Ski touring is more than just a sport or activity; it’s a form of meditation. Helping you reconnect with nature, refining and tuning in to your mind, skills and technique.
Relying on your knowledge and the elements, side by side with your friends and the landscape, can you think of anything better?
It could be considered a daunting undertaking, but not to worry, this article is perfect as a “how-to” for ski touring as a beginner.
If you’re looking for a new challenge and the chance to see the mountains in a different light then ski touring could be a way for you to do that this winter. Forget about endless lift queues and packed pistes – touring opens up miles of new terrain for you to explore. What could be better on a powder day than heading off into the backcountry to find that perfect run of untracked snow or finding yourself close to nature amidst some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
The pre-trip planning is a massive part of the adventure. Galvanising your friends, booking, packing and mentally preparing is all part of the fun. Considering ski touring involves so many moving parts, and we aren't just talking about the unpredictable mountain weather. It's essential that plenty of planning goes into your voyage!
Teamwork is an important aspect to consider. You need to have trust and faith in the people you are going with. It means understanding their queue, mannerisms and having confidence in their knowledge. There is a lot of unspoken communication out in the mountains; E.g. knowing when to take breaks when people are tired or indeed scared. After all, if something goes wrong, it can make for significant consequences. Our advice is to train, read up, practice with your friends to ensure the most epic, gnarley and safe adventure possible.
In terms of skiing ability, you’ll need to be a strong intermediate to be able to tackle the off piste terrain on the downhills. As you get started, find a safe area not too far from the pistes where you can practice your technique and get comfortable with your equipment. As with any type of skiing, it is an extreme sport, so start small and plan a gentle route that will give you the chance to get a taste of ski touring without compromising on safety. There’s no medals for pushing yourself too far too soon!
Another good option would be to hire a guide who will know the area and can assess your ability. As well as leading you on a safe route, they will also be able to help you improve your technique so you’re skinning efficiently and not wasting energy. One of the most daunting things for newcomers to touring is the idea that you need an Olympic athlete level of fitness to propel yourself up the side of a mountain. This isn't the case, and if you’re capable of a slow jog then you’ll be fine. Remember to pace yourself and start with short tours that you can build on as your fitness increases.
Skin up, Ski down
Put simply, ski touring is a combination of cross-country skiing and alpine downhill. Rather than relying on lifts to get you up the mountain you use specialist equipment allowing you to do what’s known as ‘skinning’. Skinning is the technique of moving uphill on your skis in a gliding motion. This will give you the freedom to explore far beyond the confines of the pistes and once you’ve reached the top of that perfect line, it’s yours for the taking.
The equipment needed to tour is different to that used for alpine skiing – it’s all designed to be as light and comfortable as possible. Every kilo saved is one less you have to bring up the mountain with you!
Touring skis and boots have a setting which allows the wearer to ‘walk’ in them when skinning and another for skiing back down. You’ll also use skins which adhere to the bottom of your ski and are what gives it grip on the uphill. If you’re venturing into the backcountry you’ll need avalanche safety equipment including a transceiver, probe and shovel and the ability to use it.
The main difference between a touring ski and an alpine ski is weight – touring skis have been designed to be light enough to allow the user to skin easily – they’re also wider and shorter to provide greater maneuverability. Whilst it is possible to put some types of touring bindings on a pair of alpine skis you may find the extra weight an issue – limiting the distance you’re able to cover.
However there is a compromise – these lighter touring skis won’t perform as well on the downhills and may feel chattery and less solid which could be an issue in heavier snow.
There are a huge range of touring skis on the market depending on what you’re planning on doing on the mountain so it’s worth doing your research to find a pair you’re happy with. As with alpine skis it can get extremely technical when considering waist width, weight, length and rocker profile, so for a beginner to touring you could consider renting equipment from a hire shop to allow you to try different setups and find the best fit for you before committing to a purchase.
A running theme with touring equipment is weight saving and boots are no different. Ski touring boots are made from lighter materials and are designed to give flexibility and comfort when skinning. They have a shorter cuff and fewer buckles than alpine boots and often a lugged rubber sole more like a hiking boot to give grip when walking on rough or slippery surfaces.
Touring boots have both a hiking mode which loosens the boot allowing the ankle and calf to flex backwards and forwards in a ‘walking’ motion and a downhill mode providing more support. Some tourers prefer to loosen or unfasten the top buckle of their boots while climbing to give more freedom of movement. It is possible to skin in traditional alpine boots as long as they are compatible with your touring bindings however you’ll probably find them uncomfortable and heavy over any great distance.
Whereas a traditional alpine binding holds the boot to the ski at both the toe and heel points, a touring binding features a pivoting system which keeps the toe in place while allowing the user to lift their heel in a more natural walking motion when skinning. The heel can then be clamped back into place for the downhill.There are a variety of touring bindings on the market suitable for different uses and experience levels.
