Skiing vs snowboarding? Them’s fighting words

Three skiers wearing helmets
Choosing between skiing vs snowboarding requires you to consider how silly you want to feel getting on a ski lift, which bone you want to break first and how baggy you like to wear your pants – we help you decide (Image credit: Arc'Teryx)

Skiing vs snowboarding? I haven’t tackled an issue this controversial since I wrote about running vs cycling. I’m cowering as I type in anticipation of the incoming rotten tomatoes. Here’s my story: I grew up in a working class city and therefore I didn’t grow up skiing or snowboarding. Skiing and snowboarding are for rich kids. I did, however, land a job at a radio station in Vermont after I graduated from university and as part of the job, we toured around every ski hill in the state during the winter. Thanks to one of our sales team, I got a private ski lesson at Mad River Glen. I liked it a lot, and by the end of the day I was skiing all the way down the mountain. Each week I’d rent skis at whatever resort we were broadcasting from and pizza wedge my way down the hill on that amazing East Coast ice they call snow.  

However, I’d always secretly coveted snowboarding. It looks cool, like surfing, and the baggy pants appeal to my sense of style, which seems to be permanently trapped in the 1990s. So when a local snowboarding company wanted to give us DJs a free snowboard each, I jumped at the chance (duh). I took a snowboarding lesson. It was hard. I learned that I rode “goofy” and sometimes could catch a few seconds on heel side or toe side before falling. I moved to the city and gave up on winter sports.

A man telemark skiing on a sunny day

This is how I looked in my imagination (Image credit: Tyler Stableford)

A few years later, I moved to Vail, Colorado, and took my cool board with me. I didn’t own skis, so I got it out on the bunny hill, caught an edge and landed on my ass. It hurt for weeks. I went back to skiing and have never tried snowboarding again.

Now you’ll be thinking that this article is about me trying to convince you of the merits of skiing compared to the pitfalls of snowboarding, but I promise it isn’t. I simply already knew how to ski when I tried snowboarding and wasn’t willing to go back to the beginning. Plus, as a yoga teacher, I couldn’t afford to have a sore ass for a month. I’m old now anyway and would always rather be snowshoeing or Nordic skiing in the backcountry than zooming downhill at the resort. I won’t be upset if, after reading this, you choose snowboarding over skiing. If you’re already a skier or a snowboarder and just looking for something to reinforce your existing preference, this article isn’t for you. If, however, you’re planning to hit the hill for the first time this year and wondering which sport is for you, this article will compare the two sports to help you decide.

Three skiers walking together

Don't walk away, I'm not here to argue against snowboarding! (Image credit: Henrik Sorensen)

Skiing vs snowboarding: difficulty 

The biggest conversation around skiing vs snowboarding is how difficult each one is, and of course, difficult is a fairly subjective criteria. Regardless, I’ll do my best here and in order to assess each one’s difficulty level I’ve organized this topic into four subtopics.

First, how difficult is each sport to learn? The general consensus among winter sports enthusiasts is that snowboarding is harder to learn – you’ll spend lots of time on your bum to start – but easier to get good at once you’ve got the basics down. Meanwhile, skiing is usually pretty easy to learn – by the end of day one you can reasonably expect to ski from top to bottom – but harder to get really good at.

Before you can even get on the hill, of course, you have to ride the chair lift, and this is one area where skiers have an easier time than snowboarders. As a skier, you just push yourself forward, the ski lift comes up behind you and you sit down. At the top, you raise the bar and ski off. Easy. Even seasoned snowboarders struggle getting on and off lifts. You have to unstrap your back foot before you enter the lift maze and use it to push yourself along, then take care not to step on your board as you’re getting on the lift. It’s really difficult to get on the lift with skiers, and once you’re on, the entire weight of your snowboard is hanging off one foot, which is uncomfortable. Then at the top, there’s another good opportunity to fall as you unload, and you have to strap back in before you can actually ride downhill. It’s a hassle, but highly entertaining as a spectator sport.

A family of skiers smiling on the chairlift on a sunny day

Skiers always have an easier time loading and unloading the chairlift (Image credit: Imgorthand)

Next up, in terms of actual technique, skiing and snowboarding are obviously quite different. In skiing, your body position won’t feel particularly alien. Your legs can move independently and you’ll be facing downhill in the direction of travel. That said, your feet are on two separate pieces of equipment which can go in opposite directions if you’re not paying attention. Snowboarding requires a lot more asymmetry in your body which takes more getting used to. Your feet are essentially tied together which will feel strange at first and you’ll be positioned with an uphill foot and a downhill foot and you won’t be facing downhill, so you’ll need to turn your upper body to see where you’re going. Often, other skiers and snowboarders will be in your blind spot, which is unsettling for everyone.

