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How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding


These days, everyone with more than a season of skiing or snowboarding under their belts wants to head for the backcountry. And it's no secret why. With pristine powder, perfect pillow lines, majestic tree runs, and no one around to ruin the experience but a few of your best friends, the backcountry is where it's at.

But what exactly are we talking about when we say “backcountry”? Is that the same as "sidecountry" or "touring"?  What's the deal with avalanches? Just how common are yeti attacks, anyway? In this guide, we'll answer most of these questions as we cover the basics to help you get started on your journey into the backcountry.

Important: You should always carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them. We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or the equivalent, and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners.

 
How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding

What is Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding? 

The word "backcountry" is a catch-all term for a few different types of riding, which makes it a bit confusing to pin down exactly what people are talking about when they use it. At its most basic, backcountry skiing or snowboarding is any time you ride down a slope that’s not within the maintained and controlled boundaries of a ski resort. If there’s no ski patrol, you’re in the backcountry. That being said, there are two categories that most backcountry riding falls into.

Lift Accessed Backcountry, Sidecountry, or Slackcountry

Lift accessed backcountry, also called "sidecountry" or "slackcountry," is the first foray into the world of backcountry skiing and snowboarding for many riders. In lift accessed backcountry riding, you take a chairlift up the hill and exit the ski area through a controlled backcountry gate. One moment you’re in bounds, the next you’re in the backcountry. Even though you’re still close to civilization, you’re now entering terrain that has not been controlled for avalanches and isn’t covered by ski patrol sweeps. You’re on your own, and are now completely responsible for your safety and that of your partners. As such, you should have all your backcountry gear and training before you leave the resort. That means a beacon, a shovel, a probe, a partner, and a plan.

Additionally, when riding lift accessed backcountry, knowledge of your planned ski route is even more important. You often don’t get a view of your route on the way up, the ski lifts can take you into very serious terrain, and although the backcountry gates are usually accessible without ski touring equipment, the bottoms of the runs sometimes are not. It’s easy to pop out into the sidecountry and find yourself cliffed out, or to reach the bottom of a gully and realize you don’t know where you are or have the right equipment to get yourself out.

Human Powered Backcountry

For many people, this is what comes to mind when they think of true backcountry skiing. You start at a trailhead in the woods somewhere, make your own way up the mountain, and ride some truly wild terrain back down. The most common way of doing this is by using touring skis or a splitboard, and equipping them with climbing skins to get you up the hill. As such, people will often just say “touring” when referring to human powered back country riding. As you might expect, being even further from the safety of a lodge and ski patrollers means proceeding with upmost caution. Study your route and the snowpack, don’t leave home without your avi gear, know how to use it, and ride with a partner who has done the same. Talk through your decisions as a group, and always be willing to turn around if anyone is uncomfortable with the plan.

How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding
 

Getting Started Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding

Before you drop everything and burn rubber to the nearest trailhead, you’ll need to equip yourself with the gear, skills, and knowledge required to manage the inherent risks of exploring wild snow-covered terrain. Here, we cover the basics of getting started in the backcountry so you can dive in with confidence.

What skiing and snowboarding ability level is required to ride in the backcountry?

Before you venture outside of the ski area boundaries, it's a good idea to make sure you're comfortable navigating untamed and unfamiliar terrain, and descending in less-than-perfect snow conditions. While everyone hopes for fields of untouched powder, in reality you'll encounter a wide variety of challenging types of snow in the backcountry, sometimes all on the same tour! From firm crusts and ice first thing in the morning to sloppy, heavy snow in the afternoon; sometimes the snow is your greatest challenge. A great first step is to get used to exploring off-piste back bowls and inbounds terrain that require some hiking before you head out any gates into backcountry terrain.
 
Can I use my regular alpine skis or snowboard in the backcountry?

Yes and no. Most lift-accessed backcountry riding allows the use of your normal alpine ski gear or freeride snowboard setup. Getting to your line may entail some booting or traversing, but you are usually (but not always) able to ski right back to the lifts for another lap. However, if you want to access deeper backcountry terrain, you'll need to invest in special gear that allows you to walk uphill. For skiers, this will usually mean mounting your skis with touring bindings and climbing skins. Snowboarders will require a splitboard, a special type of snowboard that splits into two, and bindings and climbing skins to go with it. But there are many options when it comes to touring gear and lots of things to consider! Continue  reading below for more in-depth information. 

