The allure of skiing untracked snow and exploring new terrain in a wilderness setting is usually enough to convince any avid skier or dedicated powder hound to book a yurt trip. But if you’re on the fence as to whether or not a yurt trip is right for you, let me break down why yurt trips have become one of my favorite type of ski trips so you can decide for yourself.
My favorite aspect of any yurt trip is the simplicity of yurt life. A typical day begins by stoking up the wood stove, making coffee, and enjoying a quick breakfast before booting up and going out to ski for the day. Unlike other ski vacations, you don’t have to deal with crowds, traffic, or powder panic — just walk outside, step into your skis, and start exploring. Really, if you’ve done your homework and properly prepared for the trip, you only need to worry about what to ski, when to eat, and how many beverages you’ve rationed for the trip. Having zero cell service and being completely cut off from the outside world, I find that time seems to slow down during a yurt trip, and I always come away with a sense of what it might be like to step back in time. Plus, you get to ski as much as your legs can handle without having to cross another skier’s track. What’s not to like about that?
With all that being said, yurt trips present their own set of risks and logistical issues that you should consider before you run out and book a trip. Accessing a yurt is usually hard work — especially if you’re hauling all your gear in and out without the help of a snowmobile. It’s also important to consider that yurts are typically pretty remote, which makes them a great basecamp to explore rarely skied areas from, but it also makes cell phone coverage non-existent, accurate and relevant avalanche forecasts tough to come by, and rescue extremely difficult. You should always be prepared to self-rescue, be equipped with a SPOT GPS device, and be ready to spend the night out in the elements if you’re unable to locate the yurt. Here at Jans, we recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course and level 1 recreational avalanche course before you go on a yurt trip, or any backcountry skiing for that matter. The right knowledge and skill sets are critical to making safe, informed decisions in the backcountry. Now let’s take a look at what else you’ll need.
Planning a Yurt Trip
Yurt trips are becoming more and more popular each winter, with many of the more well-known yurts being booked out for the winter as early as October. Most companies require a reservation fee at the time of booking, so it’s important to get your group aligned on some possible dates and be sure to get your reservation made well before winter. Yurts vary in size, capacity, and amenities — some bigger yurts will easily accommodate up to 16 people, while others will comfortably sleep a group of four or five. I encourage you to do some research and find the right yurt for your group’s size, budget, and ability level.
The surrounding terrain, amenities, and accessibility are other factors you should consider as you look at different yurts for your trip. It’s also important to note that many yurts (and huts) will accommodate multiple groups at once. If you’re fine sharing a space with other groups, this can be a great way to score a last-minute booking or visit a yurt with a smaller group. It can, however, also lead to a potentially awkward trip if sharing tight quarters with a group of strangers isn’t your cup of tea. If you fall in that second category, I’d encourage you to shell out the extra cash and book a private yurt with a group of like-minded skiers.
Here in Park City, we’re lucky enough to have quite a few huts and yurts within striking distance. Most notable is the Castle Peak Yurt just 30 miles from Park City. Situated in the Uinta Mountains, this remote yurt sits at 9600 feet in elevation and is close enough to ski Castle Peak and Duke’s Drop, pending stable avalanche conditions. The yurt is equipped with a large wood-burning stove, sleeps eight comfortably, and even has a large deck perfect for soaking up some afternoon rays. With relatively easy access and beginner-friendly terrain, the Castle Peak Yurt makes a great first yurt trip. Although, the stunning wilderness setting and breathtaking views are enough to keep you coming back year after year.
Packing for a Yurt Trip
Packing for a yurt trip can be daunting — it’s tough to know what to bring, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of bringing way too much gear. As you pack, keep in mind that yurts are generally equipped with all the cooking equipment and utensils you’ll need, along with lamps, axes, toilet paper, chairs, fuel, and other winter camping essentials. I do recommend always bringing a small backpacking stove and extra fuel canisters in case of an emergency. Generally speaking, though, all the overnight gear you need to bring is a down sleeping bag with a comfort rating between 15 and 25 degrees (anything warmer can get too hot in a yurt), a sleeping pad, and a lightweight emergency shelter.
In terms of clothing, I pack my usual ski touring outerwear, a pair of clothes to wear in the yurt, two pairs of baselayers, and three pairs of ski socks to switch between during the trip. A good balaclava, sunscreen, and sunglasses are also essential if you’re going to spend multiple days in the backcountry. I’ve personally found a pair of down booties to be a must-have item for any yurt trip. A pair with a set of sturdy soles that you can wear outside of the yurt is clutch to avoid having to put on your ski boots every time you go outside.
Apart from the backcountry equipment I typically carry on a ski tour, there are a few more items I’ll put in my ski pack before a yurt trip. First of all, you can never have enough Voile straps on a yurt trip. I’ve used them to fix broken bindings, boots, climbing skins, and even a broken axe handle. It also never hurts to bring a small pocket driver in case someone in your party pulls a toepiece on their binding or has some other kind of equipment failure. I also tend to dig more snow pits and perform more stability tests during yurt trips, so I always make sure a snow saw and rutschblock cord are in my touring pack. As always, a well-stocked first aid kit is essential, along with topo maps of the area, a GPS/SPOT device, and compressible down jacket or parka to keep you warm during transitions and while digging snow pits.
