Backcountry Skiing

Backcountry Skiing

Ever wondered, what is backcountry skiing? Or what you would need to go backcountry skiing? We are here to answer the internet’s most frequently asked questions about backcountry skiing, how to navigate the backcountry, the importance of avalanche training, and much more.

What is backcountry skiing?

Backcountry skiing is anytime you’re away from the controlled bounds of a ski area. You can go up a lift, or you can go up by hiking, or you can go up by a helicopter, or a snowcat. It’s being out in the uncontrolled snowy high places of the mountains where you can ski powder, ski spring snow, and find every kind of condition imaginable but you’re under your care and your responsibility for decision-making and traveling around and keeping yourself safe.

How to learn backcountry skiing 

The best way to learn is to just start with classes. There are lots of local providers around the world, the best is to start with inter-level classes. And the best thing is either to go out with an expert, a friend who you know and trust experience or to hire a guide from a local agency. You can go out with a guide until you’re proficient and know you can make decisions on your own.

What do you need to backcountry ski?

The list for this stuff can get huge or you can keep it pretty simple. Besides your regular ski gear, no matter how you decide to go up or down, the big three for backcountry skiing are a shovel, beacon, and probe. That’s your rescue gear. The beacon is an avalanche beacon in case you are buried in an avalanche or need to search for someone who was buried in an avalanche. The shovel and probe are requisites for that self-rescue process as well. We also recommend carrying a personal locator beacon with a GPS signal. So there’s a lot of safety and as well as technical stuff you wanna be sure to have when you’re planning your backcountry ski outing.

Is backcountry skiing dangerous?

Backcountry skiing is dangerous. The whole point of backcountry skiing when you’re an expert or a guide is managing risks. So, we know we’re going into an uncontrolled natural environment, and we know there are risks out there, so it’s a question of how much risk is out there and what kind of risk the group you’re with and yourself are willing to take. The trick to being a good backcountry skier is risk management protocols. That sounds like kind of a dorky thing, but you’re applying it to something really fun, which is skiing. So take those classes, find a guide, and keep it safe and fun.

Why do people backcountry ski?

Most people like unobstructed experiences with nature and the feeling of freedom that comes with it.

How do people get to the top while backcountry skiing?

That’s sort of the essence of backcountry skiing. You can take a lift and leave the boundaries and get into the backcountry. Climbing skins in combination with like a climbing binding on your skis or snowboards make it so that you can ski uphill. Those came from seal skins going back, you know, hundreds or even thousands of years when people would attach animal hides to the bottom of some planks. So they’re directional. They glide in one direction, and the little hairs grip in the other direction. So now there are still organically sourced skins like mohair. Most everything is synthetic. They’re cut to the shape of your skis and they have like an adhesive glue-like backing on them so when you’re ready to go up, you just stick ’em to your ski base in the specific direction they’re made to go uphill, set your binding to its uphill mode so your heel can lift, and then you just glide uphill like a pair of old school cross-country skis, but on your regular skis. Some people don’t like the up. They hate the up, and they’re in it just for the down. 

How long should ski poles be in the backcountry?

A lot of people will use a special ski pole when they go ski touring, an adjustable pole that you can go short or it can telescope out to a longer length. Those can be handy. Some of those poles even have like a climbing aid, like a Whippet or an ice axe head so you can secure yourself if it’s steep and icy.

What is a good backcountry ski probe setup?

The most important thing in choosing a probe is to don't get too hung up in the different brands that are out there. These need to be durable, so you wanna avoid the cheap ones. Another great part about practicing is it keeps you up to speed with your equipment and makes sure your equipment’s in good shape, as well as making sure your partners know how to deploy it when it’s time to go. So make sure you’re familiar with your things as well as your partners because it’s a real team sport when you’re out there backcountry skiing.

Is there a good way to find a backcountry ski partner when visiting somewhere?

It’s really important to have a trustworthy relationship with somebody, so either that’s a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or that’s a reputable guide service. If you want to go further out into the mountains somewhere new, it’s time to look for a guide. 

What gym exercises are good training for backcountry skiing?

It’s a tough sport to cross-train for because you have a very specific stride as you’re skinning. And you also have a weight attached to your feet, so you could, go on a jog, add weight, and add ankle weights to your jog. Target it more towards aerobic fitness rather than explosive, like, powerful fitness. 

How to stay hydrated backcountry skiing?

Drink one to two liters of water during an average day out in the mountains. Don’t end the day with a full water bottle because that’s the weight you carry that you didn’t need. 

How to learn avalanche safety and education for backcountry skiing?

