The gap year is no longer just about a bit of backpacking: energetic students are now using it to learn skiing, says Emma Haughton

The gap year goes from strength to strength, but what once represented a chance for students to relax between the pressure of A-levels and the challenges of university life is becoming less a breathing space than an opportunity to gain more skills and even qualifications. "Mind the gap" is the canny student's new mantra.

Ski-instruction companies have seen the writing on the wall quicker than most. Gap-year specialists like Ski Le Gap, Peak Leaders and Nonstopski have emerged to offer a variety of courses to those who want to do more in their year off than haul a backpack around the globe.

"When I took a gap year six years ago, people used to go out and work in resorts, but there were none of these specific courses," says Melissa Taylor, UK manager of the newly formed Nonstopski, which offers three-month intensive gap-year courses to people who want to become ski or snowboard instructors: "Students now want to get a qualification in their gap year rather than just bumming around," she says, "It looks good on their CV and shows that they have actually used their time effectively, and that they have a lot of energy and get up and go. A lot better than just sitting around on a beach in Thailand."

Nonstopski's three-month course, held from January to March in Fernie, Canada, teaches everything from how to tackle powder and slalom racing, to avalanche safety and first aid, plus teaching techniques to instruct at all levels. The course culminates in a qualification from the Canadian Ski Instructors' Alliance (CSIA) or the Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors (CASI), which allow participants to teach all over the world.

"It leaves time in the summerto go off and do other things too, or you could do a winter in Canada and a winter in the southern hemisphere as well," says Taylor, who points out that the 11-week intensive course is not just about skiing - students can also study photography, cookery, languages, or even take a Tefl course.

Miranda Akhurst, who is taking an English degree at Leeds University, spent three months of her gap year on an intensive skiing course with Nonstopski, and plans to return to Fernie as an instructor for a season when she completes her degree: "I'd only done five weeks skiing beforehand, but after three months of four hours of classes for five days a week, I am now an expert skier."

While she spent a lot of money, it was a great life experience, she says: "Not only did I get an instructor's qualification, but I also did a Tefl course. And the weekend activities meant that I got to see quite a lot of British Columbia. Not to mention spending three months living away from home in a completely different environment. I made some great friends, too."

Indeed, a gap-year ski course doesn't come cheap. Nonstopski's 11-week version costs £5,800, although it also offers a three-week intensive short course for competent skiers and snowboarders for £3,000. Peak Leaders runs two nine-week gap-year ski and snowboarding courses, one in Canada from January and March, and another in Argentina from July to September, costing £5,450 and £5,850 respectively.

Instructors can't expect to recoup that sort of investment immediately: "You don't earn a huge amount afterwards," admits Taylor, "You definitely do it for the love of it. It's more about gaining life experiences than making lots of money."

And though expensive, courses offer a lot for the price - the usual package is accommodation, half board, lift passes and ski equipment, coaching and exam fees, plus extras. Peak Leaders, for instance, includes basic leadership and management training, along with first aid, language tuition, safety lectures, team building and risk- assessment skills. The company also provides assistance for its graduating students to find a job using their new qualification.

The courses are a great deal of fun, points out Taylor. "Our students have a whale of a time; the atmosphere in the evenings is brilliant and they live together in groups of six or seven, which is good preparation for university life as well."

Nonstopski:; Peak Leaders:; Ski Le Gap: