If you are an adventure lover, then backcountry skiing might just be the perfect adventure sport for you! You can experience a whole new journey and also enjoy the serene beauty of nature! Backcountry skiing through white snow, frozen lakes, snow-covered forests, and then gliding through the snowy slopes on a quiet afternoon is sure to make your day! If you are wondering what is backcountry skiing, how do I start backcountry skiing, or what gear do I need for backcountry skiing, read on to find out!
Backcountry skiing has different names in different countries. In Europe, it is called off-piste skiing. The names are derived from the place where it is performed. Backcountry skiing is skiing outside of normal trails and paths. Backcountry paths are usually not patrolled and not frequented much by other skiers. Backcountry skiing is different from alpine skiing. Alpine skiing is done in patrolled areas. One of the best parts of backcountry skiing is that you have the option to reach your starting point with helicopters and snowcats. No wonder it is one of the most popular and entertaining winter sports.
Types of Skiing
Aside from backcountry skiing, there are a few other categories of skiing. These different types of skiing make it so that any skier, of any level, has an exhilarating option. The other types of skiing are:
Frontcountry– In the case of front country skiing, people have the facility to ski within the specified ski area where there are various services available, which include ski lifts and other emergency services. It is the most popular form of skiing; usually, this form of skiing takes place within a skiing resort. It is immensely popular as luxuries like lifts and resorts are provided.
Slackcountry– Slackcountry skiing is done outside the specified ski area. However, one can take advantage of the facilities at ski resorts, such as ski lifts. Usually, in slackcountry skiing, using boot packs and skins are not mandatory. At times the slackcountry areas include access to lift services through roads. The slackcountry skiing areas always have access to cars and transport services.
Sidecountry– In this form of skiing, the skier usually chooses a place that is not directly attached to a populated skiing resort but is highly used by locals. To access a sidecountry skiing area, the skier almost always needs to use skins to climb or hike the face that they want to ski. Once they have descended, they need to find some means of uphill transportation to reach the top of the slope again.
Backcountry skiing is one of the most elegant ways to explore nature. One can ski outside the borders of patrolled ski areas, through the snowy mountain slopes and the frozen lakes and plains. If you wonder how you can start backcountry skiing or if you are planning to start this fantastic adventure, you need to be aware of some factors. If you go backcountry skiing, you will be in an unpatrolled area, meaning there are no ski safety services or avalanche patrol. This means that accidents are far more dangerous and that you need to take proper safety precautions.
The worst part is that there are no emergency services available either. To be on the safe side, one should be aware of a few things before daring to traverse the snow in the backcountry. Now that we understand what backcountry skiing is, there are some more things to consider. Before you learn how to start backcountry skiing, you need to know the following precautionary measures:
- Find yourself an experienced mentor – If you are a novice, then you should consider going with someone who is experienced. Without proper guidance, going backcountry skiing is not advisable. Your mentor or guide will not only protect you but also enlighten you with knowledge regarding backcountry skiing. Relying on the internet is not enough to guarantee your safety. Online maps can be incorrect at times, and they have no way of letting you know if the snow on a certain face is safe to ski. You should try and extract all the information you can from the mentor you choose. It will provide you with valuable real-life, practical wisdom.
- Avalanche safety– You should be aware of level 1 avalanche safety. We recommend that you take an avalanche safety course before trying to ski in the backcountry. In this three-day-long course, you will get to know the basics of safety measures, risks, and how to find routes. Through these classes, one can have a clear understanding of avalanches, how to avoid them, and how to survive if you are stuck in one. One of the biggest dangers of backcountry skiing is the probability of an avalanche happening. Usually, within ski resorts, this is not a huge deal because the terrain is checked on a regular basis. Backcountry skiing is very unpredictable; this makes knowing the basics of avalanche safety an absolute must.
- Keep an eye on the avalanche forecast– Before going out for backcountry skiing, you should be aware of the local avalanche forecast. Being aware of the avalanche conditions will help you to be extra cautious and plan your schedule accordingly. Ensure your safety with the help of these forecasts before you head towards the risky terrain. Usually, if it has heavily snowed a day or two before your skiing trip, you should consider delaying the trip. The reason for this is that loose snow is more likely to scrape off the hill and start an avalanche. A sunny day with clear visibility is the ideal weather to avoid avalanches.
