What if we said you could ski pristine powder all day long, without lift lines, without crowds, and without renting a helicopter or powder cat?
It’s called backcountry skiing (a.k.a. “alpine touring” or just “touring”), and it’s exploding in popularity. There are just two catches a) your legs are the chairlift and b) avalanches. This is where our lawyers step in and say, backcountry ski at your own risk!
If you want to ski powder when there’s only ice or slush left in the resort, touring is the way to go. Unless you live in a ski town though, you probably haven’t heard much about the sport. This Alpine Touring guide will get you acquainted.
What is backcountry skiing?
Backcountry skiing takes place out of ski resort boundaries and combines adventure, cardio, science, and adrenaline. Here’s how it works:
ADVENTURE: You drive and/or snowmobile to mountains located on public land. Sometimes, you can access out-of-bounds terrain from a resort gate – such areas are called “sidecountry” or “slackcountry.”
CARDIO: You use special equipment to climb the mountains on your skis (more on that soon). Nothing burns off ski trip booze and meals like ascending 2,000 feet in frigid weather.
SCIENCE: When you reach the top of the climb, you dig a pit and test the snow for avalanche risks.
ADRENALINE: If the snow is safe, you drop into trees, chutes, cirques, and bowls. You feel like you’re in a Warren Miller movie.
What gear do I need?
Some people hike into the backcountry from a resort with their usual getup and gear. They are morons. In terms of stupidity, going into the backcountry underequipped is like skydiving without a backup parachute – you have no Plan B in emergencies. Things that can go wrong include deadly avalanches, crashes, getting lost without cell reception, dehydration, frostbite, vicious blizzards, etc. Getting rescued out of bounds ain’t cheap.
So what will you need to hit the backcountry?
Something to ride
- Skiers use touring skis that resemble powder skis (a.k.a. fat skis) but are lighter for climbing. They also require an Alpine Touring (AT) binding and, preferably, AT boots. AT bindings lock your heel for descending and release the heel for ascending. AT boots flex for climbing and lock for descending.
- Snowboarders usually ride splitboards, which divide lengthwise into chubby, awkward skis. When it’s time to ascend, you split the board and rotate your special splitboard bindings to be parallel with the skis. When you descend, you clip the board back together and place the bindings in your typical riding position. You can use standard snowboard boots.
- Telemark skiers can use their usual setup plus some additional equipment mentioned below.
Something to grip
To walk up snow on a pair of skis, you need climbing skins. Modeled on sealskin but made from synthetic materials, climbing skins stick to the bottom of your skis and grip snow. Essentially, you zigzag uphill using cross-country ski technique.
Both skiers and boarders need adjustable ski poles for climbing the backcountry. Depending on conditions and snow depth, you will change your pole length. As a snowboarder, you’ll collapse the poles entirely and attach them to your backpack when you ride down.
Note: Some snowboarders prefer to use a regular snowboard and either climb with snowshoes or miniature climbing skis. Those approaches can save money, but it means you will carry extra weight on your back, move slower, work harder, and annoy your faster friends.
At a minimum, every backcountry skier needs four pieces of safety gear. They save lives, but require a lot of practice:
- Beacon: A radio device that broadcasts your location. If someone gets buried in an avalanche, the group members switch their beacons to search mode to locate the victim ASAP. Buried skiers have about a 15-minute survival window.
- Probe: A long, skinny, folding poll. After skiers locate a victim with the beacon, they will stab into the snow with the probe to pinpoint the skier’s exact location.
- Shovel: For the final stage in a rescue, skiers use the shovel to unbury the skier. Shovels are also used to dig pits where the group can conduct snow tests.
- Backpack: The pack holds all your safety gear along with extra layers, spare gloves, water, food, a headlamp, sunscreen, and other necessities.
Optional: Airbag systems can prevent you from getting buried in an avalanche. An AvaLung can give you more breathing time if you do get buried.
Do I need lessons?
Yes. There’s no sugarcoating the danger of backcountry skiing. The National Avalanche Center reports that over the last five years, avalanches have killed an average of 29 people per season in the U.S. The victims are mostly male, 25 to 40, and proficient in their sport, whether it be touring, snowmobiling, or climbing. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center maintains an extremely detailed database of these tragedies and their causes.
Still in? Sign up for AIARE 1, the entry-level course offered by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. Find course listings throughout the U.S. here.
AIARE 1 will get you acquainted with backcountry travel and gear under expert supervision. Try to rent or borrow gear for the course. Make sure you like touring – and feel safe – before you shell out $1,000 to $3,000 on a setup.
I did Level 1, now what?
For your first several tours, go with someone more experienced than you. That could be a local friend or a professional backcountry guide recommended by your AIARE 1 instructors. For your first unsupervised tour, try some sidecountry where you can focus on technique and safety without giant ascents and complex route finding.
We started with happy talk of powder and then faced the dark side of skiing on untamed terrain. Don’t be too alarmed – a little fear and respect for Mother Nature is good for our longevity. Just remember that resort skiing will never be as thrilling again after you’ve hit spent a day lapping your own powder stash in the backcountry. You’ve been warned.
Gear: When you need touring gear, going to a ski/board shop and working with an expert can be reassuring. If you want to buy backcountry skiing gear online, your three best options are:
Available info: In popular backcountry areas, organizations provide snow-safety data and avalanche risk assessments. They also offer information on local guides, courses, routes, and much more:
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