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How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding


These days, everyone with more than a season of skiing or snowboarding under their belts wants to head for the backcountry. The “BC” is where it’s at - the pristine pow, the pillow lines, the majestic tree runs, and no one around to mar the experience but a few of your best friends, right?

What exactly are we talking about when we say “backcountry”? What are sidecountry, slackcountry, AT and randonnée? All good questions, since the distinctions are a little blurry, often confused, and the same people tend to pursue several of these types of riding, sometimes in a single day. In this guide we'll cover the basics to help you get started on your journey into the backcountry.

Important: You should always carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling 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.

 
How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding

What is Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding? Backcountry Basics

The word “backcountry” (BC) is often used as a catch-all term to describe any skiing or snowboarding outside of the maintained and controlled ski area boundaries, from true wilderness riding miles from roads or rescue to special zones that are controlled by ski area personnel and are technically within the ski area boundary but have a wild “feel.”

Lift Accessed Backcountry, Sidecountry or "Slackcountry"

You may have heard the terms “sidecountry” and “slackcountry” used to describe lift-served riding in a controlled area, accessed from the ski area. There’s some dissention among purists as to what constitutes which, but the one thing you must keep in mind is that skiing close to the resort, even if you entered through an open gate, carries the same hazards and risks as backcountry skiing anywhere else. For this reason, evo and the ski industry as a whole are eliminating the use of these terms of false safety, and so should you.

Lift-accessed backcountry usually refers to taking a ski lift to get up the hill, then using any combination of booting, skinning and traversing to access your line. These are sometimes controlled areas that may require riders to carry a special card or show that they are equipped with beacon, shovel and probe and are with a partner. Access to these areas may require skiers or snowboarders to pass through a gate with obvious warning signage. Regardless of what kind of gate, signage, or lack thereof, this is backcountry riding and it subjects you to most of the same dangers of wilderness riding, even if they take place a lot closer to civilization. Don’t let the proximity of the lodge and patrol lure you into thinking there’s a guarantee of safety; it’s best to approach this type of riding with your full “backcountry” mindset. That means carrying your avalanche essentials - beacon, shovel and probe – knowing how to use them, making smart decisions, and riding with a similarly equipped partner.

Avalanches do occur in controlled terrain even when the sign says “open”, and no patrol crew can assess every slope under their jurisdiction on a powder day, nor are they necessarily equipped for backcountry rescue. You’ll be ahead of the game if you think of anything outside of the ski area boundary as “backcountry”. Treat this as you would any other potentially dangerous terrain and be alert to signs of instability, terrain features, and weather changes.

Human Powered

True backcountry riding normally begins somewhere other than a ski area and involves only human-powered ascent. No one “patrols” it on a regular basis for safety or snow stability purposes. That’s where touring, or “alpine touring” comes in (the French say “randonnée”). Using a combination of climbing skins, crampons and ingenuity, ski and snowboard tourers ascend the most difficult terrain you can imagine under their own power and slide down. It can be much more challenging than the mellow meadowskipping on fishscale skis that some people call “backcountry,” but it doesn’t have to be extreme.

How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding
 

Getting Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding

Before you drop everything and burn rubber to the nearest trailhead, you’ll need to equip yourself with the gear, skills, and knowledge required to manage the inherent risks of exploring wild, untamed terrain. Here, we cover the basics of getting started in the backcountry so you can dive in with confidence.

What skiing and snowboarding ability level is required to ride in the backcountry?

In theory, skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels can travel into the backcountry, but it is a good idea to ensure that you are comfortable navigating untamed and unfamiliar terrain, and descending in less-than-perfect snow conditions. While everyone hopes for powder when they tour, in practice it is common to encounter a variety of challenging types of snow, sometimes all on the same tour! From firm crusts and ice first thing in the morning to sloppy, heavy snow in the afternoon; sometimes the snow is your greatest challenge. A great first step is to get used to exploring off-piste back bowls and inbounds terrain that require some hiking before you head out any gates or into backcountry terrain.
 
Can I use my regular alpine skis or snowboard in the backcountry?

