What Is Backcountry Skiing?
Entering the backcountry is a chance to appreciate the beauty of nature as yet untouched by man. That’s why backcountry skiing has caught on as it has. What exactly is backcountry skiing?
Backcountry skiing is a type of skiing in unpatrolled, often unmarked areas known as the backcountry. Skiers need prior skiing experience, safety knowledge, and a wealth of equipment for a successful backcountry skiing adventure.
In this extensive guide, we’ll fill you in on all there is to know about backcountry skiing, including where and how it’s done, what gear and equipment are needed, and how difficult it actually is. If you're a thrill seeker, this one's for you.
What Is Considered Backcountry Skiing?
Backcountry skiing is referred to as out-of-area skiing because the skiing you engage in is far off the beaten trail. Rather than skiing within the confines of a resort, which is known as alpine skiing, backcountry skiing entails skiing in locales that either few skiers or even no skiers have touched.
These areas are well outside of the boundaries of your average ski resort and require challenging hiking to reach the summit. You can even utilize helicopters, snowcats, and ski lifts to reach Point B from Point A.
The trails are ungroomed and unpatrolled, and they usually lack markings as well. You may only have the ski marks in the snow from other skiers to use as your guide if even that!
Ski resorts are often very crowded, so for purists who want to experience the thrill of rushing down a slope at full speed, that can sometimes be difficult. Other skiers simply outgrow ski resorts. They attempt the most difficult routes, complete them, and long for their next challenge.
Naturally, both situations have given rise to the popularity of backcountry skiing., which will call on one’s physical prowess, sense of direction, knowledge of snowy conditions (such as avalanche avoidance), and navigation skills.
What Are The Different Types of Backcountry Skiing?
Backcountry skiing includes several subtypes of skiing, so to speak. They are sidecountry, slackcountry, and frontcountry skiing:
- Sidecountry skiing: The sidecountry is outside of the boundaries of a ski resort just like the backcountry but can still be reached by a ski lift.
- Slackcountry skiing: If you’re skiing in an area that’s beyond a ski resort but is still reachable by lift and doesn’t require a bootpack or skins, then what you’re doing is known as slackcountry skiing. You could shuttle to and from the skiing location by car or even take a lift back to where you started when you’re done skiing.
- Frontcountry skiing: The last subtype of backcountry skiing is frontcountry skiing. When frontcountry skiing, you’re riding in off-trail areas but still have access to emergency services and ski lifts at all times.
Backcountry skiing and all its variations have grown quite popular, and it’s easy enough to see why.
The Equipment Needed for Backcountry Skiing
Backcountry skiing requires significantly more equipment than your average day at a resort. Here are some of the essential items you would need for a successful backcountry excursion:
Although you hope that you and your skiing party will never get caught in an avalanche, you can never be too careful. So, at least one skier in your party (but ideally everyone) should carry with them a tiny snow shovel known as an avalanche shovel.
The point of an avalanche shovel is so that if someone in your party is covered in snow after taking a bad landing or being buried in an avalanche, you can quickly dig them out and save their life.
The size of an avalanche shovel doesn’t allow you to dislodge large portions of snow at once but moving quickly–especially with multiple party members who have their avalanche shovels–makes up for that.
These shovels collapse when not in use so they take up even less room in your gear bag, so if you're having difficulty imagining the logistics of skiing with a shovel, this makes it a far more reasonable prospect.
Probe and Beacon
Of course, if you don’t see an avalanche occur, then it can be nearly impossible to determine where the victim was buried. Since time is very much of the essence, you should always have a series of tools for detecting someone who’s buried such as a probe and beacon.
These two tools work in conjunction with one another:
- Beacon: The beacon runs on batteries and includes a radio transceiver. Before you begin backcountry skiing, you’d turn on the beacon. The beacon sends out signals that others can receive, including someone who’s been buried in an avalanche but has an active beacon.
- Probe: Once you’re in the proximity of where the buried victim may be, you can poke your probe into the snow to confirm their location. An avalanche probe is rather long, up to 10 feet. Then you’d use your avalanche shovel to dig the victim out. The probe increases your precision of finding the person and saves precious time.
