Backcountry Skiing for First-Timers: Everything You Need to Know

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Backcountry skiing and snowboarding means hitting the slopes outside of the standard patrol areas. (Photo: Corbis)

One of the biggest recent trends in downhill skiing is the backcountry boom — the increasing number of skiers who are exploring beyond the bounds of regular ski resorts, whether it be on brief “sidecountry” runs through a marked resort gate, joining guided helicopter-ski trips, or doing a full “alpine touring” (AT) expedition with hikes up remote mountains.

According to the Snowsports Industries America research group, about one in five skiers explored some sort of backcountry terrain last season. The equipment associated with alpine touring was the only segment of downhill ski gear sales that grew last season, up 5 percent versus a 6 percent drop in regular equipment sales.

But with the increase in popularity and the advances in equipment also come the dangers of untrained skiers embarking into unpatrolled avalanche territory. Backcountry ski deaths due to avalanche occur with alarming regularity each season — even among the skiing elite. The sport is never going to be risk-free. But skiing into the right terrain at the right time with proper knowledge and equipment reduces the dangers significantly.

For anyone new to it, we’re supplying a few basics about this niche sport so that when you travel to a ski resort and see the opportunity to head off trail, you’re armed with some basic knowledge.

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Backcountry skiing in St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria (Photo: Johannes Gruber/Flickr)

What is it? Backcountry skiing and snowboarding includes sliding down any terrain on snow that isn’t within the bounds of a patrolled ski area. It can range from a gentle run through a glade adjoining a ski resort to a hardcore first descent of a Himalayan peak. Serious alpine touring requires you to “earn your turns,” as they say, and hike up a mountain using boots, snowshoes, or “skins” attached to the bottom of skis to shuffle your way to the top. Those exploring non-lift-accessed terrain compose less than 2 percent of overall skiers, so it is very much still a niche sport. But given that AT boot sales increased 27 percent last year, and splitboard sales have quadrupled in the past few years, the sport is poised to expand dramatically.

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Backcountry skiing can be risky, so be sure to go with an experienced guide. (Photo: Getty Images)

Who can do it? You don’t need to be an expert skier or snowboarder to go out of bounds — you just need to be well-equipped and well-informed. Guided trips regularly take intermediate skiers on backcountry jaunts, so just be sure to follow your leader. Anybody can ski backcountry, but absolutely, positively don’t jump into it without an experienced guide — avalanches are an ever-present risk. This is why it’s a great idea to pick up the sport at your local ski resort. Many, like Lake Tahoe’s Kirkwood, are starting to offer backcountry awareness programs and avalanche safety certification classes, which can help your comfort level and safety on a trip to the backcountry, even if you’re not planning to join a ski patrol.

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Telluride offers helicopter-accessed ski trips. (Photo: Telluride Helitrax/Facebook)

Where to do it? A good place to start is with a guided trip to the sidecountry surrounding your favorite ski resort; many now offer this service. You’ll have the advantage of lift-serviced terrain, so you won’t blast your thighs on day one. Then you can get a feel for your comfort level in variable terrain conditions. The next step might be a snowcat- or helicopter-accessed trip up to some backcountry peaks near a resort destination. Whistler, British Columbia, and Telluride, Colo., have popular helicopter-ski services affiliated with their resorts. And Lake Tahoe’s Homewood and Kirkwood mountains are introducing snowcat-accessed ski tours this season. For an intro to an uphill-climbing alpine touring trip, places like Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl offer introductory-level day trips (with Alpine Skills International) departing from the edges of their terrain, or even overnight ski tours through the mountains with a stay in a ski hut.

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If you’re going backcountry skiing, be sure to get the proper equipment, including an airbag-equipped backpack. (Photo: Getty Images)

What equipment do you need? If you’re just taking a detour out of bounds, a regular set of fat skis or a snowboard tuned for variable terrain will do just fine. Wearing a helmet and carrying a backpack with the safety essentials of a snow shovel, probe poles, and a radio beacon is recommended even for casual backcountry skiers. The latest must-have avalanche protection gear item is an airbag-equipped backpack. Once the skier triggers the airbag, it inflates and helps the skier rise to the top of the crush of snow in an avalanche.

For alpine touring, when you’re going to be skiing uphill, you’ll need a specialized set of boots and bindings, along with skins to attach under the skis. The artificial fabric of the skins mimics the actual animal skins used by the original Viking mountaineers that are grippy in one direction, smooth in the other. Remove the skins and torque down the bindings, and you’ll be able to ski using the same technique as in regular downhill skiing.

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Split-boards combine the best of both worlds (Photo: MeeshBomb/Flickr)

For snowboarders, the latest innovations with splitboards allow them the option to split the board in two (as the name implies) and “skin” their way uphill, then reattach the two halves to snowboard down. This is a vast improvement over snowshoeing or hiking through deep snow up the hill with the board strapped to your backpack.

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While it seems like a lot of gear to assemble, don’t worry; almost all backcountry tour operators stock sets of equipment for rental on their trips. If you enjoy these trips and catch the alpine touring bug, then get certified in some avalanche courses and source your own gear, and you’ll be ready to explore the beauty of the backcountry with your own group.

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