Frame bindings look and work in a similar way to traditional alpine bindings and are popular with newcomers to touring who can’t justify purchasing a second pair of skis and boots and won’t be covering great distances. They can be fitted onto any ski and used with any type of ski boot. They can also be used for alpine downhill skiing and have the same safety features as traditional bindings – meaning an adjustable DIN setting and release system. However these features all add more weight which will affect performance uphill.
Pin or Tech bindings use pins to hold the boot in place and can only be used with specialist ski touring boots. They are designed to reduce weight and are used by experienced tourers looking to save every kilo possible. Pin bindings don’t have the same safety features as frames and can only be used for touring. All touring bindings will have a heel lift system which changes the angle at which the heel meets the binding making it easier to climb steep gradients. Heel lifts can easily be added or removed without taking the ski off by using the end of the pole to move them into place.
Skins attach to the base of your skis and are densely packed with fibres that provide grip and allow you to climb uphill. They get their name from the seal skin that was originally used to make them, but modern skins use two fibres – Nylon and Mohair in their construction. Nylon is cheaper and hard wearing but wetter snow tends to ball up under it whereas Mohair (made from Angora goat skin) gives better glide making it less tiring on the skier but will wear out more quickly. Most manufacturers tend to use a mixture of both to get the best qualities from each material. Lots of brands offer skins which have been pre cut to fit the shape of popular models of touring skis or alternatively you can buy wide trim-to-fit skins which can be cut down at home to fit your skis.
Skins clip onto the front and tail of the ski and are backed with adhesive which secures them to the it’s length. When removing your skins after a hike it’s important to store them properly to protect the glue – they need to be folded in half with the glue inside so it’s not exposed to the air. If you’re going to be taking your skins off and on a lot during the day, put them in a jacket pocket so your body heat will keep them warm. If you’re new to touring it’s worth practicing attaching and removing your skins before you head out for the first time so that you feel confident when it’s time to do it on the side of a mountain.
When venturing into the backcountry you’ll need somewhere to carry your layers, water, snacks and safety equipment along with anything else you see fit to bring. There are a lot of touring backpacks on the market varying in size, features and price and what model you go for will depend on what you’re planning to do on the mountain. Those heading out for short days close to resort can opt for something smaller and more compact but if you’re planning on leaving at dawn and returning at dusk you’ll need something larger, potentially with an inbuilt avalanche airbag.
Helmets are an important piece of safety kit whenever you’re on the mountain but especially in the backcountry with its unpredictable terrain and conditions. Yet again the main thing to look out for in a touring helmet is weight, but just because a helmet is light doesn’t mean you have to compromise on safety and extra features. Look out for good ventilation to keep you cool during strenuous climbs, easy adjustability when wearing gloves, removable padding and goggle compatibility.
Touring ski poles are lightweight and telescopic, allowing their length to be adjusted according to the user’s height. They have an elongated grip which can be held at various points to make it easier to manage gradient changes and a strap handle to reduce pressure on the arm. Large baskets prevent the pole from sinking too far into deep snow as it is planted.
When planning what to wear for ski touring it’s helpful to think of it as a mountaineering activity rather than alpine skiing. Whereas you might struggle to stay warm while hopping on and off lifts in resort you may find that it’s more difficult not to overheat when touring. As you may have guessed keeping clothing light and breathable is key.
Touring is a sport of temperature extremes – during the strenuous climbs you’ll break a sweat even in wintery conditions but once you stop for a break or start your descent you’ll quickly lose that heat.
Layers are the key to staying comfortable on the mountain. You’ll need a good variety in light fabrics that you can add and remove as needed. As a starting point try a base layer in a breathable, sweat wicking fabric like Merino wool, a mid layer which will provide some insulation, a winter jacket with either down or synthetic padding that can easily be rolled up into your backpack when not in use and a lightweight hard or softshell jacket as a water and windproof top layer.
Having warm hands and feet makes a huge difference to your enjoyment of the day so good quality ski socks are essential as are a couple of pairs of gloves. You’ll want a liner glove to wear while skinning which is thin enough to allow you the dexterity to fasten fiddly buckles and take your skins on and off and a warm pair of skiing gloves to wear over the top when skiing. A hat is also a must have – you might want one that’s thin enough to wear under your helmet.
Trial and error will be necessary to find the combination of bases, mid-layers and jacket that work best for you and of course what you need will vary depending on how cold the day in question is – an icy day in January will be very different to blue skies and sunshine in April!
You might be tempted to repurpose the beloved ski jacket that’s seen you through countless first lifts and aprés bars for touring but be warned – the thick well insulated jacket that’s kept you warm on a windy chairlift will prove bulky, heavy and cumbersome when you’re trying to roll it up into your backpack for a long skin up.
What you need is a lightweight soft or hardshell jacket without padding to wear as a top layer when necessary to protect you from snow and wind. There are loads of ski jackets out there, but look for something which has decent technical features without being too heavy. Soft shells will give more breathability and freedom of movement whereas hardshells offer better protection from wind and water.
