Backcountry skiing up a mountain. Photo by Maël BALLAND on Unsplash

What is Backcountry Skiing? Your Guide to Mastering It in 2024

Whoever said it was too late to try something new? While you’re pondering that question, here’s another one for you. Fancy trying backcountry skiing this year?

Embarking on a backcountry skiing adventure means being prepared for the challenges you’ll face in the wilderness, and now is the perfect time to give it a go.

In this no-nonsense guide, you’ll learn to navigate the risks of avalanche terrain, choose the right equipment, and master the techniques for safe and rewarding descents. Whether you’re new to off-piste skiing or seeking to sharpen your skills, the insights here will equip you for your next backcountry pursuit.

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Key Takeaways

  • Avalanche risk assessment, terrain evaluation, and snowpack analysis are significant for backcountry skiing safety, necessitating education, careful planning, and the use of tools like avalanche forecasts and terrain measurement apps.

  • Proper equipment, including skis, bindings, boots, poles, and safety gear like beacons, probes, and shovels, is essential for backcountry skiing, requiring familiarity with gear usage and management for a safe experience.

  • Developing physical fitness, mental preparedness, and skills like efficient uphill movement, refined downhill technique, and route finding is important for handling the demands of backcountry skiing environments.

What is Backcountry Skiing?

Backcountry skiing up a mountain. Photo by Hendrik Morkel on Unsplash

Backcountry skiing, also known as off-piste or ski touring, is a form of skiing where adventurers leave the groomed runs of ski resorts to explore unmarked and unpatrolled areas of the mountain.

This type of skiing typically takes place in remote areas, requiring skiers to ascend slopes without the aid of ski lifts and then enjoy the thrill of making their tracks on the descent.

Unlike resort skiing, backcountry skiing is about self-reliance and immersion in nature. It offers the freedom to experience pristine snow conditions, but it also demands a higher level of skill, knowledge, and preparation due to the lack of immediate rescue services and the potential for avalanche danger.

Backcountry skiers must be equipped not only with specialised gear such as touring skis, skins, and avalanche safety equipment including an avalanche beacon and an avalanche probe, but also with the expertise to navigate and survive in the wilderness. They need to be well-versed in avalanche risk assessment, weather forecasting, and emergency response.

With the right preparation, backcountry skiing can be a rewarding experience, offering a sense of adventure and solitude that is hard to find within the confines of a ski resort.

What Backcountry Skiing Gear Do You Need?

Ski and pole equipment. Photo by David Becker on Unsplash

As you step beyond the boundaries of ski resorts into the backcountry, your gear becomes your lifeline.

A comprehensive checklist is pivotal, encompassing touring equipment like skis, boots, bindings, poles, climbing skins, a ski backpack, and, of course, avalanche safety gear. When it comes to backcountry ski backpacks, look for one with a separate compartment for avalanche tools, helmet holders, goggle pockets, and an efficient ski carry system.

For day tours, a pack size of 25 to 35 litres should suffice to house all your essentials.

Remember, familiarity with your gear is as important as the gear itself. Being comfortable with managing skins and mode transitions, informed about product choices, and capable of handling repairs can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience.

Things to Consider for Your Skis and Bindings

Selecting the right backcountry skis, also known as touring skis, involves balancing lightness for uphill movement and power for the descent, with an all-around width of around 100 millimetres often providing a good compromise.

Here are some key considerations:

  • Tech bindings, types of backcountry ski bindings, are favoured for their lightweight and increased uphill mobility.

  • Hybrid bindings offer versatility for both backcountry and resort skiing.

  • Climbing skins are crucial for ascending slopes; choose nylon for better traction or mohair for superior glide, ensuring they adhere well to the bottom of your skis.

New backcountry skiers should seek opportunities, like guided trips, to familiarise themselves with gear selection and usage, which is important for successful backcountry travel.

Don’t Forget Your Boots and Poles

Backcountry ski boots. Photo by Aaron Doucett on Unsplash

Your boots need to be a blend of comfort and efficiency, with fit being a critical factor for warmth and downhill performance. Whether you’re an avid mountaineer favouring lightweight ‘two buckle’ alpine touring boots for ample cuff rotation or a downhill enthusiast preferring stiffer boots for enhanced control, the right choice is out there.

In the backcountry, adjustable ski poles prove their worth, accommodating for varying terrains and slopes. Quality poles such as the Leki Helicon Lite or Black Diamond Whippet offer comfort, adjustability, and features suitable for steep and icy terrain — an investment in both safety and efficiency.

Essential Safety Equipment for Your Adventure

Avalanche safety gear is the trifecta of backcountry preparedness, consisting of an avalanche beacon, avalanche probe, and shovel.

