How to Start Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding

Are you tired of lift lines, huge crowds, and high priced lift tickets? Yeah, well so are the droves of skiers and snowboarders across the country who have been driving the increasingly popular shift to backcountry skiing. 

The backcountry provides pristine peace, a more intimate connection with nature, and as much fresh powder as you’ll know what to do with. In exchange, you will have to work harder and be aware of significant dangers that backcountry terrain can pose.

With all that said, how exactly do you even get started? Backcountry skiing can feel quite elusive to fully immerse yourself into because committing to it comes at a high price in the form of proper education and gear. Likewise, finding suitable backcountry ski partners (preferably with experience) may not be easy when you look around your typical social circle. So let’s dive further into the wonders of backcountry skiing and all you’ll need to know to get into it.

Table of Contents

What is Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding?

Let’s start with the basics – what even is backcountry skiing or snowboarding? 

The answer can take many shapes and forms, but backcountry skiing is essentially just skiing in natural, untamed places that rarely have many restrictions or costs – usually in places like natural forests, or BLM land. There are no groomed runs, no families of four, no lift tickets, and  no ski patrol. You can reach these places on your own power by hiking in your skis using skins, or even by use of a snowmobile.

What is the Difference Between Backcountry, Sidecountry, Alpine touring, etc?

There are several variations of backcountry skiing that often get lumped together or parsed out, which can confuse the uninitiated. Backcountry is the overarching term used to describe this non-resort style of skiing. But let’s take a look at common terms in the backcountry universe:

  • Human powered (aka alpine touring or uphill skiing) – using climbing skins to manually “hike” uphill in your skis in order to subsequently ski down. 
  • Lift powered backcountry (aka sidecountry or slackcountry) – this refers to skiing in terrain that may be serviced by a resort lift, but is technically out of bounds of the resort. So you are still in dangerous, unpatrolled territory, but you are very close to a ski resort and can potentially even use one of the ski lifts for a quicker ascent. 
  • Other – of course, you can use all sorts of methods to get to untouched territory to ski, and each would still be considered backcountry skiing. For example, many skiers use snowmobiles to travel rather than skinning uphill the whole way. Likewise, you can go on guided trips in ski cats or even helicopters. This would all be considered backcountry skiing

How Good of a Skier Do You Need to Be to Go Backcountry Skiing?

You do not have to be an expert skier to ski in the backcountry. Just like any ski resort, there are areas that are more mellow than others and you can find hills and slopes that match your ability.

Obviously you don’t want to be a complete beginner, but most guided outfitters advertise that they can take anybody who can comfortably ski blue runs at a resort. If you are going out on your own, being a better skier certainly helps the day go smoothly.

How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing

Now that you know what the backcountry is and decided to go for it, where do you start?

Try it out with experienced guides

Before truly committing to backcountry skiing yourself, you may want to get a gauge on how much you will really enjoy it and if expensive avalanche education, safety equipment, and touring specific ski gear will be worth it.

Social media and the pressures of the 21st century have glorified many things – backcountry skiing included. Pictures of pristine powder fields and sweet photo shoots have diluted the reality of backcountry skiing. It is more difficult than most people believe, and many are disappointed when skinning uphill for hours for just a few runs doesn’t quite provide the effort to reward ratio that Instagram lured them into thinking. 

The best way to check yourself and make sure you really want to get into the activity is by testing it out first:

  • Guided backcountry – there are qualified and seasoned guides in common ski areas, like Colorado, who will rent out the proper gear and take you on a fully guided uphill skiing (skinning) session to give you a taste of what awaits. This is a great way to truly determine if backcountry skiing is for you or not. Only after you have hiked in skis all day, just to get in a handful of runs, will you truly be able to tell if you think it’s worth it. Better to know before buying a bunch of expensive new gear.
  • Cat skiing – Cat skiing tours are very common outfits near ski towns and resorts. They present a more effort-free way of getting out into remote and untouched terrain for you to shred without the worry or annoyance of crowds and lift lines.
  • Heli skiing – similar to cat skiing, you won’t need to exert too much energy on heli skiing tours, except from your face muscles getting sore from smiling too much. Heli skiing is the mecca of ski trips and is the stuff true ski lovers dream of. Be ready to pay quite a heavy price tag for what might be the most unforgettable ski moments of your life.

Avalanche safety - Know Before You Go!

  • Get educated (AIARE) – your first step after definitively deciding to get into backcountry skiing is getting the proper education. AIARE is the unanimously recommended education center that offers several educational courses to give you a solid foundation of avalanche knowledge.
  • Always check forecasts (https://avalanche.org/) – there are several resources that allow you to check avalanche forecasts of areas you plan on going and getting a general idea of safety in those areas. Avalanche.org is a resource that “consolidates data from professional forecast centers to provide real time avalanche information”, according to their website. This is not a substitute for your own assessments, as conditions are impossible to predict with 100% certainty, they are usually more of a general status. See the scale below for danger ratings.
avalanche danger scale
Image from Avalanche.Org representing the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale

Go with experience

Even when you are not taking a paid guide or outfitter, you should still only be venturing into the backcountry when you have adequately educated yourself and preferably have group members with experience themselves. As you gain more experience, you can start relying on your own knowledge and experiences (although it’s always nice to have differing perspectives as a reality check). 

However, when first starting out, you absolutely should not be alone or only with others who have no experience. Take a ski buddy with backcountry experience – if you don’t have one in your social circle, check forums, Facebook groups, Meetup events, or otherwise ask around (that guide you took may have some people or resources to help you out).

Gear up

Most importantly, you will need special avalanche safety gear that is an absolute necessity in the backcountry. However, touring specific ski gear like touring boots, bindings, and of course, climbing skins will likely be required for any serious backcountry skier as well. Check out our post on essential backcountry ski gear for more information.

Always know and practice with your safety gear so that you are prepared for a rescue situation should it occur. Make it a habit to practice with your backcountry partners frequently so that you are never out of touch. Not just your gear, but keep up to date and brush up with your snowpack and terrain evaluation knowledge.

Can i use my regular alpine skis or snowboard to go out in the backcountry?

Technically, yes you can use your existing alpine skis or snowboard to go out into the backcountry. But it will be a pain, literally. It will be significantly more effort and probably won’t feel worth the struggle. If you only go for maybe 1-2 half-days in the backcountry per season, you might be able to get away with it, but any more than that and you should really look to get backcountry tailored gear. There are plenty of bindings and boots that accommodate both resort and backcountry skiing, so research setups or ask a ski shop for setups that will suit your situation best.

Get Out There!

Now that you have more of an idea of what backcountry skiing entails – the knowledge you will need, the gear you will need, and the hazards – all you have left to do is get to work! Pick up an avalanche class and go on a guided tour. After you decide to commit, find some ski buddies, form a plan, and be safe.

All that’s left from there is to get out there! Fresh ski lines and glorious, peaceful backcountry await you!

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