What you need to know and prepare before you can safely explore the backcountry.
By Owen McAndrew
If you’re like me, when you and your friends have tracked out every inch of your local ski area, or when you've had the chairlift safety bar dropped on your head one too many times, you may look across the valley in awe and find a curiosity of what fresh tracks lie beyond the resort boundaries pressing at the front of your mind. Powder, solitude, and unaltered wilderness are just a few of the reasons that so many skiers are flocking to trailheads all over to ski in the backcountry.
My path as a backcountry skier began following the spring congo line of sometimes eccentric individuals up New Hampshire’s Tuckerman Ravine. Looking around from Mount Washington’s Alpine zone made me feel unrestrained freedom and inspired me to ski as many nooks and crannies of my local range as time and energy would allow (although there is never enough of either). Now, backcountry skiing has taken me to mountain ranges all over North America in pursuit of those same feelings. While rewarding, the freedom that comes with backcountry skiing does not come without barriers. Backcountry skiing requires additional gear, additional skills to manage the additional risk, and a network of competent partners. This guide is meant to help navigate these barriers and answer the many questions that newcomers to the sport may encounter.
First Off: The Gear
If you come from a resort skiing background, the bad news is that your gear probably won't cut it in the backcountry, and alpine touring gear isn’t cheap. The good news is that if taken care of, it lasts a while, and the money you save from not buying $100+ lift tickets more than makes up for it. Admittedly, I am often late to the party on the newest innovations in ski gear, but I can share the essentials you will need as you enter the sport, and the resources which have been helpful to me for finding the best choice.
Touring Skis & Bindings
To start, you will need a ski on which to mount an alpine touring (AT) binding. Any ski will work, although a lighter ski will likely translate to a happier you on the uphill. There are two main categories of AT bindings: tech bindings and frame bindings, though some bindings attempt to bridge the gap between the two, like the Salomon Shift. Tech bindings are lighter weight and rely on two metal pins in the toe and heel to attach to a tech compatible boot, whereas a frame binding looks and functions more as a regular alpine binding. A notable difference in their performance is that a tech binding allows you to tour with no additional weight on your heel as you ascend, while on frame bindings, the heel piece stays attached to the boot. The free heel saves considerable energy on a long day, and if you plan to spend the majority of your ski days in the backcountry, I’d highly recommend going with a tech binding... unless inhaling your partner's farts as you gasp for air struggling to keep up doesn’t bother you. That said, if you plan to mostly use your skis at the resort and for the occasional short tour, a frame binding will likely hold up better to the abuse.
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Shop Ski Touring Bindings
The bindings you choose will guide your options for a boot. If you choose a tech binding, you will need a tech compatible boot. If you choose a frame binding, you may not need a tech boot, but still be sure that the boot you use at least has a walk mode. I am a staunch advocate of using an experienced boot-fitter to choose a boot. A poorly fitting boot will ruin your day, and I will always value comfort over the newest feature, or most impressive specs. Skiing is supposed to be fun, after all.
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Next, you’ll need skins. The majority of the skins you’ll see will be either Nylon, Mohair, or a combination of the two. Nylon has better grip on the steeps, whereas Mohair has better glide on the flats. In my experience, a Nylon skin can be nice on certain skin tracks, but can encourage poor habits, like lifting your ski, instead of gliding it up the track. This will lead to quicker fatigue. Luckily, skins are one of the cheaper pieces of equipment you’ll need, and are easier to replace than, say, a pair of skis. So if you feel you’d be better off with a different skin, make the change!
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The type of bag you choose to hold all your gear will depend on what type of terrain you wish to enter. If you plan on entering avalanche terrain at any point (more on this later), you’ll probably want a 30-35L pack with a dedicated avalanche pocket to hold your shovel and probe. This pocket will help your organization and make it easier to take out your shovel and probe when needed (hopefully, only for practice). If you are sticking to touring in dense glades, up the resort, or on old Civilian Conservation Corps trails, a 20-25L pack should carry what you need it to.
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Beacons, Shovels and Probes
Lastly, is the avalanche gear. Basic avalanche equipment entails a beacon, shovel, and probe, and is only necessary if you tour in an area with avalanche terrain. That said, if this is the case for you, I’d strongly implore you not to leave the car without it, nor the ability to use it (once again, more on this later). Many companies offer a package deal of all 3, which, in my opinion, is a great option to start.
