Backcountry skiing is an experience, not just a discipline. Relying on your knowledge, skills and team to head into the unknown. There is nothing quite like it!
Have you ever wanted to learn how to backcountry ski or snowboard? Awesome! But we must warn you, it can be highly addictive and you might end up giving all your energy while having the time of your life. Still interested?
Dope! We wrote this article as a resource to broaden the knowledge about backcountry and lower the threshold between you and the untouched powder runs.
In order to write this piece, we have met up experienced backcountry skiers, snow patrols and avalanche experts. Complemented of course with our own knowledge base and resources.
With all the information and knowledge gathered, we cooked it down to this piece which is meant to be an easy to understand guide about backcountry riding, the risks and the joys.
So if you want to get into backcountry riding, or just broaden your knowledge, you have come to the right place. We will cover what backcountry skiing is about, the risks, how you proceed from slope to off-piste and a complete rundown about the gear you need and how to use it.
As an addition, we tagged along on a tour with some of the experts we met up with. Here we will cover the gear and how to use it, touring footage, some sweet pow runs and over rotated flips. See the video down below, and keep on reading for the written guide, or preferably do both.
Backcountry skiing basically means that you are out in nature, away from the safety of groomed slopes and ski patrols that are found at your ski resort. No matter if you are just a few hundred meters away from a ski lift, or hundreds of kilometres away from nearest civilisation and surrounded by wolves, you are technically in backcountry terrain.
There are multiple ways to go about Backcountry or BC riding.
The most common way would be to use skins on your skis or split-board, and skin your way up the terrain to access those untouched runs, that makes it worth all the effort.
Before going further, it would be reckless not to present the risk and dangers of BC riding. Do not get us wrong, backcountry riding might be one of the best experiences one can have. But it needs to be practiced in a safe and responsible way.
Do not get scared, but be aware.
Since you are alone with nature, there are no ski patrols to come for your rescue, it is all up to you and your buddies to be prepared and educated before heading out.
This includes being equipped with the correct gear, and familiar with how to use it as well as being aware of what dangers are lurking in your area. Such as the risk of avalanches, glacier cracks or surprise drops.
There is no way to completely remove the risks. Since nature can and will be unpredictable, but common sense, awareness, proper gear and a buddy will get you far and will ensure a fun and safer experience.
The first thing you should do is to educate yourself about avalanches. While at a resort, employees will use explosives to reduce the risk of avalanches and there are ski patrols at your rescue. When out backcountry, you will need to be your own expert. Take a course about avalanches and avalanche rescue.
Never ride alone, it is of great importance that you ride with at least one more buddy, also equipped with the correct gear and aware of how to use it. Someone you can trust if things go south.
Make sure to be aware of the current weather conditions and the risks of avalanches.
Before you even hit the snow, you should be aware of the dangers mentioned above and how to cope with them. You should get familiar with your gear and learn how to use it before you head backcountry with it.
A good way of doing this is to ski at a resort and hit some forest runs or deep snow areas within the resort. Preferably with an experienced friend, that can show you how to use the equipment in your bag.
Once you feel comfortable with your gear and how to use it. It is time to hit some of the untouched pillow lines that are out there waiting for you.
A good idea for your first backcountry tour would be to find a resort which offers good terrain close to the lift system. So you can hike from the lift and learn how to read the terrain while still being close to a ski area.
Make sure to do this with a friend or guide who knows the area.
Once you are comfortable navigating that kind of terrain, you are basically on your own.
If you want to get deeper into backcountry riding. The best way would be to surround yourself with more experienced people and learn from them.
And like all, there is just training and more training. Once you know the fundamentals, the only way to get deeper and progressing is to learn more about your fundamentals.
Let’s talk gear! Having the right gear and knowing how to use it is key for good experience. Three things you should always carry for your own and your buddies safety is a beacon (also called a transceiver), shovel and a probe.
Once you got that covered, it is time to have a look at you actual skiing gear. Let us get detailed, here is a list of all the gear you need and why you need it.
Hopefully, you will never need to use this. But in the event of an avalanche, this is your best friend and lifeline.
A beacon or transceiver sends out signals which will allow people to find you if buried in an avalanche. And the other way around, you can search for buried friends. This tool should Never be in your bag, use the included strap and attach it to your body, or alternatively, put it in the pocket of your pants. But never in your jacket.
You can lose your jacket while tumbling around in an avalanche, whilst your pants will stay on.
Always make sure that you have plenty of battery the day before heading out. And activate it before ascending, do not turn it off until the tour is over.
This tool is of great importance in order to build those intense backcountry kickers and send some dope doubles into fresh pow!
And even more important when you need to dig out your friend that got buried in an advance. Your shovel should be secured in our on your bag.
The probe is a lightweight, metallic and collapsible pole, which is used after the transceiver to find the exact location of the buried person.
