Backcountry Ski Touring
So you think you're ready to live a resort-free life? Time to step out into the backcountry and explore fresh, ungroomed snow. Backcountry ski touring is not only challenging to your mind and body, but incredibly rewarding after a long day in the cold outdoors. Trek into un-skied territory for a brand new experience. Skier beware, as the backcountry becomes more appealing, it may become harder and harder to find fresh, clean snow in your area. Don't give away your favorite spots!
Pre means before.
OH YEAH, I TOOK A FEW OF THOSE IN COLLEGE.
SKI EXPERIENCE: Before stepping out into the woods and snow unknown, you'll need to beef up your background, so to speak. First up is your ski experience. If you've never skied before, take a chill pill and halt those plans. Backcountry ski touring is a whole 'nother animal from resort skiing and the "french fry, pizza" method just won't work. You should be able to hit all the resort slopes without too much trouble before thinking about hitting the backcountry routes.
CARDIO: Once you have plenty of ski experience under your belt, get yourself on a cardio program. While not exactly a required prerequisite, you'll surely enjoy the benefits. Plenty of cardio will allow you to trek longer and further, so you can spend hours and hours in the snowy white. With the growing interest in backcountry skiing, it may be necessary to explore the land further to get where nobody else has been. With strong legs and heart, you'll be able to charge the rolling terrain, steep uphills and powdery downhills, soaking in all the fun along the way.
A few tips on staying out of danger.
PUT YOUR BRAIN TO WORK.
Staying safe is paramount. Land covered with snow is dangerous and you'll need to know how to navigate various types of changing terrain. Here are a few important tips on safety.
BUDDY SYSTEM: Bring a pal with you. This way you won't get lonely and you can look out for each other, helping each other through the bad times and rejoicing together through the good. If someone goes down, the other is there to help or make contact with a rescue team.
NAVIGATION: You better know where you're going. Terrain blanketed with snow is crazy different from marked trails. Get a reliable topographic map for the area, a solid compass and know how to use them. You can go with a GPS unit if you'd like, but know that if it runs out of batteries or loses signal, you're on your own. A GPS unit will work much better as a supplement, marking areas you'd like to return to and double checking points you've already navigated to with your map and compass.
CLASSES: Ski towns and places within close relation to the mountains often offer classes on backcountry ski touring. Everyone's best friend Google can probably find you a class on the subject so you can learn the skills needed to take on the backcountry.
Guides: 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.
TREES + TREE WELLS: When heading down the slope in the glorious snow you've searched for, keep an eye out for those pesky trees. Even if you manage to avoid the tree itself, you also need to look out for tree wells. They're hidden at the base of the tree and if you fall in it is extremely difficult to get yourself out without the help of a partner.
If there is snow…
WHERE CAN I DO THIS?
It's likely you can pretty much go backcountry skiing anywhere, so long as the snow and terrain enables it. If you're in the desert then you probably won't have a good time. Whether you're in the US, Canada, Europe or some other country, snow conditions will always change. While many backcountry ski tourers are on the lookout for pristine, fresh powder, don't be surprised if you can't always find it. You'll need to be prepared to ski what you're given and that can include breakable crust, low-angle soft snow, of course the powder and more.
Wing it if you want.
JUST KIDDING, YOU SHOULD HAVE SOME SKILLS.
UPHILL: A zig zag is also called a switchback and on long slopes, it'll be better to create a switchback, zigging and zagging your way upwards.
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.
FLATS: 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.
DOWNHILL: Lean back, 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.
TRANSITIONS: Resist leaning forward onto your toes, using those hips to push your skis forward while remaining upright.
Step big to gain the upper ground when going from steep to flat.
On a switchback, kick-turns are your life. 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 two sticky sides together. Jam 'em in your pack and fresh powder on the downhill awaits.
Gotta have the goods.
KNOW HOW TO USE IT.
AVALANCHE GEAR is a must and there are three main items you'll need before heading into the backcountry.
• Beacon: This little device does two things, transmits and receives signal. When descending, you'll want to have it activated and it will emit a signal along the way. Once you’re safely down, switch it to receive mode and you'll be able to begin a search for any skiers in your party that may have gotten trapped under the snow.
• Shovel: Shovels made specifically for avalanche rescue are packable, durable enough to chop and dig through various types of snow and have several uses. You should look for an aluminum one due to the strength to weight ratios. Not only can you test for snow safety with one, but you can dig a snow pit as well as dig out a buried friend.
• Probe: A probe is basically a long, collapsible stick. It fits in your pack and deploys quickly so you can start searching for your buried ski partner. These little suckers are measured in centimeters, so put your conversion hat on. Something between 200 and 300 centimeters is typical and will help you find your pal.
SKIS are a must have for this sort of adventure. Because otherwise you wouldn't be backcountry ski touring and going down the mountain won't be nearly as fun. There are many, many different options to choose from here, so pay attention. Just remember you are absolutely going to have to compromise in one area or another. Best of luck in striking the perfect balance.
• Weight: is fairly important, as hauling yourself upwards can really take its toll, especially if your skis are super heavy. A lighter weight pair will be much easier on the way up, but you'll have to consider the ride down as well. Typically heavier skis perform better on the downhill. Go light, go heavy, or attempt to find that sweet spot in the middle.
