WARNING: You should always carry an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe when traveling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them. We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or the equivalent, and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners.
While resort skiing is fun, backcountry skiing is a great way to get in touch with nature. Imagine yourself getting your daily exercise while experiencing the solitude of the outdoors and the joy of skiing or snowboarding. ‘Backcountry Skiing’ refers to the skiing or snowboarding that takes place outside the controlled boundaries of a ski area. Backcountry terrain includes anything that is accessed from the boundaries of a ski resort, or remote national forest and wilderness locations. With the exception of leaving a ski area through a gate, most backcountry terrain is accessed with human-powered ascents– making it all the more rewarding.
Within the limits of a ski area, ski patrol mitigates the risks of avalanches by conducting avalanche hazard reduction procedures and assessing the safety of terrain daily. While possible, avalanches within the boundaries of ski areas are rare. In the backcountry, the risks increase as assessing the terrain is up to the skier or snowboarder.
Why Go Into the Backcountry?
The backcountry is a great place to escape the crowds of a ski area, and because of its remote nature, new snow remains untracked longer than it does at a ski area. Skiers or snowboarders are able to find fresh powder days after a storm. Additionally, just like backpacking or camping in the summer, the backcountry is a quiet place to find solitude and stay active in the outdoors. Earning your turns is a unique approach to skiing and snowboarding, and can bring an entirely new perspective and sense of gratification to the sport.
How Does It Work?
Skiers and snowboarders will either climb a mountain with skis on their backs (commonly referred to as ‘boot-packing’) or ascend the mountain using a technique called touring. Alpine touring is one of the most efficient methods and involves using lightweight downhill skis and bindings that allow you to free your heel and walk on the way up, then click back in for the descent.
What Gear do I Need?
Because you are ascending a mountain, backcountry skiers and snowboarders often opt for the lightest gear. For example,companies like DPS Skis make lightweight skis designed for backcountry travel. In addition to your downhill skis, you will need touring bindings. Touring bindings come in many different forms, but in addition to a downhill mode, each binding has a hiking mode. The hiking mode allows the heel of the binding to unlock while climbing, allowing you to use your skis to walk uphill. Skins are applied to the base of your skis to allow for traction while climbing. Snowboarding uses the same uphill process, utilizing a splitboard, which is a snowboard that splits into two pieces for the climb, then fastens back together to ride downhill.
In addition to ski touring equipment or a splitboard, backcountry travelers should always carry avalanche equipment. Backcountry gear includes an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel, as well as the proper knowledge. An avalanche transceiver (beacon), is worn against the body and transmits a signal that can be tracked by other transceivers in the event of a burial. A probe looks like a large tent pole and is used to pinpoint a buried individual before using a shovel to dig them out. Backcountry travelers should regularly practice with their gear to ensure an efficient rescue in the case of an emergency.
Is it Dangerous?
It can be! While extremely rewarding, backcountry skiing and snowboarding do not come without risks. Avalanche terrain exists in the backcountry, and getting swept and buried by an avalanche can ultimately be fatal.
With the proper knowledge, equipment, planning, and partners, one can assess risks and make educated decisions in the backcountry. We recommend that backcountry skiers and snowboarders take an AAIRE Level One class or equivalent to teach them to read the snowpack, make educated decisions, and learn skills to be prepared with their partners in a rescue situation.
Do you want to ski in the backcountry but haven’t taken an avalanche safety course? Hire a guide! Professional mountain guides are experts when it comes to traveling in avalanche terrain, and will lead you and your group while keeping safety a #1 priority. Guides can often be hired directly through a ski resort, or through other organizations in mountain towns.
Now that you understand the appeal, risks, and gear needed to explore the backcountry, get out there! Whether you want to test it out with a professional guide or take an avalanche education course, you won’t regret your decision when you’re skiing fresh powder all day. After taking the right precautions, backcountry skiing and snowboarding are some of the most rewarding ways to enjoy a day in the mountains.