Choose a beacon that’s user-friendly and reliable, like the Black Diamond Guide BT or the Arva Neo BT Pro, and practice regularly to ensure the swift location of buried individuals after an avalanche.

Your probe should be suitable for the deep snow climate you’re exploring, providing accurate information on the position and depth of a buried person. A sturdy, collapsible shovel is not only for excavating avalanche victims, but also useful for assessing snowpack conditions — selecting the right one is a matter of safety when you’re skiing in the backcountry.

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Here’s How to Develop Your Backcountry Skills

Backcountry skiing down a mountain. Photo by Ethan Walsweer on Unsplash

Venture into the backcountry, and you’ll quickly realise that the skills required here differ from those on groomed resort slopes.

Developing your backcountry skills is a journey that involves mastering efficient uphill movement, refining your downhill technique, and becoming adept at route finding. Whether you’re performing a kick turn on a steep incline or sliding your skis across the snow to conserve energy, practice is key.

Equally, becoming proficient in transitions ensures that you’re ready to adapt to changing conditions as one of your mountain skills while maintaining the pace of your group.

Master Your Uphill Movement

Efficient uphill travel in the backcountry is an art, and skinning is your brush. Here are some tips to help you master the art of skinning:

  • Opt for a winding path up the mountain instead of a direct steep route to conserve energy and maintain better grip.

  • Adjust your pace according to the slope’s incline, quickening on gentle slopes and slowing on steep ones.

  • Use heel risers effectively: use the no-lift position on gentle slopes for stability and press your heels down on steeper slopes for improved traction.

Glide your skis on the snow’s surface to preserve energy, but pull them uphill to prevent slipping and boost efficiency. When traversing, rolling your ankles outwards maximises skin contact with the snow, maintaining traction. And don’t forget the uphill kick turn — essential for smoothly navigating switchbacks on steep terrain.

Enjoy the Downhill Descent With This Technique

A skier skiing downhill. Photo by Hendrik Morkel on Unsplash

Once you’ve reached the summit, the descent awaits. Rounded turns on less steep inclines help maintain control and conserve energy, adapting your skiing downhill technique to the conditions.

When the terrain gets uneven, a relaxed stance with forward weight distribution and bent knees keeps you balanced and ready to absorb shocks. Bending the knees and flexing the legs allows for effective edging on the skis’ inside edges, vital for speed control when you ski downhill on your backcountry trip.

The snowplough position offers stability and speed control in various conditions, especially when carrying a heavy pack. Traversing with skis parallel across the slope can offer a safer descent on long or steep slopes, and kick turns can help you change direction during a steep traverse. Side slipping and self-arresting with a ski pole are techniques that can be lifesavers on icy or steep terrain.

Some essential techniques for skiing, also known as ski mode, include:

  • The snowplough position for stability and speed control;

  • Traversing with skis parallel for safer descents on long or steep slopes;

  • Kick turns for changing direction during a steep traverse; and

  • Side slipping and self-arresting with a ski pole for icy or steep terrain.

Choose the Best Route for Your Trip

Effective route finding is pivotal for a successful backcountry ski tour.

Before departure, take advantage of mapping websites and apps to create waypoints, estimate distances, and visualise elevation changes. Sharing your tour plans ensures that everyone in your party is on the same page and equipped for navigation, making group discussions on goals and turnaround times essential.

A solid grasp of map reading, using digital maps for quick checks, and interpreting topographic lines are all crucial skills. An altimeter can provide vital elevation data, and slope-angle layers and satellite imagery are helpful visualisation tools.

The best route is one that balances safety with energy efficiency, taking into account terrain steepness and snow conditions. Reflecting on the day’s tracking data post-tour can improve future route-finding decisions and travel time estimations.

Tips on How You Can Understand Avalanche Risks

A "Caution Avalanche Danger" sign. Photo by Nicolas Cool on Unsplash

Venturing into the backcountry is a thrilling experience that comes with inherent risks.

Avalanches, the formidable force of nature, pose a significant threat to even the most experienced skiers. Understanding avalanche risks is the cornerstone of backcountry safety. With fatalities as a grim reminder of the potential consequences, it’s clear why meticulous attention to avalanche danger is non-negotiable.

As individuals, skiers bear the responsibility for their well-being and must cultivate high levels of risk assessment and decision-making skills. Advancements in safety equipment, like airbag packs, have increased survival odds, but they are not a substitute for avalanche education and preparedness.

Make Sure You Check the Avalanche Forecast

Before setting out for a day of backcountry skiing, checking the local avalanche centre forecast is as crucial as packing your skis. These forecasts, which provide a snapshot of anticipated avalanche danger levels, are invaluable tools for trip preparation.