You might start with something as easy as just a couple hours of awareness chat up to level one where you start to learn more about actually recreating and going out into the mountains and reading forecasts, up to being a pro observer where you’ve got years of experience and you can go out in the mountains, navigate safely, and submit what you see to your local avalanche agency. Snow is a really beautiful natural element that we haven’t figured out completely so it just feels like there’s always something new to learn and the science keeps growing, so every couple of years when you take a new course, there’s new research, there’s a new technology, and it’s just something fun to be involved.

How to pack for backcountry skiing?

There are some tricks to it, you don’t want to overpack, but you need to make sure you can respond to an emergency. So, a lot of times people will have very big packs when you go out with them. And it’s a good thing if you’re with a new partner or people you’re not familiar with, to go through your pack at the trailhead. It’s a good time to check that all your safety gear is present and functioning, then also go over any group gear that maybe you have duplicates of. 

How to behave in backcountry skiing?

The first thing is safety, so knowing when is the time to space out because you’re in a place of elevated hazard, and when is a good time to group back up. That maybe means if you see somebody at the bottom of a valley, you don’t wanna ski down right above them. Some people like the solitude of the backcountry, and some people like to play music on a boombox. The backcountry is great because it’s a place of a lot of freedom and there are not a lot of rules and not a lot of people to tell you what to do. So enjoy yourself, but just be aware when you’re in crowded areas that what you’re doing could put other groups at risk or could affect other groups’ experience. 

What are good snacks for backcountry skiing?

The more protein you bring, the better you will feel through the day rather than just eating sugar and sweet snacks all the time. Dense things and calorie dense, they are durable and you get a lot of calories per weight and away from the sugary snacks as much as possible.

Is backcountry skiing expensive?

We would like to believe that backcountry skiing is a way to make skiing more accessible to everybody. There’s no day price for backcountry skiing. There is maybe an initial investment for people to get the new gear, to get the safety equipment, to get the appropriate layers. So there’s an investment, as well as the cost it might take to take a couple of courses, but if you’re really into it and it’s something you think you’d have a passion for, it’s worth getting past those initial investments because once you have some expertise and some gear, that amount you paid to get into the sport is gonna take you pretty far compared to those day tickets. 

How well do you need to be before you start backcountry skiing?

You can be a total novice skier and take an avalanche class, take a backcountry skiing class, get the qualification, and go find an easy destination, and you’ll be fine. We suggest people learn to ski first.

How to layer for backcountry skiing

Wear the thinnest socks possible. So they can fit in your boots, as well as fact you’ll be sweating all day so thick socks generally just make for more blisters, friction, and soggy feet. For the legs, go with soft-shell ski touring pants. You might feel cold first thing in the morning at the trailhead, but once you’re moving and once the sun comes up, that’s about the weight that you would like to use. And if it’s wet or very cold then you should add, a base layer, a Merino base layer, or a shell pants. But ideally, softshell pants for touring. Up to the top, a thin Merino base layer, a thin synthetic, or down mid-layer. If it’s wet, then switch that to a full hardshell, but basically, it’s a Merino base layer, synthetic or down mid-layer, and then a shell. Whatever’s next to your skin needs to wick moisture when you’re sweating and then you want be able to protect yourself from the elements, whether that’s through softshell, hardshell, or whatever your outer layer is. And then warmth, less than you might expect you need because of all the aerobic exercise, but always keep that down jacket stuffed in the bottom of the pack in case you get chilly, in case somebody else in your group is cold. 


What is the most important thing when backcountry skiing?

The most important thing is: to keep it simple. The most important thing when backcountry skiing is getting back to the trailhead at the end of your day safe with your entire group safe as well. Safety is first. Backcountry skiing, you’re in an uncontrolled environment. Your rescue, should anything go wrong, is up to you and your group. Better to avoid any mishaps. Keep it safe. Get down safe. Because when you’re backcountry skiing, you’re a team.

How to use an airbag backcountry skiing?

An airbag is a backpack with a compressed air cylinder or a high-powered battery-operated fan, with a handle where if you’re caught in an avalanche, you pull this handle, and a big airbag will inflate out of your backpack. So once that airbag is pulled, in almost every case, the person wearing it will float to the surface of the avalanche and end up on top or near the surface instead of buried in the bottom.

How to use an airbag backcountry skiing? You have to use a backpack when you’re backcountry skiing. The one most important thing to mention with airbags and backcountry skiing is to get the education first, to know about rescue first, and then add that airbag on as sort of your contingency plan.

What are the best places to go backcountry skiing?

In Europe, on the Italian side of Mont Blonc, through the tunnel from Chamonix. The best you can do is call your local guide office, find an expert, and get out there and explore. Get the knowledge, get the training. Remember, it’s all about coming home safe so you can go out another day. The freedom and the experiences out there on some skis and climbing skins in the backcountry is like nothing else you can do.

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