- A lot of practice– They say practice makes a man! Before you go to the backcountry you should ensure that you have enough knowledge and practice. By practicing emergency procedures with your group and equipping yourselves with proper gears like beacons, you can effectively prepare yourselves for backcountry skiing. It is only you who can judge your ability. To understand the real-time scenarios before you decide to give it a start is quite important.
- Always take a partner– We cannot stress enough the importance of taking a partner. Regardless of if you are a novice or an experienced backcountry skier, a partner should be the most essential part of your planning. God forbid you get stuck in an avalanche or get hurt, you need someone who can call for help and get you out. With the unpredictable conditions in the backcountry, having a partner with you just might save your life.
Backcountry Skiing Preparations
By now, you must be wondering how you can start backcountry skiing and how you reach your drop spot when you don’t have lifts! You have various options to reach the backcountry. If you are just a beginner, then it is better to start skiing lines that are reachable via hiking or climbing. It’s likely that if you are just starting out you won’t have access to more advanced modes of transportation. Once you are a little more trained and experienced, then you can use more advanced modes of travel such as helicopters, Snowcats, snowmobiles, and so on. You can still hike with the help of backcountry skis, skins, or bindings.
This article will help you get an idea of how to start backcountry skiing.
Snow quality is crucially important to your safety and your enjoyment of a backcountry skiing trip. If you are a well-trained skier, then you must have experienced skiing on different varieties of snow. There are various snow conditions which are quite popular, especially for the backcountry.
Fresh snow- No matter if you are a beginner or an experienced skier, fresh snow is an all-time favorite! This is because fresh snow is easy to grip, especially while taking turns. Even if you fall accidentally, it won’t hurt as much.
Powder snow- This is another favorite snow condition that occurs after a heavy snowfall. “Powder” has a very low moisture content, which makes the skier feel like they are gliding on the snow! However, you need to be careful while skiing as it might not hurt if you fall but making your way out from the snow can be tough.
Packed snow- When powder snow is pressed, it creates a smooth and even surface. The packed layers of snow make an excellent base for skiing. This snow condition is not only good for experienced skiers but also for beginners. One can even practice new techniques as the surface is very smooth and even.
Compacted snow- Ice and compacted snow are often found in the mountains and hills. These are smooth and slippery forms of natural ice, which are not ideal for skiing. Even though the skiers may find the compacted snow quite easy to glide on, the turns are much tougher. Ice and compacted snow should only be traversed by experienced skiers, and it should be avoided in the backcountry. Hard ice is not a very good option when it comes to digging your edges, and this makes it quite tough for the skier to be under control. Ice is only perfect for those skiers who are speed lovers!
Slush snow- This condition of snow generally occurs in the spring because that is the time when the snow starts to melt. This type of snow is perfect for those skiers who like to indulge themselves in some adventures on a lazy afternoon. Since the snow is in a molten state, the snow can feel “heavy”, and the skier might find it hard to pick up speed. This form of snow is certainly not a good option for the experienced skiers because of the slow speed but a good one for the beginners and learners.
Weather conditions also play a vital role in choosing the proper backcountry skiing area. The weather conditions of an area, such as sun, snow, and wind, contribute to factors like the quality of the snow and the visible distance. If the area has bad weather, then it is better to avoid that place altogether.
The next most significant thing is the availability of proper signal and rescue support. Backcountry skiing requires you to go the reaches of most rescue crews and ski patrols. Therefore, it is advisable to stay as near to a proper GPS signal and decent rescue support as possible. Backcountry skiing areas are usually prone to avalanches; therefore, it is a necessary safety precaution to assess the accessibility of the place before skiing.
Picking a Line
In order to pick a good spot to start backcountry skiing, you need to first find an established “line” to take. Depending on the size of the mountain, there could be dozens of tried and tested backcountry lines. The features of each of these lines, combined with your skillset, will determine if it is a good fit for you.
Before you pick a line, you will need to make sure that you have picked a mountain that is accessible, and a time frame that has a proper weather window. Once that is done, you can pick your line.
Here are some common features of backcountry skiing lines:
- Couloirs: A couloir is a steep, narrow pathway on the face of a mountain. These are considered some of the hardest lines to ski because they require extreme control. You must be able to control your speed on the incredibly steep face, while also being able to stay within the very narrow path provided to you.
- Rappels: Sometimes on particular tricky lines, you might be forced to rappel. A rappel is when there is a section of the line that is not completely covered in snow, or there are a lot of rocks in your way. In this case, you will need to set up a rope and lower yourself down the impassable section of the line. Rappels are very dangerous and should only be tried by the most daring of backcountry skiers.
