An Introduction to Backcountry Skiing - Is it Right for me?
Updated: May 11, 2022
Activity in the backcountry has been gaining popularity quickly in recent years. Pictures and videos of professionals effortlessly floating down fields of untouched pow or skiing perfect couloirs that just aren’t possible to find in the ski resort may make the backcountry seem like skiing heaven. However, what a lot of Instagram posts and Facebook videos don't show are some of the struggles that occur when in the backcountry.
***This post is based on personal experience and is in no way a guide on how to explore the backcountry***
What is Backcountry Skiing?
Backcountry skiing is the act of skiing (or snowboarding) outside a ski area boundary. Yes, this includes "side-country" (terrain that's accessed from a ski area lift). Typically backcountry skiers and snowboarders use touring setups or split boards in order to get up the hill. It is also possible to either hike or snowshoe up, but this is often less efficient.
Anyone traveling in winter conditions should note - The same dangers (avalanches, getting lost, slipping and falling, etc.) that exist in backcountry skiing can overlap with anyone recreating in winter conditions! (This includes snowshoers, snowmobilers, and alpinists). Sadly, two snowshoers were recently killed in an avalanche in Colorado Springs.
Is Backcountry Skiing or Snowboarding right for me?
Traveling in the backcountry can be peaceful, easy-going, and satisfying. It can also be dangerous, stressful, and downright frustrating. There are a lot of pros and cons of skiing or snowboarding in the backcountry:
Getting away from the resort crowd
Exploring new areas that most people don't have access to
A potential new way to meet people
Burn a ton of calories to get ready for swimsuit season
Not have to pay for a season pass or lift ticket
Access to some of the deepest and smoothest turns you'll ever have access to
A lot harder than it looks
Can be very dangerous (avalanches, slipping, getting lost)
Quite often, you won't be in the most ideal conditions
A smaller number of turns for how much effort you put in
Expensive for all the equipment
Something that is overlooked is the ability to find good snow. Being able to analyze the sun and where it's hitting and when it hits that area will dictate what type of snow you'll be skiing. North faces will usually hold colder, more powdery snow while south faces can offer long runs of smooth "corn" skiing. More often than not, conditions will not be exactly what you expect and you may end up skiing on some punchy crud or unforgiving ice.
It's important to go into it with the mindset of taking a nice hike with the potential for subpar turns (and if the turns are great, that's always good too!)
What Do I Need to Get Into the Backcountry?
Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers is the cost to enter the backcountry. There’s an array of equipment needed. First and foremost – beacon, shovel, probe. These are the tools you’ll need (in addition to some training) in case things really go south and you need to recover your partner from an avalanche. In addition to the safety equipment, you will need something to travel with. For example, snowshoes, skis, a split board setup, skins, or a snowmobile. Some other things I like to bring with me are a radio (communication is huge), layers, a first aid kit, lots of water, and, of course, snacks!
Why is Backcountry Skiing Dangerous?
Many people forget that traveling in the backcountry can be dangerous (this includes everyone traveling in winter conditions - skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, hikers, mountaineers, etc.) Traveling in avalanche terrain with the right equipment, group of people, and training is paramount to the safety of you and your group. I'm not proud of it, but I remember my first time in the backcountry was hiking with a group of friends on a pow day without a beacon, shovel, probe, or any training. I was uneducated and didn’t understand how dangerous avalanches could be. This is why it's important to inform people of the dangers and how to minimize risk when traveling in the backcountry.
Bad Decision Making - This is the biggest reason people can get in trouble in the backcountry. Every decision you make dictates the outcome of your day. Did you take the time to check the Avalanche Forecast? Did you bring all the necessary safety equipment? Did you choose a trustworthy partner? Did you choose to ski in an area that reduces the risk of an avalanche? Did you let your excitement or ego override your ability to make a safe decision? These are just some of the questions that could put you at risk of a dangerous encounter in the backcountry.
Avalanches are the biggest concern when someone is traveling in the backcountry. They can be triggered by yourself, other parties, or even naturally. Even if you think you're safe, you may be unaware that you are still in an avalanche runout zone. Being caught in an avalanche may put you, your partners, or others at risk of serious injury or death by trauma, suffocation, or hypothermia.
Navigation - Navigating trails in the summer tends to be easier since you can follow pre-made trails. Navigating in the winter is a different story since the skin track is set by previous hikers. Not everyone goes to the same place, and not everybody knows where they are going. I like to use Caltopo or skitahoebackountry when I'm planning a tour.
Hidden rocks or other obstacles - There are no groomers in the backcountry. There is also no ski patrol scouting out the slopes and making the call on whether or not there's enough coverage to open each run. This means it's important to be aware of any hidden objects that may be lurking underneath the surface of the snow. Hitting them may cause you to take an unexpected tumble and hit other poorly covered obstacles. *Pro-tip* - Wear a helmet!!
What Kind of Training Do I need?
Being able to use your safety equipment correctly is different from owning it. Getting trained on how to use it correctly may be the difference between life and death. In my opinion, everyone that is planning on getting into the backcountry should take a Level 1 Avalanche Course (Keep an eye out -some organizations also offer scholarships for these courses). These courses offer a structured way to teach you how to use your safety equipment and can help you understand how human behavior affects actions in the backcountry. There are also some books you can read to get familiar with the information. Reading prior to taking a course will make the course less overwhelming and will give you the opportunity to think of questions you may want to ask during the course.
Why Ski in the Backcountry?
The rest of this post may have made it seem like navigating the backcountry is a daunting task - and it is. If you're willing to look past some of the downfalls it can offer some surreal experiences - breathtaking views, strong relationships, and the potential to score some sweet turns down faces you never thought you would be skiing. So, yes, navigating the backcountry is not easy, but there is a reason it is growing in popularity and people keep going back to the skin track!
A Positive Twist on This Season!
While this winter season is still looking very mild, this isn't entirely a bad thing. If you're looking to start venturing in the backcountry, it's best to do so during the Spring. This can help reduce the chance of avalanches. With the lack of winter storms, the snowpack has been able to stabilize making avalanches less likely to happen. If you're lucky you may even be able to find some smooth corn (almost as good as pow, if not better!). Nonetheless, it may be a good time to explore, learn how to skin, or do some safety practice!
Nathan Ferreira - 5+ years of backcountry snowboarding experience, burrito extraordinaire, and proud traveler of TheBraveLilToaster