As a ski journalist, I’m in and out of airports all winter. My personal belongings have been checked and retrieved more times than I can count, my skis have more air miles than most humans, and I’ve learned—after juggling a camera bag, ski boots, and a backpack in a crowded aisle, after getting a nosebleed at the Utah airport while trying to check three separate pieces of luggage, and after arriving at my destination with my skis hours behind me—how to (sort of) keep my shit together. Whether you’re a storm-chasing die-hard or just trying to make a family ski trip happen this year, there’s an art to traveling with all that stuff, and a few key pieces (and “pro” tips, if you’ll let me call them that) will really help you out.
Get yourself a rolling ski bag, and make it a double
I know bags with wheels were weird in middle school, but they’ll save your neck (and back, and shoulders) in the airport, walking to your rental car, and just about anywhere else you drag ’em. The oddly-named Douchebags make a killer one for $249, but search around on Amazon—I found a solid, double-ski roller bag for half the price from XPack.
The double ski bag has roughly 100 benefits. Traveling with a buddy? You can easily fit both your skis and poles in one bag and use that extra $25 for beer. Can’t choose between resort and backcountry skiing? No worries. Bring both setups. Just bringing one pair of skis? Sweet, you can most likely fit your ski boots (and, if you’ve got a Douchebag, your helmet too) in that padded pack and bring fewer bags. There’s ample room for packing in softgoods, too, which adds an extra layer of cushion for the rough handling you know your precious steeds are getting from the luggage guys. (True story, at JFK they just send your ski bag out on the normal luggage carousel and hope it doesn’t get stuck.) A few things to consider: rolling ski bags are definitely going to take up a little more space in your rental car (though I’ve successfully taken mine in a Prius and a Mini Cooper), and they will run you a little more money than a traditional ski bag.
Boot bags might be for suckers–but so is carrying your boots on the plane
Two of my editors have a long-standing debate about the merits (or lack thereof) of a boot bag. One thinks they look goofy and are unnecessary, the other thinks it’s silly not to take advantage of a free checked bag. My take? If you’re traveling with backcountry gear, travel with a boot bag. I stuff all my ski clothes in my ski bag and pack my boot bag with boots, beacon, shovel, probe, and whatever I couldn’t fit in with my skis. Sure, you could carry your boots on your shoulder and stuff all that safety gear in your carry-on backpack with your books, laptop, and whatever other goodies you like to stuff under your seat. But keeping things organized—meaning keeping all my ski gear in one or two bags—makes my life a whole lot easier. (And for god’s sake please don’t shove your lifesaving equipment in your ski bag unless it’s very well wrapped.) Plus, carrying ski boots into an airport bathroom is super inconvenient, trying to get them in the overhead compartment while you’re juggling a cup of coffee and trying not to whack anybody with your backpack totally sucks, and checking a boot bag doesn’t cost you anything extra.
Sure, you don’t want to show up to your destination sans boots–I get that. Checking them is just one more moving part of your journey that might get waylaid. But unless I can get every piece of ski gear in that rolling bag, I’m bringing my Hawaiian-flower-printed Transpack bootbag, stuffed to the brim. (Quick aside: Transpack’s classic bootbag, the XTI, also comes in a “Women’s” version, the XTW. Ladies, do not fall for this. It’s just smaller, which feels slightly offensive—you think I can’t carry a heavy bag? Do I not need just as much gear as dudes do to get on the hill?—but more importantly, entirely pointless and inconvenient.) It’s helpful if your “boot bag” is an actual boot bag, as you’re not technically supposed to put any additional items in there. You can totally get away with a small duffel packed with boots and a few other items, but as a rule, you’ll get away with packing more than boots in there more easily if you’ve got an actual boot bag.
Backpack comes with you, on the plane
You should never pay more than $25 to check bags for a ski trip. If I can stay on the road for two months without paying more than $25/trip, you can too. Most of us ski with a pack these days, whether that’s a 22-liter in-bounds/sidecountry pack or a burlier, 35+ liter full-on backcountry bag. Airlines will let you carry these on, as long as it’s not a 60-liter packed to the brim (although I DID get away with this, once). If you’re a light packer, keep all your normal clothes and toiletries in the pack in addition to anything else you might need (I always travel with a camera, laptop, and books). You might just get away with the most dialed ski travel set-up out there: rolling bag (with all your gear in it, boots included)+backpack, and nothing else. I’ve yet to reach this fabled nirvana. Instead, I bring a small rolling carry-on with my normal clothes and toiletries, a backpack with everything else, and check all my ski gear.
Remember the little stuff.
If you’re heading out of town on a powder day, there’s no way those skis are going away dry. I keep a small hand-towel in my ski bag, always, so my sticks never get put away wet (though they definitely got ridden hard).
Never travel without ski straps. They’ll save your bases and keep your skis together through all the inevitable jostling. I prefer the velcro-and-foam straps that add a buffer between your skis, but if all you’ve got is a rubber strap or two, strap a baselayer or socks where your bases touch.
Ski bags (and, if you’re into them, boot bags) are still subject to a weight limit. That means your ski and your boot bag combined have to be beneath the limit. That said, I’ve been over that limit many times and always gotten away with it, because this is a little-known fact and airport employees are sent from heaven and usually understanding when I tell them I “didn’t know.” But, in case you do get slapped with an overweight fee, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Be nice to airline employees! This should be a no-brainer, obviously, but we all get stressed out (particularly when laden down by 100 lbs of ski gear with shin bang and a hangover). Yes, they can pretty much always give you a break, but they’re not going to unless you’re kind and understanding. So make eye contact, ask them how their day is going, and maybe they’ll forget to charge you for your checked bag.
Photo by Caden Crawford