What Is Backcountry Skiing?
What’s backcountry skiing? In a word, joy. In a few more words: sweaty, exhilarating, liberating, serious. Serious because there’s certainly an inherent risk to being outside the avalanche-controlled, ski-patrolled confines of ski resorts. But if you learn to make informed decisions about where to go, and you equip yourself with the right gear … it can be one of the most fun things you ever do.
What it means:
When you’re skiing in the backcountry (also called ski touring), it means you’re not in a ski resort. The terrain is not avalanche-controlled, which means ski patrollers aren’t there at 5am to bomb avalanche-prone slopes to release any slides before a skier accidentally does. No patrollers and no avalanche control means that not only are avalanches a real danger, but on top of that, there are no nice folks in red jackets on hand to patch you up and carry you down if you get in trouble.
Backcountry hazards begin the moment you step outside a resort gate or rope line into uncontrolled terrain. (Hence the scary skull-and-crossbones warning signs many resorts place on these gates to deter people who don’t know what they’re doing.)
In times past, terrain just outside resort boundaries was called “slackcountry” because it’s so easy to access, but many avalanche professionals have grown wary of this term. It suggests that this terrain is somehow mellow or lower-risk than full-on backcountry, when in reality, many skiers and snowboarders die each year by ducking out of the resort, unprepared, looking to milk a few delicious untracked powder turns, only to get buried in an avalanche.
Why it’s wonderful:
Okay, okay. We just painted a grim picture replete with skulls, crossbones, and mortality. The dangers of backcountry skiing are real—but you can vastly reduce these risks if you properly learn about avalanche safety, decision making, and rescue techniques. (We’ll give you instructions on getting started further below.)
Done right, backcountry ski touring provides peaceful powder laps, wonderful experiences with friends and partners, a sense of freedom and adventure you can’t find inbounds, and fantastic exercise. Burning several hundred calories per hour or more, you can justify even the most brazenly portioned nacho platter for apres.
When ski touring, you get to truly “earn your turns,” and while it’s a big effort, the rewards are massive. You’ll soon grow fond of the endorphin rush of summiting a peak or gaining a ridgeline on your own power, with nary a ski lift or lodge in sight, then transition your skis, bindings, and boots to downhill mode, and sail through the trees and meadows on untracked snow all the way back to your car. The experience brings all the joy of hiking, yet the descent is both delightful and easier on the knees.
You’ll experience cool new dynamics with the friends you love to venture into the mountains with, reading the forecasts together, observing the conditions, and putting your heads together to make decisions. It’s a grown-up version of play, strategizing together and savoring the wins together. High fives abound. Full-volume whoops of joy emerge from even the most serious individuals.
You’ll take pride in plotting beautiful days of skinning (hiking) up and skiing down, covering mile after mile till it’s time to go home and flop onto the couch in a state of supreme contentment. This is the best of winter mountain travel. This is the pinnacle of what your leg muscles can do for you.
What to learn:
We get into this topic in much fuller detail in this recent blog article, but essentially, you’ll want to do some in-depth reading and attend an avalanche safety course. We highly suggest starting with the classic book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper, which is an approachable and enjoyable read even if you’re no snow scientist. Tremper makes avalanche basics easy to understand for anyone, and by the time you’ve digested the book, you really understand some fundamentals. We also go more in depth on the basics of touring etiquette in this post here.
Then, sign up for a professionally taught avalanche course. (Nope, having an experienced buddy “show you around and explain a few things” doesn’t replace your need to take a course. Not at all.) You can find course information at your local avalanche center through a quick online search. Ideally, before you consider touring without a mentor or guide, you will have taken a Level 1 Avalanche Course from AIARE (the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) or AAI (the American Avalanche Institute).
These curriculums are taught through local avalanche centers and guide services, and they involve multiple days of instruction to give you a few foundational skills. By the end of the course, you can plan a tour route, decide what terrain should be safe, know how to read an avalanche forecast, and conduct a beacon search and rescue if things go haywire.
There are also shorter avalanche courses that can serve as a mini-introduction to the skills you’ll need, such as Backcountry 101 and Avalanche Rescue clinics. These courses are valuable and will get you started if you have someone knowledgeable to go touring with, but they’re no replacement for a proper Level 1 course.
What you’ll need:
Ski touring gear is typically expensive if it’s purchased at full retail price. Fortunately, you’re onto the Geartrade UnNew movement, and you can find almost everything you need here, gently (or heartily) used, at a fraction of its original cost.
We get into complete details of what gear you need in this recent blog post. But essentially, you need skis, touring bindings that will hinge at the toe on the uphill and lock down into normal skiing mode on the downhill, “skins” to affix to your ski bases for grip while gliding up the hill, an avalanche beacon, a shovel, a probe, and a pack to put it all in.
This feels like a lot of stuff, and it is. But researching it exposes you to a whole other side of skiing. Sure, resort skiing gear is tailored for the downhill experience. But backcountry skiing and splitboarding gear is all about the holistic mountain-travel experience—the ups, the downs, the flats, the steeps, the mellows, the short and long distances. You can get excited about the whole new world of gear that opens up, nerding out on a purist form of mountain enjoyment. Ask lots of questions of more senior backcountry enthusiasts, both in person and in online forums and social media groups. People love talking about gear, destinations, conditions, routes, and avy education. Catch the bug, and soon you’ll be talking about what the snow layers are up to what the latest tech binding innovations mean for your next setup.
Shop UnNew, share the stoke, repeat.
Explore all the UnNew ski touring gear here on Geartrade, from boots to bindings to skins, packs, and skis. And post any questions in the comments on our social media thread or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gear and snow are our favorite two things to talk about, after all.
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.