How to get off a ski lift without causing a pile up

Mother and two sons on ski lift
This quick guide to how to ride a ski lift and how to get off a ski lift will give all the pointers you need to avoid causing a traffic jam and getting heckled (Image credit: Adie Bush)

How to get off a ski lift without causing a pile up. It’s a matter that keeps all new skiers awake at night, so don’t worry – you’re definitely not alone in asking it. Skiing is tricky enough as a beginner, what with trying to stay upright while wearing narrow planks on a slippery surface. Add in a fast-moving chair zooming up behind you and sweeping you up the mountain at dizzying speeds and heights and suddenly another type of skiing like cross country or uphill skiing where there's no lift starts looking mightily attractive. Riding a chairlift, however, is an inescapable aspect of alpine skiing. Though a fall when you’re getting on or off can be extremely embarrassing, not to mention dangerous, with a little guidance and practice, soon enough you won’t even think about it.

We’ll start by saying that riding a chairlift is something that will be covered in a beginner ski lesson, so it’s another argument for going out with an instructor on your first day. However, if you just need a refresher or are looking for more skiing tips, this quick guide to how to ride a ski lift and how to get off a ski lift will give all the pointers you need to avoid causing a traffic jam at the top of the lift.

Two skiers sitting in ski lift

How to get off a ski lift without causing a pile up. It’s a matter that keeps all new skiers awake at night (Image credit: Christoph Jorda)

How to ride a ski lift 

We know that you’re keen to understand how to get off a ski lift, but let’s start at the beginning and go through loading the chair from the bottom.

1. Pick a slow lift 

First, it’s good to know that not all lifts run at the same speed. Lifts that serve beginner terrain and the bunny hill will often run slower to make it easier for new skiers to load and unload, so check out a map of the resort and head to the beginner area.

2. Prepare to load

As you ski through the maze to reach the loading area, make sure to remove the straps of your ski poles from your wrists – if they get caught on the moving lift, you don’t want to be attached to them. On a busier day, skiers may be coming in from several directions and etiquette usually dictates that you alternate whenever the queues merge, however there should be signage instructing you as to how to proceed. 

Chairlifts might hold anywhere from two six skiers at a time, so as you reach the front, you’ll form a line and you may find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder with up to five other skiers here. It’s important to keep your skis facing forward (no pizza wedge here) and not jostle each other (pro tip: if you make yourself look like the worst skier in the world, others may wait for the next chair and let you ride alone!). If you feel like you’re going to slide forward, you can stick your poles into the snow in front of you to act as brakes.

Young woman on ski lift

"Maybe I can just stay on the lift till the mountain closes and no one will see me fall getting off?" (Image credit: Chris Tobin)

3. Load the ski lift 

Remember here that there will be lifties at the base of the lift whose job it is to support you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help – they’d rather slow the lift and help you onboard than have someone fall and have to stop the whole show.

As soon as the group in front of you is on the chair, slowly ski forward to the marked loading line and stop there (it can be slippery here due to all the traffic, so use your poles as brakes again as needed). If you’re on the far left, hold your poles in your right hand and look over your left shoulder to see the chair coming in behind you. If you’re on the far right, hold your skis in your left hand and look over your right shoulder. If you’re in the middle, it doesn’t matter how you do this.

The chair will swing in behind you and hit you in the back of your knees, causing you to sit down. Your ski pants might be a little slippery on the seat, so make sure you wiggle yourself back straight away. If you’re at either end, you might want to reach a hand out to grab the arm of the chair as you sit if it makes you feel safer, but this isn’t necessary.

4. Pull the safety bar down 

As soon as you are seated, reach up and pull the safety bar down, communicating with other skiers that you’re doing so – locals will often skip this important step but don’t let their overconfidence sway you. Skiers do fall from lifts and it can be deadly. Once the bar is down, you can rest your skis on the foot bar if there is one, and wiggle your toes, which helps them stay warm inside your ski socks. If you’re already warm, you might be tempted to take your ski gloves off, but be careful not to drop them as many a ski glove has never been seen again following a lift ride.Hold your poles firmly in your hand, or slide them handle first under one thigh to secure them (this takes a little practice). Now you can sit back and enjoy the mountain views.

Four skiers on a chairlift

Tips up as you get close to the top! (Image credit: Tetra Images/Noah Clayton)

How to get off a ski lift  

Don’t get so lost in the views that you forget to unload and have to take another circuit, or aren’t ready and the lefties have to stop the chair – then you might get heckled!

1. Prepare to unload 

When you get near the top, you’ll see signs on the lift poles telling you to prepare to unload. Remove your skis from the foot rest, hold your poles in one hand and check that none of the straps or loops on your ski jacket are caught on anything. 

When you see the sign telling you to raise the bar, lift it up and slide just a little forward in the chair. Reach your feet out in front of you and raise your ski tips up.

A skier in a red jacket in the backcountry

And away you go! (Image credit: Thomas Barwick)

2. Unload 

If it seems like you’re moving really fast, the lift will slow a little as you come in to land. As soon as your skis are fully touching the snow, lean forward and push down into your feet to stand up. The chair will push you forward so that you can ski out the way of the skiers coming off the next chair. Just like when you loaded the chair, you’ll want to keep your skis straight here if you’re unloading with other skiers, and don’t try to come to a stop here as blocking the path of the skiers behind you can cause that dreaded pile up.

If you’re by yourself, you’ll simply ski in the direction of the run you want to take, however if you’re unloading with others, it’s best that you all simply go straight ahead until you’re clear of the unloading area, then you can figure out if you need to go right or left. Now you can put the straps of your poles back around your wrists and enjoy a run.

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.