If you’re going become one of the Grays on Trays, we highly recommend that you take a lesson. Or two, or three. No web site, no matter how informative, can substitute for lessons. Taking lessons from a skilled instructor is a great move. And while most of us won’t learn how to ride simply by reading about it, a description of your first day out may be of some help.
Expect the Ridiculous.
There are two main challenges in learning how to ride: mental, and physical.
For many adults, the biggest barrier in learning snowboarding is the mental challenge. Learning any (snow) sport requires perseverance. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is that it requires humility: the ability to live with “looking stupid,” being ignorant (of what to do next), being vulnerable (to getting hurt), and being a child once again. Just as a child learning to walk needs to get back up after falling, someone learning how to ski or snowboard needs to get back up from falls or wipeouts and start again. Be patient; you’ll probably make it.
So we need to go outside our comfort zone. Instead of being the experts they are used to being in daily life, adults must be willing to put up being novices. Eric Sharp, an outdoors writer for the Detroit Free Press, shares our belief that adults can enjoy snowboarding, if they are willing to put aside mental obstacles:
“Snowboarding is as much fun as it looks, and it’s something a lot of adults would enjoy if they put aside their dignity long enough to look ridiculous while learning.”
If you’re too proud to worry about how you look to others, you won’t get far. But if you are proud enough in your ability to overcome a few difficulties in the pursuit of a great winter pastime, read on!
Before You Get to the Hill
Aside from working on your physical fitness, you can do a few other things to get ready.
Take your lesson in optimal conditions
Of course, if your scheduled lesson comes during an unfavorable day, you can’t do much about it. Still, it’s best if you can take lessons during the day (when the snow is softer), rather than at night (when it may resemble ice). If you can, wait until a warm(er) day, or later in the day, when the snow may be softer. The best conditions may just be after a huge dump of snow has blessed your area. Fresh snow will cushion your fall, and you will have more confidence.
If you participate in other sports, such as volleyball rollerblading, or cycling, you may will have knee pads, impact shorts, or other protective padding. Wear them under your nylon ski pants (don’t wear jeans! You’ll be wet and miserable!). Some people even wear bubble-wrap around the hips, though it may be hard to keep the material in place. Wrist guards, for about $20, can help, though they are not fool-proof.
Not only can padding absorb some of the punishment of falling, it can also help you develop better habits. With less fear in play, you are more likely to use correct techniques.
Three Questions in the Rental Shop
So what happens when you get to the hill or mountain? Your first stop is the office. Ask for a beginner’s package if you have never tried snowboarding. Even if you have tried it, you may still find a beginner’s plan attractive.
Once you are in the shop, you will have to answer several questions.
What’s your weight?
When you pay for your lesson(s), you will fill out a standard liability-release reform. You will also be asked your height and weight. Don’t lie about your weight; this information is required to match you to the proper equipment. (In general, if the taller and heavier you are, the longer and heavier your snowboard will be.)
What’s your shoe size?
The rental shop will want to know your shoe size. Your boots will probably come in the same size, or one size smaller.
Are you regular or goofy?
The shop will also ask if you are “goofy” or “regular.” There’s no wrong answer; it simply reflects which foot will be towards the front of the board and which will be towards the back. Most people have their right foot in back; this is called riding “regular.” If you prefer the left foot in back, then you are “goofy.” (Don’t worry, it’s simply tradition.)
Which one do you answer? Imagine sliding on a sheet of ice. Which foot leads? If it’s the right foot, you’re goofy; if it’s the left, you’re regular. If you have experience on a skateboard or wakeboard, try whatever foot you lead with in those activities. If you favor one foot in water skiing, try putting that foot in front.
Don’t worry about getting the “correct” answer. You can always change later. Simply go back to the shop and have the technician make a few adjustments to the board.
Take a Look at Your Gear
Once you get your boots and board, get familiar with them.
Examine your bindings and boots
The bindings secure your boot (and you) to the board. Take a look at your boot. Unlike a downhill ski boot, it will probably be soft-sided. Do you see any metal on or near the sole? If so, your boots will be attached to the snowboard through these metal pieces. You’re using a “step-in” binding; rental shops that cater to beginners often stock these.
If you don’t see any metal, your boots will be attached to the board with hard plastic straps, resembling an over-sized pair of sandals. These are called strap bindings.
Experienced snowboarders have endless debates over which kind of binding is best. For now, simply use what the shop provides.
For now, you might want to practice using the bindings even before you put on your boots. It could be a lot easier to do this with a boot in your hand, warm and dry in the shop, than trying to use cold, bare fingers outside, while having to bend over.
