Planning a successful downhill ski trip is tougher than it used to be. I know that now. I was born in a town four miles from a major Rocky Mountain ski resort, so growing up I never thought about planning too much. I saw the slopes, moguls and impossibly high chair lifts through the bright, excited prism of a young and indestructible ski bum: Strap on the skis and go. Now, I have to plan.

There are fewer ski areas to choose from, for one thing. A survey by the National Ski Areas Association shows that there were 727 U.S. ski resorts operating in 1984; in 2004-2005, there were only 492. There is some variance for one-time, weather-related closures, but the number has clearly dropped.

The other thing is that we live in a different world. It’s smarter and safer. Ski safety equipment has become more advanced — and more necessary. More attention is given to slope grooming techniques, qualifying available runs. Even sun protection is a much bigger concern. And snowboarding, which requires a completely different slope setup than standard downhill, has taken hold, with an estimated 6.3 million snowboarders in 2004 compared to only 1.5 million in 1990 according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Still, maybe the biggest obstacle remains matching your choice of resort to your skill level. If you’re like me, you find that downhill skiing is fun even when you’re not on the slopes. I can’t tell you how many summer nights I spent lying in bed dreaming about flying off a lip at the top of a ridge, then fluidly sticking the moguls at breakneck speed down a steep black-diamond slope. Lying there, it always seemed so easy to do.

Here was the problem: My imagination far outsized my ability.

Here was the problem: My imagination far outsized my ability. But I was lucky. In perhaps 200 ski trips I suffered only a sprained ankle, a twisted knee, a couple of jammed wrists and necks, and countless sore, bumps, and bruises. If “when you fall, that means you’re learning” has any truth to it, I was going for my doctorate. I was gymnastically challenged, and proudly or not I can at least admit that now.

It helps to know the real meaning behind the circle, square, and diamond signs you see at the beginning of each run. Because some of us, er, some skiers don’t pay attention to such details, the resorts that flourish have done so because they are in touch with their own history — which relates directly to what they offer and how they offer it. For example, managers of a resort based on an area once covered with timber will be familiar with how the area was harvested. They will know the approaches taken to design the slopes, and the types of skiers the designers had in mind. A slope that was harvested specifically to create a gentle, sloping drop will probably be an excellent “bunny hill.” Similarly, a slope that was once a cliff-laden area where even the original loggers feared to tread is bound to be dangerous now for skiers like me, not completely convinced of their own limitations.

Ski and board where you feel comfortable. Study a trail map or grooming report, and ask friends or resort staff questions about terrain. I have heard this repeated, and actually experienced it, too many times for it not to be true — most skiing or snowboarding accidents involving injury happen at the end of the day. Your body may be telling you that it’s time to stop, but your mind and your adrenaline sometimes drown it out.

Then there’s your equipment. With the advent of ski brakes, the safety straps once necessary for downhill skiing are hopelessly passé. Now, the boom is in snowboard leashes and helmets — accessories I never would have even considered growing up. Several organizations, including the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colorado, track helmet usage among skiers and snowboarders. According to its most recent demographic study, helmet use in the U.S. increased about five percent over the previous year, as it has the past several. In 2004/2005, the last year available for figures, overall helmet usage among skiers and snowboarders was estimated to be 33.2 percent. The association found that helmets are most popular among advanced to expert participants as well as with those 15 years old and under, and participants 55 years old and over. 

Some resort ski shops will offer discounts on equipment sales, rentals and repair during certain times leading up to the ski season. Keep an eye out for these deals.

If you are not familiar with it already, the National Ski Patrol — the patrol governing body for the United States and some portions of Europe and the world's largest winter rescue organization — has a widely accepted “Responsibility Code” for all downhill activities:

  • Always stay in control
  • People ahead of you have the right of way
  • Stop in a safe place for you and others
  • Whenever starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield
  • Use devices to help prevent runaway equipment
  • Observe signs and warnings, and keep off closed trails
  • Know how to use lifts safely

For snowboarding, it’s:

  • Look before you leap
  • Respect gets respect
  • Easy style it

Yet danger still lurks. Skin cancer from the sun is a major concern today, much more than in previous decades. According to the American Cancer Society, more than one million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States each year, and that 90 percent of these cases are sun-related. This is especially relevant for skiers. The sun reflecting off of snow makes it stronger than you think, even on cloudy days. According to GoSunSmart.org, 30 to 60 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can get through the clouds. As if that’s not enough, the site also says that with every 1,000 feet that you gain in elevation above sea level, UV intensity increases by five percent. So there’s no substitute for a good sunscreen, along with protective clothing especially around the head, neck, and ears. When choosing a sunscreen, look for “broad spectrum” product which blocks UVA and UVB rays. “Waterproof or sweat-proof” sunscreen is also recommended.

So it’s not easy anymore. There’s more to be planned into a good ski trip now, even if I did still live literally at the base of the mountain. But for those of us who know the soul-enhancing thrill that the mountain slope can bring, those of us who have watched the sun go down on the last run and wanted it never to end, we can be proud that our sport has grown. It has evolved, gotten smarter and more sophisticated. Which means that, properly planned, the trip today can be even more spectacular than it was through the excited eyes of a child.