How to Start Backcountry Skiing: Everything You Need to Know
But for many, that magical world feels so far away. So how do you learn how to start backcountry skiing?
Whether you're someone who has skied the resorts for years, or you have never even slid down the mountain with board(s) strapped to your feet, if you hear that song calling to you, there's a place for you in the backcountry.
Maybe, like me, you're someone who just wants the opportunity to experience the mountains in winter. It's hard to get out there. Have you ever tried to go hiking in the snow? I have, it’s slow and painstaking and feels a bit like trying to hike through cold molasses — and you never know when you might just sink in to your hips.
Or maybe you dream of big lines on big peaks. Of steep couloirs and pushing the edge of what's possible in a mountainous descent on skis.
Whatever your reason to get into backcountry skiing, if you feel called to the backcountry, there’s a reason for you to get out there and explore on skis.
What Does Backcountry Skiing Mean?
At its most basic, backcountry skiing is skiing or snowboarding in terrain that cannot be accessed by a lift. There are different types of backcountry skiing that fall along a spectrum, from lift-accessed backcountry, to ski mountaineering, with ski touring sitting somewhere in the middle.
Lift accessed backcountry skiing, also known some places as “side country” is backcountry terrain adjacent to a ski resort. This can be a good place to get familiar with the backcountry, but where a lot of people make a mistake in this terrain is thinking it is safer because it is accessed through a resort. Once you slide under those ropes (there’s almost always a specific exit point that makes it clear you are leaving the ski resort), you’re in avalanche terrain and should have training and avalanche safety gear.
Ski mountaineering is often what you see portrayed in ski films. Big lines on big mountains, usually hiking or climbing up, and skiing down. This also could be accessed with a helicopter, but then you would usually call it heli-skiing, another form of backcountry skiing.
Ski touring is more broad, and could consist of anything from a low angle lap in a meadow to a long, multi day hut trip on skis. If you’re skinning up snow and skiing down snow, you’re probably ski touring.
But while there are various types of backcountry skiing, they all have one thing in common: avalanche danger.
When you recreate in the backcountry in the winter, if there’s snow on the ground, there’s avalanche danger. The number one rule about how to start backcountry skiing is to get avalanche training and avalanche safety equipment. Unfortunately, this is also one of the biggest expenses when it comes to buying backcountry skiing equipment.
Avalanche TrainingThere are lots of different levels of avalanche training, starting with a free avalanche awareness class that most avalanche training centers present both online and in person. Check out Know Before You Go to start your avalanche training for free, or Youtube for free avalanche awareness webinars. But, to start backcountry skiing, it's important to take an AIARE 1 course.
AIARE stands for American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education and is the American standard for Avalanche education. They provide both recreational and professional training through providers around the country — typically using guiding companies that also teach climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing as well.
There are several courses under the AIARE umbrella, starting with recreation level 1, avalanche rescue, recreation level 2, and then moving into the Pro level courses for those interested in instructing or guiding in the winter backcountry.
Taking my AIARE 1 taught me so much about what types of avalanches you might encounter, how they form, and how to predict the likelihood through digging snow pits and reading the mountains.
For me, living in the highly reactive snowpack of Southwest Colorado, I pretty much stick to slopes under 30 degrees for the majority of the winter. Slopes under 30 degrees have a much lower likelihood to slide than slopes between 30-40 degrees. Luckily, for those learning to backcountry ski, those lower angle slopes also provide a great opportunity to practice skinning uphill, transitioning from skinning to skiing, and skiing very different terrain than what you would encounter at most ski resorts.
However, please don’t take any of this information as sufficient knowledge about safety in the backcountry. All this blog serves to do is give some basic background knowledge, and not replace any formal education around avalanches or backcountry safety.
I want to make backcountry skiing and snowboarding more accessible, but not at the expense of proper safety and education. If taking an AIARE course seems financially out of reach — as they are expensive — keep reading as I will go into ways to make backcountry skiing more affordable, later in this blog.
What Do You Need for Backcountry Skiing?
First and foremost, you need skis. Now, you may be asking yourself “can I use the same skis I have been skiing on at the resort?” The answer is, yes and no.
The best beginner backcountry ski setup looks different for everyone, and depends on how long you have been skiing. In general, lighter weight skis are easier on the uphill, but less stable for the downhill. Most resort-oriented skis are going to feel really heavy for the uphill, but will feel great on the downhill, since that's what they’re designed to excel at.
When I started backcountry skiing, I was still pretty new to skiing in general, so I leaned towards a ski designed for 50/50 backcountry resort skiing. I wanted it to be light enough that I didn’t exhaust myself on the uphill, but stable enough that I was going to feel confident as a new skier on the downhill.
If you are just hiking a short way from the resort, to lift accessed backcountry skiing, you may just be able to carry your skis and it won’t be that big of a deal. But for most ski touring, carrying skis or a snowboard on your pack is a huge pain — trust me, I’ve done it. It’s doable, but you’ll be much slower than your companions if they are skinning.
So to be able to skin, or go uphill, you need bindings that allow you to switch between an uphill and downhill mode. For skis, the simplest version of this are frame bindings, which look about the same as normal downhill bindings but you can unlock the back and the whole thing pivots so that your heel is free and you’re able to walk uphill, once you attach skins to the bottom of your skis.
