It's starting to feel like this winter might mark the first healthy distance between real life and Covid-19 life. After a couple of years that felt like a decade or longer, a lot has changed, especially for snow sports.
In this article, you'll get a clearer picture of who is skiing and snowboarding, where they are going, and what they are using. You'll also get a good idea of what's on the horizon, as in what to expect this winter.
So click in - there's a lot to unpack.
Who's Skiing and Snowboarding At This Point?
Save a few down years, active participation in skiing and snowboarding has steadily increased.
So what is "active participation" anyways?
It's just a more scientific way that the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) measures how many unique individuals went skiing or snowboarding at a US resort every year.
So if you went to Deer Valley and skied seven full days, then traveled to Breck for a long weekend over three days, even though your total days on the mountain would be ten, you would still only count as one active skier/snowboarder.
This is how the NSAA measures the overall population/participation in snow sports. Now that the glossary is out of the way, let's see what's going on.
Active Skiers Rebounded Year 2 of Covid; Expect More This Year
Starting way back in the 1996/97 season, NSAA estimated a total snow sports participation of 8.6 million in the US. In the past 25 years, the lowest point came in the 2011/12 season - with 8.3 million active skiers/snowboarders making it to the parks that year.
Since that low point, things have trended up. With one large setback - Covid.
In 2019/20, the season ended early because of Covid. But before this closure, the year was on pace to have even higher participation than the year prior, which marked the highest participation since the NSAA began recording participation.
2020/21 got right back to where 2018/19 left off - marking the highest number of active skiers and snowboards in over 25 years, with 10.5 million in total. This is a 26% increase from the low point of 2011/12.
Covid forced Americans to get more active out of necessity, there wasn't much else going on for a while there. And even in a post-covid world, that behavior seems to be sticking around. Although the data for 2021/22 hasn't been released yet, it's expected to have increased year over year.
The most likely obstacle to reaching this record in 2022/23 would be economic conditions worsening, including higher fuel prices and their impact on travel. But barring a worsened economy, expect the slopes to be packed with new and returning skiers and snowboarders in 2022/23.
Increased Active Skiers/Snowboarders, Same Visits
You'd think that since the number of active skiers/snowboarders is increasing, the number of visits to ski areas would be following suit. But that's not the case. Visits are flat between 2018/19 and 2020/21.
Until the data for last season is released, it's hard to say how that number might fair in this coming season. But one way to think of the Covid era increase in any activity is that people were trying a lot of new things, and not every activity became a favorite for people.
In other words, people may have tried skiing or snowboarding once in 2020/21, but once was enough for them. Others may have tried it once and loved it, and planned to ski more often in the 2021/22 season.
An alternate way to project where visits are headed is to look at the number of visits per active participant. Over the past decade, this should give a better idea of what a normal frequency of visits per active skier/snowboarder looks like.
Even before Covid-19, skis were spending fewer days skiing (snowboarders too) every year. This trend has been eroding visits per active participant at nearly 1% every year.
Given that more people tried skiing than ever in the US during 2020/21, it's reasonable to project that this trend will continue in the coming season.
There's an inverse relationship between active participant growth and frequency of visits - the higher the active participation in snow sports, the lower the number of visits.
Even though the snow bunnies are making fewer trips this year, there will most likely be more of them trying it out - so don't expect fewer visits to mean fewer people waiting in line for the lift.
Skiing Vs Snowboarding - It's A Generational Thing
There was a time, not too long ago, when snowboarding was for rebellious youth, and certainly not fit for some mountains. It's the stuff of an 80's showdown - the kind of thing that required a montage of training for a ski vs. snowboarding showdown, set to the tune of a Kenny Loggins jam.
But those days are long gone.
And Covid-19 flipped the script once again on snowboarding. In the 2020/21 season, a sports and fitness survey of 400+ respondents showed that across the three large generations in the US, more snow sports participants were snowboarding that year compared to skiing.
That's a bit too incredible to believe at face value, perhaps a follow-up survey is in order. But the point that might be worth noting isn't so much the actual number, but directionally the interest from respondents to the participation in each sport.
Snowboarding has interest across a wide range of ages - which bucks the impression of age association to snowboarding.
More interesting though is the Gen Z's share of participation in skiing vs. snowboarding. Directionally, Gen Z is significantly less interested in skiing sports than snowboarding. Which could have a tremendous impact to the future of skiing in the coming decades.
Millennials account for the highest percentage of the population, and also had a relatively similar participation rate in skiing (including cross-country) to snowboarding.
A time when the data suggests that all generations had higher participation in snowboarding vs. skiing (again, that's difficult to believe.) The general statistic thrown around is that for every snowboarder, there are two skiers. So that would be quite the turnaround in 2020/21.
Given the influx of new entrants to snow sports in 2020/21 and the zeitgeist of trying something new - this survey could just be reflective of a unique point in time.
It's an era that's kickstarting the value of new experiences, even trying something once is worth it for the experience.
