Your first snowboard lesson – a survival guide

So what do I do with this then?

So you fancy giving this snowboarding malarkey a go but don’t know where to start? Just as well we got British instructor John Chandler to explain how you can prepare and get the most out of your first lesson then! If you’re already up and riding, why not send this link to a mate and get her/him inspired to have a try? Take it away John…

Everyone has a first time on a snowboard. For some, it involves being launched down a slope by some well-meaning, but slightly reckless, friends who cheerfully shout out useful comments like "Turn! Turn!" or "Lean back more!".

Unless you have a qualified instructor as a friend, and a suitably understanding friendship, it’s a good idea to invest in proper lessons with a recognised snowboard school. You’ll learn faster, be taught a solid technique, have more fun, and hopefully learn the all-important skill of stopping using the board rather than a tree or chairlift pylon.

Lessons can seem a bit daunting though. I remember my first lesson only too well. Needless to say I was quite nervous and ill-prepared, which is quite common – I’m an instructor now and I can safely say that most people I teach on their very first lesson really don’t know what to expect.

The unknown is what we’re really nervous about. The best solution is to prepare in advance for what’s going to happen… which is what this article is all about.

Do I need to be young/fit/athletic/sporty/cool/agile? Am I going to look dumb?

The quickest way to dispel a lot of myths about who can snowboard is to look at me the day before I took my first lesson. I was 25, hated sports, had no sense of balance, unfit, very uncool, not very confident, clumsy and about as agile as a Sumo wrestler performing ballet. If anyone summed up the very opposite of a stereotypical snowboarder, it was me. Yet I learnt just fine, if a little slowly at times.

Anyone can learn to snowboard provided they’re willing to learn and don’t think hard exercise is reaching for the remote control. Surfing, skateboarding, wakeboarding and skiing all incorporate skills useful for snowboarding, but they are definitely not requirements. You don’t even need to have seen snow before.

You might look silly when you’re learning, but not as silly as this guy…

Will I look silly when I’m learning?

Probably. There’s no gentle way of saying that, but we all look equally silly when we’re learning and you won’t even notice – certainly those around you will be feeling just as self-conscious and will be more concerned about how they look to notice anything you do.

Just take heart that all the top snowboarding pros looked foolish at times when they learnt – we all start from somewhere, and the end result is more than worth it.

What will I need?

There’s no definitive list of what you’ll need, and exact requirements depend on where you’re learning so I won’t go into too much detail here.

At the extreme end, learning on a mountain will require layers of warm clothing topped off with a waterproof layer, a decent set of full UV protection goggles or wrap-around sunglasses, waterproof gloves and a helmet or warm beanie. Indoor snow slopes are cold and use real snow, so warm and waterproof clothing is also important, although you can get by with a hooded top instead of a jacket – just don’t wear jeans!

If in doubt, find out – learning with inappropriate clothing can be very uncomfortable.

The first thing is to book the lessons. Most schools will be geared towards complete beginners, so it’s unlikely you will find yourself on a lesson with a group of hardcore freestyle enthusiasts – but check anyway if you’re not asked.

Indoor and dryslopes normally supply boots and boards as standard, and most likely a helmet too. On the mountain, you will probably need to hire boards and boots separately. Again, check with the school in advance – those who don’t include equipment in their lesson package will more than likely be able to point you towards a rental company who do.

Helmets – use your head

I mentioned a helmet just then. I always ride with a helmet and most of my friends do as well. Helmets are a valuable piece of safety equipment, and I would always recommend you use one, even if they are not required for lessons at your chosen slope. You can pick up decent helmets for use on the mountain from all good ski and snowboard shops, while for dryslope and indoor use you can always opt for the cheaper option of using a skateboard or BMX helmet.

It’s not often you need a helmet, but it’s essential to have one when you do! If nothing else, it’s good for the confidence and can help some people relax more – all of which will help immensely during the learning process.

Before you start totalling up costs for buying or hiring kit, ask friends and families. It’s quite possible they have stuff lying around that could be borrowed, and a belt here or a bit of careful buttoning there could make something fit – baggier is better than being too tight as you’ll need a bit of mobility. End-of-season sales can also yield a bargain bin full of goodies, and quite a few people sell off second hand kit at reasonable prices.

