Backcountry skiing is a fun and exhilarating sport for experienced skiers who want to experience something new. It combines some of the most exciting, but also dangerous aspects of rock climbing, skiing, and hiking into one adrenaline-packed sport.
In this guide, we’ll go over what you need to start backcountry skiing, how you can stay safe, and where you can go around the world to do it!
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Everything You Need to Know About Backcountry Skiing
What is Backcountry Skiing?
Backcountry skiing is skiing outside of designated skiing zones.
Have you seen those crazy videos of people skiing down mountains and through forests in the middle of nowhere? That’s backcountry skiing.
However, it’s not as simple as going to the top of a mountain and skiing down it. There are entirely different techniques and terminology that you need to know before you even attempt backcountry skiing.
Is it Different from Regular Skiing?
In a word, yes. Most times, you will be the first person skiing any given line in the backcountry. This means that there is no resort making sure that the trails are nice and even.
Usually, there is 2-3 feet of loose powder on top of an unknown surface. If you are not careful, you could damage yourself or your skis by going over unsafe terrain.
At resorts, you don’t have to worry about avalanches. Trails are well maintained and groomed so that there is as close to zero chance of an avalanche as possible. But this isn’t the case in the backcountry.
You need to test the snow when backcountry skiing to make sure that it isn’t so loose that you skiing down it will cause an avalanche. And, you need to make sure that you are equipped with the proper gear in the worst-case scenario that you do trigger one.
In the backcountry, there are obstacles that you might not have faced on resorts slopes. Couloirs are common on backcountry lines. This is a very thin passage between two faces of a mountain.
Many backcountry skiers love couloirs because they usually have a lot of snow on them, and a good skier can gain a lot of momentum. If you don’t plan for them, though, they can quickly become extremely dangerous.
Additionally, in the backcountry it is very likely that if you don’t map your route properly, you might miss a cliff. In the best-case scenario, there is a lot of powder below you and you can land it easily.
Worst-case, it might be a sheer face hundreds of feet down, or it might have uncovered rocks below it. This is why it is crucial to completely plan and inspect your route before attempting it.
Rappelling is an unfortunate, but often necessary part of backcountry skiing. Sometimes, you reach a point in your line where you simply don’t feel comfortable proceeding.
This is totally fine, and you should always respect your gut instinct in these matters. In cases like this, it is vitally important that you have the equipment and the know-how to rappel yourself down to a place where you feel comfortable continuing your route.
One of the biggest differences between resort skiing and backcountry skiing is how you get to the top of your route.
At resorts, you simply take the chair lift. At most backcountry locations (except some like Jackson Hole), you won’t have this luxury. You’ll have to either climb the mountain with climbing skins, or get a ride up on a snowmobile or in a helicopter.
What Do I Need to Start Backcountry Skiing?
Once you have acquired all of the knowledge and skill to start backcountry skiing, acquiring the gear is fairly easy. You’ll need the following:
An avalanche beacon is a piece of technology that shows your partner where you are, should you get trapped in an avalanche.
This is one of the most important pieces of equipment you can have, because if you get trapped without one, it is incredibly likely that you won’t survive.
With that said, it’s vitally important that you get a good beacon that will serve your specific needs. For that, we recommend that you check out this Avalanche Beacon Buying Guide.
Climbing Skins / Ski Backpack
You need to get up the mountain somehow. Most people, especially those on a budget, prefer mountaineering. This involves climbing up the mountain, from the base, to the top of your line.
In order to do this, you need to decide whether you want to keep your skis on or take them off.
If you keep them on, you’ll need to buy a pair of ski skins so that you can move against gravity. If you take them off, you’ll need a ski backpack so that you can carry them up the mountain, as well as probably an ice axe, and maybe crampons.
What safety gear you will need really depends on where you are skiing. You might want to take a first aid kit, some hand warmers, etc.
You might also want to bring something like an avalanche shovel so that you can be proactive, should you get caught in an avalanche.
As mentioned above, you may need to rappel at some point. The likelihood is based on what line you choose to take. Regardless, we recommend bringing some anchors and rope at the very least.
Depending on your line, basic all-mountain or racing skis might not work. If you are picking a line with a ton of powder, you might want to pick up a pair of big-mountain or extra-wide skis so that you don’t sink through the powder and hurt yourself.
Popular Backcountry Skiing Locations
There are a couple places that have become really popular for backcountry skiing. Theoretically, you can do it anywhere, but these locations have the most well-documented lines and the highest chance of success, especially for beginners.
1. Chamonix, France
Chamonix is a resort ski town at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps. It is very well-known for its skiing, especially off-trail.
Many skiers make “pilgrimiges” to Chamonix, as it is considered one of the best skiing locations in the world.
2. Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Despite Jackson Hole’s reputation as a city of vacations houses for the rich and famous, it is also home to some of the best skiing in the world.
The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is full of both groomed and backcountry trails, including the incredibly famous Corbet’s Couloir.
3. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park is another great skiing area in, obviously, the Rocky Mountains. It has a ton of great documentation on backcountry skiing, and is considered one of the very best locations in which to learn to backcountry ski.
Backcountry Skiing Tips
Not everything about backcountry skiing is intuitive. Below you will find some of our best tips to remember before you brave the mountain.
1. Bring a Buddy
We cannot stress how important it is to bring at least one partner with you anytime you are going into the backcountry. It is simply not worth the risk of an injury or an avalanche.
If you don’t have a partner, it is unlikely that anyone will find you there for days or even weeks.
2. Take an Avalanche Course
Throughout this article, we’ve discussed in length just how important it is to be well prepared for an avalanche. There are tons of courses offered, and we recommend that you take one.
We believe that anyone going into the backcountry ought to have at least an intermediate knowledge of preventing and being ready for avalanches.
3. Tell Someone What You’re Doing
Even if you are going with a partner, it is super important to tell someone not on the mountain where you are going.
You should also give them an approximate time that you are going to call them to check in. This way, if they never hear from you, they know to contact someone to go and help you.
4. Dress for the Climate
This seems obvious, but it can go overlooked.
It is far colder on top of a mountain than at the bottom. You also are going to be sweating a lot if you are climbing up the mountain.
You need to make sure that you are equipped with the proper attire to avoid hypothermia or frostbite.
5. Start with Premapped Lines
We get it. Everyone wants to go where no man has gone before. For beginners, though, this is simply a bad idea.
There are hundreds of backcountry lines that are just as exhilarating as any other, but have been well-traversed and painstakingly documented for you safety.
As you are getting your bearings in the backcountry, we highly recommend that you start with one of these.
Backcountry skiing can be a ton of fun. It is a great departure from the potential monotony of skiing the same lines at your local resort over and over again.
As long as you are prepared with the proper techniques, knowledge, and gear, it can also be relatively safe. We hope that this guide prepared you for your journey into the backcountry.