But after the coronavirus pandemic hit, interest in the backcountry skyrocketed. Between August 2020 and March 2021, sales of backcountry touring equipment — skis, boots and bindings — were up 115 percent compared with the same period over the previous years, according to market research from Snowsports Industries America, an industry trade group. Accessory sales — avalanche beacons, shovels and probes — were up 87 percent, and sales of splitboards (backcountry-specific snowboards that split in half lengthwise, so users can climb uphill the same as skiers) for that same period increased 92 percent.
The increase was part of a greater trend that saw significant upticks in outdoor recreation. People headed to backcountry destinations just as ski resorts limited access to enforce public health edicts.
Although the upcoming ski season at resorts promises to be less restrictive, interest in backcountry skiing seems poised to increase. If you’re among those who want to try it this winter, here’s how to get started.
What constitutes backcountry skiing?
The term “backcountry” refers to terrain that is out of bounds from ski resorts, often accessed by a trailhead, although some people head into the backcountry from a gate at a resort boundary. Unlike ski resorts, which use explosives and other mechanisms to keep inbounds slopes from avalanching during ski days, the backcountry is uncontrolled. There is neither avalanche mitigation nor a ski patrol to arrive within minutes of an accident and whisk injured folks to safety. Once you leave the trailhead, you’re on your own.
Backcountry skiers can avoid avalanche terrain by sticking with flat or gently undulating slopes. But many of today’s backcountry users want to make graceful turns through steep slopes covered with untracked powder, which means they generally want to ski slopes that have a relatively high possibility of avalanching. Understanding avalanche risk — and being able to assess danger — is essential to safely going backcountry skiing or snowboarding. It’s also challenging, in part because the likelihood of a slope avalanching is not immediately evident to the naked eye, says Steve Conger, technical director for the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education (AIARE).
“When you go to the ocean to surf, you can tell by the size of the waves if it’s too dangerous,” he says. “But the backcountry cannot tell you that. It looks so inviting, so beautiful. But out there, there is no ski patrol. If someone is going to expose themselves to avalanche hazards, they need to be able to be the proverbial lifeguard.”
To get started, aspiring backcountry users should ski at an intermediate level or higher. They also need specialized gear and a thorough understanding of avalanche hazards and how to navigate them. Many avalanche educators, forecasters and mountain guides suggest that skiers and snowboarders who are interested in the backcountry test the waters by going on a guided ski tour before buying all the gear and investing time and money in avalanche education. Not only will a guide plan a day that’s suitable for your ability, but that person will also teach you how to use the gear, keep you safe and answer your questions.
Certified mountain guides have thousands of hours of experience, which means guided clients can focus on the experience — and on deciding whether they like it enough to invest in the gear and the education without the stress of making consequential decisions in the backcountry, says Adrian Ballinger, certified mountain and ski guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, based near Lake Tahoe in California.
“The process of understanding and recognizing risk in the backcountry is as much art as it is science,” Ballinger says. “The only way to capture the art side of it, the unknowns and the intuition, is through years of gaining valuable experience. There is no way to skip that step, and when you go with a guide, your progress will be faster and safer, because you’ll have the ultimate mentor.”
Backcountry-specific gear uses specialized bindings that allow users to free their heel on the ascent and to lock it down for the descent. These bindings require special boots. “Skins” are strips of fabric that attach to the bottom of backcountry skis or splitboards and that allow users to climb uphill on snow with their skis on without sliding backward. Adjustable poles are also popular among backcountry users, who will lengthen them on the climb and shorten them for the descent.
Backcountry riders should wear an avalanche beacon, which transmits a signal that can locate a body or be activated to search for one, and also carry in their pack rescue equipment, including a probe and a shovel.
In the past five years, manufacturers have innovated backcountry skis, splitboards, boots and bindings to make gear lighter, more eco-friendly, easier to use and safer, says Jonathan Lantz, president of La Sportiva North America, a sports footwear and apparel company. Given the broad range of options, from super lightweight to heartier setups designed for challenging, big mountain terrain, consumers have a wide — and potentially confusing — assortment from which to choose.
Lantz recommends investing in “good boots, good bindings and good skins first. Only people who want to get into skimo [ski mountaineering] racing should go for the lightest setups.”
Make sure your boots fit well; blisters in the backcountry can easily ruin a trip.
Equally important to procuring gear is learning how to use it — before you’re deep in the backcountry, Ballinger says. Applying and removing skins can be tricky, and backcountry bindings can be finicky. Many resorts around the country allow uphill skiing and provide opportunities to practice using your gear in a safe and controlled environment. If that’s not an option, put your gear through the paces at home before venturing from the trailhead.
Snow avalanches kill between 25 and 30 backcountry users in the United States every year, according to the National Avalanche Center. Fortunately, avalanche safety classes and online programs exist to teach aspiring backcountry riders how to recognize safety hazards and make informed decisions.
Start with “Know Before You Go,” a free online program that familiarizes would-be backcountry users with the risks associated with backcountry skiing and riding. The program’s comprehensive 41-minute presentation features stunning videography of mountains, backcountry skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, combined with sobering facts about avalanches and sound bites from well-known adventurers and skiers, including Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin and filmmaker Jimmy Chin. The accompanying slide presentation offers more specific details about how to recognize avalanche danger, move safely through avalanche terrain, use avalanche safety gear, and find and understand avalanche forecasts, reports of current conditions in specific areas.
From there, backcountry users should take an in-person avalanche course. One-day introductory classes teach how to recognize avalanche terrain and danger and how to respond in an avalanche emergency. The next level, generally a three-day course, focuses on making safe decisions in the backcountry, reading avalanche forecasts, and understanding more about snow safety and the snowpack.
What to expect
You’ve gone with a guide, procured the necessary gear and taken an avalanche safety course. Congratulations, you’re ready for the backcountry. Be prepared for an aerobic workout and dress appropriately. For the uphill, that means wearing layers that wick sweat, as well as soft-shell jackets and pants with ventilation to release excess body heat. Pack a down jacket for emergencies. Bring plenty of high-calorie snacks, and remember that your hydration system will freeze if your pack doesn’t have an insulated sleeve. Ballinger recommends bringing a small thermos with hot tea or bone broth and water bottles that can fit inside your pack, so their contents won’t freeze.
Finally, be prepared for variable snow conditions. Chances are that you hope to find untracked powder, and you very well might. But you might not.
“Just because you’ve worked for it doesn’t mean the skiing will be amazing,” Ballinger says. “A lot of people start backcountry skiing thinking they’re only going uphill to get to the amazing downhill. When I was getting into it, it took a shift in mentality for me to realize that the uphill is awesome. You learn to appreciate the slower pace of climbing in the mountains. That’s when you see the foxes or the moss on the trees. Eighty percent of backcountry skiing is going uphill. You might as well enjoy it.”
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
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