Backcountry Skiing – An Easy Guide to Sliding on Snow

Backcountry Skiing – An Easy Guide to Sliding on Snow

No matter if you’re a skiier or snowboarder, there are growing options for striking out from the ski areas and earning your turns. Backcountry travel has exploded over the last few years thanks to lighter gear, advances in bindings and boards, and the allure of open slopes and smaller crowds. Stepping off the resort’s groomed runs and into the backcountry is similar to taking your gym rock climbing skills outdoors, or changing out your running workouts for trail runs. There are a lot more variables and a lot of things to learn, but lots of rewards too.

Having a solid knowledge of travel in winter conditions plus the ability to understand avalanche problems and how to safely adjust your activities are paramount. Having a solid downhill skill set is useful since even the most mundane backcountry tour can present challenges that the ski areas don’t typically expose their clients to, including hidden creeks, unsupportable crusts and hidden rocks or stumps. One way to get a safe sample of what the backcountry is all about is with a guide, and We All Roam can point you to the very best. But make sure to take a look through this article before heading out since the more you know beforehand, the more little tricks you can absorb while out enjoying the pow!

 

Jump to section:

Backcountry Skiing Equipment   |   Ratings & Safety   |   Essential Gear |   Best Locations

 

backcountry powder skiing fresh tracks

All the ski touring work is worth it for the fresh tracks. Photo: Erik Turner

 

Backcountry Skiing Equipment

The obvious equipment needed are the skis or snowboard, boots, and bindings system that will enable you to move uphill. The list below defines the types of systems that are most commonly used on the mountain.

 

Alpine

Not discussed further in this guide, but “alpine” skiing generally refers to the type of inbounds skiing most people are familiar with. Stiff heavy boots, beefy bindings, good release characteristics and brakes. These skis are optimized for downhill performance.

 

Randonee / Alpine Touring

The most similar to alpine skis are alpine touring skiis. The key difference is that the bindings allow the heel to move freely during uphill travel, but then lock down for the descent. Alpine Touring (AT) boots feature a walk mode that allow them to flex for a more comfortable uphill stride. There are two major groups of bindings to know about here: frame bindings and tech bindings.

  • Frame bindings have a bar that sits between your boot and ski, and provides rigidity while also housing the rear binding piece. These are generally heavier, place your boot higher up off the ski, but are cheaper. Often beginners start with these bindings since they are easy to use, as the action of getting in/out of them is basically the same as alpine gear. They also perform similarly to alpine bindings in terms of retention and release.
  • Tech bindings are quickly becoming popular since they offer a much lighter system and allow your boot to be directly on top of the ski. They function by holding the front of the boot between two pins, and the rear of the boot with a “U” spring. Their weakness used to be poor release characteristics, ranging from pre-releases in certain situations to sudden releases, where no energy was able to be absorbed prior to release. In other words, they’d feel fine until you suddenly popped out. These issues have largely been resolved, and new iterations of tech bindings are coming out constantly since patents have run out and innovation has spurred considerable competition.

 

Telemark

Think beefed up cross country skis that appear similar to alpine skis. The major differentiator is that the binding does not pin your heel to the ski – rather your heel remains free during uphill and downhill travel. Since this technique is not as frequently seen on the slopes, it’s become somewhat of an acquired skill. Your heel stays free during both the climb and descent, which makes transitions a bit easier and quicker. Note that telemark boots differ substantially from alpine or alpine touring boots in that they have a bellows that allows them to flex during the telemark “drop knee” turn.

 

Splitboard

The offerings for snowboarders used to be limited to different style packs to more effectively hold your full board as you hiked up with it, but as the popularity of backcountry travel grew, so did the options for snowboarders. There are now many manufacturers making split boards which are cut down the middle along the long axis. Various binding options are available which range from typical snowboard bindings mounted via cotter pins to allow them to be moved easily, to DIY setups using tech bindings and ski boots. The lines, at times, can blur!

 

powder backcountry skiing trees

The thrill of skiing through the trees! Photo: Erik Turner

 

Backcountry Ratings & Safety

The typical green circle / blue square / black diamond rating of inbounds ski areas have little analogy in the backcountry. Since snow conditions can change the nature of out of bounds terrain so drastically, giving specific areas particular ratings is pretty meaningless. When researching ski runs, guidebooks or the internet, beta may refer to things such as slope angle or terrain features that make climbing and descending more or less difficult, but even these are just guidelines. Knowing your limits, learning areas slowly, and traveling with knowledgeable friends and/or guides is key to safely enjoying the freedom of backcountry skiing.

