Choosing when to go skiing is just as important as picking the perfect resort, with things like the weather, piste conditions and even atmosphere changing throughout the season. If you’re thinking of an early-season trip this year, here’s our round-up of everything you need to know – from why it’s a great time to be in the mountains to which resorts should be on your shortlist.
When is early-season skiing?
Nordic resorts and glacier ski areas are the first to open – usually in October and early November. But it’s December when things really get going, with most resorts starting their season a couple of weeks before Christmas.
Why is the early season a great time to go skiing?
Early-bird skiers get to enjoy the emptier slopes before the popular Christmas holiday period. Plus, ski schools are also quieter so class sizes will be smaller, making it easier to learn. And if you pick a high-altitude resort, the early winter snowstorms mean you should have plenty of powder to play in.
Early December is classed as off-peak, so you can often find cheaper deals too. But best of all, you’ll still have plenty of time to plan another ski trip later in the season.
Where should you go skiing in the early season?
Val Thorens, France
Europe’s highest ski resort at 2,300m, Val Thorens is a safe bet when it comes to December skiing. There are plenty of shaded, north-facing runs, so any early snow tends to stick around. And it’s part of the Three Valleys ski area, which has a massive 600km of piste to explore. Improvers can practise their skills on the wide blues near the centre, while advanced skiers can carve down the steeper slopes of the Glacier de Péclet.
The resort is purpose-built, with heaps of slopeside accommodation that makes getting on the mountain quick and easy. It’s also one of the best resorts in the Alps for après ski, so you can celebrate the start of the season in style – whether you fancy hitting the dance floor in La Folie Douce or sipping a pint in Europe’s highest pub, The Frog and Roast Beef.
Ruka’s known for its tree-lined trails and gentle, confidence-boosting terrain. And with the biggest beginner area in Finland, it’s the ideal place to start your ski adventure. Daylight hours are shorter here, but nearly all the runs are floodlit and stay open till 7pm, which is later than most resorts in the Alps – and you might even see the Northern Lights as you swoosh down the slopes.
With heaps of other snowy activities to get stuck into, this is one of the best ski resorts for families planning the ultimate winter wonderland trip. You can go husky sledding, take a reindeer safari and even try a spot of ice fishing. And of course, no visit here would be complete without a trip to see Santa and his elves, to get you feeling festive in the run-up to Christmas.
Val d’Isère, France
Val d’Isère shares 300km of slopes with nearby Tignes, giving you access to glaciers on both sides of the ski area. Most of the pistes are above 2,300m, which means there’s great snow all winter long. The local area’s known for its lift-accessed powder runs, so experienced skiers can enjoy first tracks in any fresh snowfall. And intermediates can warm up on the gentle terrain in the Solaise area, before tackling the longer descents below the Laisinant chairlift.
The resort itself has a real traditional feel, with chocolate-box chalets and traditional buildings clad in wood and stone. While you’re there, don’t miss watching the world’s greatest skiers battle it out at one of the first World Cup Races of the winter, the Première Neige. Held every year in December, the whole village gets in on the action, with live music and street parties.
Zell am See, Austria
Zell am See’s one of our top ski resorts in Austria, and with the Kitzsteinhorn glacier included on your lift pass, it’s also a good pick for an early winter getaway. Beginners can find their ski legs on Zell’s local mountain, the Schmittenhöhe – start off in the nursery area at the top of the CityXpress gondola, before exploring the gentle blue runs. Over on the glacier, the lifts go up to over 3,000m, and the snowfall is so reliable that they even host ski instructor training here before the peak season. Enjoy carving down wide-open reds or give your legs a real workout on the steep Black Mamba piste.
The town itself is known for its beautiful lakeside setting and old medieval centre – and it’s even more magical during December when everything’s decked out for Christmas. When you’re not skiing, spend some time exploring the cobbled streets to discover boutiques and cafés or wrap up warm for a wander down by the frozen lake.
With year-round skiing on the Theodul glacier and the highest lift system in Europe, Zermatt’s hard to beat if you can’t wait to get back on the snow. The 200km ski area’s an intermediates playground, and the three peaks are each above 3,000m, so there’s no shortage of high-altitude slopes. Blow away the cobwebs carving down red runs from the top of the Rothorn and Hohtäli cable cars, or take things easy cruising the gentle terrain above the Sunnegga funicular. You can even hop across the border to enjoy long, laid-back descents to Cervinia, one of the top resorts in Italy.
The town is full of pretty, wooden chalets, with views of the famous Matterhorn peak around every corner. And even this early in the season, there’s plenty of buzzing nightlife on offer – from the smooth sounds of jazz and soul in the Pink Music Bar to the Hennu Stall, with its cheesy tunes and table-top dancing.
Counting down the days till winter? Check out our latest ski deals and be the first on the snow this season.
Or take a look at our guide to skiing in each month for more help planning your perfect trip.