Walking on skis through snow-covered woods is my favorite winter exercise.
As much as I love carving up a sleeping powder bowl with perfect turns, skiing in avalanche terrain requires more preparation, planning, and partners.
Backcountry skiing is as much about skiing the steep and deep as it is about getting into the peace and quiet of the winter wonderland. It’s about leaving behind the shouts and bustle of the ice park, the constant whir and clink of running lifts.
In the backcountry, I find space to rejuvenate, to reflect, and to breathe deeply.
If you’re just getting started, you should know that there is plenty of mellow backcountry terrain. There are many places where you can avoid avalanche terrain altogether and just learn about walking through snow-covered woods.
Get the Gear
A lightweight set-up is key for enjoying tracks away from the crowds. Good enough is perfect, but err on the side of light.
Lighter is better, and in the 90-105 mm range underfoot.
Comfortable is better, with a wide range for walking.
I recommend tech bindings, which allow free heels for climbing and locked heels for the way back down.
They should fit so that the metal edge of your ski is exposed on both sides, nothing more, nothing less.
SHOVEL, BEACON, & PROBE:
You MUST have rescue gear whether you are in avalanche terrain or not. A shovel, beacon and probe come with me on ALL my ski adventures.
Start Small and Simple
Getting used to your gear will take a little time. But that’s ok because it’s fun!
Choose a groomed cross country ski trail or a snow-packed, low-angle backroad to make your first tracks. Without leaving civilization too far behind, you can focus on learning key movements:
Let your skins glide over the snow.
SKIN TO SKI TRANSITION:
Practice going from skin mode, to ski mode, and back again. It’s much harder to make this transition in deep snow, steep terrain and wind. Run through the process a few times in the parking lot, or in your living room!
GET TO KNOW YOUR BINDINGS:
Make sure you understand features like heel risers.
Where is it Safe? Make a Plan
Things look different in winter. Even very familiar summer hiking areas can become confusing when covered in snow. Remember that summer trails are made for summer travel i.e. when there’s no avalanche hazard.
GET THE LAY OF THE LAND:
- Before you leave the trailhead look for major landmarks to orient yourself.
- Use a GPS app on your smart phone to help figure out the terrain.
- Always bring a paper map along for backup.
STICK TO FLAT AREAS:
Chart a course that is well separated from any steep slopes. Small, rolling hills with trees, or the foothills, are a good place to start.
- Inquire at the local backcountry store for places to go.
- Purchase and read a guidebook.
I don’t always remember the ski runs I did, but I always remember my partners—friends who skied with me.
A partner is a great backup if you’re just figuring everything out. Even better is an experienced friend willing to mentor you.
Going alone is ok, too. I do it all the time. But be sure to give yourself even bigger margins for error:
- Don’t even get close to avalanche terrain.
- Tell someone where you’re going.
- Stick to well-travelled paths that will easily lead you back to your car.
Rent gear from a local Backcountry ski store. This way you can try out the equipment and narrow down the endless choices.
I have bought boots online, but, in general, it’s best to try them on.
You can find Rescue Gear as a set online for the best deals.