Using the European Avalanche Warning Services scale or the North American Public Avalanche Danger scale, skiers can categorise potential avalanche threats from low to extreme and understand the types, likelihood, and size of possible avalanches.

A final check of both weather and avalanche conditions is a critical step to confirm the safety of your intended route and ensure that all emergency contacts and gear, including your avalanche safety equipment, are in place.

How Do You Assess the Terrain?

A snow crack at the top of a mountain. Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Assessing terrain is a skill that can mean the difference between a memorable ski tour and a life-threatening situation.

Identify avalanche terrain by examining slope angles, typically steeper than 25 degrees, and consider the slope’s shape — from narrow couloirs to broad open slopes. The steeper the slope and the more exposed to wind, the higher the likelihood of an avalanche.

Effective planning includes analysing these risks and identifying known safe paths, which may involve using tools like a smartphone clinometer app to measure slope angles from a safe vantage point.

Understand the Importance of Snowpack

A stable snowpack is the backcountry skier’s best ally, while a weak layer within it can be a silent hazard.

Surface hoar and wind slabs are examples of weak layers that can compromise snow stability, becoming key players in the formation of avalanches. Snowpack stability is gauged through observation and testing, such as snowpit analysis and stability tests, which aid in identifying weak layers and determining how well different snow layers bond to each other.

Weather conditions heavily influence snowpack structure, with temperature fluctuations and wind affecting its composition and, subsequently, avalanche risk. However, forecasting avalanches remains complex due to the dynamic and often unpredictable nature of snowpacks and weather patterns.

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How Do You Prepare for the Backcountry?

Someone lifting a weight doing their triceps. Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

Backcountry skiing demands more than just technical skills; it requires a high level of physical fitness, mental preparation, and meticulous planning. Whether it’s enduring long ascents or navigating challenging descents, the backcountry environment presents an array of physical and mental stressors that demand readiness and resilience.

Focus on Your Physical Fitness

Physical strength and cardiovascular fitness will make your backcountry skiing easier compared to if you have little to no fitness level as there are no lifts to carry you up the mountain.

Focus on building strength in:

  • quads;

  • glutes;

  • hamstrings; and

  • hips

for efficient climbing and controlled descending. Core and hip strength are also critical for maintaining balance and control. Stamina is equally important, given the climbing and descending efforts required in the backcountry.

A preseason training regimen, starting six to eight weeks before the season, with strength exercises and cardio, will prepare your body for the demands of backcountry skiing. Exercises like walking lunges with rotation, skater with uppercut, and plank with single arm row are excellent for improving muscle strength, balance, and endurance specific to backcountry skiing.

Take the Time for Mental Preparation

Someone's hands clasped together while leaning on a railing looking out at the trees. Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

Mental fortitude is as important as physical strength when it comes to backcountry skiing.

The unpredictable mountain environment can evoke fears and anxieties such as if they’ve received enough avalanche training or have the ski skills needed for these backcountry pursuits, and skiers must learn to manage these emotions to make rational, safety-first decisions.

Developing mental resilience and a positive attitude helps overcome challenges such as skiing uphill, difficult terrain or unexpected weather changes.

Mindfulness practices can enhance focus, reduce the likelihood of panic, and provide clarity during critical moments. Reflecting on past experiences, learning from them, and discussing mental health challenges within the skiing community are vital to improving mental readiness and ensuring well-being.

Make Sure You Plan for a Successful Trip

The adage “failing to plan is planning to fail” holds particularly true in the backcountry.

Select backcountry zones based on a thorough risk assessment, considering potential avalanche sizes and likelihood, as well as weather forecasts and local avalanche bulletins. A detailed route plan should include slope angles and known safe paths, with alternatives at the ready for changing conditions. Use mapping websites and apps to plan routes, create waypoints, and estimate travel metrics.

Proficiency in map reading and the use of digital tools will enhance your navigational skills while on tour. And remember, the right ski partners are those with aligned ambitions and risk tolerance, making group discussions on plans and conditions important factors for a safe and successful trip.

You Should Always Learn from the Professionals

ESF France instructors. Photo by Yann Allegre on Unsplash

The backcountry is an unforgiving teacher, and learning from professionals can provide the structured education necessary to enjoy it safely. Avalanche research, ski touring workshops, and guided trips offer invaluable knowledge and experience for both beginners and seasoned backcountry skiers alike.

Up Your Game with Avalanche Courses

Avalanche Level 1 Training Courses are the gateway to identifying and managing the risks of avalanches, making them indispensable for backcountry skiers.

