A Beginner's Guide to Backcountry Skiing
Want to ski unlimited fresh powder? Learn everything you need to know about getting started in backcountry skiing with ski expert, Connor Hult.
For those of us who love to ski, fresh powder is what gets us out of bed in the morning. These days, skiing in solitude and not having to fight for first-chair to get fresh tracks is becoming all the more difficult in the boundaries of our cramped ski resorts. The allure of fresh tracks, no lift lines, and year-round skiing on your schedule are leading many to flock to the ever-growing outdoor pursuit that is backcountry skiing, alpine touring, or simply “touring.” Unless you live in a ski town, odds are that you are not very familiar with the sport, or think it’s only for highly experienced enthusiasts. Here’s how you can get yourself out in the backcountry.
For some, backcountry skiing is getting the furthest out into the deep wilderness or atop a mountain peak for the ultimate test of cardio. To others, it’s about finding waist-deep pristine powder, or simply to some, it’s a way to get out of the resort boundaries before they're open, and to continue doing so after they close. No matter what you may seek in the backcountry, there is some useful information and criterion you cannot skip.
Get Educated: Snow Safety
There is no sugarcoating the risks present in backcountry skiing. As the name implies, you are on your own, no ski patrol, no signs, nobody telling you to slow down. Likewise, nobody will be mitigating avalanche hazards for you. All decisions must be carefully crafted by you and your trusted partners. A healthy amount of fear and respect of the mountains and terrain keeps you on your toes and prevents you from being complacent.
If you aren’t sure what avalanche training is, consider getting educated for a good starting point. An intro to avalanche course or “Avalanche Level 1” is a great way to build a solid foundation to get started. You will get to go out for a day or two with a qualified guide who will make sure you’re safe, teach you proper equipment use, introduce you to your rescue technique, snow conditions evaluation skills, and answer any questions you will have. AIARE is a great resource for general information on an avalanche safety course.
In addition to avalanche 1, there are plenty of available resources to enhance your proficiency in navigating the backcountry. Avalanche.org is a helpful site to get a grip on the terminology and offers specific avalanche cases to study. Your local avalanche center (CAIC if you’re in the state of Colorado) is another great resource for daily reports, forecasts, and observations. Lastly, a great book to study (not just read) is Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, which provides a great foundation of knowledge to draw from and put into practice.
Get the Gear
The first time I went skiing uphill, it defied my understanding of physics. I gave it the old college try on my first setup, purchasing second-hand, with skins cut too short for my skis. I slipped and slid down any halfway steep slope before I could even think about flipping my heel risers, and my Dynastar “Huge Troubles” lived up to their name every time I took them out for a tour. Not long after purchasing them, I snapped the heel piece on bindings that were older than me, just while switching over to tour mode in the parking lot. I proceeded to wait in the car while my buddies got some great early season turns in.
I have since expanded my gear selection and knowledge base, maybe in part due to that experience. There is an overwhelming amount of options out there that our experts can help you narrow down and find what is right for you. To ensure you have an enjoyable experience every time, and don’t get left behind, there are a few factors to consider when outfitting yourself.
Your beacon, shovel, and avalanche probe are your best friends and must always be on your person and easily accessible while traveling out-of-bounds. Not to be confused with a PLB (personal locator beacon), your avalanche beacon or “avalanche transceiver” emits a signal that anyone else (your partners) with a transceiver can pick up on to find you. Conversely, you can also find your partners’. These items are always on underneath your outermost layer from the moment you leave your car to when you return. Beacons have been around for some time, but newer innovations have left the originals comparatively outdated and less effective. As for your shovel, there are shovels designed specifically for backcountry travel, for both usability in a rescue scenario and collapsibility for optimum storage in your pack. You use your probe to evaluate the snowpack and to help locate a buried victim. It is imperative to have these items (along with a ski pack to fit them in) and to know how to use them well (practice on a regular basis).
Although skis are what will be getting you down (and up) the hill, they are an accessory to your rescue gear. Your beacon, shovel, and probe are your most important pieces of equipment while traveling in the backcountry.
What Gets You Uphill
Skis: Backcountry skis are indeed different, and the main difference is weight - the skis are much lighter since you will be dragging them uphill before skiing down on them. If you’re snowboarding, you will be looking for a splitboard. You also need to consider your needs for an optimal balance of weight, float, cost, and performance - which our experts can assist with!
Bindings: Your bindings are what will allow you to freely extend your stride to basically lunge your way up the hill. Aside from your resort bindings, there are three main types of touring bindings: frame bindings, pin or tech bindings, or a hybrid between the two. Weight, performance, function, and cost will be your main considerations here.
