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What is Backcountry Skiing?

By Chris Pew on

Backcountry skiing (and snowboarding) is skiing outside of the boundaries of a resort. This could mean accessing the backcountry from the bounds of a resort through an access-point or gate; but, more often, backcountry skiing involves touring and climbing up mountains in secluded wilderness areas and skiing down them. More advanced backcountry skiers might venture into a high-alpine wilderness area for a multi-day camping and backcountry ski trip. There is a large range to backcountry ski terrain: from low-angle tree glades for beginners to more advanced terrain in the high alpine. But if there’s anything that most backcountry tours have in common, it’s less people and untracked snow. 

the beauty of backcountry skiing

Why go backcountry skiing? 

More powder, less people. Simple as that. It's definitely a quality vs. quantity thing, and I really like skiing fresh tracks. I also love the entire experience. The uphill, the exercise, the route finding, the slower pace with your buds - enjoying every turn; and when it all comes together for a full tour it's such a rewarding way to spend the day in the mountains.  -Shane Robinson, Professional Guide, Owner: Graybird Guiding

Because there is nothing better than being outside with your favorite people getting to work a little harder and explore a little more for some soul turns and pow. Obviously for the pow. -Ginny White, Professional Skier and Guide

Backcountry skiing has so many of the things we look for today: the solitude of the wilderness, the opportunity to push yourself physically and mentally, and a deeper connection to the natural world. Unlike skiing in the resort, which can be rather anaerobic, backcountry skiers will build significant strength and stamina while enjoying the best skiing and snowboarding available. The most transformative aspect of backcountry skiing, however, is the connection to the natural world and the ability to transport yourself out of your normal surroundings. 

backcountry skiing is good for the soul

It’s the type of pastime that rewards slow and deliberate learning. It’s an antidote to today’s hyperfast world of information being at the tips of everyone’s fingertips, and that’s probably why we like it so much. You actually have to go out and do it and discover the natural rhythm of acquiring the proper skills and experience. But fortunately, if you’re passionate about skiing and snowboarding, every stage in the learner’s journey is highly enjoyable: the more time you spend acquiring knowledge, learning skills, and exploring the backcountry, the more enjoyment is to be had. 

I go backcountry snowboarding because it makes me feel ALIVE. Being in the mountains, surrounded by an infinite amount of terrain, mountains, and endless options fuels my fire. I simply go because I love it. I love being with friends out in the mountains, I love the solitude it brings and the happiness it provides. I find when I'm backcountry snowboarding, it brings a purpose in my life. Breathing that fresh, cold mountain air fuels my soul and passion. - Timmy Taussig, Professional Snowboarder

I love being in the backcountry away from the powder panic! It is so nice to be able to take your time, make careful decisions, and worry about quality more than quantity! -Colter Hinchliffe, Professional Skier

Is backcountry skiing worth it? It’s the most beautiful way to travel through the mountains and be in nature. Nothing connects you more to, both your own self, and to the world around you, than putting one foot in front of the other to see these pristine and wild places, and then leaving them just as you found it. Plus, powder! Kellyn Wilson, Professional Skier

Backcountry skiing powder turn

Backcountry is the ultimate adventure.  Using skis in the snow environment is the most efficient mode of transportation in the mountains.  I just love putting together big adventures on skis, I'm not into the straight up to the straight down.  I love that the backcountry environment is always changing and routes have to constantly be altered because of it.  Also, people seem to like following me everywhere... I love the attention. -Marty Schaffer, Professional Guide, Owner: Capow Guiding 

I backcountry snowboard because it is the ultimate escape from the realities of our Day to Day Life. Tyler Turner, Badass, Professional Adaptive Snowboarder and Surfer

How do you learn to backcountry ski?

The best way to open the door to backcountry skiing is to meet some other backcountry skiers. Seriously. Sure, getting into a crew of backcountry skiers might be difficult if you’re starting from scratch, but start the conversation with your friends that are passionate about the mountains. Chances are there’s someone that you know with some backcountry experience. If not, take a class with a friend, book a trip with a professional guide, or find local companies doing meet-ups. Besides the benefit of introductory know-how, an AIARE 1 class is a great way to meet fellow aspiring backcountry skiers in your area. Check out the AIARE providers in your area here. 

Hire a guide for backcountry skiing

Hire a guide, of course :).  No seriously, if you are just getting started you'll likely enroll in an avalanche class, but also, or even before that, just go out with a guide to see how a really smooth and efficient day can go.  A guide can focus on the avalanche hazard, where the best snow will be, and just manage the day, so you can focus on the shredding and having fun or figuring out all this new equipment and how to walk with skins on your feet and not get hot, sweaty, and hangry.  Hiring a guide is like taking a vacation from decision making! Shane Robinson, Professional Guide, Owner: Graybird Guiding

I first ventured into the backcountry or "side-country" off Snowmass ski area as a teenager, I wasn’t experienced but I definitely knew what avalanches were and was wary, which is a lot better than nothing! I really learned to use the gear and got my first pair of touring bindings when I lived in Alta a few years later. From going with more experienced skiers, I really learned the ways out there. -Colter Hinchliffe, Professional Skier

 climbing skins

The best advice we can give is to be humble, listen, and be patient. Be smart and ski conservatively in the backcountry. Even the most advanced backcountry skiers reserve their most hard-charging turns for the resort. 

