of them are maintained by the ski area and are considered out of bounds.

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Ski bar

There are bars everywhere

At most ski areas in the Alps, especially Austria and Germany, you literally cannot ski half a run without running into a slopeside bar. Bavaria’s finest beer, Schnapps and wine are the favorites here, and have you ever tried a Radler!? Yum! North America has a “poor man’s” version of it called shandy, but it’s no comparison to this light and smooth Germany libation. Slopeside bars and the Après Ski lifestyle are deeply imbedded in the culture here, and having a few beers with your friends is just as much a part of the ski day as skiing itself. 

Drink receipt

Lift tickets & food/drink are cheaper

In North America (the local “Mom and Pop” ski areas aside), we’ve grown used to seeing absolutely obscene lift ticket prices just get worse and worse in recent years. Paying $150-$200 for a day ticket, and $12-$15 for a beer is now the norm…. well, not in Europe! A beer and a shot are less than $10 total, and daily lift tickets at most medium to large ski areas will only set you back $50-$65! *** With Switzerland being slightly more expensive***


Snowmaking during the day

In North America snowmaking activities are primarily a night time activity, and when skiers and riders take to the slopes in the morning only remnants of the evening’s activities are present. But in Europe, it’s Sun’s out, guns out! If the temps are right, the artificial snow is flying, even on the open slopes that people are actively skiing.

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Safety Bar

Bar down is a must

In North America, it’s customary after boarding the chairlift to say “bar down” if you intend to lower the safety bar, and many skiers/riders choose not to even bother lowering it all, and that’s our custom. At most ski areas in North America the bar is highly optional and rarely if ever enforced by ski areas. In fact many older model chairs in the States don’t even have a restraining device of any kind, and most of us don’t bat an eye at it. Well in Europe, you better watch your head, because if you’re riding the chair with the some locals that bar is coming down as soon as your ass hits the seat, with no warning. Lowering the restraining bar in Europe is a given, and many ski resorts heavily enforce the action (I know, I’ve been yelled at), but the bonus here is that most bars have foot rests and bubble tops as an extra incentive. 


Shaped ski & race skis are the norm

American’s have an odd fascination with powder skis. They are by far the predominant type of ski seen around the slopes in the Western U.S. and many skiers will wear fat skis even on days where off-piste skiing is completely impractical. Fat skis in the States is more of a status thing than anything else, but in Europe practicality wins out over trying to look cool and most skiers choose to wear “shaped” skis or race skis so that they can have good edge control on the pistes and still ski confidently on icy days. 

Trail map

The resorts are way bigger

Imagine if you will: Resorts so big that you can literally ski from town to town, valley to valley, in some cases country to country! Mega Resorts in Europe absolutely dwarf even the largest ski areas in the U.S. and Canada, and the rest of the World for that matter. Ski areas here string together lifts from peak to peak with tons of skiable acreage and some of them have enough vert to make your head spin. Trying to ski a European mega-resort in a day or two is impossible (I know, I’ve tried), and with most places having “soft boundaries”, the skiing options are almost limitless!




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