If this were a normal winter, Brian Smith and his family would have bought season passes for Sugarbush or Mad River Glen in Vermont. And they would have rented a ski house for the season with another family or two. But of course, nothing is normal now.

"We decided not to do that this year," Smith said, "because with all the uncertainly associated with the ski season at the resorts, we didn't want to have all the resorts shut down and we're still paying for a rental."

Smith instead bought what's called an Ikon pass, one of two different season passes that allow skiers a certain number of days at different resorts across the country.

"They pretty much knew that no one was going to buy their passes unless they gave people an out," Smith said of the Ikon pass. "They have plans set up for refunds based on what ends up happening with the ski season."

The 2020 ski season is something of a crapshoot this year across the country, with resorts scrambling to cobble together plans. Many are capping ticket sales each day or eliminating walk-up ticket windows or preventing third-party sellers, like ski shops and online sites, from selling daily passes. Other places are requiring skiers and riders to make parking reservations to keep track of how many visitors are showing up. And many resorts say visitors should be prepared to change clothes in their cars and maybe even eat their lunches there, too. If you want to eat inside, you may have to make reservations, because the base lodges will be more like “warming huts” than the hospitality centers they usually are. And of course, face coverings will be mandatory indoors.

“Every day we’re playing ‘pin the tail on the future,’ because things literally change every day. And if not every day, then every other day,” said JJ Toland, spokesperson for Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont. “Nobody has any idea how this will break, other than plan, plan, plan — and be ready for what you didn’t plan for.”

Toland said a lot of ski areas' plans are based on state mandates, and Vermont has created some of the strictest COVID guidelines in the country. But there are still some unknowns for the state’s ski industry.

“They’ve rolled out guidance for hotels, guidance for retail, guidance for restaurants,” he said. “What the last piece of the puzzle will be is lifts, because how you look at that — and the latest science — will dictate how many people we can put on our chairs.”

Vacationers from Canada make up half of Jay Peak’s annual business, and the Canadian border remains closed to travelers going either way. So, Toland joked, Jay Peak will have plenty of room for social distancing.

The people at Vermont’s Killington Resort aren’t especially worried about space, either, though for a different reason. The resort spans six mountains, and includes another smaller ski area, Pico Mountain, down the road.

Killington spokesperson Courtney DiFiore said Killington ran its attractions this summer — a lift-served mountain bike park, gondola rides, adventure center and golf course — and is convinced they’ve got a formula for moving customers safely through the indoor spaces and rerouting lift lines so skiers and riders won’t wait any longer than normal.

“Regardless of how you’re coming to Killington, we know it’s going to be a change,” DiFiore said. “And so, if we need to pivot and make a change, we can do that so our guests have a better experience.”

But there is a question of whether guests will find Vermont’s COVID rules too onerous. Ski areas nationwide have created a “Know Before You Go” campaign, urging skiers and riders to check individual resort websites, or in the case of Vermont, the official Green Mountain State rules. Officials there are asking vacationers who live in counties designated as red to complete COVID quarantine guidelines, which include either two weeks of self-quarantine or a week at home and a negative COVID test.

Things are considerably less complicated next door in New Hampshire, which has had much less restrictive COVID rules since the pandemic began. The ski areas there worked with the state to develop best practices, though just like Vermont, each ski area can improvise to some extent.

That’s especially true, said SkiNH spokesperson Shannon Dunfey-Ball, when it comes to how many people to allow on the slopes and in the lodges.

“They’re using some really involved algorithms. Fortunately, we’ve been selling ski tickets online, so we have a good decade of history of skier visit data that ski areas are using to figure out, When are those days that we really have to be worried about? How many people are coming to our ski area?” Dunfey-Ball said.

She said the expectation is that ski areas will cap turnout on major holidays and weekends.

The Smith family is willing to brave all these challenges, but Mike Geldart of Wilmington said as the father of two young kids, he’s not so sure. He took his son skiing last year and he fell in love with it, but the more Geldart thought about this season, the more he realized that going back to his college days — where he’d use his car as a base — didn’t sound so fun with a family.

“I can ski all day and not use the lodge at all, other than to go to the bathroom or store my stuff. Or, you know, carry a backpack while I’m skiing and just have everything. But with a 10-year-old … you wanna get warm if it’s a really cold day, or take your stuff off,” he said. “I think navigating that is going to be the hard part."