If you’re only familiar with resort skiing where you only go downhill, some of the things you’ve heard about backcountry skiing or ski touring might sound a little odd. No trails and you actually ski up the hill? Backcountry skiing, also called ski touring, is a great way to experience the beauty of mountain environments and the freedom that comes with exploring the backcountry.
Read on to find out more about this sport and what you need to get started.
What Is Backcountry Skiing?
Backcountry skiing, ski touring, alpine touring, off-piste skiing, skinning– these all describe the form of skiing that takes place in natural, unmarked, and unpatrolled terrain away from the cut, groomed trails of ski resorts. It provides a wilder, more adventurous experience and lets you have fun in the backcountry in a unique way.
This type of skiing requires specialized equipment, such as skis with special bindings (alpine touring bindings) and skins to attach to the bottom of the skis to prevent sliding backward. It often requires hiking or skiing uphill to reach the ski runs. Many people combine it with camping for a fully immersive winter adventure.
Backcountry skiing has its roots in Scandinavian skiing techniques; ski touring has been a popular pastime in the Nordic countries since the 19th century. While it might sound challenging, especially the part where you ski uphill, the reality is that almost anybody can learn to do it if they have the right equipment and the right attitude. You should have some experience with skiing before you start, but you don’t have to be an expert by any means to enjoy ski touring.
If you prefer snowboarding to skiing but still want the backcountry experience of pristine snow and less-crowded slopes, you’re in luck! Backcountry snowboarding can be done with a typical snowboard for the downhill parts and snowshoes for the uphill sections, or you can use a splitboard. A splitboard separates into two halves, and the bindings have a touring mode for the uphill hike. Once you’re ready to go downhill, you reassemble the board and switch the bindings back to snowboarding mode before you descend.
Backcountry Skiing Safety
Backcountry skiing involves a lot of trailblazing. Part of the sport’s appeal is that it is off the beaten path– but with that detachment from groomed trails comes an increased risk. There are no regular ski patrols in the backcountry, so to be safe, you need to know everything you can about avalanche safety.
Avalanche education is important if you want to take up ski touring. Knowledge of how to determine when an avalanche is likely to occur and what to do if one does happen can save your life or someone else’s, so take the time to take an avalanche course before you get too invested in a hobby.
Avalanche courses are available at:
- US Avalanche Centers
- REI Stores
- Through AIARE Avalanche Research and Education
- Outdoor groups like the Colorado Mountain School and the Mountaineers
- Local outdoor guide services with accredited staff
- Online or in person with the American Avalanche Institute
- Online courses from professional mountain guides like this one.
You can also refresh your working knowledge of avalanche safety with Avalanche.org’s online educational resources.
Safety Gear for Backcountry Skiing
No backcountry skiing gear loadout is complete without safety equipment. You should always have:
- An Avalanche transceiver (also called a beacon), is a small device that emits a radio signal that can be picked up by other beacons. It is also used to locate other beacons.
- Avalanche Shovel – Lightweight shovel for digging out anyone who’s been buried in the snow
- Probe – A long, collapsible pole for searching for someone buried in the snow.
- A backpack with your food, water, extra layers, and other backcountry essentials.
- A map (paper or digital) to show surrounding slope angles
- First aid kit
- Water in an insulated bottle or hydration bladder with an insulated tube
The type of backpack you choose can also make a difference to your safety. Some backpacks have built-in airbags that use compressed air or electric motors to inflate the airbag in order to help you rise to the top of an avalanche debris field.
One other piece of safety equipment is the Avalung. This is a plastic tube with a mouthpiece that moves the CO2 you exhale away from your nose where you inhale. By breathing into the Avalung, carbon dioxide will not accumulate near your mouth and nose, which can potentially increases the time window for safe rescue. (The effectiveness of this solution is still up for determination)
Signs of Avalanche Risk
(none of the below is a replacement for an actual course)
In simple terms, avalanches are a mass of snow moving down a slope. They kill between 25 and 35 people in the US alone every year, and 90% of the deadly ones are triggered by human activity.
There are several signs that an area may be more prone to avalanches, so look out for these terrain features and signs that an avalanche may occur:
- Steep slopes (above 30 degrees)
- Convex rolls
- Recent avalanche events
- Cracks in the snowpack
- Recent heavy snowfall
- Recent rapid temperature changes
- “Whumphing” sounds coming from the snowpack
- Wind-loading of snow
All of these are signs that the snowpack may be unstable and that an avalanche is more likely to occur. You should also refer to your local avalanche center’s forecasts and the national avalanche danger map. It is not worth it to ski in a place where the risk of avalanches is extremely high.
Backcountry Skiing Gear Essentials
The skis and ski equipment used for backcountry skiing are a bit different than what you would use for typical downhill skiing– although you can swap out the bindings on your downhill skis for the AT bindings used in backcountry skiing. However, skis designed for ski touring tend to be lighter, so you may want to consider that when choosing the skis you’re going to take into the backcountry. Here are the essential pieces of gear you need for backcountry skiing:
- Skis or a splitboard
- Ski skins (also known as climbing skins)
- Ski poles
- Ski boots or AT boots
- AT bindings
Skis or a Splitboard
Skis specifically designed for backcountry use are typically wider than traditional downhill skis and have a rocker shape, which allows for better flotation in deep snow. If you prefer snowboarding, you should strongly consider a splitboard so that you don’t have to take snowshoes.