Take a look at your board.
Though it will probably be symmetrical, it will still have a tip (front) and a tail (end). If there is any lettering on the board, that’s one clue as to which end is which. Another is the small nylon strap, which is attached to the binding closest to the tip. That strap, called leash, is required in many ski areas.
Look also for a piece of plastic or rubber somewhere in the middle of the board. This is called a “stomp pad.” If your board doesn’t have one of these, go back and ask for another. A stomp pad will come in handy during your lessons, and there’s no good reason to not have one.
What should you do at the base?
So now that you’ve got your gear and have given it a once over, what’s next?
Learn how to fall.
As you learn how to ride, you will fall. Perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. You will probably fall at every stage of your progression. So your first step in learning to ride might be to learn how to fall.
The most common injury from snowboarding is a broken or sprained wrist, which comes from falling on your hands. Practice falling. You don’t even need a snowboard–or snow–for this.
Practice falling forward. Land on your knees first (that’s one reason why some kneepads might be helpful!), then your forearms.
Practice falling backwards. Roll yourself into a ball–tuck in your knees, tuck your head forward, and land on your butt.
Of course it’s much easier to say this than to remember it, let alone do it. But it should still be mentioned.
Remember the stance from baseball or tennis.
Another thing that your instructor may talk about, and demonstrate, is the athletic stance. You need to be balanced. Think of a shortstop waiting to field a one-hop ground ball, the tennis player waiting to return a serve.
You get the picture. The default stance on a snowboard involves some bend in the knees.
Stand on the board.
In snowboarding, your feet stay in the same place, attached to the board. Even before you get into the bindings, step on the board. Practice putting weight on your toes. (That’s what we call “toe side”.) You may feel the board tilt ever so slightly. Then stand with your feet level. And then put some extra weight on your heels. (That’s heel side.) Shifting your weight between your toes and your heels — between toe side and heel side — is an essential part of snowboarding.
Shifting your weight between heel and toe is an essential part of walking. But there, you shift your weight to toes of one foot while you shift your weight to the heel of another. In riding, you shift your weight to both sets of toes, or both heels.
Put your foot in the front binding.
Once you are outside with your instructor, you will probably be asked at some point to put your foot in the “front” binding.
Stand up, with one foot on the snowboard, and one on the ground. Does this feel awkward? Good. It’s supposed to.
Walk around like this, dragging your board. Hard, isn’t it?
Skiers have poles to help them move when the ground is flat. But what do you do on a snowboard?
It’s what you do when you have only one foot in the bindings. (Not surprisingly, if you have experience on a skateboard, you will find this much easier.) Put your foot in the binding. Push the other foot on the ground to get the board moving. It might help if you think of it as sticking a paddle in the water. Stoke! Then step on the stomp pad.
Start by paddling on one side of the board. Stroke, stroke, glide. Then go a further distance. Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, glide even longer. Then repeat on the other side of the board. If you started with paddling on the toe side, try the heel side.
You may be tempted to give up, thinking that this is something you can do without. Don’t. If you’re lucky, you won’t have to use it much. But you will need to do something like this to get through lift lines.
Depending on your skills, you might eventually use this as a way to get around on the “flats,” areas without any slope. (You may end up getting out of your bindings in such situations, but give skating a try first.
Do the one-footed slide
Next to go a part of the hill with a slight–a very slight–incline. With a foot in the front binding, step, with the other foot, on the stomp pad. Slide away. You’ll come to a stop when the ground gets really flat.
Now try it again, but this time use your back foot as a brake. As you travel down the hill, stick your toes out over the board and very gently (and not suddenly!) press your toes on the ground. On another pass, use your heel as a brake.
Make your first turns.
Move on to very small turns, sometimes called “J-turns.” This is like the previous exercise, but now you’ll try to turn the board, slightly.
Start going down the incline. Where do you want to turn the board towards? Using your front foot, put some pressure (that is, increase your weight) on the appropriate side of the board. If you want to turn left, put some pressure on the left side; if right, then the right.
It will also help to turn your head in the direction you want to turn, but don’t overdo it.
Take several trips, sometimes turning left, sometimes turning right. This way you get experience making heel side as well as toe side turns. Most people will find it easier to make toe side turns, though not everyone will be like this.
Now it’s two feet
Finally! Time to use both bindings. Don’t be anxious to get into two bindings. The experience of controlling the board with just your front foot will help develop good snowboarding habits.
But when it’s time to two feet, get a partner who can steady you and (if required) help you stand up from a seated position. Your partner should be standing with both feet on the ground (not on a board), and then pull you forward (on your toe side) and push you back (on your heel side), keeping you from falling down all the while. Use this as a time to get a feel for standing “on edge.”
