Mount Bohemia is part of a season pass collective for small ski areas, an initiative for the little guys to counter the larger Mountain Collective pass. PHOTO: Hansi Johnson

The era of the collective pass has never been brighter.

This year, the Mountain Collective signed Telluride and Revelstoke, the M.A.X. Pass added 10 new ski areas, and Whistler made the Epic Pass even epic-er.

But the momentum has also initiated a reactionary movement focused not on resort amenities and condo timeshares, but on simply staying relevant. Collaborations like the New England-heavy Freedom Pass and the Mountain Playground Group are bringing together small and mid-size hills as a unique subset of the collective ski pass craze, creating an alternative ski experience for the budget powder chaser, and establishing a community of community ski areas.

"Look at the big resorts, you have water parks and roller coasters and ski-in, ski-out Starbucks, but these small ski areas need to compete too," says Jamie Schectman, CEO and co-founder of the Mountain Riders Alliance. His organization is behind the Mountain Playground Group, a collection of independent local hills including Maine's Mount Abram and Washington's Hurricane Ridge. "Part of that is awareness. These small areas don't have that big marketing budget, they're working to keep the lights on."

When Bolton Valley's Vice President of Sales and Marketing Josh Arneson approached former Dartmouth Skiway Marketing Coordinator Ben Craig about increasing visibility and forming a pass alliance two years ago, Craig had already been working with a handful of other New England areas to create the Freedom Pass—a $50 add-on to a regular season pass that allowed for unlimited skiing across the participating resorts.

After tinkering with the model for two seasons, the group re-introduced the Freedom Pass as a complimentary add-on for 2016-2017, providing three free lift tickets for its now 13 ski areas spanning from New England to Alaska's Eaglecrest Ski Area down to New Mexico's Pajarito Mountain.

Despite New England's bad winter last season, Arneson credits the collective pass with keeping Bolton Valley's summer pass sales on par with year's past.

"People that have friends and family in other places can go to these [other] small areas that they may have never thought to go to and now they have tickets," says Arneson. "This is a way to let people know that we're giving people a little extra value as a thank you for re-upping this year."

The value is especially apparent for college-age skiers, who can score a $179 Ski Bum Pass from Bolton and receive 36 free lift tickets around the country—if they're willing to work for it.

"If you're in Detroit, Michigan, and Vermont is getting pounded, you can go to Vermont…it offers a lot of flexibility," says Lonie Glieberman, owner of Michigan's Mount Bohemia, a Freedom Pass addition for 2016-2017. "Somewhere on that pass, someone is going to have snow."

Besides the budget powder hound, these alternative collective passes are providing a boost for the ski communities they serve.

Schectman started the Mountain Riders Alliance six years ago to help small town mountains compete in a large mountain world. In addition to offering ski area consulting and gratis marketing material, MRA introduced the Mountain Playground Group as a way to promote the little guys, partnering with eight independently owned local ski areas.

It's not your typical ski pass, more "something between a [collective] pass and a AAA card," according to Schectman. For the annual $29, skiers get deals like a free lift ticket for every fifth car passengers heading to Washington's Hurricane Ridge, or two-for-one ski tickets to Montana's Beartooth Basin, but also discounts at local businesses like nearby motels, apparel outfitters, and even surf shops. Colorado's GEM Pass offers similar incentives, with all proceeds being reinvested in the following year's program.

MRA will add five more areas before the bull wheels start turning this season, and has partnered with SNOCRU, a popular ski tracking and conditions app, to create a small ski area-specific app akin to Vail's EpicMix for live updates across its network of mountains.

While the MPG card and the Freedom Pass might never operate on the scale of the larger conglomerates, they are finding traction in the smaller markets and providing a much-needed cohesiveness for little ski areas that have, for too long, battled to stay afloat alone.

"We want to give these [areas] the tools and exposure by banding them together," says Schectman. "We want each of our ski areas to remain unique, funky, and authentic, but we think having them work together gives them a better chance at survival.