• Width: will come down to narrow or wide and really depends on what type of snow you'll be skiing as well as your preferred style. Narrow skis will work better in firm snow, while wide is great for the fluffier, deeper sections of the cold, white stuff. Watch out, wider skis are probably going to be a touch heavier.
• Length: is probably the easiest to decide upon, especially if you already know what you go for at the resort. A good rule of thumb is something between your chin and your head when the tails are on the ground. Backcountry adventures can benefit from shorter length skis, as they're lighter on the uphill and easier to turn. The downfalls of short skis are less float and less stability when zooming downwards fast. If you're just out there for those big powdery fields, go ahead and grab your longer skis, you'll have a blast cruising down to the bottom. Just acknowledge you'll have a slightly tougher uphill battle with those lengthy boards.
• Types: Oh boy, there are so many different options when it comes to skis, and honestly, you've gotta pick what works best for you. If you're used to one type, then it'll be very beneficial to at least get started with what you already have. Tailor them to your ski style and the type of snow you'll most often encounter. There is no "perfect" ski, for every type of snow you'll meet, so the key is to make sure you're having fun in the pair you did choose.
All Mountain: Often heavier and wider, but quite versatile when it comes to various snow options.
Nordic/Cross-Country: Zip upwards in a lightweight option, but won't excel on the downhill. Non-releasable bindings can be a challenge and unsafe when venturing into risky avalanche areas.
Telemark: Free heel, converts well between uphill and downhill, but heavier than a Nordic/cross-country set-up.
Alpine Touring: Easy transition for those alpine skiers, this type will excel in the downhill.
Splitboard: If you're a snowboarder at the resort, this is probably going to be the best option for you. Ski the way up, but switch to snowboarding on the way down.
BOOTS: Versatility is key; you'll want a flexible cuff for mobility uphill, but stiffness for the downhill run. AT (Alpine Touring) boots are a great, versatile option, but not as stiff as an alpine boot. You can go with a lightweight option if you wish, and they will feature a walking hinge that will lock into place for the way down. Make sure whatever boots you do go with will fit with the bindings you plan to get.
BINDINGS: You're not going anywhere if you don't have a way to connect your boots to those sweet boards you purchased. Go tech or go plate. The tech bindings are superlight and will have you flying on the uphill. Go plate and it'll be a bit heavier but the downhill will be where it performs best. Don't forget to pay attention to whether you're going to go with releasable or non-releasable bindings.
SKINS: Less Buffalo Bill, a whole lot more getting yourself up the mountain. They've got some stick 'um adhesive that sticks to the bottom of your skis and hardware attaches them to the tip and tail of your skis. The side that touches the snow allows you to glide forward while remaining Velcro-sticky like the opposite way, preventing you from sliding. The snow-side can be made with mohair, nylon, or a combination of the two. There is debate on what is best, but pros tend to lean towards the mohair. Put 'em on your skis so you don't slide backwards on your way upwards.
SKI CRAMPONS: While not necessarily a necessity, these can make your life much easier in hard snow. If you're familiar with boot crampons, they're similar. The main difference is they pivot up and out of the way when you lift up your ski, facilitating a sliding forward stride. When engaged, they'll help you dig into that snow.
POLES: Oh, you've already got some ski poles? Those will probably work, gotta have some stability when tromping around in the backcountry. If you don't have poles yet, snap up some adjustable ones. This way you can have them longer or shorter, depending on the terrain.
BACKPACK: This is where you put all your stuff. Ski packs are different than regular packs, mainly in the way the compartments are set up. It will fit your shovel, probe, skins, and more much better than your hiking pack.
• AvaLung or Airbag Pack: Selecting a pack with an AvaLung or airbag can greatly increase survival if you're trapped underneath the snow in an avalanche. AvaLung is a device that pulls oxygen from the snowpack to help you breathe, while releasing CO2 away from your face. Airbags are pretty pricey, but look up a YouTube video and you'll see how absolutely awesome they are. Deploy one of these puppies during an avalanche and it will keep you higher up or at the surface of the snow.
• Ski Carry: Sometimes you gotta strap your skis (or snowboard) to your pack and hoof it up a section. During these times, you'll need to utilize the special straps equipped on your pack to carry them. Most packs allow skis to be carried in an A-frame or diagonal manner, while snowboards can be carried horizontally or vertically. Just depends on your pack.
• Hydration sleeve: All that work skiing around, you're gonna get thirsty. The easiest way to hydrate is with hydration reservoir, so grab a pack that has a hydration sleeve for you to put it in. Make sure you get a insulated sleeve for the tube so the water doesn't freeze.
HELMET: This protects your noggin from getting beat up in a tumble or an avalanche. It'll be much nicer to hit a rock with helmet instead of your skull.
SUNGLASSES + GOGGLES: Protect those sweet baby blues! Also those browns, greens or hazels! Not only is the sun harsh on your retinas, but the white snow reflects. Save yourself a trip to the eye doctor and get yourself a good pair of shades. Sunglasses for the way up and a solid pair of goggs for the way down that'll also keep flying snow out of your eyes.
NOW GET OUT THERE AND SKI ALREADY
Gather up all the gear, some friends and get to the mountain. Ski your own path, navigating new territory to find your own super-secret spot. The hard work it takes to get up the mountain is worth it not just for the incredible ride downhill, but the views you'll see along the way.