Introduction to Backcountry Skiing

Those who talk to me in the winter know that I love spending time skiing the backcountry. I've learned enough over the years that I think I can share some useful tips for folks getting into the sport.

This post is aimed at comfortable resort skiers looking to expand their skiing horizons. Most of this applies equally to splitboarding. If you're going to splitboard then my best advice is to practice with your gear a lot. Break the stereotype of everyone waiting on the snowboarder: it can be done!

A Word about Safety

Backcountry skiing is dangerous. It takes some of the risks of resort skiing (e.g. tearing your ACL), and adds in the difficulty of those issues in the wilderness. The backcountry also introduces/increases the exposure to avalanches. The training and safety equipment I'm about to describe is mandatory and non-negotiable.

Avalanche Education

  • If you live on Colorado's Front Range then I can't recommend Friends of Berthoud Pass enough. I volunteer with them so I should recommend them, but I would anyway. You can go to a free three hour Avalanche Awareness classroom session that will give you the basics how to stay safe in the backcountry. They also run on-snow sessions where you can actually play in the snow! Either way, they are a great resource and an excellent way to get more out of your Level I.
  • Take a Level I avalanche course. You'll spend time both in the classroom and outside, touring around, digging snow pits, and skiing. Ask lots of questions about snow and avalanches as well as touring in general.

If you really want to get the most out of your Level I then do the FOBP class and read some of these books.

  • Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce Tremper is my favorite book on Avalanches and Snow Science. It could be a little heavy, but if you like to nerd out on this stuff then you'll be into it. Read this before your Level I, and you'll be well-prepared and able to really take advantage.
  • Snow Sense, by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler is less physically intimidating(i.e. long), but still packed with great information. A classic, you can't go wrong with this book.
  • Avalanche Essentials, also by Bruce Tremper is newer and aimed more at beginners than Staying Alive. I am slightly less familiar with this one, but wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.
Avalanche Forecast

In Colorado, we use the Colorado Avalanche Information Center(CAIC). I check this site daily from sometime in October until the snow is isothermal in the spring. It's a great way to stay on top of what the snow is doing and how that changes.


Avalanche Safety Gear

Beacon, Shovel, and Probe are mandatory for travel in avalanche terrain.

  • Beacon - Get a modern, three-antenna beacon.
  • Shovel - My partners all use metal-bladed shovels
  • Probe - Eh, these are pretty straightforward, but one that locks automatically when fully extended is way better than one that requires fiddling
  • Airbag Pack - These seem to work well although they are still new enough that we lack a lot of good statistics. Unfortuunately they're also pretty expensive.

Pro tip: Practice things like quickly deploying your shovel and probe. It sounds silly, but practice is important. Think "slow is fast"

Ski Touring Gear

As a rule, gear that works well at the resort doesn't work well in the backcountry and vice-versa. This pretty much means buying a whole new setup of boots, bindings, and skis. The good news is that the used market for this stuff has gotten a lot better in the past few years and even new gear has gotten a lot more affordable. Sadly, where to buy backcountry skiing gear is a topic for another time.

  • Skis - This is certainly up to personal preference, btu I'm lazy so I like my skis to be light. A 120 underfoot, full-sidewall ski is sweet at the resort, but I like to keep my backcountry stuff light.
  • Bindings - Again, some people tour with heavy things, but it's not worth it. Don't get plate-style bindings (e.g. Marker Dukes). You'll be much happier with a dynafit-style. These have two pins at the toe of the boot that lock into special metal fittings on your boots and let you tour without lifting up the entire binding plate and heel on every step.
  • Boots - Focus on walk mode here. some boots have a walk mode that makes them feel like a running shoe while some seem no different than your plug race boots. Go with the former and be happy. Getting ready for the 2016-2017 winter I'll easily recommend the La Sportiva Spectre/Sparkle boots. There is a new version out, but the old ones would be fine too. These are my go-to wintertime boots because they are light, have a great walk mode, and are reasonably stiff on the descent. Best of all, they're cheaper than a lot of the competition.
  • Poles - Fixed-length poles are coming back into fashion for touring right now. Use whatever works for you.
  • Pack - I already mentioned airbag packs. Go with one of those if you can afford it. Otherwise, I like a pack that has good "A-Frame" carry (bascially lets you strap your skis to the sides of the pack) and a special pouch for your avy gear. The pouch makes it easy to make sure that your gear is always in the pack and that you can get it out quickly.
  • Clothes - Your'e going to get hot touring. In Colorado, I almost always wear softshell pants and jackets because the breath well and I run hot. Make sure you have clothing that works for aerobic exercise as well as skiing down. Get good at adding/dropping layers as necessary.

Other Resources

  • Wildsnow is a great blog covering everything bacountry skiing. Read it.
  • G3 has a bunch of great short videos out. Follow their tips and you'll skip a lot of the heartache of a beginner backcountry skier.