Sometimes the thrill of the slopes isn’t enough to quench the thirst of the adventurers. Which is why backcountry skiing is perfect for souls who crave being out in the wilderness. Most resorts across the globe have great alternatives to vertical drops and terrain parks. And many offer terrain that only experts need seek out!
With pristine pow, pillow lines, majestic tree runs and acres upon acres of land around, who wouldn’t want to take part in the experience? Seasoned skiers and riders who are interested in logging serious backcountry can check out what their local resorts have to offer but should be very cautious before proceeding. When you’re out on the mountainside, trails can get gnarly (to be sure) but not like backcountry can. So how exactly should you prepare yourself before hitting the more rugged wilderness at your winter destination?
Backcountry skiing is a whole new game. Only those who have had training and are experienced should be attempting a backcountry expedition. But if you’re interested to know what it’ll take to reach a new level of terrain, then it’s best to familiarize with the risks and considerations you must make. In a sense, the term itself is sort of a catchall phrase used for any area that is unpatrolled. While others will agree to disagree, there are technically two types of backcountry skiing. Both require the same type of preparations but are defined a little differently.
Sometimes resorts have “lift access” backcountry. As the name implies, everyone can take a lift up the hill in typical fashion. A combination of skinning, booting, and traversing might also be needed to access the line. Oftentimes (but not always), the area is controlled and might have regular patrols. Access to these areas might mean you need a card or special equipment before passing through the gate. While this type of backcountry might be “easier” to access there is still the possibility of avalanches happening.
“True” backcountry means you’re really only able to access the areas via human-powered means. There aren’t normal patrols either, and it’s up to you to climb skins, use crampons and a little bit of good ol’ muscle to ascend more difficult terrain. The going is slow either way and can take a lot of stamina to get there.
Before you head towards wild, untracked snow, you’ll want to do a bit of research into what the experience will be overall. And it’s more than encouraged (read mandatory) to take a few classes to ensure you’re completely prepared. Avalanche awareness classes, as well as an Avalanche Rescue Course and Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 1 course is a great start for newcomers. But there are also additional courses for those who have already gone on one or more trips. Each course can be taken at select locations like REI, so make sure to check local dates and times to make sure you can lock down a class.
Once you’ve completed these courses (if you haven’t already), then the next thing to do is take a guided backcountry skiing or snowboarding course. By taking a course, you can pick up the necessary skills that you may not already have. You’ll be able to utilize the skills you learn and feel confident when you venture out onto unpatrolled territory. Make sure to also evaluate your current abilities and fitness levels before going backcountry skiing as well. You don’t want to find yourself momentarily enjoying the trip only to realize you won’t be able to make it the entire way!
And don’t forget that you’ll need to purchase or borrow the right gear before hitting the lesser-traveled powder. It’s imperative to do this because you won’t have many (if any) resources once you’re further out. Think of it this way: would you want to deep-sea dive without the right oxygen tank and body suit to keep you from freezing in the water? Of course not! Even if you’ve gone before, it’s still important to double-check that you have everything you’ll need for a smooth trek.
Typical items like skis, poles, boots, gloves and the like are expected when you’re exploring restricted skiing areas. But once you begin heading towards the backcountry, you’ll need other gear to stay safe. Besides your normal mountain equipment, you’re going to need an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe, and navigation system.
Extra batteries, a headlamp, and a cell phone or satellite phone should also be purchased for a successful excursion, especially for day-long trips. You and your party -if you are going with a group- will have a hard time getting through the gates without these things, so don’t leave without them.
A rule of thumb to consider is how much you’re going to be carrying with you. If you want to prioritize covering a lot of ground and ascend a lot of elevation, then you might want to keep things as light as possible. If you’re more interested in surfing pow, then added weight might not be a problem.
Setting Off On Your Adventure
Backcountry skiing is a remarkable experience for those who are crazy about outdoor adventures. Like skydiving or whitewater rafting, it’s a sport that is incredibly exciting but also one which must be taken with precaution. The risks of avalanches are prevalent, but knowing that before your journey begins will be beneficial to you and any additional parties joining you.
Each state and region has their own Search and Rescue (SAR) groups who put out crucial information that can help you in serious situations. It’s best to check on their websites for the latest tips and advice so you can stay up-to-date on important mountain info.
Consider the following once you’ve made all other preparations for this type of trip:
- If anyone feels unsafe, sick or tired, it’s best to have the group reassess before continuing further
- Always think back to your Avalanche Safety training to help guide you in the event of an avalanche
- Following tracks doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for you or the group
- When a party member is injured ALWAYS rely on your first aid kit
- If you become lost, mark a safe spot in the snow, dig in and stay there! Rescue can find you more easily and you won’t end up exhausting yourself
Remember to be completely aware of your surroundings on your amazing excursion this season! Stay vigilant, come prepared, use common sense. And have a general understanding of what it means to go into unpatrolled ski territory. Once you have everything in order, you can head to your favorite ski resort and let your magical exploration commence. Happy traveling and safe skiing!