If you’re a seasoned adventurer looking for a way to take your experience to the next level, backcountry skiing could be the perfect way to explore the untouched parts of the world. For those who enjoy breathtaking mountain views, a rewarding challenge, or the adrenaline of flying down the slopes after a long skin up, backcountry skiing is an unforgettable experience. Before you strap on your boots and get ready to hit the slopes, make sure you keep these five tips for new backcountry skiers in mind for a safe and successful ski trip.
1. Pack the Essentials
For your first backcountry skiing trip, you’ll need to pack for both skiing and a good deal of hiking up. Before adding extra accessories, start with the essential gear:
- Skis, Skins, Poles, etc.: Well, obviously.
- Transceiver, Probe and Shovel: Safety first!
- Clothing: Think layering! If you’ve been skiing before, you know the value of a good puffy. However, it will probably be too warm while skinning, so it helps to have a thin layer underneath for the walk up. The same goes for your pants.
- Gloves: Having multiple pairs of waterproof gloves can help keep your hands dry and warm both on the way up and down the slopes.
- Beanie and Face Mask: A good beanie or two is nice to have in the backcountry, as is something to keep your face warm if the wind picks up.
- Goggles and Sunnies: Keep your goggles in a dry place while climbing. This helps to ensure they won’t get fogged up once you’re ready to ski. Wear your sunglasses on the up-track instead.
- Helmet: It’s important to protect the old bean! I bring a lightweight ski helmet that I’ve taken the padding out of, I’m wearing a beanie after all.
- Sun Protection: Don’t let the cold fool you. You’re still able to get a sunburn while on the mountain. Make sure you have sunscreen, sunglasses and lip balm with you at all times.
- GPS, Map and Compass: It’s always wise to have some navigation tools, and know how to use them. For bigger trips, a back-up navigational aid like a paper map and compass may also be a good idea.
- Heat and Light Sources: Take plenty of hand warmers for inside your gloves or boots, as well as a lighter and headlamp to be sure you have light and heat sources.
- Repair kit: The last thing you’ll want to do is make it to the top of your hike and realize your gear needs a repair. You’ll be glad to have a small repair kit on hand, especially if you’re split boarding.
- First aid kit: Better safe than sorry! Keep a small backcountry first aid kit with you for bandages, tape and antiseptic.
- Emergency Shelter: A tarp or single-person tent will come in handy if you end up having to settle in for any period of time.
- Food and Water: Make sure you have plenty of energy and protein-rich foods as well as water on hand. If you can, try to store them in places they won’t freeze! Camelbaks are a bad idea for touring but a Thermos of hot tea is nice.
- Emergency Communications Device: Last but definitely not least, always be sure to bring some way of communicating with the outside world should something go wrong. In more connected areas this might be a cell phone. More remote spots will require some kind of satellite device like an In-Reach, SPOT, Zoleo or Sat Phone. You’ll also want a plan: who do you call/message to get help?
Different ski areas have different equipment requirements. Do your research beforehand to know exactly what items you’ll need to bring. If you have room in your pack, you can look into a few extra items as well. A snow saw, WAG bag, camera, or even a waterproof pad to sit on along the way can all come in handy.
2. Take an Avalanche Training Course
A certified, hands-on avalanche awareness training course with practical field experience is definitely needed before venturing into the backcountry. These courses are taught under different names around the world: AST in Canada, AIARE in many parts of the US, and so on.
These courses cover companion rescue, avalanche terrain recognition, the basics of trip planning, how to read an avalanche bulletin and more. All the things you need to know before shredding any uncontrolled slopes.
3. Find Ways to Stay Energized
Backcountry skiing requires a lot of physical energy. Before you go, make sure you get plenty of rest and have a light, protein-rich breakfast. It’s also important to snack throughout the day rather than planning fewer large meals. This ensures you have plenty of calories and protein in your system at all times. Energy bars are a great source of quick energy, as well as trail mix and other dry snacks. When it comes to water, make sure you aren’t overlooking any signs of dehydration. It’s easy to do in the cold.
4. Make Your Gear Work For You
In the backcountry you’ll be navigating uneven areas, steep slopes and different types of snow in all different types of weather. It’s easy to feel clumsy, especially if you’re still fairly new to backcountry equipment and techniques. Don’t be afraid to make your gear work for you. Your bindings have heel lifts. Try them out when you’re tempted to stand on your toes, or the skin track feels a little too steep. Be sure to get rid of them as soon as the track flattens out though or they’ll make things more awkward.
There are lots of great books out there that cover various techniques to improve efficiency and comfort. These are a great way to fast-track the learning curve. Some good options include: Free Skiing – How to Adapt to the Mountain, and Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book.
5. Do Your Research and Be Prepared
Since you’ll be touring in areas where hazards and routes are unmarked, it’s important that you know where you’re going and what the regional weather and avalanche hazard forecast is. Make sure you and your partner have researched the area beforehand so there aren’t any surprises along the way. Especially so if it’s your first time in that area of the backcountry. Google Earth is a great tool, as are ski touring maps, guidebooks, blogs, online groups, ATES maps and so on. Also different areas can require different equipment. Pack a crevasse rescue kit if you’re headed into a glaciated zone. Or maybe there’s a warming hut you can hit for lunch on a cold day. It always pays to do your research and be prepared.
This article was written by guest contributor Anna B. Based in Tennessee, Anna loves adventure and is always planning her next trip. An avid writer, she loves helping people get into the outdoors by sharing various tips and tricks that she’s picked up over the years. When not outside playing, Anna can be found painting or devouring a new book.