Find your freedom — safely: a beginner’s guide to backcountry skiing and snowboarding
Backcountry adventuring is a dangerous sport. Arm yourself with the right knowledge, gear, and mentors to explore responsibly.
Whether you’re hiking deep into the wilderness or slipping out of bounds at a resort, backcountry skiing and snowboarding is an amazing way to experience winter at its finest.
The soft sound of your gear slipping through the snow. The quiet rustle of the trees in the wind. Seeing not a single soul on the way up, knowing all that fresh powder is yours. Or better yet, finding an untracked area to lap with your best friends until it’s time to head back to the car for some aprés.
This list is a good way to get started, but it’s no substitution for taking an avalanche course or exploring with a guide. If you’re getting ready for your first season away from the resort, take responsibility for your safety to make sure you’re prepared to handle the difficulties of backcountry terrain.
Here’s how to get started backcountry skiing or snowboarding:
— Assess your abilities
— Get educated
— Get the gear
— Start small
— Find a mentor
— Plan your adventure
Assess your abilities
Assess your ski or snowboard level. You don’t need to be a professional skier or snowboarder to enjoy the backcountry. But natural terrain is wild and unforgiving. Unlike ski resorts where the trails are marked and intentionally built, natural terrain is full of risk. Snow conditions can change quickly, from soft powder to exposed rocks and roots. Cliff faces and hazards not visible from above can seemingly come out of nowhere. Being comfortable on any level of resort terrain in any conditions is a good gauge that you’re ready to explore something bigger.
Check your fitness. It’s also important to consider your athletic ability. It’s one thing to ski all day with lift service. But it’s another animal entirely to pace yourself while literally climbing a mountain with gear on your back. Having the right gear helps but uphill travel is no joke. REI has a great resource for uphill travel tips to help you ditch some of the common frustrations when you’re starting out so you can actually enjoy the ride down.
Go to the experts. Avalanche safety is an entire industry of its own and courses are held all across the country. Level 1 courses are a great way to learn about safety gear, risk mitigation, and snow science.
Take an online course. If you’re not ready for a multi-day course yet, Know Before You Go is a free online avalanche awareness program. In one hour, you’ll learn about the basics of avalanche safety. This is a good way to get started, but a true avalanche course is the way to go before you head out to earn your turns.
Get the gear
Do your research. Backcountry, or “touring,” gear is often lighter weight than your alpine set up. Features like risers and skins make it easier to maneuver uphill and avoid slipping down to the base. There’s all kinds of variety, from ultralight gear for racing, to heavier wider styles for floating through powder. But many people start out with an all-mountain setup that will perform well in most conditions.
Again, go to the experts. Touring gear has leveled up in a big way over the past ten years and companies now provide so many options for skis, boots, poles, avalanche equipment, helmets, packs, outerwear, base layers... Do yourself a favor by doing some gear-specific research and then working with someone at a ski and snowboard shop who can pick out the right options.
Practice using your new gear at the resort. More and more resorts are creating uphill travel routes. It’s a great way to practice uphill travel techniques and to practice transitioning your gear to downhill mode once you reach the top.
Familiarize yourself with your resort’s policy, especially if going during off-hours. Many resorts run their groomers outside of normal operating hours so sticking to the prescribed uphill travel route will keep you away from the machines’ blind spots.
Find a mentor
Explore with an experienced backcountry adventurer. The backcountry community is a welcoming and passionate one. And people sure do love to share what they’re passionate about. Heading out to the mountain with someone you trust can be a good way to start using the knowledge you’ve learned from your safety courses and research.
Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Check your ego at the base and be comfortable with listening to your gut. Remember that part about adventuring with people you trust? Count yourself in as one of those people and recognize when you’re too far out of your comfort zone.
Plan your adventure
Check the avalanche forecast before each trip. Using your local avalanche center’s forecast or avalanche.org will help you determine which areas to avoid and what hazards you may run into. Always discuss the forecast with your group so you’re all on the same page.
Choose your route. Your experienced backcountry friends likely know what areas are appropriate for learning and which are better enjoyed once you get the hang of it all. You can also look online at resources like Powder Project, where you can see reviews and difficulty levels.
Remember: you’re on your own. Once you’re out in the backcountry, there’s no one to tell you what’s a green circle and what’s a black diamond. Always go with a group and always go with your gut.
But with some preparation and education, those lust-worthy powder turns will be just a hike away.