To many people outside of the skiing world, backcountry skiing is an outlandish activity. Why would you hike uphill for hours just to ski one line? Why spend the time and energy to hike uphill when there are resorts with chairlifts? I’ve been asked those questions by relatives many times. Backcountry skiing is certainly not for everyone, but the allure of solitude, untouched powder, terrain variety, physical fitness, lack of crowds, and exploration are all reasons people get drawn to the backcountry and don’t look back.
When I moved to Utah five years ago, I was a resort skier. Honestly, I didn’t even know backcountry skiing existed. I thought all skiers stuck to resorts and the terrain immediately surrounding them. My girlfriend at the time introduced me to backcountry skiing, also known as touring, and my mind immediately began to race. All of a sudden I looked at snow-covered mountains with a different lens. I can ski that! That doesn’t mean I should, but I was excited that in theory I could.
What I didn’t know at that time, but slowly began to learn, is that backcountry skiing is a completely different beast than resort skiing. Safety is paramount, and hazards are lurking everywhere in the backcountry. Avalanches happen and do not discriminate. One wrong choice could prove at worst fatal and at best life changing. There is no help in the backcountry, or at least you shouldn’t count on it. A broken ankle or similar injury could prove incredibly costly, as there is no ski patrol to carry you down the mountain. And of course, you can never depend on cell phone service to bail you out. While getting started backcountry skiing can sound intimidating, getting the right gear, avalanche training, and overall practice will get you up and exploring the backcountry in no time!
Step One: Get the Gear
Before taking an avalanche class, you’ll need to acquire the proper gear to get you up and moving safely in the backcountry. Avalanche classes require you to have all of your gear in working order, so you can use the gear and learn how it functions. Yes, a lot of backcountry gear is not cheap, and the total price tag adds up quickly. Luckily, almost all of the gear mentioned below should last for many seasons. You will need:
- Backcountry Bundle: Beacon, shovel, probe
- Suitable backpack
- Touring bindings (frame, tech, or telemark)
- What’s in my pack?
The beacon, shovel, and probe are avalanche safety essentials. If I happen to leave one of them at home, I won’t go touring. It’s that simple. These three tools are you and your partners’ safety net in the event of an avalanche. A beacon helps you find buried partners, and it helps you to be found if you’re caught and buried. The probe is meant to specifically locate a person under the snow, and the shovel, as you might’ve guessed, is meant for digging. Without one of these tools, the other two are useless.
There are no lodges in the backcountry, and your body’s temperature will fluctuate a lot throughout the course of a day of touring. A good backpack is needed to store your shovel and probe, as well as snacks, water, layers, and skins. While airbag backpacks are the safest for backcountry skiing, they are expensive and not needed right away.
Touring bindings allow you to move freely uphill. Without touring specific bindings, travel in the backcountry is cumbersome, time consuming, and inefficient. Frame touring bindings are typically a great choice for beginners as they are compatible with traditional alpine ski boots.
Climbing skins are how backcountry skiers are able to ascend on skis. Skins are made with tiny hair-like material that grip snow so you don’t slide downhill. A special kind of glue allows the skins to be applied and then ripped off many, many times throughout their life.
Dressing for a day of touring is completely different than dressing for resort skiing. Resort skiing tends to be much colder, as sitting on chairlifts cools you down quickly. For a day of touring, I am always wearing pants that are lightweight and have generous thigh vents. For my upper body, layers are key. After my long-sleeve baselayer, I always have with me a light pullover, insulated jacket, and a shell jacket with no insulation. Of course, an adequate first aid kit is crucial. No matter where I am in the backcountry, I make sure that my first aid kit has adequate supplies to get myself or a partner down the mountain. Ample food, water, ski straps, gloves, and a beanie typically round out my essentials.
The gear mentioned above is the bare minimum of what you need to get started backcountry skiing, and the gear alone will not keep you safe. Being able to properly use your gear, often times under pressure, is critical to a long and safe backcountry skiing career. The best way to get acquainted with your gear is to take an avalanche class.
Step Two: Get Educated
Alright, you have the gear, snow is falling, and it’s time to get skiing. In order to get you out and exploring the backcountry in a safe way, you’ll need to take an avalanche class. Avalanche classes are taught by a handful of organizations, and typically take place between December and April. There are two tracks for avalanches courses: recreational and professional. Within the recreational track, there is Level One, Level Two, and Avalanche Rescue, in that order. The Professional track is typically for backcountry guides, avalanche patrollers, or ski patrollers.
Recreational avalanche Level One classes will typically touch on reading and understanding the days’ avalanche forecast and how to apply that information to your day in the backcountry. If you live in a somewhat populated area, there is a good chance there will be an avalanche forecast center for your local mountain ranges. Here in the Wasatch, the Utah Avalanche Center posts daily updates on the snowpack, trends, and overall danger rating. This is the single most valuable resource for me. I have gotten into the habit of reading the report every morning during breakfast, even when I am not skiing that day. This helps me become familiar with the snowpack and the trends of the winter.
Along with avalanche education, being competent in wilderness first aid is incredibly important. You cannot rely on any sort of help when you’re in the backcountry, so having basic first aid knowledge to help get your party down the mountain safely is paramount. There are two classes taught by a wide range of organizations that cater to people who spend time in remote locations: Wilderness First Aid (WFA) and Wilderness First Responder (WFR). The WFR is more advanced and meant for people who spend extensive time in wild places.
Step Three: Get Touring
Now that you have the gear and avalanche training, getting out into the backcountry with partners, is the best way to gain experience. Choosing low-angle, low-consequence terrain is key while learning the ropes. Another great way to learn more about the art of skinning uphill is to tour in your local resort. You can typically only ski uphill in a resort after hours and on a specific route designated by the resort. You can double check your resort’s uphill policy by visiting their website. Personally, skinning at my local resort was huge for me. I gained the fitness needed for long days in the backcountry, and I learned how to skin on all types of snow conditions. It was also a great way to get exercise and let out energy after work. Five years into my backcountry skiing career, I still tour up my local resort frequently to maintain my fitness.
Step Four: Continued Education and Practice
As your backcountry career progresses, it is important to note that continued education and partnership will always be important topics. Practicing your beacon skills in your local beacon park, reading avalanche education books, and updating your gear when necessary are all important for the longevity of your backcountry skiing career. Equally important is finding partners that you get along with and have a similar skiing style and ambition as you. Not everyone is compatible in the backcountry, and skiing with someone who has a different risk tolerance or skiing ability than you can cause at best stress and at worst dangerous situations. It is important to be selective about your skiing partners and develop friendships and partnerships with other backcountry skiers that align with your goals. In addition to this, finding a mentor who has more experience and knowledge than you can be invaluable. Learning firsthand from someone with more experience is crucial to building knowledge and skill set to keep you safe in the backcountry .
Backcountry skiing is all encompassing, full of bliss, and full of hazards. Being able to move uphill on skis has provided me with an immense amount of joy and a renewed passion for skiing that is unlikely to ever cease. I love the fact that touring enables me to ski deep, untouched powder long after the resort has been skied-out. I love that touring provides me with the chance to ski peaks and mountains I could only dream about before. The sort of joy associated with skiing untouched snow in an untouched wilderness is hard to describe. That being said, most good things come at a price, and backcountry skiing is no exception. The mountains can be harsh and do not discriminate. One bad choice could have repercussions for a lifetime. Safety and caution are the name of the game. Get the gear, get the knowledge, get the forecast, and get skiing!
By: Cal Perfall, Content Writer
AIARE Avalanche Education in Park City
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education