One area where ratings do take on an important role is with forecasting avalanche danger level. Avalanche forecast centers use ratings from (1) Low; to (5) High. The table below gives some detail as to what each danger level corresponds to.

 

avalanche danger scale backcountry

 

The ratings above are only a small component of the avalanche forecast. Most forecasting centers will identify specific avalanche problems such as storm slab, wind slab, loose wet, persistent weak layer, and an aspect and elevation. Typically these forecasts are applied to different regions within the forecast area. All that information is just a guide as you travel through the back country, since forecasting regions are normally huge compared to the particular slope you may be eyeing up for fresh tracks. Obtaining education through an AIARE Level 1 course will go a long way towards helping you take in all this information and make safe choices.

 

skinning ski touring backcountry

Skinning up a ridge towards the summit. Photo: Erik Turner

 

Essential Gear

Backcountry skiing is fairly gear intensive, but a lot of clothing and gear can be borrowed from resort skiing or backpacking gear you already own. In addition to the obvious need for different ski equipment outlined above, safety gear is the biggest item that should be on any beginner’s list.

 

Shovel, Beacon, Probe

While not required if you’re practicing uphill skills inbounds, or in certain specific safe areas that are free from avalanche dangers, these three pieces of gear should still be on your radar if you want to explore the backcountry. It should be stressed that this gear will just be dead weight without the knowledge of how they function, and practice with your ski partners to iron out any wrinkles. This experience should ideally come from a formal AIARE education course, which are offered throughout the US during the winter months. While exact guidelines should be provided by your AIARE educators, some general guidelines for shovel / beacon / probe are:

  • Shovel should be metal; plastic is fine for clearing your sidewalk, not saving your friend. Seek out dedicated avalanche rescue shovels that disconnect the handle from the shovel to stash effectively in a pack.
  • 3-antennae beacons are now the norm – they generally outperform older beacons.
  • Probes should be sturdy and free of grit that can eventually eat through the metal cables. Practice quick extensions and store in bag that most come with to keep clean.

 

Clothing

In general you’ll want to make sure your layering systems are a bit more robust compared to resort skiing, since you’ll likely strip down a fair amount on the way up (think single tech shirt and light gloves) to avoid sweating. Then at the top you can apply a fleece and/or down jacket, followed by a shell, together with big warm gloves for the ride down. If going with a guide, they’ll outline requirements based on the conditions you’ll experience.

 

Pack

Another key difference from resort skiing is carrying a pack. Lightweight and small is the way to go, so long as you can fit your safety gear inside, as well as warm layers, food, water, and first aid. Starts to sound like a lot, and the weight can throw off skiiers who are not used to skiing with a pack. Another reason for moderation as you enter the backcountry!

 

Climbing Skins

With the exception of snowshoeing up like some beginner snowboarder or alpine skiers will do, most uphill travel requires the use of climbing skins. There are places where fishscale skis are sufficient to grip the snow and ice to climb moderate slopes, but full length climbing skins are the most popular choice in places where skiers are looking for downhill ski terrain require . There are three basic materials that modern skins are made of: nylon, mohair and hybrid nylon/mohair.

  • Nylon – These are the most durable, but also the heaviest and allow the least amount of glide. On long flat approaches a skin that glides well will let you travel much faster. In general once you start consistently climbing, the glide is less important, and the traction starts to become important. These are a good choice for beginners as they are more forgiving, and the slow glide will not hold you back significantly on moderate days as you learn.
  • Mohair – Mohair are lighter and allow more glide, but conversely have lower uphill traction. A well placed skin track that avoids steep sections and winds its way to the top will allow these skins to shine since their advantages will allow efficient travel, and its traction will not be an issue. This technique takes some practice, but is worth learning since no matter the skin choice, setting proper low angle skin tracks will conserve energy. These skins are usually preferred by highly experienced skiiers and racers.
  • Hybrids – An attempt to marry the advantages of mohair glide and lower bulk with the high traction of nylon skins. These skins are the best choice for most experienced skiiers, but could also work well for beginners who understand their limitations and have friends or a guide who can help point out proper skinning technique.

 

Poles

For skiers, fixed length poles that you use inbounds are sufficient to start with. Some experienced uphill travelers might prefer adjustable length poles that allow for shorter lengths on the uphill, or possibly even shorter length for just one pole for long rising traverses. Fixed length poles with some duct tape that provide different grip spots are a good happy medium, with the added advantage of having duct tape available to fix things!

Snowboarders may want to jump right to adjustable length poles as most will collapse and stash them in or on their packs for the way down.

 

backcountry skiing pacific northwest

Volcano views in the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Erik Turner

 

Backcountry Ski Locations (U.S.)

