Getting Started Backcountry Touring
This should be relatively obvious. A skier who sticks to soft green runs at the local resort may not have the best time in the backcountry. Although there are definitely areas that are more mellow, skiers should be prepared to encounter any type of situation when venturing into the backcountry. With new terrain comes new challenges and unlike the resort, there are no true trail maps to show you where trees might be, where rocks are, or if that little jump you're about to hit is actually a 50 ft. cliff. It is generally recommended being at a level where you are comfortable on new terrain. Just because you aren’t hucking off jumps like the pro’s should not discourage you from adventuring into the side or backcountry! Blaze your own trails, create your own path, find your own line that is the perfect blend of green or blue or black to fit your riding level and style.
As one might assume, having some general sense of health is necessary to scale a mountain and then ski down it. Backcountry skiing can be extremely taxing both mentally and physically. Challenges might be altitude, difficult terrain, or just long mileage. Make sure that you have a plan for what you are about to adventure on. If you normally can’t hike 10 miles, then skinning up a mountain for 10 miles will be even more of a challenge. Naturally, the better your technique and efficiency, the more mileage you’ll be able to do before getting tired. The last thing anyone wants is to get stranded on a mountain due to fatigue, altitude sickness, or getting lost.
This topic alone has books upon books and countless resources devoted to it. The biggest thing to keep in mind when venturing from front-side resort skiing to side or backcountry ski touring, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. For those completely new to the sport, it is highly recommended contracting a guide, taking a class, or at the very least, talking to your local ski shop experts about what to expect, what gear to buy, what to avoid, and even potential locations that might be better than others. Although online guides (like this one) can help build a general foundation, practical experience will beat out book knowledge every time. It is no light endeavor to cross the ropes at your resort and venture in the side country. The dangers present increase exponentially the farther you are from ski patrol and civilization. Dangers such as avalanches, tree wells, getting lost, hypothermia, dehydration, etc., etc. are all real dangers and should be carefully considered before venturing out.
With new terrain comes new equipment necessary to conquer it. The same set-up you have for resort skiing may be very different from what you would use while backcountry skiing. Specific equipment needed will be highlighted later on but in general, the absolute most essential pieces of equipment needed when traveling in the backcountry are a probe, shovel, and avalanche beacon or transceiver. No skier, split boarder, or sledder should be in the backcountry without these 3 life-saving pieces of equipment.
Staying safe is paramount. Land covered with snow can be dangerous and you’ll need to know how to navigate various types of changing terrain. Hazards such as tree wells, avalanches, snow storms, and white-outs are all very real and can happen at any time. Always have a bail-out plan and ensure that you are not putting yourself or others at risk.
Like most other outdoor activities, having at least one other person with you is the biggest lifesaving piece of equipment you can have on your trip. Yes, in this instance, your buddy Joe is lifesaving equipment. Think of Joe as a Swiss Army knife. He can call for help if you get injured, carry you to safety, bandage wounds, dig you out in the case of an avalanche, and tell you “everything’s gonna be alright”. Now think about if something were to happen while you were in the backcountry, and you didn’t bring a Joe? Who would help you navigate if you got lost? Who would help get you to safety if you were injured? Who would call for help if you couldn’t? Bring at least 1 Joe every time you venture into the backcountry. And if you are in a larger group, make sure that everyone in the group has a Joe so that if anything happens there is at least one other person who is aware and can assist.
Nobody is gonna have a good time if you spend the majority of your day staring at a map and cursing to yourself about where you think you are and where you want to go. It is highly recommended having your route planned out before even thinking about putting your ski boots on. Resources such as AllTrails, GAIA GPS, Caltopo, and Fatmap are great for providing relevant information to backcountry enthusiasts. It is also recommended to have a physical hard-copy map as well as a GPS device for downloaded maps and tracking.
There. Is. So. Much. Knowledge. To. Learn. For anyone venturing into the backcountry, it is recommended to take, at the minimum, an Avy 1 course. In this course, you will learn the basics of how to use avalanche equipment, where avalanches are prone to happen, common backcountry hazards, and how to avoid them. Of all avalanches recorded, a significant majority are human triggered and is a serious consideration when planning a trip. After taking an Avy 1 course, you can take your knowledge a step further and learn more about snow science, first-aid, trip planning, navigation, and safety development.
