Ski Difficulty Levels Quickly Explained

You’ll see a sign on every run at the ski resort. This sign provides you with the name of the run and its difficulty rating to give you an idea of what you’re getting into. This is good information for every skier to know, and it can tell you a lot about the terrain you are diving into.  

I’ve been skiing for decades, and I’ve been on thousands of different runs over the years. I’ve skied in multiple countries and know the difference between all of the ski run difficulty levels. 

This post will explain the difference between all of the ski difficulty levels. I’ll tell you what each corresponding sign symbol means and point out the differences between these depending on where in the world you are skiing. 

Let’s jump in. 

How to Know the Difficulty Level

Ski resorts name all of their runs and also designate a difficulty level. This is good information for skiers to know and understand because it will give you an idea of what sort of terrain and situation you find on any specific run. 

These runs will have a sign at the top that shows you the name of the run and its difficulty level. This information is also listed on trail maps for convenience. This information is well marked and easy to find at every resort I’ve ever been to. 

You want to know the difficulty level of a run so you can match your ability level to it. If you are a beginner, you aren’t going to want to go down expert runs. And if you’re an expert, you probably won’t want to go down beginner runs. 

You are likely familiar with your favorite runs at your local resort, and you know their difficulty by heart. But for visitors, the difficulty level rankings are important to help get an idea of where a skier wants to be during their ski day.

Differences in Ski Difficulty Level

Not every resort has the same difficulty level ranking system. Most of the resorts in North America have the same system, but in Europe and Japan, these rankings are slightly different. There are some somewhat different regional differences in other places as well. 

I’ll provide you with the two most common ranking systems in the world here. I’d say that about 95% or more of the resorts in the world go by these two systems, but you might want to double-check if you are skiing in a country outside of the regions I list.   

Ski Difficulty Levels in North America

Difficulty LevelSkier AbilityType of Terrain
Green CircleBeginnerGroomed gentle slopes, easy and open runs
Blue SquareIntermediate Steeper. Includes groomed and ungroomed runs. Moguls, trees, and other variable terrains possible.
Black DiamondAdvancedSteep. Includes unmarked features, moguls, trees, variable terrain. 
Double Black Diamond or ExtremeExpertExtremely steep or challenging terrain. Almost always ungroomed. Expect cliffs, cornices, and other expert-level situations. 

The North American ski difficulty level ranking system is one of the major systems covering all of the United States and Canada. They also are found in New Zealand and Australia

There are hundreds of resorts worldwide that go by this system, and you are sure to see it if you ski anywhere in North America.

Green Circle

The green circle is a designated beginner run. These are commonly used at nearly every resort for skiers just learning the basics or who don’t have that much experience. They are easy to navigate and free of obstacles and challenging terrain. 

Greens will usually be groomed to provide beginner skiers with decent skiing conditions at all times. This isn’t guaranteed, but most resorts will groom a least a handful of all their green runs. If you are a complete beginner, a groomed green is ideal for learning on. 

You typically won’t find any moguls, trees, or other obstacles on a green run. They are kept wide open and easy to navigate. The length of the run can vary from a very short bunny hill to a long downhill descent. 

Blue Square

The blue square is a designated intermediate run. These will be steeper than greens and feature more natural terrain. Blues are suitable for skiers who have the basics down and want to challenge themselves and push to the next level of abilities. 

Blues can be both groomed or ungroomed. A groomed blue is a good run to learn how to ski fast on. The steeper pitch will help you reach top speeds, and groomed snow will give you good grip and control. 

There is a lot of different terrains you can find on a blue run. This includes moguls, trees, dropoffs, and other natural features. Blues can also be somewhat steep to pretty steep, depending on the location and run. 

Black Diamond

The black diamond is an advanced-level run. These are intended for advanced skiers who are very capable and confident in their skiing abilities. If you have the skills, black diamonds can be a lot of fun and challenging at the same time. 

Blacks typically aren’t groomed. Some resorts will groom a steep black run or two, and these can be great for going extremely fast. More often, you’ll find ungroomed runs full of natural features like trees, bumps, dropoffs, and other obstacles. 