As a result, it seems probable that this coming season you'll see people on snowboards that you wouldn't normally expect, and perhaps even see fewer people under 25 on snowboards.
Where Are People Skiing and Snowboarding?
Within the United States, the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast are the most visited ski and snowboarding destinations - accounting for 34.9 million visits in the 2020/21 season. Combined, those two regions were responsible for 59% of all ski and snowboard visits in that year.
2020/21 wasn't an anomaly though - both the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast are the top two destinations every year in the US.
However, Covid-19 did bring a shift in behaviors, and growth and decline to certain regions of the country. Operational locations and the ability to travel played an increasingly important role in 2020/21 - let's look at how this impacted the top performers and perennial laggards by region.
Fewer Operating Resorts, But More People
Over the past decade, the number of resorts in the United States has decreased by around 4%. For instance, in this timeframe, the peak occurred in 2016/17 with a total of 481 resorts, and the low point in the past decade was 462 ski resorts in operation.
And if you guessed the low point happened during Covid-19, you would be correct. In the 2019/20 season (a season that ended early) the number of resorts dropped to 470, and decreased to 462 in the 2020/21 season - only 3 years removed from the height of 481 resorts in operation.
The good news is industry experts are projecting growth in resorts - in fact, they estimated 2021/22 to have seen growth and to continue in the foreseeable future. While this data isn't available just yet, once it's circulated, this article will be updated to reflect any change.
Fewer resorts come with pros and cons.
A positive could be increased attendance to resorts that remain - and if managed properly, that increased revenue could bring an enhanced experience to you, the consumer. This could manifest as improved facilities, an increase in staff, and even investing in lifts or just the runs in general.
As for negatives, in the US there are more individuals skiing or snowboarding than ever before, but they have fewer places to go. You can see the problem here - longer lift lines and more crowded runs.
This is another scenario that needs to play out, but the ongoing trend of declining resorts with an increased speed in decline most recently doesn't look great, despite what industry experts speculate.
Plus, taking into account the NSAA's data of operating resorts that goes back to 1991/92, the number of operating resorts has dropped 15.4%. This decline isn't isolated to a ten year timeline, it extends well beyond that.
The shining light for increasing the number of resorts is an increase in the number of participants - which looks solid today.
Until there's a significant uptick in resort construction or reopenings, this is just another factor that might have you waiting a little longer to board the chairlift, or even messing with demand pricing for lift tickets.
Most Popular Regions - The Usual Suspects
The NSAA breaks the United States into six regions when it analyzes ski and snowboard visits to resorts.
Although the organization uses well-understood names for the regions, like the Midwest or the Northeast, their definitions of the states in the regions might be different than your own.
You're probably not someone who would define Texas as part of the Midwest, or Pennsylvania as a Southeastern state, but that's how the NSAA looks at the country.
And while there were 36 states with operating ski resorts ins 2020/21, the NSAA has classified all states into a region - even the less-than-ideal snow state of Florida has a region.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Rocky Mountain region has the third most operating resorts, and total resorts in 2020/21. Bested only by the Northeast and the Midwest.
And based on how the NSAA classifies states into regions, there are fewer ski resorts in the Pacific Northwest (36) than there are in the Southeast (47.)
This is a bit surprising at face value, but you have to also consider that the NSAA classifies states like Pennsylvania into the Southeast region, and Pennsylvania accounts for more than half of that region's ski resorts.
New York and Michigan make up nearly 20% of all operating ski resorts in the US. New York has more ski resorts than Colorado and Utah combined. This isn't to say that the number of operating ski resorts indicates the total number of skiers.
The Rocky Mountain region consistently hosts 40% of all ski and snowboard visits in the US, even though the region is only home to roughly 20% of all resorts in the US.
And although Colorado may not have the most resorts, they certainly have the most visited individual resorts, and total visits. Vail Mountain is the most visited ski resort in the US, and has been for years. And in 2021/22, Vail Resorts posted its best three months ever, and Colorado hosted 14 million visitors in that year.
Although industry data for 2021/22 hasn't been released yet, if those 14 million visits were marked against the 2020/21 season, Colorado would have had nearly 24% of all ski and snowboard visits in that year. That's remarkable.
Colorado and the Rocky Mountains punch above their weight class when it comes to visits.
However, when you look at the season just before Covid, and the season one year removed from the COVID-19 outbreak (2020/21), you start to see a shift in where people are headed for snow sports.
2020/21 brought a decline in visits to the typically most visited regions, in comparison to 2018/19.
The two most visited regions, the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast, both dropped in total visits - the Rocky Mountains losing 7% of total ski and snowboard visits, and the Northeast declining a little over 2%.
A Tale of Two Cities scenario came to life though for three regions - the Southeast jumped a staggering 23%, while the PNW grew 11.5%, and the Midwest +9%.