Another wealth of information. Contracting a guide is arguably the easiest, most stress-free way of venturing into the backcountry. Whether you're new to backcountry ski touring or just in a new area, hiring a guide can be beneficial. Guides can do many things, besides just ski well. Depending on the type of guide or company you go with, they can help you navigate the area, teach new skills, and just be a generally cool person. Guides are especially helpful when you're in a new area on vacation and are short on time. You can plan to head to a certain area, but if the route is unsafe, the guide can often quickly offer a new route suggestion. Guides are a great way to scout out new areas as well. Most guides read weather maps and charts like it’s their job (it kinda is) and will generally know which areas have the best snow and best skiing.
Trees and Tree Wells
When heading down the slope in the glorious snow you’ve searched for, keep an eye out for those pesky trees. A tree well forms when there is a deep pocket of soft snow that forms at the base of a tree trunk. If skiing near trees, it is beneficial to keep in mind that although the tree may look only 20 ft. tall, there may be another 10 ft. of trunk buried under soft snow. Falling into that extra 10 ft. is one of the leading causes of non-avalanche related snow immersion deaths while backcountry touring.
As mentioned before, this is a significant risk when venturing into the backcountry. It is strongly recommended taking at least a basic avalanche safety course before venturing into avalanche terrain. Here are some of the basics to consider when venturing into avalanche terrain:
Avoid avalanche paths
This seems relatively obvious but should still be stated. Areas where you can see avalanche debris or shearing in the snowpack, fields or bowls where trees have no uphill facing branches, and large overhanging cornices are all signs that you may be in avalanche prone terrain.
One person at a time
If crossing a potential avalanche zone, it is recommended to only have one person exposed at a time. If an avalanche were to occur, it would be easier to save one individual than your whole group if you were to cross at the same time.
As a general rule of thumb, terrain greater than 25 degrees has a possibility for an avalanche. Angles of 30-35 degrees have a significantly higher chance for avalanche triggering as well. Risk increases as the slope angle increases.
Is the area you’re traveling through concave/ convex? Is there a gully or bowl? What does the exposure look like? Are there terrain traps or cliffs downhill that could be a cause for concern? Studying the terrain of your route and where you plan on skiing is paramount to avoiding risky situations.
Weather/ New Snow
Assume that any new snow has instabilities. Avalanches love when there are big changes in the weather. Huge temperature increases, decreases, snow storms, high winds, are all ingredients that help increase the likelihood of an avalanche.
This would include cliffs, sunny aspects, shady aspects, high angles, hollow dips, gullies, wind-loaded lee slopes, cornices, crevasses, funnels, or trees. These are all areas that are either prone to avalanches, or areas where burial would be deeper than normal.
While it may be tempting to stick with a small 2-person tent, upgrading to a larger tent that you can stand in is a significant upgrade when glamping. Even if it’s just one or two people in a tent, having the extra space of a 4-person tent or larger will help things feel less cramped, as well as providing protected storage for all your other gear. Having high walls or a tall ceiling are also great upgrades to consider. Being able to fully stand up, do yoga, or do literally anything else you want with all that extra space, is definitely something you will appreciate. Large vestibules, bug nets, or additional covers are other excellent additions to any glamping setup.
The part of skiing that separates traditional Alpine, and Touring. Traveling uphill is half the fun of touring or ski mountaineering. Traveling uphill requires touring boots and bindings that have a pin engagement at the toe and a free heel. Traveling uphill on a set of skis also requires skins. No skins equals sliding backwards down the hill instead of gliding upwards. On the uphill it’s all about efficiency. Sliding your skis through the snow rather than lifting your feet, utilizing your poles for weight distribution, and layering are all essential to being efficient and not wasting time and energy.
A zig-zag is also called a switchback, and on long, steep slopes, it'll be better to create a switchback, zigging and zagging your way upwards. The alternative is steep and straight, which will do nothing but tire you out faster and cause other issues. When the short steep sections come into play, turn those tips out and walk like a duck. It's called a herringbone step, and you've gotta use your inside edges. The snow track looks totally cool if you look behind you when you've reached the top.
