Dream of breaking away from long ski resort lines to carve through the trees and glide across that fresh, untracked power? You see those untouched areas in aerial view while sitting on a chairlift, loaded with powder, glistening and taunting you with “ski me.”
Whether you are planning to dip off the groomers into the out-of-bounds, or want to hike with your skis or board off-the-beaten-path to a more remote, non-patrolled area, we’ve got you covered on what to know before you go, how to get geared up, and how to safely prepare for a backcountry experience.
1. Build up your skills
If you’re considering backcountry skiing/snowboarding, you should be fully competent and confident on groomers first, and considered advanced in your skillset. You should be able to go up and down hills by herringboning or side stepping, for miles if necessary. You should feel comfortable with tree skiing, steep grades, and other advanced types of terrain. Before diving into the deep and often unpredictable backcountry, start weaving in and out of off-trail areas by tree skiing in between groomers at your local resort. Once you feel comfortable with that, you are one step closer to being ready to take the next step into wild terrain.
2. Find an experienced buddy
The best way to get acquainted and familiar with the backcountry is to learn from someone more experienced in the sport. If you’re a fairly-regular skier/snowboarder with a decent network, chances are you know a friend or a friend-of-a-friend who has experience in backcountry adventures. Ask around and see who you can get linked up with, and soak up their knowledge — their advice, recommended starting points, gear, etcetera. If you do not have a social network with someone experienced and willing to teach you what they know or take you along with them, check out your local ski resort and local neighborhood. Most ski-friendly areas and towns have various organizations that offer lessons or introductory courses where you can get informed and educated, and meet other people looking for ski partners and adventure buddies.
3. Study up on safety
Avalanches pose a very real risk in any backcountry terrain, and accidents happen. Be prepared, educated, and know that Mother Nature is a powerful force. If you plan to ski or snowboard in any unpatrolled areas, it is essential that you first enroll in avalanche safety training through an accredited program. Get started with AIARE Level 1, a three-day course that provides an introduction to using decision-making tools to help a group manage risk while traveling in avalanche terrain. Consider this a critical prerequisite for yourself before you go exploring rouge into the backcountry. In addition to taking the course, do some general reading on backcountry touring; if you have not been in many remote situations, consider a course on backcountry touring to fine-tune your skills, knowledge, and fitness level.
4. Get geared up
There are a couple of ways to backcountry ski. If you’re only planning to hit the out-of-bounds zones at a ski resort, you can most likely get away with using your downhill skis or snowboard, (at least in the short-term to see if backcountry exploring is your cup of tea). However, be prepared to take your skis off and hoof-it with your gear on your shoulder if and when your route goes beyond the chairlift.
For any other backcountry situation, you are going to want some specialized gear. Always keep safety in mind first and foremost. There is a countless equipment available for backcountry skiing/snowboarding, but you will absolutely want to gear up with the following safety essentials, at minimum:
Small, lightweight, collapsible avalanche shovel.
Avalanche airbag packs.
In addition to standard ski gear and the safety equipment mentioned above, for skiers, in particular, there are a few key equipment necessities you will also need before exploring the backcountry —
Alpine touring bindings.
Alpine touring boots.
Expedition ski poles.
Climbing skins for getting up hill.
For snowboarders, the variation is pretty similar, but there are some slight differences in gear —
Snowboard boots - Many backcountry snowboarders use the same boots they use for downhill snowboarding, but if you’re looking for a pair tailored specifically for backcountry adventuring, try boots designed with sturdy soles intended for more walking + more lateral stiffness support while trekking uphill.
Ski poles - Any backcountry poles will work, but many backcountry snowboarders prefer adjustable poles so they can set their poles longer when headed uphill and collapse or shorten for their decent.
Splitboard skins for climbing traction.
5. Plan your trip
Once you have checked off the above recommendations, you are just about ready to get out into the backcountry and explore the unknown, safely and with confidence.
From here, connect with an experienced buddy and gather up a group to go with you. Do not go alone into the backcountry. Just like hiking recommendations, you should never venture into the wild without someone else, especially when skiing or snowboarding in uncharted territory.
Work with your group to do some research ahead of time on nearby locations and pick a destination that fits your wants and needs. We recommend you pick a beginner trip to start with; leave your ego at the door, as there is no reason to get too aggressive too quickly, putting yourself or others in an unsafe situation in the unpredictable backcountry.
Study your preferred route and map, and always remember to check the avalanche and weather forecasts ahead of time. Be sure to also check weather and avalanche reports day-of your trip and hours before you head out to be cautious. You should have a solid idea of overall conditions and when sunset will be. Cover the entire plan with your group, make sure you are all on the same page, and talk over emergency procedures in advance of hitting your backcountry route.
Once everyone in your group is comfortable, aligned, and informed, you are all ready to chase the powder and see Mother Nature’s beauty in areas beyond the map.
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