How to safely start ski touring
The gear, the know-how, the where, and the who.
If you’re interested in ski touring (also called backcountry skiing), you’re on a direct path to adventure. Backcountry skiing spares you the lift lines, ticket/pass costs, and angst of resort skiing, and you can farm limitless untracked powder lines as a reward for putting in a little sweat-equity on the skintrack hike.
To “get into” ski touring, there are two primary things to tackle: getting the gear, then getting the avalanche safety, and route-planning knowledge to go out and do it. Fortunately, we just published a great overview of the gear you’ll need, covering everything from touring bindings to lip balm. And while brand-new touring gear is expensive, you can get almost everything you’ll need here on Geartrade, gently used and ready to rock.
Next, here are a few pointers to get started:
Try before you buy.
You’re likely to be hooked the first time you ski tour, but it’s a smart idea to make sure you like it before making this investment of time and cash. If you can, borrow or rent a ski touring set up plus a beacon, shovel, and probe, then find a knowledgeable mentor or guide to take you for a trial run or two. Touring is very rewarding, but it takes far more effort than simple resort skiing. The hike uphill is a serious calorie-burner, and it takes a while to master your skinning technique. Most newbies have a few comedic-relief crashes just trying to hike up. (Switchbacks, requiring “kick-turns,” provide the most opportunities for undignified topples. Don’t worry, a kick-turn kerfuffle never killed anyone.)
Choose a guide or mentor who will make extremely conservative decisions on route choice, terrain, and avalanche hazard; they should be able to explain to you exactly why the place they’re taking you to is safe. (“I’ve skied this a million times” does not cut it.) Then, see how the day goes. Hopefully, you’ll love touring and will want to take the plunge.
Sign up for a beginner avalanche course.
As soon as you know you seriously want to ski tour, find a beginner avalanche course to sign up for. This is a must-do. Without avalanche safety knowledge, you won’t be equipped to decide when or where to tour, and you’ll be a liability rather than an asset if anything ever goes wrong. Worse, still, you could trigger an avalanche on another person or party due to not knowing any better. So learning basic avalanche safety is item #1 on your priority list.
Ideally, you’ll take a multi-day Avalanche Level 1 Recreational course. You can find info on local courses from your local avalanche center. As a semi-decent plan B, you can sign up for a Backcountry 101 course with an evening of classroom instruction and a full day out in the snow. Once you’ve completed a Level 1 or 101 course, find a Beacon Skills Clinic or Companion Rescue Clinic you can attend as a follow-up. The more practice and knowledge you have, the safer you and your partners will be.
Almost any guide or instructor will tell you that you should read the book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper. They’re right. Snag a copy from the bookstore or library and devour it. This book is popular because it is not only incredibly insightful but Tremper also writes in a conversational, approachable way using lots of examples and metaphors that make avalanche science easily understandable for the average layperson. Thanks to Tremper, you don’t have to be a scientist to get the hang of snow science!
Get in the know by reading the daily forecast.
Even if you haven’t attended your avalanche safety course or started touring yet, you should start checking your local avalanche center’s forecast each day. You’ll start to understand their common terminology, and the charts and diagrams will begin to make sense (particularly as you read Tremper’s book, which explains it all). You’ll store local snow observations in your mind for reference later, as the daily forecasts build on each other just like the layers in the snowpack do.
Research beginner-friendly tours in your area.
We consider a “beginner-friendly” tour one that is relatively short (you won’t have the stamina yet for eight hours of skinning, we promise!), covers only conservative terrain, and doesn’t require complex route-finding or equipment. By now, you will have learned in Tremper’s book that low-angle terrain (less than approx. 30 degrees) is very unlikely to avalanche, so this may be a great kind of terrain to seek out while you’re getting the hang of things.
Local guidebooks, blogs, mentors, and avalanche instructors will be a great resource in identifying low-risk tours. You should also purchase a paper topographic map and start studying some of the zones you’d like to explore. How steep are the slopes? How many miles will you have to cover? What are some of the hazards surrounding you, such as “hangfire” avalanche-prone terrain above? What kind of route would make sense and minimize risk exposure? How long will the tour take?
Develop a crew.
You’ll want to find a few like-minded friends to tour with regularly. Keep in mind: not just any friend with touring gear and tailgate beer will do. (Obviously, that’s a start.) Find people who have avalanche safety experience, know how to make conservative decisions and minimize risk, and are familiar with your local area’s touring routes.
While someone with more experience may be the leader of the day, don’t blindly follow their every decision; you have a little reading and coursework under your belt now, too. If they skip a safety step like doing a beacon check at the trailhead, speak up. Ask questions about why their choice of ascent and descent routes are safe. You’ll learn a lot and also help them by pointing out potential red flags they haven’t considered.
Make sure you’re the most valuable partner you can be by building up your fitness on the skin track, practicing your kick-turns, practicing transitioning from uphill mode to downhill mode (which you can do on your own lawn or living room rug), sharing thoughts and questions about the day’s plan, and bringing snacks to share. By doing these things, you’ll ensure you’re asked back to join your new crew again.
You can build your touring-pal network by meeting people at your avalanche courses, or through mutual friends, or social media groups. Many areas have a dedicated Facebook group like our own Utah Backcountry Ski Touring page here in the Wasatch. There are even Facebook ski touring groups specifically for ladies who want to find other women to tour with, such as Women Who Backcountry Ski. People in these forums are generally happy to answer newbies’ questions and help you find touring partners.
Have the time of your life.
As you go, you’ll get more and more confident. You’ll fine-tune your gear and layers for just the right setup. And you’ll have the absolute best-ever time of your life exploring the mountains, learning new skills, and slaying endless fields of happy happy pow. Also don’t forget to brush up on your touring etiquette here are our tips here.
Hit us up with your questions and tips for newbies in the comments below, and go hog-wild shopping UnNew touring gear here on Geartrade. With all the money you save, you can buy … more touring gear!
Happy ski season, and see you out there.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.