Ski instructor course 12: How (not) to be a ski bum

The fine art of spending as much time on the slopes with the minimum effort and expense.

Students on a WSSA gap-year ski-instructor course, Verbier - on a powder day

Golden rule: powder comes before everything. Craig (left) and Will

An embarrassing thought struck me as I left the supermarket early in the season brandishing my new purchase: what true ski bum would waste precious beer money on a hot-water bottle? I hurriedly concealed it under my jacket.

For a genuine ski bum, the only possible bedwarmer is the person who is providing you with free accommodation at a ski resort.

Definitions of a ski bum seem to vary, but as far as I can make out – after weeks of investigation here at the Swiss resort of Verbier– the essence of the lifestyle is an endeavour to ski as much as possible for the least amount of work. If you can get away with not working at all, so much the better.

You do not have to stay all season in a resort to qualify as a ski bum: you can enter into the spirit of the lifestyle on a short holiday. A fellow student on my course to train as a ski instructor at the Warren Smith Ski Academy, Susie the physiotherapist – who recently got engaged at the top of a mogul run – once spent a holiday with her now fiancé touring Swiss resorts such as Davos, Zermatt and St Moritz, sleeping in the back of their unheated Mercedes Vito van and living off soup and pasta. Her survival tip: stop as often as possible at sports centres, to thaw out in hot showers.

Three skiers dressed as superheroes on the slopes in Verbier

If there’s no powder, ski anyway

I made a rather pathetic attempt to be a ski bum myself when I left school aged 18. I bought skis in a charity shop – an ancient, ridiculously long pair, with heavy steel bindings – and found what I thought was the ideal job in Chamonix, mucking out the horses of a man who offered horse-drawn sleigh rides. Accommodation was free of charge – in a disused chicken hut next to the stables. As the temperature was well below zero day and night, the hut wasn’t too whiffy – and when it got grubby, all I had to do was rip up an empty sack of horse feed and lay down a new carpet. Every night I ate pasta cooked on a camping stove. Unfortunately my income was insufficient to cover a lift pass, so after about a month I left with no money, and virtually no ski experience.

In fact, not doing much skiing is a surprisingly common activity among would-be ski bums: the important thing seems to be the public declaration that you’re going to spend all day and every day skiing your heart out, even if you don’t quite get round to it.

Another student on my course, Aidan – a pharmacist back home – also headed out to the Chamonix valley a few years back for a season’s skiing. He spent December failing to find work – the snow did not fall until Christmas, so few businesses were taking on staff – and decided instead to make sure he was perfectly equipped for all the skiing he was going to do. But as a result of “being too aggressive trying on ski boots,” he irritated his Achilles tendon – and ended up with his leg in plaster.

Mardi Gras celebrations in Verier - including Empire State trannie and soldier

… and then just party


“I got a lot of attention,” says Aidan. “I was the first injury in town. Everyone came up to ask, ‘How the hell did you do that? It hasn’t even snowed yet.’” In the end, he barely skied at all – though he did manage a few weeks of snowboarding around Easter. But the fact that he spent the winter driving around in a brown van that he had bought in Britain for £50 qualifies him, in my view, as a genuine ski bum. “I still had a great time,” he says, “I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything.”

Even those who have no intention of spending a whole season hanging out on the slopes can enter the spirit of ski bumdom. Here are a few tips on how to go about it, from fellow students on this season’s gap-year ski instructor course:

  • Save money on new ski clothing by re-waterproofing your old kit – put it through the wash machine, but instead of detergent use two lids-full of liquid Nikwax
  • Stop shaving
  • Wax your skis yourself, using the heated underside of a kitchen pan
  • Generate beer money by waxing friends’ skis (see “How to service a pair of skis”)
  • Take up ski touring, to avoid paying for a lift pass
  • Dine in style on steak – but save by buying cheaper ostrich or horse meat
  • Quadruple the wearing life of your underpants, and save on launderette money, by wearing them a) normally, b) back-to-front, c) inside-out and d) inside-out, back-to-front
  • Make creative use of all those zips on your ski jacket and trousers: after a meal or drink, laboriously unzip them one by one “looking” for your money; but the time you get to the tenth one, someone will have lost patience and offered to pay for you.

… and ski your heart out, for the exquisite unadulterated joy of it, until the last lift has stopped working, all the snow has melted – and you have to decide what to do with yourself all summer.

  • James Bedding is attending a training programme to qualify as a ski instructor with the Further information: the Warren Smith Ski Academy (, the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, and the local tourist office (
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070;; onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (
  • Equipment rental through Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70;