Don’t worry about this season’s must-haves, beg and borrow kit – it doesn’t matter if

She might look the part but it won’t help her slideslip any better!

it’s all a bit mix and match. Check to see if local shops or your local slope hire out clothing as well. Believe me, there’s plenty of time for fashionable and expensive kit once you’ve learnt – for now, cheap and cheerful is the name of the game.

Okay, so that’s board, boots, helmet and clothes sorted.

Anything else?

Well, returning briefly to safety equipment, if you’re feeling cautious you might want to consider some additional protection. Wristguards, like those used by inline skaters, that slip under gloves are a popular extra.

Snowboarders tend to suffer a few wrist injuries, partly because it’s instinct to put our hands out when we fall, so guards can offer a bit of extra support.

Bum padding is also useful as we’ll spend a fair bit of time on our backsides. You can buy impact shorts, as used by snowboarders and motorbike racers, but a cheap option is to find something padded to slip down your trousers – some people cut up foam matting. With baggy trousers, they’re pretty much invisible so it won’t look like you have a big bum – the padding is also pretty useful in keeping you warm when sitting down on snow.

Planning and preparation

Okay, so the big day arrives. Make sure you have everything you need for the lesson. If boots and boards need to be picked up, make sure you know where to get them from and that you can go from there to the lesson with plenty of time. At my local slope, kit hire is in the same location as the instructor pick-up so it’s all in one place – things might be different, so check! Depending on how busy things are, and where your slope is, I’d allow yourself about half an hour to get board and boots sorted out. Let’s take a look at those first…

Snowboard boots are different to ski boots. They’re softer and more flexible, they lace up and have a wider degree of movement. You can walk around in them quite happily, and some people even feel comfortable driving in them – I don’t, however. Boots are absolutely vital pieces of equipment so take time to make sure they fit comfortably. Boot sizes are the same as shoe sizes, so ask for your normal size and put them on. Your foot should be snug and have room to wiggle your toes.

Lace up the boots fairly tightly to minimise foot movement and check that the boot feels comfy, that you haven’t cut off the circulation to your feet, and that your heel doesn’t rise up too much inside the boot. A little bit is okay, too much will make you work ten times as hard to do anything with the board and you’ll tire quickly. If you’re not happy with the fit, take the boot back and either try another in your size or maybe try the next size up or down until you find one that feels good.

Once you have a pair of well-fitting boots, go and get a board.

This is the first bit of unfamiliar territory if you’ve not tried any board sport before. The rental assistant will eye you up and say something like:

"Regular or goofy?"

Huh? Okay, keep calm and keep the following in mind: snowboarding is a sideways sport. When we move down the slope, we lead with one foot. From personal observations, roughly half of us lead with our left foot and half with our right. Left-footers are known as Regular riders (or Natural in some countries). Right footers are called Goofy, which I have on good authority is down to a certain Disney character’s surfing preference, and not any kind of personal slur. Footedness is unrelated to handedness, age, gender, eye dominance or pretty much anything else.

So how do you know what you are? Well, the short answer is that you don’t to begin with. If you’ve surfed or skateboarded, it’s more than likely you will lead with the same foot so pick that to begin with. Those of us total board newbies will need to make a decision. It’s not that important to begin with and you will eventually decide which foot your prefer as you do the lessons, but you’ll need to answer the regular/goofy question so here’s a couple of suggestions:

First, you could pick a foot. Have a think and decide whether you would feel better with your left foot forward or your right foot. Imagine yourself on a board. Toss a coin if you can’t decide.

Take a test

Alternatively, try a test. I’ve yet to find a foolproof method and I fail most of these tests anyway, but they work for some people so if they help you decide then that’s good. Have a go at sliding along some ice or a slippery floor. Which foot do you stick out in front? Get a friend to push you by surprise sometime during the day before the lesson. Which foot did you stick out? Borrow a skateboard and see which foot feels best on the board when you push with the other foot.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Pick a foot for now and as the lessons progress you’ll figure it out. So, if you think you’re left footed, ask for a left foot board or say you’re regular. Right foot, goofy. They’ll poke around through the board racks and present you with a board. That’s yours. Take it aside and take a look at it.

The first thing to make sure is that it is a good size for you. Boards come in different sizes – the choice of size is based on what you want to do with it and how heavy you are. Since you want to learn on your board, that’s the what part dealt with. Weight is a different issue – I doubt the rental assistant asked for your weight or put you on a set of scales. They probably eyed you up and got a board out, or placed a board alongside you, gave a nod of approval and sent you on your way.

