Does the thought of gliding through untouched powder on a pair of skis excite you? Does the idea of spicy adventure get your heart pounding? How about being away from crowded chair-lift lines and chalets? If it does, backcountry skiing may be right up your alley!
With Covid causing major lifestyle changes for many, people are looking for ways to avoid the busyness of the city and are finding new activities in the great outdoors. Backcountry skiing has become increasingly popular in the last couple of years. It may seem daunting at first, so here is a list of must-knows and must-haves before going out and venturing into backcountry terrain.
Know your skill level
Backcountry skiing involves unknown terrain and higher risks (think rocks, trees, cliffs, etc.). Being able to ski moderately well prior to heading out is crucial. Knowing how to manage your skis or snowboard with confidence will enable you to have a much safer and satisfying time in the backcountry.
If uncertain, you can always spend a season or part of a season at a resort ensuring you feel confident on your skis or snowboard. And if needed, taking lessons can also help improve your skills and abilities as a skier.
Be ready for a good cardio workout
Backcountry skiing involves a LOT of uphill travel. Think of hiking, but on skis. It’s not all gliding through endless powder. It requires a good cardio burn to get to the top of a route first. Only then one can enjoy the ski down. Ensure your fitness level is up to par prior to adventuring out into the backcountry.
There are easier and harder routes, so if you don’t feel like you can skin up something very steep, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of easier routes to train on and enjoy.
Start by signing up for an avalanche safety course with a certified guide prior to heading out. Avalanches are one of the biggest risks when going out into the backcountry. Having knowledge of snow conditions, route finding, weather patterns, and rescue skills could save you or your buddy’s life. AST 1 and 2 will help gain these skills and knowledge.
Along with an Avy course, having the appropriate gear is essential.
The must-haves of avalanche safety gear are a shovel, probe, and transceiver. Know how to use them effectively and efficiently (taking an avalanche safety course will cover that). Practice using them. Ensure you are testing your and your buddy’s transceivers prior to going out, every time.
Another item that is not essential but is beneficial is an avalanche airbag pack, which can increase the odds of survival in an avalanche by lifting you to the top of avalanche debris by using an airbag.
Ski or Splitboard Gear
Skis: You’ll want to do some research to find which type of ski best suits your style. Backcountry skis are typically wider, lighter, and excel in off-piste skiing.
Bindings: Again, research will help you determine if frame bindings or pin bindings are what you need. Frame bindings are easy to use, usually don’t require a special ski boot, but are heavier. Pin bindings require specific boots, and are lighter. Uphill and downhill performance will vary with each binding, so research is essential prior to buying.
Boots: You will want to purchase backcountry or AT (alpine touring) ski boots. These boots allow the option to set for “uphill” or “walk” mode, and “downhill” mode. The uphill mode allows the boots to flex, making the walk uphill less challenging. When locked in, they become stiffer, so downhill travel is easier.
Skins: Skins are necessary for uphill travel on skis. Find skins that are the same dimensions as your skis, or cut them to fit.
Poles: Collapsible poles are great because they are lightweight and easy to transport. When not in use, they fold up to easily store in a backpack.
Backpack: If you are planning on doing larger multi-day trips, you’ll want a larger backpack. If you are doing short day-trips, a small daypack will suffice. There are plenty of backpacks made specifically for backcountry skiing. These backpacks provide ease of access to avalanche gear, as well as specific loops to be able to carry skis or split boards when boot packing.
Helmet: Find a helmet that is warm and comfortable. Please, just wear a helmet.
Ski goggles: There are some pretty sweet designs and styles out there for ski goggles.
Clothing: Layers and a good breathable waterproof/windproof shell will keep you warm and dry. Ski socks will keep your legs and feet toasty warm.
Ski gear can be quite costly, so buying second-hand skis, boots, bindings, poles, and backpacks can be a good way to go if finances are tight!
Now you have your avalanche course, all the gear (and you know how to use it). You’re ready! So now what?
Find experienced people to go backcountry skiing with
Finding a good group of people to go out with can make all the difference in building knowledge and gaining experience. Knowing your risk tolerance and finding people with similar risk tolerance will ensure everyone has a good time. Speak up if you’re about to go into terrain that makes you feel uneasy. Listen to others’ concerns as well!
Plan your route, and have backup options
Inform others of your trip plan, including where you’re going and when you expect to return. Look up recent trip reports to the planned destination. This can be done by looking through online sources. Avalanche Canada’s website (or use the App) has a wealth of information including avalanche safety ratings and recent trip reports (https://avalanche.ca). Facebook or other online sources can be nice for recent updates as well. Look at the weather forecast, both Mountain Weather Forecasts (https://www.mountain-forecast.com/) and Avalanche Canada have resources for this.
Prior to heading out the door, look at avalanche conditions and weather forecasts again. Utilize a checklist to ensure you’re not forgetting anything. If it’s safe to go out, then have a blast! Otherwise, use your backup plan or stay home and try again another time!
Backcountry skiing is a higher risk, higher consequence sport. However, being knowledgeable, aware of your risk tolerance and skill level, and having the appropriate equipment will ensure you have a safe and fun day out.
Backcountry skiing is a great workout and if the conditions are right, you’ll get some cruisy lines and pow for days. Keep it safe, keep it fun!
Want to live out of your vehicle and ski for days on end? Read this article to learn more about winter car camping Winter Car Camping: How to be a Savvy Cold Weather Camper