These are strips of material that attach to the bottom of your skis or splitboard and provide traction when climbing uphill. They are usually made of synthetic material or mohair (or a blend of the two). We have a complete guide to using ski skins that you should read here; it will tell you all you need to know about how to use ski skins.
Ski poles are useful for generating power, making turns, traversing flat or rolling terrain, and assisting in the uphill climb. You may not always use them on the downhill, but it’s worth taking them for the uphill part of the climb. Almost all backcountry skiers ski downhill with poles, but many split borders store them in a backpack for the downhill. Poles are pretty much essential for uphill travel.
Ski Boots or AT Boots
Backcountry ski boots are designed to be more lightweight and flexible (in uphill mode) than traditional downhill boots, which makes them more comfortable and easier to hike and climb in. Depending on the type of binding your skis have, you may need special boots to work with them. These boots, called AT boots or sometimes tech boots, have a depression for the pins of tech bindings to fit into them and hold them to the ski.
Backcountry bindings (frequently called AT bindings, for “alpine touring”) are designed to eject out of the bindings when enough force is applied, which means that your skis come off safely when you fall (if all goes to plan). AT bindings also allow you to move uphill because the heel boot can lift from the ski while the toe stays attached to the ski and binding. AT bindings often don’t have the same safety certifications as regular downhill bindings.
We have a full guide to AT bindings that you can read here to find about the three types of bindings– for beginners, you may be most interested in frame bindings since you can use the boots you already have.
Backcountry Skiing Bag
Additionally, you will need a ski pack with all of your essential outdoor equipment, including your avalanche safety equipment. This can be a pack that you already have, or you can get a pack with mesh pockets for your avalanche tools and insulated compartments for water. Some ski packs also have places to clip on a helmet, or even carry your skis across your back. Check out our review of this bag as an example.
Choosing Equipment for Backcountry Skiing
Finding the right equipment is an important part of backcountry skiing. While you can attach tech bindings to the skis you already have, you may not want to. There are several key features of skis designed for ski touring, like their shape and width, that can make the backcountry ski experience more fun.
Here are just a few of the key considerations of backcountry skis that may lead you to want to try a pair specifically for ski touring.
- Ski length: Backcountry skis tend to be shorter than traditional alpine skis, which makes them more maneuverable in tight and steep terrain. Advanced skiers, freestyle mountain skiers often don’t necessarily have shorter skies.
- Ski width: Backcountry skis tend to be wider than traditional alpine skis to provide better flotation in deep snow.
- Rocker profile: The rocker profile of the ski refers to the shape of the ski when viewed from the side, and a ski with a pronounced rocker (upward curve) will be more maneuverable and easier to turn in deep snow.
- Weight: Backcountry skis need to be lightweight to make hiking and climbing uphill more comfortable. Heavy skies are often great for downhill performance, but are of course more difficult on the uphill.
- Construction: Backcountry skis are typically made with lightweight materials.
Ultimately, your choice of skis should be a balance between your personal preferences, skiing ability, and the type of terrain you plan to ski. You need to consider your experience level and comfort when picking a pair.
Choosing your ski bindings is equally important. There is much more information in our guide to AT ski bindings, but some of the basic considerations are:
- Weight: AT ski bindings need to be as lightweight as possible for comfortable hiking and climbing. Frame bindings are naturally going to be heavier than tech bindings or hybrid bindings, so keep that in mind.
- Boot compatibility: Check to ensure that the binding you choose is compatible with the type of boots you have. AT bindings come in different types, and tech bindings are only compatible with tech compatible boot types.
- Brakes: Ski brakes help prevent your skis from sliding away in the event of a fall, but not everybody likes to use them. You can choose between brakes or an ankle leash, or use both.
- Durability: AT ski bindings are subject to rigorous use, and it’s important to pick bindings that are durable enough to withstand backcountry terrain.
- Release value and certifications: This refers to the amount of force required to release your boot from the binding. The release value should be set according to your weight, skiing ability, and the terrain you will be skiing. Many AT bindings don’t have certifications on release testing, and you may want to buy a binding that does have a TUV certified DIN setting.
For beginners, the price tag of a brand-new pair of skis and bindings can be difficult to swallow. Fortunately, there is a robust secondhand market for this gear. Check Facebook, Gearswap, and with your local ski shop to see what’s available.
Getting Started With Backcountry Skiing
As you might expect, there is a bit of a learning curve to ski touring. While you might imagine gliding silently through a majestic forest of snow-covered pines, your first run on backcountry skis should be somewhere safe, where there are people around to help if things go wrong. One way to do this is to find a resort that allows uphill travel on skis. Check your local mountain’s “uphill policy” to find out if you can learn how to ski tour there.