But frame bindings are heavy, and most people prefer pin bindings also known as tech bindings, that feature two pins that fit into your boots and a heel piece that pivots out of the way so your heel can lift while staying attached to the ski with the two small pins. This style of binding does require you to have backcountry specific boots, while frame bindings could technically work with a downhill resort boot, although it will be heavier and if your boots don't have a walk mode, it will be awkward.
For someone wanting to try out backcountry skiing without investing a lot, frame bindings would make the best beginner backcountry ski setup for someone focused on budget.
For snowboarders, you will probably need a splitboard, which splits in two and then similar style bindings allow your heel to move so you can skin uphill. Splitboards are expensive, which is one reason I switched from snowboarding to skiing before learning to backcountry ski — admittedly I also wasn’t great at snowboarding, and actually ended up preferring skiing more.
The last piece of backcountry ski gear you’ll need are skins, which are sticky on one side to attach to the bottom of your skis for the uphill, and peel off — ideally easily — for the downhill. They come in different sizes and are made out of nylon or mohair, or a blend of both. They allow you to move uphill but not slip back downhill on snow.
For the best beginner backcountry ski setup, make sure your skins cover the entire width of your skis, since this will allow the best grip. When you start moving up steeper or icier terrain, being able to feel confident that even just the edges of your skis will grip the snow is vital. There's a technique to skinning that takes time to master, but to start out, just play around! Keep in mind that the more you pick up your skis, the more energy you use, so try to use the glide!
Backcountry Safety Gear
Also, along with avalanche education, make sure you have a beacon, shovel, and probe that are suited to the snowpack you live near. If you live in the Pacific Northwest your probe will need to be longer than if you live in the Rockies — due to typical snowpack depths. Also, these are things that can often be found used, but make sure your beacon has three antennas, as anything less is old technology and not as safe. Check out Rerouted's selection of avalanche safety gear.
How to Dress for Backcountry Skiing?
Wearing layers designed to keep you warm when you’re sweaty can help you stay comfortable while backcountry skiing. Bringing lots of layers allow you to shed clothes when you get hot on the uphill, and add them back on when you get cold at the top or while taking a break.
One key thing to keep in mind for your backcountry skiing outfit is no cotton. You may have heard that cotton kills, and nowhere is this more true than in the wet, cold winter backcountry. Cotton does not insulate when it gets wet, nor does it dry quickly, so if you sweat or get it wet in the snow, you’ll be cold the rest of the day.
Synthetic insulation, not down, is better especially in areas that get lots of wet snow like the Pacific Northwest. Personally, I do often bring my down jacket as a layer to throw on while not moving, but I stick with a synthetic lightweight jacket like my Arcteryx Atom LT while on the move.
Layering layering layering is the way to go to be able to shed layers while going uphill, and add them when going downhill. I usually start with a wool base layer on top and bottom, then add a fleece like my Patagonia R1 or similar, then ski pants (or bibs!), a synthetic jacket, and then a shell.
Insulated ski jackets like those you may wear in the resort are not ideal for the backcountry, because they’re designed to keep you really warm with just one layer. Also, they’re typically not very packable, another key feature when you need to carry all your layers.
How to Make Backcountry Skiing More Affordable
For me, this is the most important piece of how to start backcountry skiing. Unless you’re someone with vast amounts of money and no regard for where you spend it (in which case, you probably wouldn’t care to be on a used gear website), you probably feel overwhelmed by the cost of getting into backcountry skiing.
I know, it's expensive. From $700 skis, to $500 bindings, $150 for skins, to another $400 for avalanche equipment, let alone the cost of avalanche education. And this isn’t even taking into account the clothes if you don’t already own those! Plus, if you are still learning to ski there might also be the cost of lift tickets and lessons. Skiing and snowboarding is an industry that trends towards the wealthy.
But there is space for everyone! Everyone belongs in the outdoors, whether or not the price tag makes you a wee bit nauseous. And there are ways to cut down the price tag.
How to Find Cheap Backcountry Gear
So how do we make backcountry skiing more affordable? Well, the first thing I would recommend is buying your gear used. Obviously, I recommend Rerouted as a great place to search for used ski and snowboard gear. But if you can't find what you’re looking for, see if your local area has a used outdoor gear store, or try Facebook Marketplace or other online used gear retailers. If you can’t find it used, wait for sales to happen, usually around the winter holidays, memorial day, and labor day. Spring is a great time to find good deals on winter sports items as stores are transitioning to summer sports.
How to Afford Avalanche Training
For avalanche education, look for scholarships! Especially if you belong to an underrepresented group in the outdoors, there are lots of scholarships available. Ask your local guiding company if they offer scholarships, check out AIARE’s list of scholarships, or keep an eye out on the internet and social media for more avalanche education and ski based scholarships.
Community is also one of the best ways to learn to backcountry ski for cheaper. Having friends who will lend you gear, or teach you to ski, or just simply provide information and inspiration for backcountry skiing is invaluable in the process of learning how to start backcountry skiing. If I could give one piece of advice, find a supportive, caring community within the outdoors. Find people who value not only being outside but supporting everyone at whatever level they may be at — not just sending the gnar.
Backcountry skiing is a magical way to navigate the mountains in the winter, and if you feel called to traversing snowy meadows or ridges, you belong there. Even if you have never been on snow in your life, if you have that spark, you will get there. But don’t worry if it seems to take forever to build up the skills and equipment to start backcountry skiing. Take your time, the mountains are waiting.