What additional skills, knowledge, and gear do I need?

Once you're in the backcountry, you’re on your own. There’s no trained rescue professionals and no one to tell you what's a green circle and what's a black diamond. So in adddition to be able to ski a variety of snow types, you should at minimum be comfortable assessing terrain, evaluating hazards, and responding to things going haywire. If your partner gets hurt or caught in an avalanche, you are the only person around to save their life. In order to understand and manage the inherent risks of riding untamed terrain, you should take an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Class and carry avalanche safety gear with you every time you go. 
 


Avalanche Safety & Safety Gear

Get Certified

The first step in learning how to minimize the danger from avalanches is by educating yourself and carrying the right gear. Before venturing out into the backcountry on your own, we strongly recommend taking an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Class. This is usually a three-day class where a certified professional will teach you how to use the tools and information at your disposal to make safe decisions, and take you into the backcountry to learn how to evaluate dangers firsthand. Taking a class won’t make you an expert, and regular practice is a necessity, but it will open your eyes to the many dangers of backcountry travel and ways to mitigate them, familiarize you with some common snowpack assessments and stability tests, and allow you to practice your avalanche rescue skills and smart decision making. A lot of being safe in the backcountry involves asking the simple question, “What if?”

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you can learn more at www.nwac.us. If you live in avalanche country elsewhere in the US, you can locate an avalanche center near you at www.avalanche.org. Here’s a list of providers of avalanche classes nationwide that follow the AIARE curriculum.

Follow the Snowpack

Once you have your AIARE Level 1 Certification (Avi 1 for short), the next crucial step toward being safe in the backcountry happens in your own home before you even step outside. The best way to stay safe is to evaluate the danger before you go, and to stay home on days that are far too risky. As snow people, our general reaction to seeing heavy snowfall in the evening is to immediately start dreaming of powder day face shots in the morning. But this kind of riding is generally best to leave in the resort. All that unconsolidated blower pow is fun to ride when there’s a team of professionals bombing it and mitigating dangerous zones, but in the backcountry, it’s as clear a sign of high risk as you can get. Generally, you want to wait a few days for the fresh snow to bond to the layers below it before venturing out.

A good way to stay up to date on the conditions of the snowpack in your area is by utilizing the avalanche reporting resources available to you. Avalanche.org is an excellent resource, with links to regional avalanche centers that evaluate their local snowpacks all season long and use a standardized system to communicate the risk of a given day. These avalanche centers produce daily reports that communicate danger on a 1-5 scale from Low to Extreme for a range of elevations and elaborate on specific hazards and slope aspects you should be cautious of. By following the storm cycles in your local region, and using the daily avi forecast as a guide, you can make informed plans and safe objectives for the day or decide if the backcountry itself is a risk that should be saved for another day entirely.

Be Rescue Ready

In addition to learning how to manage, evaluate, and avoid avalanche terrain, every backcountry traveler should to be prepared to carry out a rescue in the unfortunate event that an avalanche is triggered, and someone is caught. This involves three mandatory pieces of equipment that everyone in the backcountry needs to carry with them: a beacon, shovel, and probe.

Avalanche Beacons

A beacon (also called a transceiver) is an electronic device that emits and receives steady signals used to locate buried victims in the aftermath of an avalanche. They range from streamlined options to more feature-laden products aimed at experienced riders and professional guides.

Avalanche Shovels

A shovel is a necessity for digging victims out of the snow in an avalanche. Avalanche shovels are also used for performing common snow stability tests.

Avalanche Probes

An avalanche probe helps you pinpoint the exact location of an avalanche victim and measure the burial depth. They are compact poles that can be deployed in seconds by whipping them out and pulling on the string or cable that holds the sections together.

Just owning these tools isn’t enough – you’ll need to practice using them, preferably with people you’ll be touring with, to be effective with them in the event of an avalanche. Remember that all three pieces of avalanche safety gear are mandatory: beacon, shovel, and probe. Without any one of these pieces, recovery time in an avalanche rescue situation goes up dramatically.