Starting with an awareness course in avalanche education is recommended before diving into more advanced learning. These courses combine classroom education with hands-on field experience, covering topics such as tour planning, interpreting avalanche forecasts, and conducting efficient rescues.

Level-one classes provide a fundamental understanding of identifying avalanche-prone terrains and risk management techniques. For those looking to deepen their knowledge, hut-based Level 2 courses and an 8-hour rescue course focusing on practical skills are available. It is important to select a course that’s relevant to the terrain and season where you plan to ski, to ensure the skills learned are applicable.

Don’t Forget to Check Out Ski Touring Workshops

A skier looking out over the mountain. Photo by Alessio Soggetti on Unsplash

Alpine touring workshops, also known as ski touring workshops, are tailored to intermediate skiers looking to enhance their backcountry skills in a controlled setting, sometimes extending to specialised training for glacier skiing and snowboarding and crevasse rescue techniques.

Workshops like the Chamonix Ski Touring Workshop or the Backcountry Skiing Tour in Scotland provide opportunities to hone skills in both lift-accessed areas and off-piste environments at a ski resort.

For those interested in ski mountaineering, workshops that include education on roped travel and crevasse rescues are invaluable, often culminating in practical field trips to test and solidify the skills learned.

The curriculum covers a broad range of topics, including:

  • Understanding mountain weather;

  • Equipment repair;

  • Avalanche safety;

  • Navigation and route finding;

  • Skiing techniques; and

  • Emergency response and rescue.

Successful completion can result in badges or certifications that signify proficiency in backcountry skiing skills.

Take Advantage of Guided Trips

For beginners, guided backcountry skiing trips are an excellent starting point, offering foundational skills under the tutelage of experienced professionals and the opportunity to build confidence for future solo adventures.

When you start backcountry skiing, these trips provide a safeguarded environment where novices can focus on skill development, with guides who are well-versed in the terrain providing real-time advice. They are also an opportunity to learn the etiquette of backcountry travel, including how to minimise impact and travel responsibly in wilderness settings.

Additionally, guided trips often grant access to remote and pristine skiing areas that might be daunting or inaccessible to less experienced skiers.

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Building a Supportive Community

A group of four people leaning on each other. Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The backcountry skiing community is a tapestry of passionate individuals who share a love for the mountains and a commitment to safety. Building a strong, supportive community is about more than just finding people to ski with; it’s about cultivating relationships, sharing knowledge, and fostering a culture of responsibility and mentorship.

Find Ski Partners for Your Adventures

Finding reliable ski partners is an integral part of the backcountry experience. Avalanche safety courses not only improve your skills but also connect you with like-minded individuals who could become your future touring partners.

It’s beneficial to team up with someone whose experience level complements your own, fostering mutual learning and allowing for route planning that suits each partner’s skills and confidence level.

Join Clubs and Groups to Meet Skiers

There’s strength in numbers, and joining a local or regional backcountry skiing group can open doors to new friendships and trip opportunities. Platforms like Meetup.com are excellent resources for finding groups where you can share experiences, organise outings, and inspire each other.

Final Thoughts

Backcountry skiing is an exhilarating blend of adventure and risk, demanding respect for the mountains and preparation to match.

By understanding avalanche risks and taking an avalanche course, investing in the right gear, developing your skills, preparing physically and mentally, learning from professionals, and building a supportive community, you set the stage for safe and adventurous descents.

Let the backcountry inspire you, but never forget that the wilderness requires your utmost attention and respect. Embrace the journey, and remember: the mountain is not just a playground; it’s a place where preparation meets passion, and where every turn can tell a story.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is backcountry skiing an extreme sport?

Yes, backcountry skiing is considered an extreme sport due to the required skill, potential risks, and adventurous nature of the activity. While it can be made more or less extreme, it generally falls within the category of extreme sports.

How much snow do you need to backcountry ski?

You’ll need a packed layer of four to six inches of evenly distributed and densely packed snow to go backcountry skiing without your skis digging into the dirt. Keep in mind that snow doesn’t always fall evenly.

What is considered backcountry skiing?

Backcountry skiing involves skiing outside of the boundaries of a resort, which often includes touring and climbing up mountains in secluded wilderness areas and skiing down them. It can also involve accessing the backcountry from the bounds of a resort through an access point or gate.

What’s the most important factor to consider when choosing backcountry skis?

When choosing backcountry skis, it’s a good idea to balance lightness for uphill movement with power and comfort for the descent. Consider an all-around ski width of around 100 millimetres for versatile performance.

How can I ensure my backcountry ski boots fit properly?

To ensure your backcountry ski boots fit properly, it’s paramount to prioritise fit and comfort for all-day wear and controlled downhill performance. Professional fitting and considering factors like warmth and binding compatibility are advisable.

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