Skiing Difficulty Levels Explained: From Blue to Black Diamond
Knowing all of the different colors and symbols that represent the difficulty of a run can maximize your fun on the mountain as well as keep you safe. Let's take a look at what all of the different skiing levels are, what they mean, and how to differentiate them from each other.
A common misconception by new skiers is that the designations for the difficulty of terrain are the same across resorts. This is incorrect; the difficulty level of a run is based upon its technicality in comparison to other runs on the same mountain.
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USA Resort Difficulty
These are the five most common difficulty levels of terrain that are used at all ski resorts throughout the United States. They will let you know how easy or hard runs will be in relation to each other on a specific mountain, but they are not consistent between mountains.
1. Beginner/Easiest 🟢
This difficulty is represented by a green circle, which signifies the easiest terrain on any given mountain. These runs consist of small inclines, short distances, and frequently groomed/maintained snow.
These runs are for skiers who have:
- Never skied before
- Only skied a few times
- Haven’t skied in many years
- Prefer slow speeds
- Prefer wide-open runs
- Prefer groomers
Regardless of experience, beginner runs are an ideal way to start your day. Getting the blood flowing and your muscles stretched is imperative before attempting more difficult terrain.
2. Intermediate/More Difficult 🟦
These runs are represented by a blue square, which consist of slightly more technical terrain than beginner runs. You can expect slightly steeper inclines (less than 30 degrees), much longer runs, and more variable snow conditions because they are maintained less than beginner runs.
These runs are for skiers who:
- Have at least a handful of lessons or ski days under their belt
- Want to experiment with skiing on snow that isn’t groomed
- Want to practice skiing moguls on a shallower incline
- Want to practice skiing in trees that aren’t tightly packed together
3. Advanced/Most Difficult
These runs will be marked with a black diamond and can feature just about any type of terrain that you could imagine, including 30-40 degree slopes, cliffs, moguls, rocks, and tight trees. These runs tend to be significantly more dangerous than the previous two and should be avoided by those who are new to the sport.
These runs are for skiers who:
- Have multiple years of experience
- Enjoy steep inclines
- Enjoy tight trees
- Enjoy large moguls
- Are comfortable with getting airborne
4. Experts Only/Extremely Difficult
These runs are marked with two black diamonds adjacent to each other and can contain anything and everything under the sun, including bare ground. These runs are reserved for only the best skiers on the mountain.
These runs are rarely maintained outside of avalanche blasting due to their very steep angles. It is not uncommon to encounter 40+ degree slopes with large drops, exposed faces, and exposed ground. This is the extreme end of in-resort skiing for skiers.
These runs are for skiers who:
- Have many years of skiing experience
- Enjoy frequently getting airborne
- Can handle unpredictable landing conditions
- Are you comfortable skiing at high speeds
- Enjoy drops within tight trees
- Are experienced at visualizing their line before dropping in
What really separates these runs from single black diamonds is that the consequences of falling can be much more severe. Attempting to get back into your skis after an accidental ejection can be very hard on runs that are this steep and unpredictable.
5. Terrain Park 🟠
Terrain parks are shown on signs and trail maps with a yellow/orange oval. These areas are for freestyle skiers who enjoy jumps, rails, boxes, and other features that involve catching air.
The size and technicality of terrain parks can vary greatly between mountains or even on the same mountain. Some contain smaller features for those who are new to freestyle skiing and some contain features that mimic those used in professional events.
A good rule of thumb is to stay away from these areas as a beginner skier. Even though some terrain parks sport miniature-sized jumps and rails, it is best to get the basics down before opting to leave the ground and battle gravity.
There are some more specific signs used to designate terrain difficulty out there that aren’t extremely common, but they are used frequently in certain states. Knowing these is just as important as knowing the basic five that we just discussed.
A green circle inside of a blue square signifies a run that falls in between a mountain's easiest and intermediate terrain. This designation isn’t common but is useful for those who have outgrown the bunny hill but aren’t sure where on the mountain to head next.
These runs are shown on the trail map as a black diamond inside of a blue square and are reserved for runs that will challenge intermediate skiers or serve as a warm-up for advanced skiers. Like easy/intermediate runs, they are uncommon but are very helpful for skiers who are unsure of where they stack up between intermediate and advanced terrain.
EX, Orange Diamond, Triple Black Diamond
Certain resorts, especially in Colorado and Montana, use these uncommon symbols to designate the most difficult and variable terrain on the mountain. This includes runs that have very large drops, have a pitch of over 50 degrees, and pose some avalanche danger.
These runs are reserved for the best of the best, including those who have extensive backcountry experience. It is best to stay away from these runs even if you have just a sliver of doubt in your abilities.
How To Compare Difficulties Between Mountains
Comparing the difficulty of runs between different mountains is tough because there isn’t a standardized system in place. This is partially due to the fact that what is “easy” for some may be “hard” for others.
Mountains in the western United States tend to be much larger than their counterparts in the east, and because of this, they tend to provide more extreme terrain. For instance, a black diamond in Vermont will likely be shorter and less steep than a black diamond in Colorado.
The best way to ensure your safety when traveling to a new mountain is to start slow and begin your day on an easier difficult run than you are used to. If you are used to skiing blues on your local mountain, try starting out on green until you get a feel for the terrain on a new mountain.
This will also give you time to learn the layout of this new mountain, allowing you to avoid terrain that is above your skill level. There is no shame in easing into new territory, and it is by far the safest way to ski when in a new area.
It is essential to know the five main designations for terrain difficulty, this is for the safety of you as well as other skiers on the mountain. Skiing above your ability can lead to injuring not only yourself but others as well.
Keep in mind that these designations do not translate from one mountain to another, they simply break down the difficulty of each run on that mountain. A black diamond run on the east coast might not prove nearly as technical as a black diamond on a larger mountain out west.
Outside of the USA, most resorts use the following main four trail colors to designate the difficulty of the run. You can find out more in our full guide.