New to the Backcountry? Here's Where to Start
SKI TOURING FOR BEGINNERSWhether it's because lifts are closed in resort - or to find untracked powder away from the crowds, going into the backcountry has never been more popular. But where do you start venturing into the big white unpisted world? What kit do you need for ski touring? How do you avoid the potential dangers of the unpatrolled mountain? Martin Goldman, defines what it takes to earn your powder turns. What gear you need for ski touring, where to go and how to stay safe. An essential guide for ski tour and splitboard backcountry beginners...
Even if you’re a total beginner, there are some great resources available to help get you started in the world of human-powered skiing. Traditionally most backcountry skiers have stumbled their way to competence, learning from their mistakes and occasionally picking up help from mentors. But getting into backcountry skiing doesn’t need to be hard and dangerous, and there are more opportunities than ever for newcomers to grow and progress safely.
GET EDUCATED ABOUT THE SNOW PACK
The first thing to do if you’re planning on accessing the backcountry, either by skinning or skiing outside of resort gates is to get educated. Backcountry skiing is dangerous. Plenty of people are killed every year while skiing in the backcountry, either by avalanches or other hazards. While you can learn a lot through reading books and talking to guides, there’s no replacement for a dedicated avalanche course. Take your Avy 1 class before you go any further down this road. You’ll learn a lot, not just about avalanches but also how to travel more efficiently in the mountains, how to manage the terrain, and how to find safe areas worth skiing. We can’t emphasise this enough: take that class before you do anything else.
Also check out the Heuristic Traps, influencing factors in decision making which can be leathal and common causes of triggering avalanches.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SKI BACKCOUNTRY GEAR
As you get educated on the hazards of backcountry skiing, it’s also time to gather the gear. If you’re not sure that you’re going to be a dedicated backcountry skier, finding a ski store that offers backcountry ski rentals is a good idea. They can get you set up with the gear you need to take your Avy 1 class. To take that class, and to enter the backcountry safely, you’ll need an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, and a probe. A good shop will be able to rent those to you and point you towards deals when it’s time to buy your own.
Beyond that, you’ll need either a backcountry touring ski setup or a splitboard. That means boots with tech fittings, touring bindings, and skins. This is another area where your shop is an invaluable resource. They’ll be able to recommend gear that performs similarly to your inbounds gear and works well for your objectives. Don’t skimp here, especially on boots, look to get them professionally fit. Ski boot fitting might seem excessive, but your feet will thank you when you’re walking uphill deep in the backcountry.
What type of ski to use for your setup is dependent upon the skier. Often going with a lighter ski is beneficial for the uphill portion, but this weight difference can also translate into how the ski feels on the downhill, too light and it may become unstable for your liking. Think about your typical skiing style, as well as what type of snow conditions and zones you will be skiing in.
Up until the past several years, the main binding type of choice for alpine touring were tech bindings which are lightweight and rely on a set of pins to hold a boot in place. Some skiers would also go with the older style of frame touring bindings as these are compatible with all boots and ski like an alpine binding, but they are much heavier. The newer option that is gaining traction is hybrid touring bindings which utilise the tech toepiece for a lightweight setup, but also have a traditional DIN certified heelpiece for added responsiveness and safety on the way down. Skiers have even begun using this option as a 50/50 resort and backcountry setup.
Ask the shop about important accessories as well. Several small things can make your life a lot better, such as skin wax (like ski wax, but for your climbing skins), multitools, and a small headlamp can live in your pack and really help you out in a pinch. Find knowledgeable people and quiz them on what they carry and get the inside story of some of the more unusual items you'll find in a mountain guide's backpack.
If you become addicted to backcountry touring and start going hut to hut, carrying everything you need for two or more days, this is the definitive check list of gear that you'll need adding up to 45 items give or take a carabiner.
STAY UP TO DATE WITH THE WEATHER
You’ve got the gear, you aced your Avy 1 class, now you’re done reading and ready to head into the backcountry, right? Not so fast. Backcountry knowledge is a journey, not a destination. You need to be ready to constantly learn and improve. No certification makes you impervious to danger. Instead, you need to grow and progress.
The best way to do that is to read your local avalanche report every morning before you get out of bed. Even if you’re not skiing, it’s important to keep up to date on what is happening in the mountains. The circumstances that lead to avalanches don’t all happen over the course of the day before. Often time the longer-term freeze-thaw and sun cycles play a huge role in how stable the snow is for months afterward. So keep reading and learning and growing.
GET STARTED INBOUNDS
For any beginner backcountry skier, there are a whole bunch of things to handle. You’re on unfamiliar gear, in unfamiliar terrain, doing an unfamiliar exercise. And on top of all that hangs the pall of potential avalanches. So we’d highly recommend taking some of those variables out of the equation and getting familiar with your gear and with backcountry travel inbounds at a ski resort.
Most resorts offer some sort of uphill policy, with an affordable pass. They have designated routes, and often even have beacon parks so you can practice your rescue skills. Take advantage of all of that. Figure out how your bindings work at a resort, not somewhere where a mistake will leave you stranded overnight. Get fast at transitioning from skiing to walking and back in an area where it’s easy to just head back to the car and warm up.
Uphill skiing inbounds at a resort is the best way to grow competent on your touring gear without endangering yourself or others. You’ll have a more enjoyable, and safer first few tours if you do them at a ski resort.
GET A MOUNTAIN GUIDE
Mountain guides: Per As and Kris Erickson
Finally, once you’re comfortable with your gear and want to expand your horizons, we highly recommend getting a guide. Best of all hire a qualified mountain guide from a guide service. Or find an experienced backcountry skier who is willing to mentor you and show you the ropes.
Sure, you can just charge out there on your own, but it’s not safe, and it’s usually not fun. Let someone with more experience help you out, give you some tips, and improve your technique. They’ll be able to assess what backcountry zones make sense for your skill level and help you grow as an all-around skier - check out our Ski Blog featuring How To Ski Tour For The First Time. Pay attention, and maybe someday you’ll be able to do the same for another fresh new backcountry skier.