- Cliffs: On most backcountry lines, you will encounter a cliff or two. Sometimes, you can simply ski around cliffs, but other times you might be required to go over them. Experience backcountry skiers love cliffs because they offer an opportunity to “get some air,” or even allow the skier to do a trick or two. For novices, though, cliffs are very dangerous. If you don’t know its coming, you could hit a rock and injure yourself or worse. It is critically important to map out any cliffs on your line and assess your ability to cross them.
- Trees: Depending on your line, you might be required to traverse through the woods. Again, this can be either very scary or very fun, depending on your skillset and risk tolerance. Although you likely won’t be going very fast in these sections, hitting a tree can present an opportunity to injure yourself.
- Jumps: Like cliffs, jumps are a natural part of many backcountry lines. You need to make sure that you plan any jumps ahead of time, and make sure that you are properly prepared to land them. It is important that you practice jumps in patrolled areas before you attempt them in the backcountry.
Once you have considered all of these factors, you should be able to successfully plan your line. Just find your favorite mountain, and research all of the different paths you can take. You’re very lucky to be starting this adventure in the digital age because there is a litany of information on any mountain you could possibly imagine.
Getting to the Top of the Mountain
The lack of available lifts can make trying to get up the hill after your descent a huge hassle. If the mountain is tall and long, then uphill hiking is not always a proper option. There are three main alternative options to choose from. These options mainly consider three variables. The power of the vehicle to reach the destination. Next is the capacity, and finally is the price of transportation. The convenience of the service must also be considered. Below are the three most popular methods of uphill transport that are used.
- Heliskiing- As the name states, heliskiing utilizes a helicopter to drop you off at the top of your line. Since it is backcountry, you will not get access to any sort of lifts. The next best thing that you can get access to is a helicopter. Once you have selected the line that you want to ski on, the helicopter will provide you a lift to the top of the mountain. Once it has dropped you at your destination, it will return to the bottom to wait for you after your descent. This is one of the fastest and easiest ways to cover the uphill journey. Due to the convenience and cost of offering this service, this is also the most expensive.
- Cat-Skiing- the second most popular mode of uphill transport is the Snowcat. A snowcat is a vehicle that is, essentially, a cabin on threaded wheels. This vehicle is used to carry an entire group of skiers to the top of a hill at once. Once the Snowcat drops all the skiers at the top, it heads downhill to get ready for the next trip. One downfall of the Snowcat is that you need to take off all of your gear before getting in, or else it cannot accommodate its full capacity.
- Snowmobile – This is the most popular and the most economically feasible method to cover the uphill travel. If you or your friends are avid skiers, then purchasing a snowmobile would be a smart investment. Just strap your gear to the snowmobile and head off to the top of the hill. The only downside to this mode of travel is that you need to take turns bringing the snowmobile down the hill to get ready for the next trip. Furthermore, it cannot accommodate a lot of people at once. On the bright side, driving a snowmobile down a mountain is almost as fun as skiing down it!
Backcountry Skiing Gear
There are some important skiing gear that you must consider if you want to plan a successful backcountry trip. One of the handiest things you can bring is and uphill climbing setups. These setups can take the form of special skis, snowboards, or other add-ons that help you travel up the hill. Two of the most widely preferred items are climbing skins and split boards. Climbing skins are attached below the ski, which helps one to glide forward. Snowboarders can carry a modified type of board that is called split boards. A split board has the ability to split apart, helping the snowboarder to climb uphill.
You also need to make sure that you pack the right type of ski or snowboard. One of the most important tools for the skier is the ski or the snowboard itself. The normal skis that you use at a resort may not work well in backcountry scenarios. This is because skis and snowboards that are designed to be used in the front-country have all the characteristics to promote downhill skiing and snowboarding, and not the climbing and careful maneuvers necessary in backcountry skiing.
The availability of a lift makes sure that the uphill journey is an easy one. If you’re going out for backcountry skiing, you will not have the luxury of a lift. Therefore, choose lightweight skis and split boards. These lightweight skis and split boards provide significant weight reduction for the uphill hiking. Your back will thank you.