Yes and no. Most lift-accessed backcountry riding allows the use of your normal alpine ski gear or freeride snowboard setup; getting to your line may entail some booting or traversing, but you are usually able to ski right back to the lifts for another lap. However, if you want to access deeper backcountry terrain from a trailhead you will need to invest in specialist gear that allows you to walk uphill. For skiers, this will usually mean mounting their skis with a touring binding that allows the user to pivot at the toe and lift their heels, combined with climbing skins that adhere to the bases of their skis for grip while walking uphill. Snowboarders will require a splitboard; a special type of snowboard that splits into two parts for ascending and reassembles for descending. There are many options when it comes to specialist touring gear and lots of things to consider! Continue  reading below for more in depth information. 

What additional skills, knowledge, and gear do I need?

If you get deeper into the backcountry, away from any resort, you’re on your own, typically away from lifts, roads and trained rescue professionals. There’s no one here to tell you what to do or where to go, and no one to warn you when you’re being an idiot either. If you’re caught in an avalanche or hurt, ski area personnel are not obligated to rescue you. In order to understand and manage the inherent risks of riding untamed terrain, you should take an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Class, and carry avalanche safety gear with you every time you go. 

What You Need to Know About Avalanche Safety & Safety Gear

When you travel outside of the ski area boundaries, no one guarantees your safety from avalanches, cliffs, tree wells or getting lost and dying of exposure. That’s part of the deal, and for many, part of the appeal. Left or right, up or down, go or no-go, you and your partners will have to make the decisions and take the responsibility yourselves. Some people aren’t comfortable with this much ambiguity or having no one but themselves to blame. Some stumble blindly into the mountains without a clue to the dangers and protocol involved. We hope that if you’re venturing into the BC, you don’t fall into either category.

You can minimize the danger from avalanches by educating yourself and carrying the right gear. We strongly recommend taking an avalanche awareness class for starters (usually available for free at ski and snowboard retail locations including evo Seattle, evo Portland, and evo Denver during the winter months) and following it up with an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Class (usually over a three-day period). AIARE, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, offers the most stringent and professional courses, they wrote the book on avalanche education and standardized training. There are many courses out there but only the best are AIARE certified curriculum. Taking a class won’t make you an expert, and regular practice is a necessity, but it will open your eyes to the many dangers of backcountry travel and ways to mitigate them, familiarize you with some common snowpack assessments and stability tests, and allow you to practice your avalanche rescue skills and smart decision making. A lot of being safe in the backcountry involves asking the simple question, “What if?”

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you can learn more at www.nwac.us. If you live in avalanche country elsewhere in the US, you can locate an avalanche center near you at www.avalanche.org. Here’s a list of providers of avalanche classes nationwide that follow the AIARE curriculum.

In addition to learning how to manage and avoid avalanche terrain, every backcountry traveler should to be prepared to carry out a rescue in the unfortunate event that an avalanche is triggered and someone is caught. This involves three mandatory pieces of equipment that everyone in the backcountry needs to carry with them: a beacon, shovel, and probe.

Avalanche Beacons

A beacon is an electronic device that emits a steady signal used to locate buried victims in the aftermath of an avalanche. They range from streamlined options to more feature-laden products aimed at experienced riders and professional guides.

Avalanche Shovels

A shovel is a necessity for digging victims out of the snow in an avalanche. Avalanche shovels are also used for performing common snow stability tests.

Avalanche Probes

An avalanche probe helps you pinpoint the exact location of an avalanche victim and measure the burial depth. Most modern probes can be deployed in seconds by “whipping” them out and pulling on the string or cable that holds the sections together.

Just owning these tools isn’t enough – you’ll need to practice using them, preferably with people you’ll be touring with, to be effective with them in the event of an avalanche. Remember that all three pieces of avalanche safety gear are mandatory: beacon, shovel, and probe. Without any one of these pieces, recovery time in an avalanche rescue situation goes up dramatically.

It is important to recognize that this safety equipment serves the purpose of aiding in the unfortunate situation where there is an avalanche and potential burial. This is not a situation you want to get into, and the most important thing you can do is avoid this situation altogether. Even with proper rescue technique, the chance of survival in an avalanche is very low. You must ask yourself, “would I ski this without a beacon, shovel, and probe?” If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t ski it with that equipment either. The most important tool you carry with you is your brain.

Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Gear

If you thought you were serious about your alpine gear or freeride snowboard stuff, moving into the backcountry is going to be even more intense. You’ll need to have a firm grasp of how to use your bindings and skins (and splitboard hardware if you’re a snowboarder), and equipment failure can have serious consequences. You can’t just head down to the lodge and take your boots off if they hurt – there isn’t a lodge. If your skins won’t stay on or clump up with snow, you may not be traveling very far or fast. Clothes that worked fine for riding the lifts may be too hot for going uphill and not warm enough when you hit the summit. All of these are things to consider before you hit the trailhead. See our Backcountry Gear Checklist for a full list of suggested backcountry equipment.

Ski & Snowboard Climbing Skins

Climbing skins are your primary ascent tools in the backcountry. One side is covered with glue to adhere to the base of your skis/board, and the other features a carpet like material for traction while walking uphill. Skins are removed and stowed in your jacket or backpack for the ride down. Getting quality skins that fit your skis or splitboard properly is a key to success in touring. If your skin hardware doesn’t fit, your glue doesn’t stick or your skins aren’t trimmed properly for your skis or board, you could be in for a frustrating day.

How to get started backcountry skiing & snowboarding
 

AT or Touring Ski Boots

There are a wide range of boot options, all of which have their pros and cons depending on your objectives. Boots designed for backcountry skiing are usually lighter than their alpine counterparts, with a walk mode that allows the upper cuff to pivot while walking. It is important to ensure that your boot is compatible with your bindings; some models will work with certain bindings but not others. Good AT boots don’t come cheap, and there’s a wide range of features, flex and fit. Fit problems can be amplified by touring, so it pays to get the right boot and deal with any issues before you head out.

AT or Touring Ski Bindings

The majority of backcountry skiers use alpine touring bindings, which allow you to walk uphill with a free heel while pivoting at the toe, before locking your heels in to ski back down. Alpine touring bindings range from extraordinarily lightweight pin-tech bindings to heavier frame bindings that look and perform more like regular downhill bindings. Your choice of binding will impact your choice of boot, and vice versa. 

How to get started backcountry skiing & snowboarding
 

Backcountry Skis

Backcountry or alpine touring skis aren’t necessarily any different than your normal skis – in fact, they could be the same pair. If you end up doing a lot of touring, though, you’ll want a pair of lightweight skis that offers good performance in a wide range of snow conditions. Touring specific skis often have the same profiles as alpine skis but leave out some material to save weight. They also may come with tip and tail designs that are meant to accept skins.

Splitboards

If you’re a skilled snowboarder looking to expand your horizons, a "split" may be the way to go. A splitboard separates into two parts like skis to let you skin up the hill, then is re-assembled with the bindings in a different position for the ride down. Splitboard bindings have free-hinging heels like AT ski bindings and splitboards use the same sort of climbing skins that touring skis do. Splitboards come both with and without hardware, bindings and skins, but you’ll need all of the pieces (plus poles) so read the descriptions carefully.

How to get started backcountry skiing & snowboarding
 

Get out there

Whatever tool you choose, make a point of familiarizing yourself thoroughly with it before you hit the snow. Five miles from the car in a snowstorm at dusk is not the place to be trying to figure out your gear. New riders and those with limited soft snow experience should be careful not to dive into BC riding too quickly. Consider hiring a guide and start by gradually moving away from the groomed runs when there’s new snow until you’re confident in all kinds of conditions – even then you’ll probably be amazed at how difficult backcountry riding can get at times.

The BC community is a tight-knit but not unfriendly group of people who are generally happy to share their knowledge once they get to know you. Taking an Avalanche Level I or introduction to ski touring class or joining in on online ski forum discussions is a good way to meet people, get ideas for trips and hook up with touring partners. Just showing up at common touring spots and demonstrating that you’re a fit and amiable companion sometimes works, too. There’s no time to start like the present.

We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or equivalent and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education:

— American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
— American Avalanche Association
— Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center

You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling 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.

Tired of Ski Boot Pain?

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