Backcountry skiing is a lot of fun.
You get to be out in the beautiful nature, draw a beautiful ski line on the untracked snow, have some great time with your best friends. What is very important is that you need the correct equipment, knowledge, experience, and training to make sure you are safe out there.
My name is Kate, I am a ski enthusiast, together with Aspen, an NZSIA certified ski instructor who has been teaching snowsports in Japan, China, New Zealand, and Australia. We are going to share with you some valuable tips for organizing your first backcountry ski trip.
Sounds Great? Keep reading!
What is Backcountry Skiing?
The most acceptable answer of backcountry skiing simply means skiing at an off-piste area (i.e. area outside of the ski resort maintenance boundaries), which means there would be no ski patrol.
Backcountry Skiing can be divided into 2 types:
- Sidecountry/Slackcountry, or lift-accessed backcountry
- Human Powered Backcountry
Sidecountry is an excellent start to backcountry skiing. Most of the time, you can take the chair lift up the hill and exit the controlled area via a different controlled backcountry gate. For a well-planned sidecountry area, you can ski back to the controlled area most of the time.
Although the sidecountry area is very close to the ski resort, you still need to prepare yourself for unknown changes such as avalanches and other unknown dangers. So make sure you bring all the safety gear with you.
Human Powered Backcountry is the real backcountry skiing. You need to start from the bottom of the mountain and hike up to the top and ride down some nice powder. And in this article, we will mainly focus on preparing you for the human powered backcountry.
Step-by-step Guide to Backcountry Skiing
Here are the detailed steps to start your backcountry ski trip.
Step 1: Improve Your Skiing Skills and Fitness
To start with backcountry, you need to be a decent skier already and have a good fitness level.
Don’t let this scare you away. I’m by no means saying that you need to be pro on skis or have the endurance of a marathon runner.
However, you should be at least an intermediate skier who can confidently ski blue runs before you make the transition from regular skiing to backcountry touring. Of course, the better skier you are, the better. You don’t need to be able to ride down double black diamonds ski runs to for a beginner back-country experience, but it’s definitely more demanding than skiing on piste.
Good fitness foundations, meaning you have no problem hiking a few miles in rolling terrain with some weight in your backpack, are equally important.
These two requirements are due to the exhausting tour uphill, the ever-changing snow conditions, and the uneven terrain you will be dealing with on the way downhill during most backcountry expeditions.
If you feel like you are not up to that level yet, don’t hesitate to take a skiing course to improve your technique. Or incorporate cardio and gym sessions into your routine every once in a while.
Alternatively, you can take a course focused solely on backcountry skiing.
Step 2: Start Learning
The most important bit of knowledge you need to gain before starting backcountry skiing will be the education on avalanche safety.
Avalanches pose a severe risk to backcountry skiers, and thus you should learn how to avoid and handle them before you go touring.
Additionally, you shouldn’t head to the mountains without three essential pieces of avalanche safety equipment:
- Beacon / Transceiver – signals its position, which can be picked up by other transceivers, allowing rescuers to locate the avalanche victim
- Probe – once you have the approximate location from the transceiver, the probe is used to pinpoint a victim and the depth they’re in
- Rescue Shovel – needed for digging snow profiles to test snow conditions and for performing avalanche rescue
It is not only necessary to have them but also to learn how to use this safety equipment and practice with it often. So if anything were to happen, you would be able to react swiftly.
On top of doing your online research, the best way to get your avalanche education is to take a level 1 avalanche course where you will learn everything necessary.
If you want to be better prepared for this type of course, you can take an avalanche awareness lecture beforehand.
Aside from being educated on avalanches, it is essential to learn how to read avalanche forecasts and practice proper backcountry techniques.
Performing the turns differs when skiing powder as opposed to a groomed trail. Plus, there are techniques for going uphill too. You can read about it online, but that won’t give you the necessary training.
It is more efficient to learn all that in person from an experienced tourer or take a specific backcountry class.
Step 3: Gear Up
When I say gear up, it doesn’t simply mean buying the gear and taking it with you. That’s not enough. You’re expected to get to know your equipment, learn how to use it properly, and practice with it to perfect the technique.
We’ve already discussed the mandatory avy kit you should always have on you during the tours. Now let’s have a look at what other gear you’ll need on your backcountry adventures.
If you are just starting off, you can get away with a pair of downhill skis combined with touring bindings and climbing skins. As you progress, you should consider getting backcountry skis as they are generally lighter than regular downhill skis.
