I went on my first snow holiday in 2012 with some friends. Six years later, and I have done seasons in France, New Zealand and Canada. Safe to say, if it wasn’t for my sun loving girlfriend, I would be chasing winters around the world.
The bad news is that this guide to a ski bum lifestyle will usually end up with you working for the winter. I know….boo….we want to just ride our brains out, all day, every day. But honestly, I found that working for the winter makes the season even better. It’s an easy way to meet lots of rad people, join in on activities and keep out of trouble. I spent one season in New Zealand with my best buddy, Josh, and we didn’t work at all. We still had an epic time but it was definitely the “worst” of my seasons.
I wanted to put together a guide for getting yourself set up for a winter and getting set up abroad, as it can often be a daunting task. There are so many ski resorts around the world, offering so many different things. How on earth are you supposed to know where to get started?
So, if you are thinking of taking the leap and becoming a ski bum for the winter I hope this little guide helps you to make that dream a reality!
1. Pick a destination
Where and when is it winter?
I think this is a great place to start. Winter in the northern hemisphere tends to run from late November until mid-April. While winter in the southern hemisphere tends to run from early to mid-June until early October. The time of year you are looking to start the ski bum lifestyle will influence your decision on which winter to follow. I come from Ireland so it made sense to me to start somewhere with matching seasons.
Culture and language
These are all important considerations to make when choosing which country to do your winter season. My first season in France was the most intimidating, as I went there not speaking a word of the language. I would like to say I left as a fluent speaker, but 6 months working for an English company meant my language skills barely improved. Shame on me.
It is possible to work in countries where you don’t speak the language, but it is definitely something worth taking into consideration. All over Europe and in countries like Japan, it is easy enough to get by without speaking the local language. The main disadvantage to this, is that it becomes much harder to immerse yourself in the local culture and interact with the local people. It also restricts the number of jobs you are able to do, so you may have to be less picky with work.
If you do need to fund your winter season by working while you are there, then you will need to ensure you can legally work in your desired destination. Coming from Ireland, it made it easy for me to work anywhere in the European Union, which opened up pretty much anywhere in the Alps. Places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia (yes, they have ski hills there) all have great visa options for young travelers. This makes it an easy process to get a visa and find work.
2. What do you want from your season?
When embarking on my first winter in France, I thought everybody there would be ski and snowboard purists. How wrong I was. Around half the people had never even tried snow sports, and most people were mostly there to party and have a great time. This is a really important factor in deciding where to go.
Some resorts are sleepy little places where everyone goes to bed early to catch first lifts. Other resorts have amazing nightlife and are aimed at the riders who aren’t so bothered about the terrain and just want great après ski. Make sure you choose a resort that fits with your lifestyle.
Ability Level and Riding Style
Just because you are reading this guide doesn’t mean you are a beginner rider. You may have been on ski holidays since you were just knee high and you are already a shredder. Or you may be fresh faced and nervous about taking that first chair lift. So pick a resort that reflects your ability level or your style of riding.
I am currently in Canada, where there are such a huge range of mountains. Revelstoke is known worldwide as having some of the best snow, and some of the wildest terrain. If you don’t fancy steep runs and cliff drops, then this may not be the resort for you. Likewise, if you are a park rat and that’s where you want to spend your days, you need to make sure that whatever mountain you pick has a great set up. I just did the winter at Big White in the Okanagan, British Columbia. It is a pretty mellow mountain and because of this, it has a pretty strong park with lots of features.
If you have never skied or snowboarded before, then look for a well rounded mountain. You have no idea yet if you will be hitting rails in the park, buttering around the groomers or looking for powder stashes after big dumps. Lots of mountains will have a bit of everything, which will be perfect as you can carve out your own style as you start to progress.
3. Choose a resort
Now that you have a better understanding of what you want from your season you can pick a resort. Most resorts will offer a bit of everything which suits most people. So you can have epic days riding fresh snow and crazy nights out with your friends. Have a look into each resort to see what they offer.
One major factor that influenced my decision was whether it was ski in/ski out. This means you can live right up the mountain and don’t have to drive up each day. The ability to throw on your gear and ride to and from your front door, almost guarantees you will get a lot of mountain time. If you only have a couple of hours before you start work, it’s easy to get out and ride. Whereas this may not be the case if you have to drive 30 minutes to get to the ski hill.
If you are looking for a bigger town with more than just a ski hill, then you may have to be willing to sacrifice your mountain time to have access to more activities and facilities.
4. Find a job
Work for the Mountain
There are loads of different places you can work on a ski hill. The easiest way to get set up is to work for the mountain itself, or one of the major tour operators that run on the mountain. There are many pros and cons when it comes to working for these companies. The major benefits are that you are often provided with staff accommodation, your season pass for the lifts, cheap or free gear rental and discount all around the mountain.
These things all sound great, and they are, but the price you often pay is through your wages. While you have most things provided for you, you will often find you are in one of the worst paid jobs on the mountain. My first season in France, I did this and barely kept myself afloat. Most people actually use their savings to help support their lifestyle as you earn so little. But would I take back my first season of being paid pennies? Not a chance. Living in staff accomodation means living with a group of awesome, like-minded people. We worked hard and played harder, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Work for an Independent Company
This will usually entail working for a bar or restaurant on the mountain. In my third season in Canada, I worked for a brewpub located on the mountain. I made way more money, only worked about 30 hours a week and was able to ride about 6, or sometimes, even 7 days a week.
This suited me, as I really went to spend as much time riding as I possibly could, while also making a decent bit of money. The disadvantage to this line of work is that you are usually working when everyone else is partying. So if you get FOMO serving alcohol when you would rather be drinking it, this line of work may not be for you.
To start looking for work, visit the official website for the mountain and see what job postings they have to offer. Join all the local mountain Facebook groups as independent businesses will often advertise their jobs here. There are usually multiple job fairs throughout the summer and early in the season, so if you are close by, this is a great way to go and meet potential employers face to face.
Get on the job hunt early as the best jobs are usually filled at least three months before the season starts.
5. Find Accommodation
Now that you have a job, it’s time to find a place to live. Housing is one of the major issues you will face as a ski bum. Most resorts are booming and the housing market hasn’t quite caught up yet. Many people find their winter accommodation at least 3-6 months prior to the season starting, so take this into consideration. We scoured the web everyday for weeks before we managed to find a place for our most recent winter in Canada.
We found the best place to find a room to rent was through the local mountain’s Facebook page. Spend some time looking at the layout of the village to decide where you would most like to live. Some spots are easier to ski in/ski out of than others. Some houses will require a short walk to the village through the snow which can be a pain on those -30 degree days.
6. Get your gear together
You are finally set up for your winter season. Now the fun stuff really begins. You get to spend all your money on skis, boards, boots and all the other snow gear you need. It can be super expensive to get set up with all your winter gear but it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Read our full guide to getting all your snowboard gear on the cheap here.
7. Get pumped for the craziest few months of your life
There’s nothing quite like a winter season. It is just 6 months of crazy fun. You’ll either be riding, working or partying. There’s not much room for anything else in between. I have found that no other form of travel quite offers the non-stop, thrill of a winter season. You’ll probably be knackered by the end of it and ready to find some sun for a few weeks but that just means you have done it right.
I can’t recommend the ski bum life enough. I met one of my best friends, who I went to Australia with, in the French Alps, and in some twisted way, that all led me to where I am today. It started my life of adventure and I have never looked back. So forget the sun, the beach, and the sweet tan, and choose a life in the mountains for 6 months. You will have one hell of a good time and some absolutely debaucherous stories to tell for the rest of your life!