Backcountry Skiing Poles
Just as you would use poles when alpine skiing, it’s recommended you do the same when backcountry skiing. Opt for adjustable poles so that as you traverse different types of terrain, you can easily make the poles longer or shorter.
Because backcountry requires quite a bit of traversing and skinning (more on that in a bit), it's best to have an alpine touring setup. The difference between the two types is that touring ski boots allow you to move between two modes - where one mode allows you to ascend and the other is suited for skiing downhill.
Think of the ascending mode much like a cross-country ski, where your toe stays in contact with the skis, but your heel can go up and down - this is how you can ascend in touring skis. The ankle flexion of the boots at this point is looser to allow you to walk without pain or difficulty.
The second mode is akin to standard alpine skis. Once you switch to ski mode, the boot cuff locks and becomes far more rigid. This is more conducive to skiing.
Backcountry Ski Bindings
You must have backcountry ski bindings as well before you set off on your adventure. You can choose from several kinds, so let’s go over them now.
- Frame Bindings: A set of frame bindings are suitable for backcountry, sidecountry, and frontcountry skiing due to their enhanced aggression.
- Tech Bindings: The lightweight tech bindings promote comfort through and through, which makes this type of binding recommended for hours of skiing at once.
Ski or climbing skins go underneath many types of skis and are designed to help you make your way up a slope on your skis without backsliding - this is commonly referred to as "skinning." Once you reach your peak, you’d then take off the skins and ride down the slope.
For backcountry skiing, the most common skin materials are mohair or nylon, both of which are like sealskin. Mohair skins have a good degree of slide while synthetic skins do not lose their grip, even on steep uphill ascents.
Can You Go Backcountry Skiing with Regular Skis?
You might notice that we left out the most integral part of the backcountry skiing equation, and that’s the skis themselves. That’s because we want to dedicate an entire section to backcountry skis - which is a subset of alpine touring.
Having backcountry boots, the proper bindings, and ski skins make it possible for you to use nearly any set of skis for backcountry skiing.
That said, if you're interested in buying a new set of skis just for your future backcountry adventures, here are some pointers that will help you choose the right set.
The profile of your skis determines the way that the skis connect with the snow. The skis will be flatter in some areas and angle up in others. The two ski profiles for backcountry skiing are rockered or camber profiles.
- Rockered Profile: A rockered ski profile, also known as a negative camber, is flat in the midsection. Both the tail and the tip lift off the ground quite early. This allows you to maneuver easily in the snow. If you’re backcountry skiing in powdery snow, you’ll have excellent flotation.
- Cambered Profile: A cambered ski profile has a long bow throughout the ski that allows the middle to lift higher from the snow. Of course, when you’re standing on the skis, your body weight will push down on a cambered ski and cause the whole ski to rest on the snow. If you’re making turns where you need to carve into the snow, a cambered ski profile is recommended. You’ll also appreciate the stability of this ski profile.
Skis are available in all sorts of lengths. The length of your backcountry skis goes hand-in-hand with their weight.
The heavier and longer your skis, the faster and more aggressive you’ll be on the backcountry.
Shorter skis make it easier to maneuver in the snow, so both have their benefits depending on what you’re looking for out of your skiing experience.
Yet another consideration when shopping for backcountry skis is width. If your skis are at least 95 millimeters wide or narrower still, they’re best for traversing firm snow as well as glaciers.
In deep snow, you might find that your floatation abilities are reduced.
If you’ll be doing a lot of uphill travel, such as when backcountry skiing, narrower skis are good. That’s also true of long ski tours. Skis that are between 95 and 105 millimeters are a great in-between option. These skis can handle more snow conditions than narrow skis, and you’ll find it easier to break a trail.
Backcountry skis that are 105 millimeters and over are the widest skis you can get your hands on.
You'll find it easier to break trails, and your flotation will seem effortless as well. It’s almost like surfing because your wide skis don’t sink into the snow. However, wide skis weigh more, and that makes long-term touring a challenge.
How Hard Is Backcountry Skiing?
Backcountry skiing is more difficult than standard alpine skiing, but alpine is usually a great starting point before engaging in the backcountry.
You’ll need to be physically fit enough to ascend tall, even steep hills. While ski skins can help to this extent, as can ski poles, you’ll have to rely on your body strength as well, so you must possess that in spades.
