Our quick and easy guide to understanding piste classifications and ski area maps.

It is important to be aware of how pistes are classified in terms of their difficulty. This will help ensure you don’t get into a tricky situation! Generally speaking the colour coding is a good indicator of how difficult the ski slope is but these can vary in different countries and some resorts may have slightly different grading standards to others. For instance a black run in one resort would only be classed as a red run in another. Snow conditions can also affect the difficulty of a slope, especially very icy conditions or slushy spring snow, so if you aren't sure, ask the ski patrol first before heading down a challenging piste.

Piste Classifications:


  • European Piste Classifications:

Green

Easy

Blue

Moderate

Red

Intermediate

Black

Difficult

 

  • North American Piste Classifications:

Green

Easiest

Blue

More difficult

Black (shown as single black diamond)

Most difficult

Black (shown as double black diamond)

Expert

 

  • Australian and New Zealand Piste Classifications:

Green

Beginner

Blue

Intermediate

Black

Advanced

Black (Shown as double black diamond)

Expert Only

 

  • South American Piste Classifications:

Green

Beginner

Blue

Intermediate

Red

Advanced

Black

Experts

 

  • Japanese Piste Classifications:

Green

Beginner

Red

Intermediate

Black

Experts

 

There can be variations in the above classifications, for example Austrian resorts tend to use blue (easiest), red and then black (most difficult), so it does not use the green grading of many other European countries.

In Japan the piste classification can change between different resorts. The table above is most common at tourist resorts, but don't be surprised to see the North American color coding system used too.

You may also come across itinerary or ungroomed runs. These are runs that are marked on the piste map but are not groomed. Skiing these routes is comparable to skiing off piste, so the necessary skills are required. Itinerary runs are usually marked as dotted or dashed lines on the map.

There can be local and national variations in signs, rules and regulations. When you arrive in a resort, you should check the piste/trail map of the area.

Remember that off piste areas are:

  • Not groomed
  • Not patrolled
  • For experienced skiers only
  • Normally marked by a yellow or neon orange sign (dashed line on piste map)

Types of Ski Lift:

There are four main types of ski lift, surface lifts, chairlifts, gondolas and funiculars.

Surface lifts -

As their name implies, these lifts take you uphill on the surface of the snow and aren't too long. Magic carpets are usually found in beginner areas and are like the travelators found in long airport corridors, they are slow moving and easy to get on and off, making them easy for those just starting. Drag or Poma lifts and T-Bars can be found in most resorts and are a little tougher to use, especially for snowboarders, as they require you to balance and keep your edges from catching.

Chairlifts -

These are lifts that you sit on, without removing your skis or boards, and they travel above the ground at a faster speed than surface lifts. Older lifts can be a little tricky to get on and off as they don't slow down at each end. More modern lifts either have a rolling carpet to help you get on or the chair detaches from the cable to slow down at the bottom. Some lifts even have heated seats, wifi and weather covers for added comfort. They range in size from old 1-seaters (common in Japan) to fast new 8-seaters.

Gondolas or Cable Cars -

These require you to remove your skis or board and can transport large numbers of skiers up the mountain quickly. Like chairlifts they range in size and efficiency, some resorts still have older 2-man yoghurt pots and others have double decker trams capable of carrying over 200 people.  

Funiculars -

Funiculars are mountain railways that are capable of climbing steep gradients, usually using two trams in counterweight to each other. Most can carry several hundred passengers up and down the mountain. Many travel from resort level up to the top of the mountain through tunnels to protect them from snow and ice.

 

Other symbols on a piste map:

Mountain restaurants - typically marked with a knife and fork symbol.

Picnic area - you can bring your own food to the spots marked with a picnic table, some are sheltered others are open to the elements, this is usually noted on the map.

Ski patrol - A cross (usually in yellow or red) shows where you can find piste patrollers for assistance.

Toilets - pretty self explanatory, but when you need to go it's handy to know where to find one!

Area/Valley links - some ski areas are split into different areas which your pass may or may not be valid for so make sure you know before skiing into other zones. It's also handy to know where your valley boundary is in case of bad weather as the lifts over the top are usually the first to close. This might make getting back to your resort difficult and expensive.

Luge tracks - Or sledging areas, these look like pistes in most cases but you shouldn't ski on them in case of collision, you can rent or buy sledges to use on these. Marked by a sledge symbol on the map.

Floodlit area - some resorts offer night skiing on certain evenings, the pistes with floodlighting are often marked on the map.

Fun parks - Sometimes these are given a snowboarder symbol sometimes they are marked by a coloured block - these are areas with jumps, rails pipes or boarder cross courses, most are fenced off from the main pistes and many require that you wear a helmet.

Heli pads - Where the helicopters land and take off, mainly for emergencies.

Ski area boundary - US resorts, and some others, normally mark the edge of the ski area with dashed red lines, past this point you are skiing out of bounds which can result in removal of your lift pass or even a fine (or in some cases jail time) as skiing out o the patrolled area in the US is considered dangerous to yourself and others. In other countries certain areas may be designated as 'Nature Reserves' with skiing either not allowed or only with a special permit. 

Slow zones - Many resorts, especially in the US, have designated the bottom of runs back in to resorts, or shared with beginner areas, as 'Slow Zones' where you are expected to ski at a lower speed and in control. This is to prevent accidents in congested areas and help nervous skiers build confidence.

Other - Some maps also have cross country ski tracks, hiking and touring trails marked on the map. Ticket offices, rental shops, information points and ski schools may also be marked.

 

Examples of piste maps -

France - Chamonix Piste Map

Austria - Mayrhofen Piste Map

Italy - Dolomiti SuperSki Piste Map

USA - Aspen Piste Map

Canada - Whistler Piste Map

Japan - Niseko Piste Map

Switzerland - Saas Fee Piste Map

 

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