As a quick rule of thumb, rental shops have found it easier to make sure a board is roughly the same length as the distance from your feet to a point between chin and nose. Having a board that’s too big or too small might be awkward to use. Make sure it comes up to between chin and nose when you place it upright in front of you. If it’s not the right size, take it back and ask for a different one or it could make things slightly harder on your lesson.

Okay, so that’s the boots and board… time to get to the lesson.

T minus 30

You’ll meet all kinds of people in your lessons…

Arrive at the meeting point half an hour before the lesson. Make sure you are ready to go with plenty of time to spare – it’s not good having to rush to a meeting point, turning up halfway through the lesson or finding the group has already gone. Some schools are very strict – you miss the start time and you will not be allowed to join the lesson.

If you spot instructors, you can always introduce yourself and double-check you have the right location. You might even meet your instructor, or be directed to them so you can get chatting and make sure your boots and board are okay. If you’re so inclined, you can also do a few warm up stretches to help calm the nerves and warm up the muscles.

The exact process for assembling groups varies with schools. Some get the instructor to shout out the group level "Level one snowboard!", others have a sign post, some have the instructors walk up to a group and introduce themselves, others might operate a queue. Either way, you’ll eventually find yourself with an instructor and a group of fellow beginners all sporting ill-fitting helmets, baggy neon jackets borrowed from relatives and some very nervous faces.

This is it…

Your first lesson

No matter where you go, the very first lesson is fairly similar across the world, with just a few variations. The instructor will introduce themselves and probably confirm that everyone is on the right lesson for complete beginners. Don’t be alarmed if someone says they’ve already done it before – some people are either taking proper lessons for the first time after a few self-study attempts, or they’re returning after a gap.

Most, if not all, instructors will then go around the group and get everyone’s names. I also ask why it is people have decided to take up snowboarding. The reason isn’t important, it’s just nice to know what brought you to the lesson – you might be bored of skiing, an old surfer looking for new thrills, keeping a friend company or you’ve seen your favourite cartoon character on a snowboard. Any reason is a good reason.

Next we’ll introduce you to the board. What looks like a big plank with some funny bits attached will start to look more familiar – you’ll learn which bits of the board make you go fast, which bits help slow you down, and which bits keep your feet attached to the board. Don’t worry too much if it goes in one ear and out the other, you’ll come across the parts a few times during the lesson and it’ll gradually start to make more sense.

The instructor will also show you how to attach your feet to the board, one foot at a time, and how to stand properly on the board while the board is on a flat bit of ground.

If there’s room, you might also be given the chance to move around a bit with one foot strapped in and using the other foot to push you along – a bit like skateboarding. I also show people how to fall properly – having a practice fall can show you that it doesn’t really hurt as much as you would think.

Once you’ve covered the basic introduction, the instructor will take you to a suitable part of the lesson slope and you can have a go at some proper snowboarding.

The sideslip

Standing on the slope for the first time can be quite daunting. If you’re not used to the terrain, you might be thinking it looks quite steep and quite slippery. Don’t panic! Instructors have had a lot of training and know the right spots to teach parts of the lesson – safety is the most important part of instructor training and we won’t put you in a situation that is unsuitable for you. What looks like the top of Everest is probably a very tame slope you wouldn’t think twice about walking up/down or sliding on a toboggan.

The instructor will probably point out a few things to be aware of – like the boundaries for the lesson or what to do if you want to make an emergency stop. They’ll show you how to safely strap in on a slope, which will usually involve sitting down to strap the second foot in so you don’t go sliding away. When everyone’s strapped in and ready, it’s time for the first exercise: the sideslip.

The sideslip is a basic little manoeuvre that is used at all levels to navigate down difficult slopes.

In short: the base of the board makes you pick up speed while the edges of the board are your brakes. The sideslip shows you how to control the speed of the board down the slope by varying the amount of base and brakes you use. You’ll have the board pointing across the slope, but you’ll move downwards – you won’t be pointing one end of the board down the slope (like you see on TV or in the movies) as this makes you go very fast, with no brakes.