Skins: Climbing skins are attached to the base of your skis through universal attachments (The tip and tail clips), their purpose being to grip the snow and allow for uphill travel (skinning). To function properly, the skins will need to be sized correctly to your skis, and trimmed accordingly. Skins are comprised of different materials, each serving a different purpose. Materials include nylon, mohair, or a mix of both. Our experts can help you determine what's right for you.
Backcountry ski boots/touring boots: Successful skinning depends in large part on the right boot. Backcountry or touring boots are lighter and include increased pivot or a "tour mode" to help with your stride. Depending on which bindings are paired with touring boots, the styles and functions of the boot will vary.
Backcountry ski poles: There are poles specific to backcountry skiing that will make your life easier. These poles are collapsible and telescopic to adjust to your needs and preferences. These features keep the poles shorter on the uphill and extend them for the down, in addition to offering the flexibility to store them in your pack if you don’t need them for a stretch (this is especially useful for splitboards on the downhill). If these features aren’t needed, your in-bounds poles will certainly suffice.
Ski backpack: Lastly, you will need a ski pack that is suitable for your backcountry adventures. Ski packs are unique in that they have special compartments for your rescue equipment, goggles, and helmet that allow easy access. Other features include external straps to attach your skis to. Yes, there are indeed times you will be walking with your skis on your back. Whether it’s a dirt trail to get to the snowline, or booting up a couloir that’s too steep to skin up - your pack should be able to secure your skis for these occasions.
Snow Study Essentials
An important aspect of backcountry skiing is snowpack evaluation. You will use your probe and shovel for these pit-digging and evaluation processes. Also, you will need some paracord (about 3mm cord) and a snow saw for your various tests, such as the Extended Column Test, which you will need to become proficient in. Another helpful tool to ensure that you’re prepared is an inclinometer, which you can use to maintain a gauge on the slope angle as you choose your tour path and ski descent.
The Extra Weight You'll Wish You Have
Navigation: While avalanches are the main concern when backcountry skiing, do not overlook common risks you face in any backcountry setting. Make sure you know where you're going and have the right tools to navigate the area, either a GPS or traditional map and compass.
Nutrition: Fueling up properly will set you up for success in the backcountry. It may be easy to clock in for a whole day of skiing at the resort on just your breakfast, but in the absence of a lift to rest on and bring you back up, you will inevitably be working harder. Bring plenty of water and nutritious snacks that won't freeze rock solid in the cold temps.
Apparel and extras: Your traditional ski attire will function properly in the backcountry; there is no need to get special goggles, helmet, jacket, or pants - these items can all be used in both applications. There are lighter, more packable alternatives, but for your first few tours, these aren’t essentials. Do invest in an extra pair of gloves as inevitably one will get snowy or wet out on the way up. Another pro tip is to have plenty of ski straps. Like duct tape, straps serve multiple purposes and provide a quick fix for any inconveniences that arise a few miles away from the car, like broken boot buckles or loose ski skins.
Training and technique: How to ski uphill?
Get to know your gear. All of the new aforementioned gear comes with a learning curve and new skills. Tech bindings are hard to clip into, and switching everything from tour to ski mode and vice versa is something you should know how to do before you get to the parking lot. Stressing this point again: your rescue equipment should be easily and readily accessible.
Perfecting your technique does wonders for your climbing efficiency. Skinning indeed provides mountain cardio, and it’s more difficult with an awkward stride or the absence of a well-executed kick turn. Knowing and practicing these uphill techniques will improve your enjoyment and efficiency on your tours. Following a well-ridden skin track instead of blazing your own is a good start.
Save the helmet and goggles for the descent. To prevent sweating and fogged up lenses, wear sunnies and a hat for the climb!
Pack your pack well. Know the ins and outs of your pack and how to organize your gear for maximum comfort and optimum weight distribution.
Adopt essential techniques in layering. There is an outdoor adage that “cotton kills,” which is true, cotton is not your friend in the backcountry. Leave the baggy T at home and layer properly to ensure you don’t freeze halfway up the hill. Cotton wets out and keeps moisture close to your skin - lowering your body temperature. A moisture-wicking base layer coupled with an insulating layer (like a warm puffy), then a shell layer (some waterproof jacket) are great to have on or in the pack. For the climb, you’ll likely be very warm and not need your extra layers until the descent. I even bring a second base layer on long outings to change out of my sweaty one and prevent the chills.
All in all, there is a lot that goes into backcountry skiing. The gear is extensive and not light on your wallet, but once you accumulate it all, the skiing is free! It is crucial to acquire the proper knowledge and best practices before venturing off into the unknown. With that, having the proper gear and knowing how to use it is just as essential to enjoying all there is to skiing in the backcountry.