Finally, where snowboarders have a definite edge (har har) over skiers is in walking around town during apres. Ski boots are stiff and non-grippy and notoriously difficult to walk in, plus you’ve got to carry two skis and your poles, which when you’re new leaves you looking like a total Jerry. Snowboarding boots are comfortable and basically like wearing big snow boots, plus you can sling your board under your arm and look cool.

Three skiers walking through a resort with skis over their shoulders

Carrying your skis without looking like a gaper takes time and practice (Image credit: Maskot)

Skiing vs snowboarding: terrain and conditions 

You’d think that all that’s needed for either sport is some snow and a slope, and barring truly awful weather conditions that’s largely true for skiing. In fact, once you learn to skate, you can even ski on flat terrain, known as catwalks on the hill. Basically you can easily ski on any terrain on the mountain, though moguls are an acquired taste. Snowboarding, meanwhile, relies on a decent degree of slope to get moving, since you can’t skate, and even good boarders really struggle on catwalks. Any good ski hill should have a mixture of both, but it’s a good idea to know your local mountain and how friendly the terrain is to each activity. 

Meanwhile, for both sports, deep powder can be fantastically fun if you know how to ski or ride it, but because it slows you down and snowboarders require a bit more momentum the latter group can struggle a bit. This means that if you live in Colorado, there may be lots of blizzard days when you want to skip the hill, but no need to worry about all that if you’re on the icy east coast.

A skier in deep powder

Deep powder can be fantastically fun if you know how to ski or ride it (Image credit: Arc'Teryx)

Skiing vs snowboarding: injuries 

When you take up any downhill winter sport, you’re assuming a certain degree of risk to your body and life. It’s why you sign a waiver to get on the lift. One major detail I left out earlier – even though skiing has been my sport of choice, I’ve been the recipient of not one but two knee surgeries as a result of that choice. Knee injuries like mine are the most common injury amongst skiers, according to a 2012 research article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab), but before you go and buy yourself a single plank, snowboarders aren’t off the hook. The same study found that snowboarders are more likely to get injured than skiers, with injuries to their wrists, shoulders, ankles and collarbones as well as concussions. Then again, a 2011 article in the Guardian reported that skiers are more likely to die of their injuries. The bottom line is, both sports are inherently dangerous. If you already have bad knees, you might want to try snowboarding, and if you already have bad wrists or shoulders, try skiing. If you want a safer option, try snowshoeing or cross country skiing

A man falls on cross country skis

Snowboarders are more likely to get injured but skiers are more likely to die...it's a conundrum (Image credit: Inti St Clair)

Skiing vs snowboarding: gear and cost

To take up skiing, you need skis, boots and poles. For snowboarding, you need boots and a board. Both sports require you to wear a helmet, if you’re smart, and any ski jacket, ski pants and ski goggles will work for either activity, however snowboarders often prefer baggier clothing for more range of motion. 

Overall, there’s no great difference in the cost of this gear when you’re buying entry-level equipment, and you’re always better off buying used gear for starting out, to make sure you’re going to stick with it.

In terms of getting on the hill, a ski pass or lift ticket and lessons all cost the same, no matter what’s on your feet. You might argue that a snowboarder would need more lessons than a skier early on, but a skier might take advanced lessons later. Let's assume it all comes out in the wash.

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Skiing vs snowboarding
Header Cell - Column 0 Skiing Snowboarding
DifficultyEasy to learn, harder to get good at. Easy to load the chairlift, difficult to walk around town in your bootsDifficult to learn, easier to get good at. Difficult to load the chairlift, easy to walk around town in your boots
Terrain and conditionsWith practice, you can ski any terrain and conditionsYou need a decent slope to get going, so catwalks are tough, and powder can be challenging
InjuriesKnee injuries are the most common, injuries overall are less common than in snowboarding, but more likely to be fatalMore injuries than skiing, including wrists, shoulders, collarbones, ankles and concussions, but you're less likely to die
Gear and costSkis, boots poles and helmet to get started, plus a lift ticket and a lessonBoots and boar and helmet to get started, plus a lift ticket and a lesson

Skiing vs snowboarding: the verdict 

Since gear, cost and injury risk seem pretty even between the two, what this all really comes down to is your learning style and your personal preference for the technique. Obviously, the smartest move is to take a lesson in each sport and simply see which one you gel with. Another big factor to consider is what all your friends do. Skiers and snowboarders can ride together and have fun, but there are some idiosyncrasies that can make it less fun if you’re the only skier in a group of riders, or vice versa. 

Finally, remember that you’re not limited to one sport. You should probably dedicate this season to getting good at one, but in the future you can always learn both then choose what you’re going to do each day based on the conditions and what friends you’re going out with. 

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.