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Now all of this may seem overwhelming, and quite frankly, it can be. There are countless options for most pieces of equipment you may want, and being the hefty investment it usually is, you want to be sure you’re making the right choice. It helps keep me grounded to remember that. At the end of the day, you’ll be skiing, so even if the gear you go with takes some getting used to, you’ll get to enjoy the winter with it in a way that many people can't.
How Can I Get Started?
Hiring a guide can be a great investment to build skills, seek feedback, and explore new areas. Most ski guides I know are extremely enthusiastic educators, for whom guiding and instructing is often a labor of love. An important consideration for hiring a guide is their level of training, so be sure to check that they have received training through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), in the ski discipline. There are several certifying organizations in the United States, but the AMGA is the only which is internationally recognized by the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations). Here is a list of AMGA accredited businesses. There are also many AMGA trained and certified guides who work independently or for non accredited businesses, but this list is a great place to start.
If hiring a guide is not in the cards to begin with, books can be a great way to get started. While there are probably countless books which may be of value, here are a few which have resonated with me:
Avalanches are the automobile accidents of backcountry skiing. Most of us have been subjected to videos of enormous avalanches chasing skiers down slopes, sometimes with tragic outcomes. The fact is, spending time in avalanche terrain is dangerous, and like driving/drivers, experienced skiers have been lost too early because of them. But as with driving, with education and conservative decision making, many skiers are able to spend long and rewarding careers in the mountains.
In my opinion, the importance of seeking out education and continuing education opportunities can’t be stressed enough . A level one avalanche course is a great place to start. The American Avalanche Association (A3) is the governing body of avalanche education in the United States. They oversee curriculum which a number of different organizations and companies then provide. Here is an overview of the structure of the A3 educational ladder, as well as a list of course providers by state.
In addition to being a great educational tool, an avalanche course can also be a good place to meet like-minded partners who are eager to spend time, and learn, in the mountains.
Once I Have the Education, How Will I Know Where to Go?
Apps and websites like Caltopo, Gaia, and Strava each feature different mapping formats which are extremely helpful to me for route planning, and can be used in the backcountry. While I’d still recommend any backcountry traveler be proficient with a physical map and compass, the benefits of modern technology can take a lot of the stress out of backcountry travel. I must confess, I spend way too much time in the off season looking at maps and imagining new ideas for ski tours.
Of the three mentioned, I find Caltopo and Gaia particularly useful when exploring areas without cell phone reception. By downloading maps on these apps ahead of time, GPS tracking can be used even without service. They both also feature slope angle shading, which can help indicate what may or may not be avalanche terrain while planning a tour.
Strava is particularly useful for measuring fitness and tracking goals. By joining groups, you can also see what routes other people are using to ski, run, bike, etc..
Lastly, published guidebooks can give great insight to ski terrain in specific regions. While not every geographic region has a guidebook, many do, and these books are usually written by an author who has spent immeasurable time in the areas covered. If you are curious whether your local mountain range has a published guidebook, google it, and you just may find your summer reading list getting longer.
How Can I Find People to Ski With?
The internet can be a vile and toxic place, but if your skin is thick enough to deal with the trolls, it can also be a good place to link up with like minded partners. Many regions have online groups related to ski conditions, trip reports, and finding partners. If looking for a partner, state your goals and be honest about your experience. A day out with a partner who is on a different wavelength than you can often be an unpleasant day. In my view, the most important trait to share with a partner is risk tolerance, so be clear with your boundaries. That said, there are tons of psyched and positive people who are likely in the same spot you are, and want someone to share time and grow in the mountains with.
Other places to link up with potential ski partners can be structured events. This may come in the form of snow and avalanche workshops hosted by the local avalanche center, film showings at a nearby brewery, trail and glade upkeep days, or presentations put on at a local ski shop.
How Do I Know When I’m Ready?
You’ll never know whether you’re ready to ski in the backcountry or not until you try it. After you seek training and education, start with smaller, less consequential objectives. As you grow more comfortable you can begin to step out into larger terrain when conditions allow, but I’d implore anyone who hopes to have a long career in the mountains to err on the side of caution. If you feel conflicted about a challenging decision you encounter, make the conservative choice. Every experienced skier I know has turned around from their plan A more than a few times. Sometimes the mountains are welcoming, and other times they want you to go drink a beer in the parking lot.
Whatever winter 21/22 holds, I wish everyone a safe and snow filled season.