Kellyn wilson backcountry skiing

I’m relatively new to the wonderful world that is backcountry skiing. I was a slopestyle skier for years until I was working as an intern for Skiing Magazine and was sent to do a story on an all women’s backcountry skiing clinic in the San Juans. Even with the heaviest frame bindings and rental boots, I had the best dang time. It was such a peaceful way to ski and be in nature. It removed the stresses, hustle, and bustle of skiing in the park and I was instantly so hooked. Kellyn Wilson, Professional Skier

I didn’t learn until I was in my 20’s, I got my first pair of tech bindings and had to learn how to use them on a trip to Japan. I was a total beginner. I recommend taking any new backcountry gear for a test run before you’re in the backcountry! Weirder than walking in skins is the feeling of taking your skins off and free heeling with no grip. I swear I’m gonna fall every time I transition. -Ginny White, Professional Skier and Guide

I was such a beginner rookie my first couple years having no idea what to do with that much snow. I took an old Forum halfpipe board I got my cousin back east and had some guy in glacier cut it for me and make it into a spiltboard…the early days of backcountry snowboarding gear! I remember going out for the first day and was like ohh this is pretty easy its like cross country skiing. Ohhh did I pay, we took our first run and on the way back, I remember breaking trail, falling flat on my face. Trying to kick turn and falling sidewise into a full body emergence into powder. That was a huge learning experience but also an experience that changed my perspective on snowboarding for life.. - Timmy Taussig, Professional Snowboarder

Backcountry snowboarding pow slash

My first backcountry touring trip was to one of the 10th Mtn Huts in Colorado.  The idea of hiking into a lodge in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of friends and then skiing out the back door sounded so perfect. I had recently bought a telemark set-up in large part so I could do trips like this.  It was the 90's, so backcountry touring was leather boots, long and skinny skis, and there was a lot of falling on my face.  But I had so much fun - I was hooked.  -Shane Robinson, Professional Guide, Owner: Graybird Guiding

One must not ever be careless as the backcountry will swallow you whole with no hesitation. It teaches respect, patients along with an everlasting bond with your team as you depend on them when things go south. -Corey Seeman, Professional Skier

The Perfect Day in the Backcountry

The perfect day backcountry skiing can be whatever you want to make it. You and your crew make the decisions and go at your own pace. If things all line up, then the best days in the backcountry will be some of the best days in your life. 

Backcountry skiing with a group

This last season I was able to return to the backcountry with the help of some friends and a few snowmobiles. After three years of not riding powder due to having both legs amputated I was extremely eager to get back on snow. The wind was blowing hard, snow was puking and with a slightly breakable crust the conditions were marginal at best. None of that affected the stoke for being back in the backcountry riding powder! Tyler Turner, Badass, Adaptive Surfer and Snowboarder

I prefer fast travel snow conditions that are more like traverses over many peaks.  The excitement of linking up a day is what makes the backcountry so exciting. That and PILLOWS.  I'll lap pillows if conditions don't line up big long touring days. Marty Schaffer, Professional Guide, Owner: Capow Guiding

the best day backcountry touring from a hut

So many good days… Probably the one that stands out was on the Arm at Mt. Baker: just full party boarding with all my closest homies. Everyone was ripping and we took like 5 laps all boot packing. Every run was full of powder, natty hits and just could not get any better.  - Timmy Taussig, Professional Snowboarder

 Blue or grey bird, a little bit of pow falling from the sky. All you can hear is your friends laughing and yeehawing up and down. The days when you forget to stop until it’s Dark because the snow is so good. -Ginny White, Professional Skier and Guide

backcountry soul shredding

My Ideal day in the backcountry is as follows. Wake up in a hut, fireplace is still burning. There’s a waffle iron somehow? We have waffles. And coffee. Look outside, obviously it’s been storming and there’s a ton of fresh snow. But what that? The suns coming out?! I’m with all my friends. And their dogs! We gear up and start skinning. Someone has music, the dogs are stoked, the avy danger is low, It’s super cold but the sun’s shining. Oh yeah, we’re all in costumes. We ski cold blower pow all day and get back to the hut. Build a little jump and have a spread eagle contest- furthest extension wins. Extra points for best costume. A big ol storm rolls in and we hunker down in the hut and have a dance party/limbo competition and go to sleep by 9:45. Kellyn Wilson, Professional Skier

backcountry hut life

The ideal day in the backcountry for me stars at the trailhead unloading my sled from my truck with hot coffee still in my mug on a cold cold day! breaking trail into the zone to find out the wind hasn't ruined anything! before commiting to my ski boots a few laps on the pow surf slope would be necessary! A few laps on sick lines, skinning above the sleds would bring us to a nice lunch basking in the sunshine before dusting off an old booter for the afternoon. I would be hyped to land a few tricks and work on a few more and finally switch back into my powsurf boots for some later afternoon surf laps! Eventually back at the truck it would start to snow again as we loaded the sleds back in the truck and cracked a cold one, cheersing to the best days possible! -Colter Hinchliffe, Professional Skier

Is apres the best part of backcountry skiing

Traveling through the mountains while finding a rhythm with your crew for the day and the conditions.  Some days that means dawn to dusk, cranking out as many laps and vert as your legs will allow, when it's just too good to stop. Other days, it's exploring a new zone, or trying to link-up a challenging tour.  Other days, it's super chill, laughing and catching up with friends on the skin track - the good turns are the bonus.  And apres, of course, there is always apres. --Shane Robinson, Professional Guide, Owner: Graybird Guiding 

Further Reading:

How to Layer for the Backcountry

Choosing the Best Waterproof/Breathable Fabrics

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  • Kakiko on

    Great write up!
    As reinforcing it with the article, taking an avalanche class and hiring a guide is a great way to start. With the whole industry turning and adapting to social distancing setups, many of people are feeling more comfortable going outside.

  • Peter on

    I’ve never been out into the backcountry before and have been intimidated by the idea. But I am so in. This is really insightful and motivating. This is the perfect year to give it a go… thanks for the nudge. And I guess I’ll finally put my Trew jacket and bib to the proper test.

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