Remember the one-footed slide? Now do the two-footed slide. And then try making j-turns.
This is a good time to remember the tennis stance. If you stand up stiff, you’re more likely to fall. Keep your knees bent, and your shoulders over your hips. (Sticking your butt out is bad form, and ineffective.)
Time to go slip-sliding away
The sideslip involves standing up on the board, with the board facing across, not down the mountain. Stand up on either toeside or heelside. Dig your board into the hill far enough, and you’re not going to move. Then relax your feet, and you will start slipping down the mountain. Don’t let the board go completely flat, though, or you’ll fall flat on your face, or butt (depending on which way you are facing). It’s called a body slam, and it will hurt.
The slide slip will be a useful tool throughout your time as a snowboarder. It’s not something you will use all the time, but it’s useful when you find yourself on a too-steep or too-icy terrain.
It’s time for traverses
If you’ve learned how to ski, you know that the way to slow down is to traverse the hill. What it means is this: you gain speed when your board is pointing to the bottom of the hill, and lose speed (slow down) when it is not.
So one step to learning to ride is to get comfortable going from one side of the hill to the other. Ride across the hill on your toes. Flip over (see “Turtle Roll,” below), and go back the other way, also on your toes.
Repeat this until you feel comfortable on that hill. Then repeat it again, but ride on your heels. This may be more difficult; it requires that you master standing up with your heels dug into the hill, and facing downhill. It takes more out of you than getting up from your toes. work on.
The falling leaf is a variation on the traverse
Pssst! Here’s a secret: if you simply cannot flip your body and board over when you get to one side of the hill, keep riding on your heels (or toes), and go in the opposite direction. If your left foot led the way across the hill, now try your right; if your right foot led the way before, now try your left.
If you do this, you’ll be practicing a snowboarding trick! It’s called riding “fakie,” or “switch.” It’s a useful skill to use, especially if you ever want to learn how to ride in the halfpipe or spin, on or off the ground.
This exercise, by the way, is called the “falling leaf.” Try it first on your toes, and then on your heels. Note that many snowsports schools think this sets snowboarders up for bad habits, so they forbid their instructors from using it. Like any training technique, it can be abused.
Garlands are the prelude to linked turns
The garland what takes you from the traverse to real turns. In a garland, you start out making a traverse, and then at various points, “cheat” on the traverse, and ever so briefly point your board towards the bottom of the mountain, and then back to your original direction.
So it goes: ride on your toes, point the board downhill, then go back to your original line. Once you do that, you can move on to linked turns.
Linking turns: the final frontier
The ultimate goal of learning to ride is to link turns. Going straight down the hill is easy; stopping is more difficult, and linking turns is the way that you control both your direction and your speed as you come down the hill.
One turn leads to another (which is why they are called “linked.”) If someone looks up the hill and sees you riding down the slope, they will see you gliding in a pattern resembling a figure-8. (Your pattern may look like a “squashed” figure 8, however.)
Your instructor can help you make smooth linked turns, but here is one tip.
Don’t rush into the turn. When the board is heading straight downhill, it’s easy to panic, and want to make a sharp turn to slow down your speed. The problem with that approach is that you are likely to skid out, stall, and even fall down.
Remember the basics of a turn. Pressure the board in the direction you want to go, look in that direction, and trust your board to do the work.
He’s got high hopes: it’s in the attitude
No doubt about it, you won’t like falling down, and you will probably feel “beat” by the end of the lesson. That’s why the most important part of learning how to ride is your attitude.
At the end of the day, think back on the progress you made. It’s impressive, isn’t it?
You’ve gained knowledge and experience, dealt with disappointment and fear, and made some progress on your way to enjoying this great sport. Keep with it at least two more lessons, and you too can become a part of Grays on Trays.
Use the Turtle Roll to get up
If you’ve watched snowboarding competitions, you’ve seen folks spin around. Even as a beginner, you may be making some turns as well–though firmly on the ground. Getting up on the ground with both legs attached to a slippery object is tricky, and you’ll find that some ways of standing up are easier than others. Most people find it easier to get up by standing on their toes (toeside), facing uphill.
So what if you are facing downhill, not uphill? You could try to send up on your heels. But that takes a lot of abdominal strength. So you may want to turn around. It’s hard to describe and harder to visualize, but what you do is roll onto one shoulder, and continue rolling with your feet (and board) in the air until your toes are pointing uphill. That’s the turtle roll.
Tough, isn’t it? Don’t worry. In time you will get to be so good at other tasks that you won’t have to do this very often.