Having the board sideways (hence the term sideslip) gives you a nice, stable platform with big brakes to use. It’ll feel weird at first and quite jerky – you’ll probably fall over a few times, or alternate between spurts of speed and quick slams of the brakes, but gradually it will smooth out as you get your balance and learn to make small, subtle movements to control the speed.

The instructor will help you down for the first run so you’ll be able to concentrate on finding the right position and a comfortable speed. Most people are okay to go on their own after that point, but some need a little extra help. We all learn at different rates so some people will click straight away, others take a little longer – but everyone gets it with practice.

If you find it awkward, have a laugh, take a deep breath and try again. As you relax and get used to it, the slope will feel less steep, the brain and body will become more coordinated and you’ll relax – as you relax, snowboarding becomes easier to do.

Take it nice and slow – it’s easy to be a little aggressive with nerves or let the board

Headphones are a bad idea if you’re trying to follow your instructor’s instructions…

pick up speed, and frustration can easily set in. Take a break, take some calming breaths and keep practising. If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to ask the instructor for help – we’re here to make sure you have fun and learn and it can be quite busy on the first lesson so we might be dealing with a few people at a time.

Be aware of you own comfort. You might pick up some bruises, get snow down your trousers (yuk!), find your gloves are getting cold and wet or your feet might be aching. Learning when you’re unhappy or uncomfortable isn’t easy because you’ll be distracted.

Ask your instructor for advice or help – you might be able to swap gloves, get a replacement board or be given help in tightening up your laces. If you’re tired, thirsty or need the toilet, again let the instructor know. Whatever you do, don’t wander off without letting someone know as instructors need to be aware of where everyone is in case of an emergency. Gosh, it’s like being back at school!

Once you’re comfy moving down the slope, the instructor will begin to show you how to change the way you stand on the board to start moving left and right across the slope while you slide downwards. This gives a diagonal, zig-zag pattern and teaches you to control things like drift (slopes aren’t entirely smooth) and navigate around people and obstacles on the slope. Again, the board will remain pointing across the slope as you move downwards so you have those big brakes to control speed.

Whatever you do, don’t compare yourself to other people on your lesson. Some people have great balance, others have skateboarded or pick things up very quickly. Others might look impressive as they whizz down the slope, but the reality is that their quick speed is masking an inability to stop. The only person you need to compare yourself with is yourself – how did that run feel to the last one? What did you do right? What did you need to be more aware of?

The early lessons are all about learning to balance, controlling speed and some basic navigation – no racing, no tricks, no pointing down the hill and praying, just a solid foundation you can take with you to your next lesson.

The end

The first lesson will fly by. You’ll just be getting into a flow with your new skills, when the instructor will announce that it’s the last run of the lesson. Resist the urge to do something rash, make that last run super-smooth and give a little whoop of congratulations at the end.

The instructor will finish off with a simple debrief on how everyone did, either as a group or perhaps individually as people finish their last run. You’ll be given a little information on what your next step is. Most people will move on up to the next level, but don’t be disappointed if you’re asked to repeat something again next time. Different people learn at different rates, and the first couple of lessons can be quite tricky as you get to grips with all the different aspects of snowboarding – the balance, the movement, the slope, the equipment.

It can be quite a bit to take in on one lesson – but you’ll be surprised how quickly things click into place after a bit of a rest and a return to something you’ve already had a go at. A little bit of investment in the early stages will pay out big time in the later parts, so take as long as you need to give yourself the right stepping stones on your journey into the world of snowboarding.

I hope that has given you a glimpse into your first lesson and calmed some of the fears you might have about snowboarding. Good luck – enjoy your first lesson, don’t take it too seriously and make friends with those in your group.

Who knows? One day it might be you teaching a group of beginners!

Enjoyed your first lesson? Why not join the forum, tell us all about it and make some new snowboarding friends.

Illustrations by Jesse Brown –

One Response to “Your first snowboard lesson – a survival guide”

  1. Michelle

    Thhaaaaaanl yoooou! I’m on the bus to my friends to borrow his old jacket and ski pants. Then off to the mountain to figure out this ski pass business, then in a couple of hours I’ll be one of those learners… So glad I googled ‘first snowboarding lesson’ because this has helped me quite a bit. I think nerves are healthy but I’m especially grateful that age dosnt matter too much! We just learn a little slower.heres hoping I’m better at this than surfing! :s