Again you’ll probably find that the salopettes you wear in resort won’t be suitable for touring due to their weight and warmth. A better bet is to find a pair of either soft or hardshell ski pants and wear a base layer underneath. As with your jacket, you’ll want a pair that are breathable and allow a good range of movement – you’ll need enough width over your boot to be able to loosen or undo it when you’re skinning. Side vents which you can zip open if you get too warm are a useful feature as are instep patches to protect against sharp ski edges and good pockets.
Mountain safety in general is a vast subject to tackle. Something that we have written about much more informatively and extensively in other articles. Click below to read to begin your research on preparing for a safe and fun adventure in the mountains.
It’s easy to get caught up in how beautiful the mountains are and forget the dangers particularly when you’re new to touring. You’ll need to carry safety equipment with you whenever you’re out on the mountain, including a transceiver, probe shovel and avalanche airbag and know how to use them in the event of an emergency. You may be able to rent safety equipment from a hire shop in resort before committing to buying your own.
Taking an avalanche safety course before venturing too far away from the pistes is also a good idea or hiring a guide for the day if you’re new to the ski area and unsure of which parts are safe to tour.
As mentioned earlier the perceived level of fitness required to ski tour may seem daunting to a newcomer to the sport, but it needn’t. Build up your cardiovascular fitness before winter with cycling, walking or running and strengthen your legs with the usual pre-season squats, wall sits and lunges. The main thing to remember is not to try anything too ambitious too quickly – nothing will put you off touring like hours of skinning while your legs are on fire on your first day. Start with short, manageable routes and build up in length and difficulty as your fitness increases.
The Dolomites provide some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world and a perfect backdrop to ski touring. The area surrounding the resort of Cortina has some fabulous backcountry to explore with hidden valleys, frozen lakes and pine forests. If you’re planning a longer tour there are plenty of mountain refuges to stay in – all offering that world famous Italian hospitality.
Chamonix is up there with the most famous ski resorts in the world and part of that is the vast area of backcountry on offer. There are lots of routes of varying difficulty which can be completed in a day – giving you the chance to take in glaciers, couloirs and generally stunning scenery. Chamonix is also home to the Vallée Blanche arguably the most famous off piste run in the world and while you don’t need touring equipment to tackle it, it’s a solid starting point for those venturing away from the lifts.
As the finishing point of one of the most famous ski tour routes in the alps, the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route, Zermatt has earned its place as one of the best areas for ski touring. You’ll find a large amount of backcountry to explore and terrain to suit different ability levels all set amongst glaciers and with the Matterhorn providing an iconic backdrop.
Ski touring plays a huge part in Norway’s history and culture and the country boasts vast and unspoilt backcountry away from the hustle and bustle of the large Alpine resorts. The area around the Sunnmøre Alps offers higher altitude than other parts of the country, good conditions, a long season and beautiful scenery with jagged peaks leading straight down to deep fjords.
St Anton is a great base from which to explore the backcountry of the Tyrolean Alps. There’s plenty of ground to cover and lots of different options available, from long hut-to-hut tours to day and half-day routes suitable for all levels. And if you’ve still got some energy left at the end of the day, St Anton is famed for its lively aprés ski.
Ski touring boots are basically for skiing in the backcountry/off-piste. Ski touring boots are for those who want to save weight when touring uphill and fit into specific bindings on specialist skis. Ski touring boots are made from lighter-weight plastics (ski touring is about agility and efficient energy use) and have a smaller cuff, thus making the uphills that much easier.
Ski touring skis are unique and masterfully crafted skis. They are different from your garden variety all-mountain ski. They need to be both light and agile for the touring part of the adventure but robust and rigid enough for maximum contact in the downhill ride. The way the ski is designed, crafted and finished is different and is optimised for touring bindings. It's worth doing your research and asking experts.
It's vital you store your skins correctly between use. For between-season storage – anything more than a few days – use the "glue saver" sheets that come with the skins. Over the summer, when your skins are out-of-action, store them in a cool, dry place and away from direct heat.
Ski touring is possible anywhere within reason. The criteria in which you select a resort could be; Am I planning on taking a three day ski touring adventure Vs a day trip? If you plan to ski tour on shorter trips, then pick a resort with a nice affordable hotel and good restaurants as well as lot's of easily accessible terrain to explore. If you want to camp while you tour for an extended trip, look at towns away from ski resorts, where you can move between locations. These trips need a lot more planning but essential to consider what's important to you and your squad.
Hey Riders, note from your gal Angelica here. All information was correct at the time of writing through research and extensive knowledge and experience. However, things change during different periods in the season and some websites offer out of date information and links may change.
Maybe you have some better information to offer or any addendum or changes to make, in which case, feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can consider adding them in! Let me know. . .