So how do you make sense of this? Based on previous sections of this article, you know that the number of active skiers/snowboarders grew in 2020/21, but that the total number of visits shrank a little.
It seems logical that the growth in three of the least visited ski resort regions is from people trying new activities, but not traveling far to do so. Destinations like the Rocky Mountain region is home to a small population of the United States, especially the way that the NSAA defines the region.
So by nature, for visits to grow there, it's dependent on people traveling from all over the country to get there.
The Southeast, Pacific Northwest, and Midwest don't have that same issue. The vast majority of their visitors could easily come from within proximity to the resorts. So as more people took up skiing and snowboarding in 2020/21, they were more likely to visit a resort closer to home than one that required travel.
And the Pacific Northwest isn't an incredibly populous area, however, this region is only comprised of three states - Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. So proximity to the resorts isn't such a travel challenge for the PNW region, save Alaska.
Which will always be a destination affair, unless its population increases rapidly, and slopes become exponentially easier to access.
This was likely to have continued in 2021/22, but this upcoming season may see a total growth back to the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast, thanks to the distance of time between Covid vaccines and its overall diminishing impact on society in 2022.
As you gear up for this season, destinations will likely see an uptick in visits - destinations like the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. But overall growth in each region wouldn't be a surprise.
The biggest obstacle to growth in US destination skiing/snowboarding will ultimately be economic factors that impact travel.
How Are Skiers and Snowboarders Spending Their Money?
One of the best ways to tell the state of any industry is to look at sales figures. It's not a perfect measure, as some people may purchase their gear used, but it gives a good idea of how many people are buying new equipment and likely taking up the sport.
As referenced in previous sections, you know that more people are hitting the slopes than ever before. But that doesn't always mean people are buying new equipment to do so, especially in snow sports where renting is commonplace.
So let's dig in and see how everyone's been spending on snow sports.
Sales Were Up, Rentals Were Up
This data represents sales from ski and snowboard manufacturers in the US to wholesalers that ultimately sell to consumers.
Looking at this sales information, not only was there an increase in alpine skis and snowboards in the first year of Covid-19 (2019/20), but wholesale buying increased sharply in 2020/21.
This potentially indicates that demand was higher than supply, and was expected to grow in the following season as well. But it could also mean that people purchasing were spending significantly higher, but at the same volume prior.
There's a lot of gray area to this, without having access to the total items sold in this timeframe.
To add a bit more detail and paint a fuller picture, looking at rentals becomes even more valuable. And thanks to IBIS World sharing their data that goes all the way through the 2021/22 season, you can see that rentals were way up as well.
While wholesale data isn't accessible yet for last season, when you look at rentals of 2020/21 compared to wholesale sales in the same timeframe, it seems to signal that there was overall growth in rentals and sales.
That's not too far of a stretch considering that active skiers and snowboarders were higher than ever that season.
As to whether this was new skiers and snowboarders buying gear at the start, or veteran snow sports enthusiasts upgrading their equipment, it's difficult to say. But when participation increases, either rentals or sales of equipment have to increase.
Otherwise, there'd be people going down the slopes in their boots.
It would be quite an achievement if both wholesale sales and rentals increase at this same pace this season, but it's all dependent on how many people hit the slopes this year. Expect a continued increase, but not at the same velocity this season.
With consumer spending in flux - one week economists say it's fine, the next they say it's done for, and the week after they say it's coming back next week. It's too hard to track properly.
But if tightening the purse strings is in the mind of consumers, sales will feel it, as well as rentals since skiing and snowboarding aren't necessities.
So what does this mean for you?
Assuming consumer spending will be a little tighter than last year, consumers that still plan to ski or snowboard will be deal-hunting. If there's an oversaturation of the product, this could mean a pick of the litter for equipment.
On the rental side, people will plan their trips further in advance, to take advantage of lower rental fees and lift tickets. So if you are going somewhere this year and need to rent, it's a good idea to book your lift tickets and rentals as soon as you can.
And if you had a place like Vail or Breck on your mind, you should know that lift tickets and rentals are quite expensive - especially during peak season.
That's what you would pay for one day on each of those resorts say in mid-January, but one of the best ways to lower costs is to plan and package your lift dates.
The State of Skiing and Snowboarding Looks Positive for 2022/23
More people have been skiing and snowboarding than ever before. And while they may not be going to the resorts as frequently as they used to, a new group of the population is entering the world of snow sports.
They're bold, not your typical group, different generations embracing the new, like all generations clinging to snowboarding over skiing. They are buying new equipment and renting in record-setting ways.
The usual destinations like the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast are still the main forces of winter sports participation, but with a new class of snow sports enthusiasts, more localized regions are growing in visits.
If this trend continues, it will support a stronger sport on the national scene, growing more evenly across the States, instead of relying on two regions, which may not be as accessible to most Americans.
Unless the economy worsens, the season is looking bright. Bright enough that if you're thinking of getting a trip together, or buying passes to your local area, you'll want to act sooner rather than later.