‘Piste’ (French for ‘track’) is how we refer to individual ski slopes – in North America they’re more commonly known as ‘trails’ and sometimes we call them ‘runs’.
Whatever you call them, no two are the same: they vary in length, shape, gradient and snow conditions. Ski resorts classify pistes in terms of difficulty and have maps to reflect this.
There are also all sorts of technical (and not-so-technical) terms to describe what you find on and around them. At the end of the day, skiing and snowboarding on pistes have made up some of the best times of our lives, so it’s well worth getting the low-down of what they are, how they work and the safest way to enjoy them.
Some resorts are more generous with their piste classifications than others… The difficulty of the Swiss slopes is generally thought to be higher than the same coloured slopes in other European countries. In Finland, some slopes have two colours – e.g. if it starts off gently and gets trickier, you’ll find it graded blue-red. The best way to avoid trickier runs is to talk to an instructor or guide, who can show you where to ski according to your ability.
Each piste is signposted with its own name or number. The signpost will also be a certain colour and you’ll often find coloured markers along the side of a run. These colours represent how difficult the piste is. Europe and North America have slightly different systems but they all follow a general rule:
often wide and very gently sloping, green pistes are perfect for practising your snowplough on your first week. The very easiest are short nursery/bunny slopes for complete beginners. Some resorts keep these specifically for ski schools or give the runs speed restrictions to keep away speedsters.
in France and North America, blues are a step up from greens – usually wide, cruisey runs to enjoy when you’ve mastered the basics. In other countries, these will also include really easy runs that’d be labelled green elsewhere.
red runs tend to be narrower and/or steeper for confident parallel skiers and snowboarders.
for expert skiers and snowboarders only, these ones are steep and often narrow. Some are left un-groomed or mogulled for added difficulty. In North America, black runs are marked with diamonds – the more diamonds the more demanding the run.
a newer addition to piste maps, these are marked runs which aren’t groomed - only found in some resorts. They follow the natural paths down the mountain and are usually cleared for any large obstacles and avalanche protected. They can give you the feel of going off piste but are safer as they’re still patrolled.
Best experienced with a guide, these are natural descents without avalanche protection, so check the current conditions before you tackle them and bring all the necessary safety gear with you.
Slope conditions are heavily dependent on where you on the mountain, the weather, time of year and time of day.
Piste maps are key to finding your way around a ski area – pick yours up from the ticket office and keep it in your pocket, or download a version on your phone. The map recreates what the mountain looks like, and then overlays the pistes, lifts and things like snowparks, kindergardens and restaurants.
Lifts are easy to spot as they’ll be the straightest lines on the map. Each should be labelled with its name and a symbol of the type of lift it is. The pistes are represented by a line of their corresponding colour with their name/number. If it looks a little ambiguous as to what direction a piste goes in, it will often be marked with an arrow.
There are usually signposts around the mountain to direct you – some include a large scale piste map (often near the main lifts) which shows you where you are.
Each evening after the lifts close, the snow is groomed by bulldozer-like machines (also called snowploughs, snowcats or groomers). They are specifically designed to flatten the snow and spread it across the piste to keep it well covered. At the start of the day a freshly groomed piste looks like ‘corduroy’ because of all the small ridges made by the machinery.
When there isn’t much of the white stuff, resorts use snow cannons to create artificial snow – you can often see them along the piste. They work by jetting out pressurised air and cool water at a high-speed, which then crystallises in the cold air outside and falls like snow. These work best when the temperature is below freezing and are particularly useful at the start of the season when there hasn’t been a long build-up of snow.
Although the pistes aren’t technically shut off, the lifts and ski patrols do have specific hours of operation. The pistes officially open when the lifts start in the morning, and after the lifts close at the end of the day, the ski patrol go down the mountain to check that everyone’s able to get back safely.
Look out for days when a couple of lifts open an hour or so early to let keen skiers make fresh tracks on the slopes. Lots of resorts do night skiing when pistes are floodlit to let you ski and snowboard after dark. In regions like Lapland where you only have a few daylight hours, most pistes are lit-up to let you enjoy in a full day’s skiing.