Traversing flat sections are relatively common while traversing in the backcountry. Maintaining efficient gliding and letting your skis do the work, rather than hiking is the name of the game. For short, gradual downhill sections you can even glide down on your skins if you are confident in your skiing ability. The flat, level ground will have you kicking and gliding your way across. Utilize your poles well here, planting the opposite pole in front of you during the stride. Here it’s all about efficiency. Getting the maximum distance in each stride and maintaining your course. Keeping your tips up out of the snow and gliding along the surface will decrease that post-holing feeling and create a gliding motion with each step. As you warm up from exertion, remove layers to avoid sweating. Freezing cold sweat can cause hypothermia and leave you chilly, regardless of how many layers you put on top of your wet ones.
This is why you hiked up there in the first place, right? So is skiing down in the backcountry different from skiing at the resort? Yes and no. With variable conditions and a lack of grooming, snowpack can vary wildly rather than if you were skiing at a resort. Being prepared for icy, powdery, or mixed conditions is something to take into account when planning your line down the mountain. It should also be noted that terrain traps and hazards should also be considered when traveling down the slope. For traversing downhill sections without transitioning, lean back with your tips up, and give yourself a solid stance, shoulder-width apart. Zing. Don't forget to watch your speed and slow down on steeper slopes if necessary. If the downhill section looks even slightly dicey or long, remove your skins, lock your heels in, and ski down. You’re better off taking the few extra seconds to remove your skins and set-up, than to destroy your skins or lose a ski in the powder. The better your technique, the better you will be at skiing without fully locking into your bindings.
Transitioning from uphill to downhill is an art. A pro can fully transition in only a few seconds without even having to take off their skis. A novice may spend a few minutes fiddling with bindings, skins, and boots. Transitioning is also a great time to take stock of the weather, potential hazards, and discuss potential lines with your group. Practice makes perfect, so get out there. When you get to the top of the mountain, it's best to remove one ski at a time to get your skins off. Fold 'em into quarters, with the two sticky sides together. Jam 'em in your pack or jacket pocket and fresh powder on the downhill awaits. If you plan on using your skins again after a downhill section, it is best to keep your skins in your jacket so that the glue does not freeze. Trying to stick frozen skins onto your skis is no bueno and could make for a sketchy setup.
Regardless of whether you are snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing, or snowboarding in the backcountry, every out of bounds enthusiast should be equipped with a beacon, shovel and probe and know how to use them effectively. Other gear that should be considered for ski touring would include touring skis, touring or AT bindings, touring boots, helmet, poles, and skins. With these basics, you should be able to get up and down the mountain safely. Other gear to consider includes crampons, backpacks, and goggles with interchangeable lenses. If you can’t be found, you shouldn’t be out there, if you can’t save your buddies, you shouldn’t be with them. And you’ll need a pack to fit this, as well as water, snacks, and some dry clothes, etc. The next biggest investment will be a real set of backcountry skis. As nice as it would be just to use your resort setup, you will, unfortunately, not get very far without the proper binding/ boot setup. For a more in-depth look at backcountry gear, check out our “Backcountry Ski Touring Gear” article.
What is the difference between touring and backcountry skiing?
Ski touring and backcountry skiing are both extremely similar. Both require avalanche safety equipment and take place outside resort boundaries. Ski touring is generally referring to going on an extended tour off-piste, away from a ski resort. A ski tour can last an extended period of time from a day, to a few weeks. A ski tour does not utilize lifts or any other forms of transportation other than skis. Backcountry skiing generally refers to off-piste skiing in unmarked or unmanaged terrain. Backcountry skiing can be accessed via lift, snowmobile, or Snowcat as well as skinning or hiking. The term slack-country can also be used to describe skiing at a resort, outside resort boundaries.
Do you need touring skis for backcountry?
While not absolutely necessary, backcountry skis with appropriate bindings and equipment are highly recommended when ducking past the ropes at your resort. Backcountry terrain can be accessible via lift or vehicle and does not always require a full touring setup.
Do I need to take a class to go backcountry skiing?
While it is not required by resorts, it is most beneficial to have some form of backcountry training before venturing into dangerous terrain. Ski patrol personnel will sometimes patrol slack-country access areas to ensure people venturing into these areas are equipped with necessary backcountry equipment. Having this equipment, and knowing how to use it correctly generally requires some training and knowledge.
Where can I go to backcountry ski?
Technically you can go backcountry skiing anywhere with a slope! Many resorts will have backcountry terrain surrounding them. For full ski touring it is recommended to contract a guide, read avalanche reports, and build routes ahead of time. Resources such as AllTrails, GAIA GPS, Caltopo, and Fatmap are great for providing relevant information and creating safer routes in the backcountry.