Heli-Ski Operators - 10 Most Important Criteria

Just 5 out of 50 North American Lodges Clearly Stand Out When it Comes to Our Key Considerations of a Helicopter Skiing Destination & Operator

[NOTE: email tom [at] nextgreattrip.com or message me if you'd like a copy of our internal "Ultimate HeliSkiing List" which ranks all of the operations based on the criteria outlined below.]

Heli-skiing is one of those "bucket-list" experiences that every skier and rider must enjoy at least once. Not much in the world of sports & adventure can compare. And our recommendation is to enjoy this amazing experience from the comfort and isolation of a remote mountain lodge. Thus, this analysis focuses entirely on remote heliskiing destinations that are "all inclusive" with food & lodging (rather than "day skiing" operators).

With approximately 50 heli-ski operations in North America, it's daunting to figure out the who, what, where, when of heliskiing. As we put together bespoke trips for groups of skiers and riders, over time we have developed the most comprehensive database of key criteria on every lodge that we know to exist. Each lodge and operator is compared against what we feel are the most important criteria in a helicopter skiing/riding experience.

Below are what we feel are the key considerations of a heli-ski trip. We were amazed when our analysis uncovered that fewer than 5 out of 50 lodges meet substantially all of the key criteria.

Length of Your Trip

  • Remote lodges typically have 3-7 day minimums. Sometimes minimums are as long as 10-14 in more isolated destinations.
  • Keep in mind you'll be skiing ~20,000 vertical feet per day when selecting your trip length.

"No Fly Day" Backup

  • The unfortunate reality of heli-skiing is that there can be "down days" where the choppers can't fly because of inclement weather.
  • A small handful of lodges have snowcats to offer guests on these days, while others are within reach of lift-serviced resorts. Know before you go what your options are, if any, in the event you're grounded.

Accessibility

  • This should not be overlooked. Many lodges require extremely long drives (up to 8-9 hours not uncommon) in sometimes harrowing mountain conditions.
  • You don't want a brutal commute to ruin your priceless adventure so we typically work with lodges within a 2-4 hour drive from a major airport.
  • For more isolated lodges, we'll use "short-hop" charter flights from cities like Vancouver, Calgary, Spokane or Kalispel to cost-effectively transport guests to the lodge pick-up areas.

Complete Isolation

  • We highly recommend lodges that can only be accessed by snowcat or helicopter (rather than in towns adjacent to the ski terrain) as this provides for the ultimate heli-skiing "getaway" experience.

Safety

  • Critical to analyze the safety history of the operation such as helicopter incidents & avalanches.

  • We also look at the safety equipment, guest training provided and guide certification criteria.
  • # of guests/guide is also a focus (we like min of 1 guide per 4-5 guests) and prefer a "tail guide" for larger groups.

Size of Operator

  • The size (in terms of # of lodging guests) can vary greatly by operator from fewer than 10-12 to 60 or more.

  • Are you looking for isolation with a small group of friends or the opportunity to meet, mingle, ski & hang out with folks from all over the world?

Helicopters

  • There are 3 primary types of helicopters utilized by heli-ski operators: A-Stars (pilot, guide, 4 skiers); 407's (pilot, guide, 5 skiers); 212's (pilot, 1-2 guides, 10-11 skiers)
  • Typically, the larger helicopters offer a lower price. That said, the pace of skiing is typically slower and there's more room for delays due to injury, fatigue, etc. with a larger group.

Pace of Skiing

  • This is something to really focus on and ask some hard questions about. The pace of skiing can vary greatly depending on the type of helicopter and the # of groups sharing the helicopter.
  • For example, a single group of 4 skiers using an A-Star can conquer much more vertical than 4 groups of 10 sharing a 212.
  • We typically go for faster-paced skiing – use smaller helicopters and operators with no more than 3 groups simultaneously sharing a single chopper.

Pricing

  • For many people, helicopter skiing is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Therefore, we always recommend focusing on the "total experience value" rather than the bottom-line price.
  • Several factors drive the total experience value such as quality of food & lodging, inclusions (e.g. cash bar vs. open bar), how much vertical is guaranteed, is not unlimited vertical then how much for additional vert, etc., etc., etc.
  • When it all shakes out, the reality is that heli-skiing is expensive and there's not a huge variance in price between different operators. So pick the experience that is exactly right for you.

Terrain

  • The terrain can vary widely between operations. From tight trees, to pillows, to wide open alpine. Know what you're getting into before you go.
  • Select a lodge with varied terrain so that you can diversify your experience and also head for the trees if the weather moves in and the chopper can't get up into the alpine.

Historical Snow Conditions

  • Give yourself the best odds of having great snow by knowing the historical snow patters of the lodge you're going to.
  • Nothing worse that investing a lot of money and getting crappy snow.

References & Recommendations

  • Make sure to get a strong endorsement from someone that has been there or at least has asked all of the right questions.

Ultimately, selecting the right lodge & operator is a lot of work, but absolutely worth it in the end. Let us know if you want our help. 

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