Black diamonds are ideal if you like challenging yourself and tackling rugged terrain. There is a lot of variation within blacks, but you can be sure that they will all be pretty hard to ski. They are not suitable for beginners and some intermediates. 

Double Black Diamond (or Extreme)

Double black diamond ranking is the highest difficulty ranking you will likely see at a resort in North America, Australia, or New Zealand. These runs are for experts only and can be pretty dangerous if you don’t have the skills to navigate them. 

Double blacks can be intimidating even for advanced skiers. But if you have the skills and bravery, they offer some amazing skiing that you can’t find anywhere else on the mountain. You need to be a competent skier even to attempt one of these runs. 

These runs will not be groomed or maintained at all. They can feature any type of natural feature and might have an unexpected cliff, cornice, or other major obstacles that you need to be aware of and prepared for.

Double blacks are also labeled simply as Extreme Terrain in some places. They are essentially the same thing, and both are runs that only the best skiers should attempt. If you can handle a double black, you are an expert skier. 

Ski Difficulty Levels in Europe and Japan

Difficulty LevelSkier AbilityTypes of Terrain
BlueBeginnerEasy terrain. Usually groomed and open. Not steep.
RedIntermediateSteeper, more challenging. Groomed or ungroomed. Can include moguls, trees, and other obstacles. 
Black Advanced Steep. Wide variation in terrain and difficulty levels. Expect all types of features and obstacles. 
Double or Triple Black ExpertExtreme terrain. Very challenging. Extreme conditions and obstacles are possible. 

Europe, Japan, and some other Asian countries have a different ranking system. It essentially describes the same terrain but uses different color coordinating. If you live in Europe or Asia or plan on skiing there, you should know this difficulty level ranking as well.

Blue

A blue run in the European system is the easiest you’ll find at the resort. These runs will be suitable for beginners who are learning the basics of the sport and want a not that steep situation. 

Blues are typically groomed to give beginners the easiest and most enjoyable experience on the mountain. They won’t have too many obstacles or challenging features and are generally wide to give skiers plenty of room to navigate. 

Red

The red ranking is exclusive to the European difficulty system and is an intermediate-level run. These will be slightly steeper than blues and can have a variety of terrains and obstacles for skiers to navigate. 

Reds can be groomed or ungroomed and be anywhere from somewhat steep to pretty steep. You can also expect various conditions and might experience moguls, trees, and dropoffs. 

Red runs are a lot of fun to ski on when you have the basic skills down and are ready to push yourself to the next level. They are a good place to learn parallel skiing and ski racing skills. 

Black

Black runs are for advanced skiers. These have steeper and more challenging terrain than reds and are unsuitable for beginners. Some intermediates might be able to handle a black, but they are more for advanced skiers. 

Blacks are typically ungroomed and can feature many different types of terrain. You can expect to encounter bumps, trees, rocks, dropoffs, and other obstacles. These runs can be anywhere from pretty steep to really steep, depending on where you are. 

Double or Triple Black 

Double or triple black runs are the most challenging runs in the European ranking system. These runs are for experts only and will have some of the most difficult and intimidating terrains you can find on the mountain.

Double and triple blacks can be steep and extreme. They can have cliffs, cornices, and other natural features that take expert-level skills to navigate. These runs can be a rush, but they can also be dangerous if you aren’t ready for them. 

Additional Run Levels

There are a few other run ranking levels you might see at a resort. These can vary from location to location and are usually a combination of several difficulty levels I’ve already explained. 

For example, you might find a green/blue or a blue/black run at a ski resort in North America. A green/blue is a more challenging green that isn’t quite a blue. A blue/black is a more challenging blue that isn’t quite a black. 

If you see a sign of a difficulty you don’t recognize, you might want to double-check with another skier or the trail map to find out how steep it is. You don’t want to get into something too far over your head, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

Final Thoughts

Even though ski difficult level ranking signs aren’t universal, they follow a general pattern that goes from easiest to most difficult. Once you know this system, you can plan your ski day accordingly and hit all of the terrains that you want to hit.

I always recommend grabbing a trail map with all the difficulty levels when you start your ski day. That way, you’ll be able to map out your day according to the type of terrain you want to ski and make the most of your time on the mountain.

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