An introduction to making the transition from alpine to backcountry skiing
The allure of the fresh powder and unbridled freedom of backcountry skiing is strong - but for many, the transition seems like a big leap. Let’s debunk it with common questions and answers about the sport.
What is backcountry skiing?
Backcountry skiing, also known as touring, skiing, off-piste, etc is any type of skiing done outside of the patrolled boundaries of a ski area. Essentially, it involves making your way up a mountain, and skiing down unassisted by the conveniences and restrictions of a commercially run mountain (such as a chairlift and lift lines). With this great freedom, comes the responsibility to be prepared, well-trained and well-equipped.
What types of skiers ski in the backcountry?
The sport draws outdoor enthusiasts encompassing a large range of skill levels and desires — from those who want to tour well into the wilderness, to those who backcountry ski off the back of ski mountains, to those who stick to local, well-known spots. The terrain of backcountry varies based on location, but as the condition is ungroomed (natural), it can range from powder to wet and heavy. The trails are never marked, so making your way down involves navigating natural terrain of moguls, trees, chutes, flats and cliffs. Additionally, the uphill portion is a new concept for first time backcountry skiers, requiring a different style of physical exertion and, of course, gear.
What gear do I need?
Specific backcountry gear is essential for safe and fun touring. Avalanche safety equipment is a must. Classes at local outfits like REI can help you learn about this type of skiing and help you gear up for a great day. Check out this Backcountry Skiing Checklist and this Avalanche Safety Gear and Checklist to learn more about important gear.
The main equipment differences for backcountry include:
Basic avalanche gear includes: a transceiver, a shovel and a probe. You and your crew must carry, and be educated on how to use this gear, as well as the recommended gear from professionals.
The next two gear list categories come from Keith Moon, an experienced backcountry ski guide with EMS in North Conway, NH.
Gear for “fixing broken equipment”. Remember that in the backcountry, you are leaving the convenience of the support of others to help get you out of sticky situations like a broken ski or binding. When miles away from the nearest support, it is important to ensure you can temporarily fix issues that make come up to make it to your exit point safely. Keith’s ski repair kit includes: Hose clamps, a screwdriver with bits for your specific bindings, cord and all purpose wax.
Tools for “fixing broken people”. No one goes out touring wanting to get hurt but it does happen. In the backcountry, there is no ski patrol to come help in an emergency and you must be prepared to support yourself and your crew. In the event of an injury, it is wise to carry the basic equipment needed to attend to injury until help can reach you, or until you can make it down to help. Keith’s first aid kit includes:
- Gauze pads, tape and blister repair are most important
- Caffeine pills to think clearly in an emergency
- Shelter/rescue sled (this could be a simple tarp)
- Inflatable sleeping pad to help an injured person down the mountain
For the ski gear, it starts with the gear you may typically use downhill.
- Proper gear for the hike up — lighter layers, a headlamp for early starts, light hat and gloves or liners, poles (you can get touring poles with easier grip points or use your downhill poles) and a good backpack (Keith recommends the Mammut Nirvana 35L).
- Gear for the ski down — goggles, helmet, skis, warmer gloves, touring skins, touring bindings and touring boots that shift between uphill and downhill positions.
- Water and nutrition — long days in the woods require proper sustenance and hydration (make sure you have an insulated bottle that wont freeze).
You may be thinking, “Cant I just use my alpine skis?”. The answer is — it depends. Some resort skis can be converted to work for backcountry by changing the bindings, but there are limitations in function and comfort. You can visit your local ski shop to weigh your options and cost, or visit a demo day at a local mountain to explore the full backcountry ski experience. However, alpine touring skis (skis, boots and bindings created specifically for backcountry use) typically have a lighter weight design that makes it easier for the uphill portion of the activity, and additional features like notches in the front and back of the ski to clip skins in.
How can I test out whether or not its for me?
Education and preparation will help you determine if this sport is something you’d like to get in to. Here are a few ways to dip your toe in.
- Take a class — experts can teach you about the transition from resort to backcountry, and you can learn while using their gear.
- Start at a resort — once you feel like you understand the basics, a great first exploration into backcountry is to skin up the approved trails (during the allocated times) at your local ski resort. Check the websites for pass and hours information.
- Venture out safely — one path for continued exploration with backcountry is to leave the resort and head to local backcountry skiing spots. There are many organizations dedicated to finding, maintaining and support local backcountry ski destinations. Once example is Granite Backcountry Alliance in New Hampshire. To take this step, it is recommend to go with people who have skied the area before and are experienced in backcountry skiing, and to notify others not skiing with you of where you are going.
- Make improvements — take additional classes that help you hone your skills and become more efficient. One example is spending time improving your form on the uphill to save strength for an easier and more energized downhill experience.
How can I prepare? What are some best practices for my first day?
Knowledge. With backcountry skiing, it is essential to be educated on the terrain, as you will be in uncontrolled environments. A great way to do this is through backcountry ski programs and courses (companies like REI and EMS offer great options). Avalanches are a very real danger to backcountry skiers so it is critical to enroll in avalanche courses taught by certified professionals across the country.
Gear and Basic Skills. Get the right gear and know how to use it and fix it in a pinch. Know basic first aid. Remember that in the backcountry — there is no ski patrol. You and the folks you are skiing with are on self-support and will need to have a plan to aid someone who is hurt until help can be contacted and arrive.
Research. Know the area, the terrain and the weather.
Plan. Reflect on your ski level and ability to find terrain that matches your skill and comfort. Never go alone and let people know you are going out and when you plan to be back.
Have fun and enjoy the experience. Start slow, hike a bit, ski a bit and get used to the flow. It is an amazing, thrilling experience when done right!
Backcountry skiing opens up a whole new world of skiing for those who participate. It offers a great payoff of beautiful fresh snow on the way down — you really earn it on that uphill, it’s like cooking your own meal! Before you know it, you’ll be checking the weather every night to see when and where you can grab the best first tracks. Happy skiing!