It is important to recognize that this safety equipment serves the purpose of aiding in the unfortunate situation where there is an avalanche and potential burial. This is not a situation you want to get into, and the most important thing you can do is avoid this situation altogether. Even with proper rescue technique, the chance of survival in an avalanche is very low. You must ask yourself, “would I ski this without a beacon, shovel, and probe?” If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t ski it with that equipment either. The most important tool you carry with you is your brain.

Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Gear

Right when you got your inbounds set up dialed, you just had to go and poke your nose into the backcountry didn’t you? Now you’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more backcountry pow laps, and it’s time to clear out some more space in the gear closet. Other than the obvious need for specific touring gear, the one thing you have to keep in mind with backcountry gear is that any inconvenience multiplies the further you get from your car. A broken binding in bounds at a ski area might be no big deal, but halfway up an icy skin track, it's really going to suck. Additionally, clothes that worked fine for riding the lifts may be too hot for going uphill and not warm enough when you hit the summit. All of these are things to consider before you hit the trailhead. See our Backcountry Gear Checklist for a full list of suggested backcountry equipment.

Ski & Snowboard Climbing Skins

Climbing skins are your primary ascent tools in the backcountry. One side is covered with glue to adhere to the base of your skis/board, and the other features a carpet like material for traction while walking uphill. Skins are removed and stowed in your jacket or backpack for the ride down. Getting quality skins that fit your skis or splitboard properly is a key to success in touring. If your skin hardware doesn’t fit, your glue doesn’t stick, or your skins aren’t trimmed properly for your skis or board, you could be in for a frustrating day.

How to get started backcountry skiing & snowboarding
 

AT or Touring Ski Boots

There are a wide range of boot options, all of which have their pros and cons depending on your objectives. Boots designed for backcountry skiing are usually lighter than their alpine counterparts, with a walk mode that allows the upper cuff to pivot while walking, and pin holes to accept tech bindings. It's important to make sure your boot is compatible with your bindings, as some models will work with certain bindings but not others. Good AT boots don’t come cheap, and there’s a wide range of features, flex, and fit. Fit problems can be amplified by touring, so it pays to get the right boot and deal with any issues before you head out.

AT or Touring Ski Bindings

The majority of backcountry skiers use alpine touring bindings, which allow you to walk uphill with a free heel while pivoting at the toe, before locking your heels in to ski back down. Alpine touring bindings range from extraordinarily lightweight tech bindings to heavier frame bindings that look and perform more like regular downhill bindings. Your choice of binding will impact your choice of boot, and vice versa. 

How to get started backcountry skiing & snowboarding
 

Backcountry Skis

Backcountry or alpine touring skis aren’t necessarily any different than your normal skis – in fact, they could be the same pair. If you end up doing a lot of touring, though, you’ll want a pair of lightweight skis that offers good performance in a wide range of snow conditions. Touring specific skis often have the same profiles as alpine skis but leave out some material to save weight. They also may come with tip and tail designs that are meant to accept skins.

Splitboards

If you’re a snowboarder looking to get into the backcountry, a splitty is the way to go. Splitboards separate into two parts like skis to let you skin up the hill, then reassemble with the bindings in a different position for the ride down. Splitboards use specific bindings with free-hinging heels like AT ski bindings, and the same sort of climbing skins that touring skis do. Splitboards come both with and without hardware, bindings, and skins, but you’ll need all of the pieces (plus poles) before you hit the skin track.

How to get started backcountry skiing & snowboarding
 

Get Out There

Whatever tool you choose, make a point of familiarizing yourself thoroughly with it before you hit the snow. Five miles from the car in a snowstorm at dusk is not the place to be trying to figure out your gear. New riders and those with limited soft snow experience should be careful not to dive into backcountry riding too quickly. Consider hiring a guide and start by gradually moving away from the groomed runs when there’s new snow until you’re confident in all kinds of conditions.

The backcountry community is a tight-knit but not unfriendly group of people who are generally happy to share their knowledge once they get to know you. Taking an Avalanche Level I or introduction to ski touring class or joining in on online ski forum discussions is a good way to meet people, get ideas for trips and hook up with touring partners. Just showing up at common touring spots and demonstrating that you’re a fit, amiable, and certified companion sometimes works, too. There’s no time to start like the present.

We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or equivalent and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education:

— American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
— American Avalanche Association
— Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center

You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them.

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