The first thing is to make sure the bindings are compatible with your boots. There are different variations of backcountry bindings, but their primary purpose is to allow you to lift heels up while climbing uphill.
When getting alpine touring binding, you are able to lock your heels down before skiing down the mountain.
Climbing Skins are the secret you have up your sleeve, or have on your skis, to be more exact, that provides enough traction to allow you to go on the skis uphill.
So forget about carrying the skis on a backpack while wading through snow and wishing you had stayed at home. Get yourself a pair of skins and glide uphill the way an experienced tourer would have.
Backcountry skiing requires a lot of walking, a pair of touring boots will make your journey a lot easier. Most ski touring boots have a walking mode that allows for more comfort on the way up. They are also lighter than downhill boots.
Backcountry poles will ideally be an adjustable length in order to provide the best support when climbing up, but at the same time, not get in the way when skiing downhill.
Even though some backcountry skiers forsake the helmet from time to time, it is still vital for your safety, the same as it is in skiing. Due to the often dangerous terrain, it is a part of the equipment you shouldn’t cheap out on.
There are many helmets designed for backcountry that are lightweight.
Goggles are also essential on backcountry tours. They provide the necessary protection for your eyes from the snow or tree branches, and they can improve your vision in difficult conditions.
If you want to learn how to find the right goggles, check out our post about how to choose ski goggles.
You can choose between an ordinary backpack (it will work for beginners, just make sure there’s enough space for all the equipment) or a backcountry backpack. The backcountry one will typically be lighter, more resistant, and will have a dedicated place for safe and quick access to your avy gear.
Alternatively, there is an airbag pack which, on top of serving as a backpack, is an additional safety tool designed to inflate an airbag and potentially bring its user to the surface in case they are being buried by avalanche debris.
One of the reasons why I cannot resist backcountry is the stunning view. Bringing a camera with you can record all these amazing trips. I prefer to use a helmet camera such as GoPros so I can keep my hands free.
Just make sure all the batteries are fully charged and keep them in a thermal pack to extend the battery lives.
Step 4: Find a Group
One of the unwritten rules of the sport is to never go on a backcountry tour by yourself. You should always have a fellow tourer with you so you can have each other’s backs.
This is crucial at any level, but even more so when you are only starting out with backcountry. Find a group of responsible backcountry enthusiasts and start skiing with them. Ideally, they should already be experienced tourers and not beginners.
Not only will you be able to learn from them and gain some skills, but you will also have a chance to meet like-minded people with whom you can share your passion.
If you don’t know people who are into the backcountry and don’t have direct access to anyone, try reaching out online to find some local groups nearby.
Otherwise, or even better, on top of that, you can hire a mountain guide to show you the ropes.
Step 5: Know Your Limits and Progress Slowly
This step is pretty self-explanatory. Same as in any sport, don’t try to jump ahead or impress your companions, but be honest with yourself about what your actual touring and fitness abilities and skills are.
You can be a fantastic downhill skier, but there are many new things you need to learn if you have never tried backcountry before.
Don’t lie to your buddies about your level, don’t go to locations you don’t feel up to yet, and avoid tough conditions that you are not ready for.
We all like a good challenge but taking them gradually and responsibly is what will bring you the most success and enjoyment of this great sport.
After all, the main goal is to enjoy the time in the mountains and have fun with your buddies.
Step 6: What to Wear?
Suitable attire is quite a big deal in backcountry skiing. You don’t want to get warm and sweaty on your way up; otherwise, you will be freezing on the way down.
Thus, you need to opt for light, breathable materials and clothing pieces that offer some extra ventilation. Remember to open the vents or take off some top layers to prevent overheating.
Ideally, you will carry some extra layers in the backpack in case the wind picks up or you need them once you get up.
Opt for lightweight moisture-wicking base layers and a breathable mid-layer. Avoid cotton as much as possible. It is not quick-drying and would cause you to be too warm, thus, making you accomplish the exact opposite of what we’re going for here.
The outer layer should again be lightweight, provide extra vents and be weather resistant.
When talking specifically about the trousers, consider going for bibs instead of regular pants. You’ll be thanking them for not being full of snow after your first few big falls in powder.
Try to pick a pair of durable gloves made with real leather, make sure they are waterproof and it would be even better to have longer cuffs for preventing the snow goes in.