It should be at least 2 meters long and have a steel wire inside. The ones with a rope inside are not as durable and might give up while using it. Make sure it fits into your backpack!
Climbing skins are your best friend when it comes to ascending. They stick to the snow and give you the grip to head up. Good to know is that they have a front and a back. Putting them on backwards will give you a lot of friction up and let you slide backwards whenever there is elevation. So get it right!
Make sure to get quality skins that fit your skis or board. Bad, small or too big skins will probably make this your first and last tour.
Boots, if you already ski a fair bit, you most likely own a pair of boots. And to be honest, these boots will most likely work for you in the beginning if you are going on shorter tours. But if you are getting serious with your touring, you are going to want a dedicated boot with walking mode and a lugged sole. The lighter the better.
Your regular boots might work for touring, regular bindings will not. Trust us on that one. You need a binding that will allow your heel to hang free and with adjustable modes for different elevations.
There is a lot of different variations, but every AT binding will work. Which type you choose is less important. Read up and choose one that fits your style and budget.
There is really no optimal backcountry ski, and it does not all too much from your normal skis. It could even be the same pair.
But if you do a lot of touring, you will want to have a light-weight pair which will perform well in a wide range of conditions.
But some guidelines, the wider waist you have. The better it will carry in deep snow.
So if you will do a lot of really deep snow (whats up Japow and Canada) you might want to look at a ski around 118mm whilst for regular alps and Scandinavian conditions, somewhere around 102-112 might give a better overall experience.
If you are a snowboarder, you got two options. You can hike up with snowshoes and your board on the back. Or you can treat yourself with a splitboard.
Like the name suggests, a splitboard split into half and gives you two ski-like parts you can put skins on and hike up.
When it is time to shred down, you put it back together. And just like that, you have a snowboard at your disposal.
If there is one thing you can go without, it is the adjustable pole (if you already own regular ones).
But they will make life a bit easier on you. Not only is it very convenient to shorten it if you want to put it in your bag for a while.
But having a longer pole while ascending is nice, and then you shorten it to your regular preference while shredding down.
Good clothing and knowledge about how to dress are key for a good experience. Let’s start with good clothing.
Your outer layers (ski jacket and ski pants) should be made of a highly breathable and water-resistant fabric, 15k or more. Preferably in the 20k + range if you are getting really serious about your touring.
It is also important that they have extra ventilation zippers. Sweat is your enemy on the ascent.Insulation vs shell?
A shell barely adds any warmth, whilst insulated clothing does.
What you choose here is really up to you, a shell gives you more control, but it is more important to add warmth yourself with layering.
And speaking about layering, this is a must when touring.
You can not get sweaty while ascending, it is better to be a little bit cold in the beginning. If you get to warm, this will turn against you at the top when you stay still to get ready for the shred down. And you will instead get really cold and put your body through a real challenge.
Instead, have extra clothing layers in your bag. Once at the top, get dressed for warmth before blasting down the mountain having the time of your life.
It is common to buy a set of a bag with a probe, shovel and beacon.
But you will need a backpack, and I think it is pretty clear why if you have read all the way here.
But apart from all the above thing, it can be nice to have some water, snacks and maybe a thermos with hot coffee. And for this, you obviously need a bag.
Now you know what gear you need and what you need to know and educate yourself in before heading out.
If you do not already know where to go for your first backcountry trip. Here is a list of good resorts for off-piste and backcountry.
Get to know more about avalanches, educational videos can sometimes be a bit dull, this video is on the other hand of that spectrum. Avalance.org have gathered media from many of the top snow content media houses and made a banging but yet educational video.
This is a GoPro video from Japan, directed by the one and only Abe Kislevitz. Who hit up Japan, which is pretty much a powder Mecca with John Jackson and Chris Benchetler.
Beautiful production shot in British Columbia. This is a 35-minute film, so prep the popcorn and lean back. Because you’re about to witness some top-level snowboarding combined with nature and good storytelling.
Who better to show you a bit of the famous Mount Blanc then Jacob Wester? I don’t know. But here is one season of BC kickers, touring and hectic runs all cooked down to a 5-minute long elixir-like video for your eyes.
Have you heard about good vibes? Well, here you have some, combined with high-level skiing, drops, cliffs and some bails. Oh and it’s all in French, but I promise, you will enjoy it still. Shot in Courchevel
If you are into more of an “artsy” approach, this film is for you. Jammed with breathtaking shots and emotions.
This is one video I hold close to heart, I see fun, playfulness and a love for skiing. Might not be the cleanest Backcountry video, but shows how much you can do at a resort. This is a segment from the full-length film “days of my youth” which is highly recommended.
You have probably at least seen Candide Thovex “one of days videos” flourish on social media. But if you have not seen this movie and are on the lookout for some inspiration. Invest one hour of your time in this movie.