Other good resources for learning how to backcountry ski include:
- A friend, colleague or family member with experience
- Ski schools taught by associations like the American Alpine Institute
- Ski schools taught by guide groups like Utah Mountain Adventures or the Pikes Peak Alpine School
- The US Ski Mountaineering Association’s training resources
- A local guide shop with ski guides
- A local beginner ski group. (Often found on social media)
- Your local ski resort, which may offer backcountry classes
Am I Good Enough To Try Backcountry Skiing?
We’ll be honest: if you can barely conquer the bunny slope, backcountry skiing isn’t for you… yet. You need to feel secure on skis and should be able to confidently ski a black (difficult) trail or an ungroomed blue. You should also feel comfortable with leaving the trail and know how to assess risks and rapidly changing situations.
If you don’t feel comfortable on skis, the best thing to do is keep skiing. The more practice you get, the better you will become and the more comfortable you will feel.
How To Get Started Backcountry Skiing
In order to help you get started, we’ve created a simple step by step process (that may take a long time), but breaks down all of the steps you should be taking to get into backcountry skiing.
- Develop enough skiing skills to comfortable ski down ungroomed blue trails, and black trails. This is most often accomplished through resort skiing.
- Get backcountry education. This is best in the form of an avalanche class, but can be done with online training, in class training, working with a mentor, joining groups, or a combination.
- Get your backcountry skiing gear and safety gear. The necessary gear is listed above in this article. Renting gear can be a great way to try out the sport before a larger commitment of a purchase.
- Familiarize yourself with your gear. Use it at a resort, or in a safe area, and practice with it so you can operate all of your equipment and gear with ease before hitting the backcountry.
- Find a partner or group, and plan your first trip. This can be a friend, colleague, local group, or even a professional guide.
- Go on your first trip! Be safe and cautious.
Backcountry Skiing Terms Terms
There are lots of different ski touring terms and words that you will learn as you get started with backcountry skiing. Here are just a few of the techniques and terms that you’ll often here (fortunately, we made this list short).
When skinning uphill on steep terrain, you may need to make kick turns to change direction. Watch this video to see and learn. Begin by stopping and turning your skis perpendicular to the slope. Raise the uphill ski and place it behind the downhill ski, then step down on the uphill ski and bring the downhill ski around.
Side stepping is great for climbing very short steep sections. Place your skis perpendicular to the slope and step up with one ski. Bring the other ski up and step up again with the first ski, repeating until you’re up the hill. This may be done with skins on, but is often done when needing to move uphill in downhill mode. Here is an example video.
Skate skiing is used on flat terrain and involves pushing off with the edges of your skis. Start by pushing off with one ski and gliding forward, then transfer your weight and push off with the other ski. Here is an example video.
Skinning involves attaching your climbing skins to go uphill. Start by placing one ski in front of the other by gliding the ski along the snow. Alternate just like walking Push your foot forward and down and glide the other ski forward.
The aspect of a slope is the angle or direction that it faces in relation to the sun. Aspects can range from north-facing slopes that receive more shade and less direct sunlight to south-facing slopes that get the most amount of direct sunlight. Different aspects also have different snow packs and conditions. Knowing the aspect of a slope can help skiers and snowboarders plan their runs and pick out safe routes based on the current weather and terrain conditions.
Heel risers on backcountry ski bindings are a tool used to adjust the angle of your heel while skinning uphill in order to decrease the necessary angle flexion. The heel risers can be adjusted based on terrain or personal preference, allowing you to quickly switch between multiple heights. Heel risers are essential for backcountry skiers, who often encounter challenging terrain with deep snow, ice, and uneven surfaces.
Bootpacking is where skiers take of the skis and head uphill just in boots. This usually happens in very steep terrain where skinning doesn’t work well. The path created is called the bootpack.
Breakable crust is a type of snow surface that is created when the top layer of snow melts and re-freezes. This type of snow can be very dangerous to skiers, as it creates an unstable and unpredictable surface. The instability makes it difficult to gauge the amount of pressure needed to break through the crust while skiing, which can lead to falls or injuries. Breakable crust is especially common in springtime conditions, when warm temperatures cause the top layer of snow to melt quickly, and that layer refreezes overnight.
Corn snow refers to the type of snow that is formed when temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing throughout the day. Corn snow occurs when the top layer of snow begins to melt, making it soft enough to edge well. It sits upon colder harder snow that prevents the skier from breaking through. Good corn is a a staple of spring skiing.
To be out, and backcountry skiing, before the sun comes up.
A couloir is a narrow gorge or ravine found in mountainous terrain. The steep sides of the opening are often composed of either sheer rock walls or icy snow and ice. Couloirs are typically very difficult to ski due to their narrow shape, but are sought out by many ski mountaineers.
Telemark skiing is a type of alpine skiing that uses the telemark turn, a style of skiing where the heel is free and the skier leans forward with their arms outstretched. Telemark skiing has been around since the late 19th century and can be seen used for many different styles of skiing, from backcountry touring to resort. The key to telemarking is learning how to make graceful turns with control and finesse.
Chunder is a term used to describe chunks of snow, ice, and rocks that are on the slope. It is often difficult to navigate, as it can cause a skier to lose control or even injure themselves.
Backcountry touring is a fun sport that’s growing in popularity. This winter, why not try a new type of mountain activity and check out ski touring?
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about