By far the biggest concern when backcountry skiing is the risk of avalanches. If you’ve only ever stuck to alpine skiing resorts before now, the risk of an avalanche is lower because the resort actively monitors those risks and selects ski paths less likely to incur the wrath of an avalanche.
When you go backcountry skiing, the area is unmanned and unmonitored. You have literally no idea what you’re walking into, and that means that an avalanche can be imminent.
Fortunately, you can always beef up your knowledge of avalanches by enrolling in an avalanche awareness course.
Various states throughout the United States may offer these courses, or you can always enroll in a course through Avalanche.org or the American Institute for Avalanche Research or AIARE.
Also, backcountry skiing requires one to know their way around unmarked land, demanding directional and navigation skills.
Without these, it’s far too easy to get lost. Since you’re in such a remote location, being rescued is less likely compared to riding on a groomed trail at a resort.
What Is the Difference Between Touring and Backcountry Skiing?
The biggest difference between touring and backcountry skiing is the length of the adventure. While both are forms of off-piste skiing, backcountry skiing typically lasts one day, while touring can be several days. Backcountry is more rigourous, so going longer than a day is unlikely.
Backcountry skiing, since it can be quite arduous, is usually only a day-long trip. You’d set out early, spend the day on the slopes, and then leave before the sun goes down.
If you’re embarking on a skiing tour, then your time out on the ice and snow will be considerably longer. Your trip duration will last for at least one day but possibly several days.
Since you are planning for an overnight stay, touring requires you to carry more gear than backcountry skiing.
You’d have to pack an adequate supply of food and water as well as a tent or some other form of lodging if not staying at a cabin.
Otherwise, the gear and equipment you’d use are about the same as when backcountry skiing.
We can’t stress enough the importance of properly layering up when touring especially. You’ll have fewer opportunities to get out of the biting cold, so you must safeguard yourself appropriately to ward off hypothermia.
Backcountry Skiing FAQs
We put together this backcountry skiing FAQs section to make your skiing adventures more successful. It’s full of questions that skiers often ask.
What Are Some Signs of an Impending Avalanche?
Although avalanches can seem like they come on suddenly, there’s usually some warning if you know what to look for:
- Strong Winds: Winds are blowing strongly enough that the wind leaves patterns on the snow, the snow can easily create drifts that could become an avalanche.
- Sever Temperature Change: When temperatures start very cold and then become warm quite rapidly,
- Heavy Precipitation: A heavy amount of snow or rain in 24 hours
- Whumping Noises: When taking steps, if you hear a noise that’s like a whumping, that means the snow under your feet is settling and could trigger an avalanche.
- Hollow Steps: Snow that feels hollow could mean the same.
- Cracks In The Snow: Look for cracks around your skis or feet as well, as those are an indicator that an avalanche is likely.
Can You Use Backcountry Skis Downhill?
Downhill skiing is referred to as alpine skiing, aka riding on the groomed trails of a ski resort.
If you bought a set of backcountry skis and don’t have alpine skis, could you use your skis on the trail?
You can indeed!
What Are Some Tips for First-Time Backcountry Skiers?
Are you planning your first backcountry skiing expedition soon? You must feel both excited and nervous.
The following tips will make your first jaunt a memorable one:
- Bring the right equipment. Save the list above of backcountry skiing gear and make sure you have it all on your person when you venture out.
- Don’t ski alone. In the backcountry, as we said before, it’s harder for anyone to initiate a search and rescue attempt. When you’re with someone else, they can at least try to get help.
- Keep your first few trips short. Even if you successfully ski for an hour or two in the backcountry, that counts as a win!
- Check the forecast for avalanches. If an avalanche was reported in a nearby area, one could strike your ski slope as well, so reconsider skiing that day.
Backcountry Is For Experienced Thrill Seekers
Backcountry skiing is an enjoyable experience away from the oft-crowded ski resorts. While it demands more physical prowess than alpine skiing, the rewards of carving out your own path and riding an unexplored slope to the bottom are unmatched.
That said, the most important takeaway is this: when out in the backcountry, the danger is an extremely real risk. Know the signs of an avalanche, have an avalanche preparedness plan among your party, and bring equipment for rescuing party members from an avalanche.