This can be a touchy subject, similar to surf spot localism, those who know where to find untracked powder tend to loop in their friends, and share only vague descriptions online. Even for beginners there is a good side to this culture, since it maintains stashes that might be overrun for you to stumble upon if you’re willing to explore. You left the ski area for adventure, right?

The list below won’t ruin anyone’s stashes since it’ll just outline many key areas where a vibrant backcountry scene exists, and some ideas of where you might start.

 

Pacific Northwest

With bountiful snow and many high mountains, this area can provide for skiing year round. There is even a website detailing many of the diehards who seek to ski a day a month, year after year: turns-all-year.com. You can chase storms for winter snow, or ski in the spring or summer on the region’s volcanoes!

Backcountry Conditions:  Northwest Avalanche Center

Favorite Backcountry Skiing Areas:

Many guides and operators work out of Seattle, North Bend, or Mazama, including Pro Guiding Service, Pro Ski, North Cascades Mountain Guides and BC Adventure Guides.

Email We All Roam for info on the best guides, courses and trips for your experience level and interests.

 

Mt Shasta

It may seem odd to dedicate a region to just one mountain, but to be fair, this is a really large mountain. Shasta is a huge volcano in northern California that, for better or for worse, catches a lot of weather right off the Pacific Ocean.

Backcountry Conditions:  Mount Shasta Avalanche Center

Favorite Backcountry Skiing Areas:

There is pretty much one shop in town, but that’s ok because these guys are legit:

  • Mount Shasta Mountain Guides – Email We All Roam to help set up a trip or course!

 

Sierra Nevada Mountains

With generally less snowfall than the PNW, the Sierra makes up for this with great quality and less crowds.  The range is accessed from the west and east sides, running from Inyo County California up to Lake Tahoe.

Backcountry Conditions:  Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center

Be sure to check out backcountry trips, adventures and courses with Sierra Mountain Guides (Bishop).

 

Utah

Utah has many different backcountry skiing opportunities, from remote peaks to crowded ‘Wasangeles’ routes just minutes from Salt Lake City.

Backcountry Conditions:  Utah Avalanche Center

Email We All Roam for info on the best guides, courses and trips for your experience level and interests.

 

Colorado

Colorado is another mecca for backcountry skiing and snowboarding, with some of the most well-known peaks and passes in the Rockies.

Backcountry Conditions:  Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Be sure to check out backcountry trips, adventures and courses with Irwin Guides (Crested Butte), and Colorado Adventure Guides (Brekenridge).

View all of our Colorado Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Trips.

 

Jackson Hole

The classic western town with a cold intercontinental snowpack, meaning less quantity than the temperate PNW, but more quality with light fluffy snow hanging around for weeks. With so much terrain to explore ranging from short bootpacks directly off the highway to long slogs into the rugged alpine terrain of the Tetons, you’ll be busy here for decades.

Backcountry Conditions:  Bridger Teton Avalanche Center

Favorite Backcountry Skiing Areas:

Email We All Roam for info on the best guides, courses and trips for your experience level and interests.

 

New England

With cold winters but often lower snowpack compared to much of the West, the East coast still features a thriving backcountry scene. At times this can mean skinning up a resort due to low snowpack away from snow guns, but winter dumps still provide ample opportunity, as does spring in the classic White Mountains bowl of Tuckermann’s Ravine.

Backcountry Conditions:  Mount Washington Avalanche Center

Favorite Backcountry Skiing Areas:

  • Magic Mountain, VT – This small resort will reward uphill traffic with a token good for one free lift ride. Get some extra vertical!
  • Jay Peak, VT – Free skinning access and lots of great terrain
  • Tuckermann’s Ravine – *The* classic ski descent in the northeast

Email We All Roam for info on the best guides, courses and trips for your experience level and interests.

 

ski touring backcountry powder

Time to admire the magnificent backcountry terrain on the way up. Photo: Erik Turner

 

About the Author

Erik Turner is a photographer who fell in love with framing pieces of nature in a camera viewfinder on a cross country drive. His east coast sense of scale was blown away by the mountains of the West, and the color palette of the Southwest. Ever since that drive Erik has taken a camera out to nature, seeking to bring back images that inspire an appreciation for the landscapes, and hopefully a spark for others to explore as well. Erik is a National Geographic award winning photographer, and has been published in several online and print magazines, including Backpacker and Seattle Backpacker Magazines. After a decade in the pacific northwest, Erik and his family have settled in the Hudson Valley, and are busy exploring the cliffs and forested hillsides in the new backyard.

Follow Erik:

High Pressure Photography    |    Instagram

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