Since you have to haul in your other gear on either your back or on a sled, you have to be selective about your food. Yurts are usually stocked well with pots, pans, dishware, and cutlery, which makes cooking full meals a reality. A good plan for cooking and keeping weight low is to have group breakfasts and dinners where members of your party are assigned a meal and they work together to bring ingredients and cook. That way, no one person has to truck the weight of a full meal for the group.
Lunches are left up to the individual. Depending on your ski schedule, you may be out of the yurt anyway and a pre-made PB&J and energy bar will suffice. But if you’re in the yurt, you’ll want to just boil water and make some instant Ramen, so cooking and cleanup is fast and easy. Keep in mind how much you’ll be touring and calories you’ll burn while touring and skinning in and out of the yurt.
Here are some easy meals to prep, haul in, and cook in the yurt:
- Pasta with red sauce and veggies (carbs for touring, too!)
- Pre-made burritos (dinner or breakfast)
- Oatmeal & coffee (breakfast)
- Charcuterie board (appetizer)
- Instant Ramen or PB&J (lunch)
- Beef jerky, energy bars and chews, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, GORP (snacks)
Accessing the Yurt
If it is your first time visiting a particular yurt, most organizations require a first-time orientation with a guide. This usually consists of a guide taking you into the yurt, demonstrating how to properly use the amenities, and giving you a brief lay of the land. Many of these same organizations also offer guiding services, which is a great option if you’re new to the area and new to backcountry skiing in general. The level of expertise and knowledge these guides provide can make your trip a safe and fun experience for your entire group. If you do go through a guide, many guiding services will haul your gear in on a snowmobile and tow your party into the yurt for an additional fee.
If you opt to go it alone, you should be prepared to haul all your gear and food into the yurt. The best way to do this is with a pulk, which is just a small sled you can pull behind yourself as you ski. I’ve found a pulk works better than a large backpacking pack, since you can carry a bit more gear and food and not have to worry about cramming your ski touring backpack inside another pack. There are a number of pulk sleds out there, but I’ve had zero issues with this DIY pulk sled. With that being said, I will say the best option, by far, is to just invite someone that has access to a couple of snowmobiles.
After a few days into a trip, a yurt can start to feel a bit like a college dorm, but it’s pretty easy to avoid that by simply tidying up after yourself, keeping gear organized, and sweeping the floors regularly. It’s also common yurt etiquette to keep the snow immediately surrounding the yurt clean — that means no peeing in the snow around the yurt — and shoveling a walkway in and out of the yurt and to the restroom. Before you leave, always clear out the ash in the wood stove and leave some kindling and melted snow for the next group. As with summer camping, it’s important to store food properly to prevent animals like mice and foxes from trying to get inside the yurt. Basically, it’s considered good form to practice Leave No Trace principles whenever you’re in the backcountry.
A Note on Huts
Similar to yurts, huts offer the same secluded backcountry experience and amenities. However, they offer more space for people and different booking options. If you’re by yourself or with a small group, you can book the hut but you may be paired up with another group to fill those empty spaces. My suggestion would be to put together a large group and book the whole hut. Hut trips are a blast and more conducive to families with young children than a yurt due to the extra space and larger kitchen and other amenities. They are often stocked with games, have solar powered lighting, and some even have running water or a potable water source. Some huts even function as backcountry lodges with hosts and chefs on site.
Getting to and preparing for a hut trip is identical to preparing for yurt. Having the right gear is critical as well as backcountry education and prior awareness of avalanche conditions. Keep in mind the path into the hut, how many days and nights, group and individual meal options, and the terrain around the hut for skiing. Hut etiquette is also the same as a yurt and it should be any user’s goal to leave the hut cleaner than you found it and fully stocked with melted water and fire wood and maintaining snow quality around the hut.
One of the best hut systems in the country is the 10th Mountain Huts in Colorado. This system is named for the 10th Mountain Light Infantry Division in the U.S. Military that trained in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. These huts usually sleep 16 and are well-stocked with amenities.
Once you’ve booked a yurt or hut trip and have pin-pointed where you’re going to be skiing, it’s important to stay abreast of what’s going on with the snowpack and weather in the days, weeks, and even months leading up to your trip. I’ll usually make it a point to check the nearest avalanche center’s forecasts regularly to see how the snow is stacking up and to see if there are any persistent weak layers that could pose a problem. I also spend a lot of time scouring the terrain surrounding the yurt on Google Earth, Gaia GPS, or Hillmap. It’s important to have a mental picture of the surrounding terrain, so you have a sense of what type of terrain hazards, slope angles, and aspects you’ll encounter out there. In many ways, the research and planning can be one of the more rewarding aspects of a yurt trip.
As with any backcountry ski tour, group dynamics are a major factor during a yurt trip. It’s important to have a group leader with the knowledge and expertise to make safe, sound decisions in the backcountry. More often than not, the leader will also be responsible for booking the trip, fronting money for the reservation fee, and dispersing and collecting waiver forms. It can be a lot of work, but it’s always worth it once you’re sitting around the woodstove recapping a solid ski day over a frosty beverage deep in the backcountry.
By: Jeff Sorenson & Paul Boyle