So, You Want to Try Backcountry Skiing
If you’ve recently learned the difference between “resort skiing” --that thing people do involving mechanical chairlifts and hot cocoa in the lodge-- and “backcountry skiing”, where people seem to get really tired, talk about avalanches, and have a lot more gear, then you are in good company. The pandemic led to more people seeking outdoor space and solitude in all seasons, but especially during the winter. At the same time, labor shortages, supply chain issues and corporate consolidation have caused upheaval, and disillusionment, in the traditional resort skiing industry and led many resort skiers to become more curious about that “other” kind of skiing. With new technology in skis, weather forecasting, and avalanche safety equipment, the world of backcountry skiing is growing by the minute.
As many of my friends and mentors trekked off into the wilderness with all this mysterious new equipment, I became increasingly frustrated with high resort ticket prices, long lift lines, closed off areas, and swarms of people. I’ve always loved traditional snow sports, but, as an athlete, I never felt like I was getting a good workout from a day on the slopes. This ski season, I finally took the plunge and invested in a full ski touring setup. As an avid SheFly fan, I also found that my Go There™ pants are great for backcountry skiing. Drinking lots of water, far from indoor restrooms, staying warm from so much aerobic activity, but not wanting to bare my butt and then get cold, it was super easy to unzip quickly on my way up the mountain. Now with a few tours under my belt, I’ve put together a list of need-to-knows for fellow novices!
Want to ski uphill? Read on.
The Pre-Ski Checklist
1. Get educated
Before you splurge on expensive gear, it is critical to know what you’re getting yourself into. The videos on your Instagram explore page might make backcountry skiing seem effortless, but they often leave out the extensive preparation that skiers undergo in order to safely earn their turns. Reading some articles online and skipping through a few videos is not a substitute for a proper learning experience. To keep yourself, your friends, and other skiers safe, you need to be fully educated about both the risks and best practices of skiing in the backcountry. We highly recommend an in-person avalanche training course and ski touring lessons.
2. Select and prepare your gear
The amount of outdoor gear available can feel limitless. And for a novice backcountry skier, finding the right gear for your experience level and budget may seem overwhelming. There are dedicated lightweight touring setups, hybrid touring and resort setups, and lightweight freeride setups for lift assisted tours. Snowboarders might also opt to use what is known as a splitboard. Unlike backcountry skis, a splitboard uses traditional snowboard boots and splits the board into two “skis” for ascent.
Operating with a limited budget and wanting a setup that would do it all, I opted for the hybrid model. The best part about this setup is that these skis and boots also work perfectly for regular downhill skiing. This means I can use the same gear for multi-day backcountry touring expeditions and skiing with friends for a couple hours at our local ski mountain.
A full touring setup usually consists of skis, boots, bindings, skins, clothing and accessories, and safety equipment. Before buying my setup, I consulted experienced friends and visited a variety of stores to get different perspectives on what would work best for my ski style and where I planned to ski.
Most of my ski season is spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where avalanche risk is exceptionally low and the snow is generally not prone to creating hazardous conditions. In the beautiful Green Mountain state, I feel comfortable touring alone and carry relatively little safety equipment. When I’m not in Vermont, however, I live in Boulder, Colorado, where backcountry ski conditions lay on the opposite end of the safety spectrum. Avalanche danger constantly presents itself in the unstable snowpack and the forecasts tend to be rather unpredictable. When I trek into the backcountry in Colorado, I never go without an experienced partner and am diligent about refreshing my avalanche skills and constantly checking snow/weather conditions.
Although it is easy to make safety an afterthought, it is important that you don’t skimp on safety gear. A full setup is not complete without the gear you need to stay safe in the backcountry, especially if you plan to ski in areas that are prone to avalanches. At minimum, this gear includes a beacon, a probe, and a shovel.
My Touring Setup
Skis: Atomic Backland 98 Alpine Touring Ski 164cm (2022)
Bindings: Atomic Shift 10 MNC Alpine Touring Bindings 110mm (2022)
Boots: Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 95 W Alpine Touring Ski Boots (2021)
Backpack: Mystery Ranch Coulee 25
Safety Equipment: Backcountry Access T4 Rescue Package
3. Determine that the conditions are safe: use avalanche forecasting sites, check weather conditions
Avalanche forecasters publish their predictions online throughout the day for most mountainous regions across the country. It is critical to check these sites, in addition to weather reports, before you go out and ski.
4. Find Good Partners
A good way to improve your knowledge of backcountry skiing is to seek out more experienced skiers who can help you get comfortable with the gear and hone your skills. Even if you are skiing with a partner, it is important to let someone at home know your intended route and predicted timeline.
5. Know Your Limits
Ask yourself: What is my ski level and where does that allow me to go? Do I know how to use ski touring and avalanche gear properly? Do I have the equipment to dress and pack appropriately for backcountry travel in cold weather? Can I identify an appropriate run in the backcountry?
Hitting the Slopes
A common misconception about backcountry skiing is that it necessitates multi-hour or even multi-day trips. As a college student with a busy schedule, those types of expeditions aren’t accessible to me on a weekly basis.
Instead, I mostly go skinning and skiing at resorts and limit my time on the slopes to about 3 hours. Most resorts will have an uphill policy that outlines the specific hours and routes for uphill travel available on their website. Skinning at resorts, especially during my first season, allows me to get comfortable with my gear in a familiar location and have access to amenities such as ski patrol assistance.
When it comes to the backcountry, it’s best to take it slow. Get comfortable with the gear and terrain, gain confidence and see where it takes you. Make sure to be considerate of your surroundings. Increased interest in the backcountry is wonderful but shouldn’t come at the cost of protecting the mountains, trails and wildlife that we all want to enjoy together. And finally, don’t forget your Go There™pants!