- Ski Skins – As we said earlier, ski skins can make a huge difference in your hiking experience. Skins are basically long, narrow strips of nylon or fabric material. These strips of material help stop your skis from gliding backward when traveling up a hill. At the top, simply remove the skin and use your skis as normal. This means that every time you need to hike uphill, you will not need to take off your skis. There are a lot of different types of skins available. Some skins differ in the type of material used. Some skins differ according to the fit on the skis. There are common skins as well as ski specific skins as well. If you’re interested in getting skins for your skis, you can read our article on the Best Ski Skins.
- Proper Bindings – Bindings are the part of your ski into which your boots attach. Some bindings let the heels of the boot flex or stay stiff, according to the will of the skier. These are the preferable bindings for backcountry skiing. This type of binding facilitates uphill hiking by letting the heels of the boot freely flex. This makes walking with the boots and the skis much easier.
- Proper Boots – Boots are an integral part of the backcountry skiing experience. Some boots are specifically designed for backcountry skiing. Backcountry boots have two modes; a ski and a hike mode. The ski mode properly attaches the boot to the ski and provides no room for flexing. This provides the most favorable downhill skiing experience. On the other hand, it also lets the boots flex for helping in the uphill hiking.
- Proper Poles – One of the most important characteristics of backcountry skiing poles is the ability to change its length. Usually, the uphill hike needs shorter length poles for support, and the downhill ride needs longer poles for proper control.
- Ski / Snowboard Backpacks – For some strenuous hikes, using skins for split boards will not be enough. In these situations, you need a way to carry your skis to the top of the mountain without them getting in your way. In these scenarios, ski backpacks are your friend. They allow you to strap your skis to your back, allowing you to have improved mobility while climbing.
- Other Essential Gear – Other than the above-specified gear, the usual skiing gear like helmets, gloves, and goggles are also a necessary and essential part of the backcountry skiing experience.
To properly enjoy your backcountry skiing experience, you need to gear up properly. As you tend to go outside of the surveillance zone for backcountry skiing trips, most of the essential gear is safety equipment. The first and foremost gear will be an avalanche beacon. An avalanche beacon is a transmitter that sends and receives signals to avalanche transmitters. In the situation that you are buried under the snow because of an avalanche, this beacon will help the rescue party to find you. If you need help finding a good avalanche beacon, we have a buying guide of the Best Avalanche Beacons.
The second most important thing that you should carry is an avalanche probe. This probe comes in handy once you are found buried inside the ice. The probe helps to determine how deep you are buried inside the ice. This data is of great significance to your rescuers.
The third most important thing to include is an avalanche shovel. An avalanche shovel is basically a collapsible and lightweight shovel that needs to be carried by every skier. This shovel comes in handy when you need to dig yourself or someone else out from the ice.
Where to Find Backcountry Skiing Lessons
Backcountry skiing has become hugely popular all around the world. The breathtaking nature and unpredictability have increased public curiosity regarding this type of skiing. Skiers from different skiing styles all want to try their hand at backcountry skiing. This massive increase in popularity has led to a lot of backcountry training institutes to pop up. Furthermore, many existing ski schools have begun to include backcountry skiing into their curriculum. This makes finding backcountry lessons much easier than ever before. Moreover, there are many online classes that provide the required knowledge to safely attempt backcountry skiing.
Just like for any other type of extreme sport, backcountry skiing lessons are provided in varying degrees of difficulty and technicality. Usually, there are courses for beginners, intermediate skiers, and experts. The backcountry, as discussed above, is a different branch of advanced skiing. Therefore, to fully grasp the technicalities of backcountry skiing, you need to first be familiar and well accustomed to the usual skiing skills. Only after you have gained that knowledge, can you progress to learning backcountry skiing.
To conclude this article lets sum up the things that have been listed. What is backcountry skiing? Backcountry skiing is not much different from normal skiing. The major differences are in the type of place where this type of skiing is practiced. The other major differences are the gear and safety knowledge required to safely and properly enjoy the experience. The question, ‘how to start backcountry skiing?’ is also explained in detail within the article.
Backcountry skiing offers a whole new skiing experience. It gives you the ability to traverse beautiful natural landscapes, as well as technically challenging obstacles such as couloirs, cliffs, trees, and more. Whether you’re an advanced skier looking for a change or a novice looking to learn, backcountry skiing can be a fun and exhilarating type of skiing to try!
Altogether, backcountry skiing is an unpredictable and exciting sport. It requires a high level of skill to enjoy the full experience properly. I hope this article fulfills all your needs and answers all your questions about backcountry skiing and will be helpful if you are about to venture into backcountry skiing!