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How to Start Backcountry Skiing: A Step-by-Step Guide

Welcome to the world of alpine touring.

First, know this: You are not the only person wondering how to get into backcountry skiing. In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak has cast uncertainty over the entire institution of resort skiing. One side effect? The smoldering log of alpine touring interest has been doused with lighter fluid.

how to start backcountry skiing
Want to ski uphill? There are some things you should know. | PHOTO: Alton Richardson

Backcountry skiing is a great way to get that essential Vitamin D plus fresh air and exercise. It also (usually) offers a respite from crowds. Skiers who are well-versed in backcountry travel—who already have the gear and the knowledge—have been finding solace in their favorite zones since long before coronavirus happened. #Cancelchairlifts may not have trended, but the sentiment exists on a personal level for many skiers. Others simply love balancing their fast-paced resort days with backcountry peace.

Backcountry skiing also kills. Avalanches claim skiers’ lives every year. Some of those skiers are experts.

How to Start Backcountry Skiing

So, in order to chart a safe and satisfying course into the world of alpine touring, it’s useful to take the right first steps:

  1. Know what you know, and know what you don’t.
  2. Get the gear.
  3. Get educated.
  4. Find good partners.
  5. Start small.

“Knowing you know nothing about avalanches is the first step to, well, knowing something about avalanches.”

1. Know What You Know, and Know What You Don’t

Before you shell out $2,000 on new gear and wander up an unfamiliar trail, we recommend some self-assessment. Start by asking yourself these questions:

What is your ski level, and can you identify an appropriate run in the backcountry?

Do you know how, where, and when avalanches happen? 

Do you know how to stay out of harm’s way in the backcountry?

Do you know how to use ski touring and avalanche safety gear?

Can you dress and pack appropriately for winter backcountry travel?

Answering these questions honestly will give you a foundation. For example, knowing you know nothing about avalanches is the first step to, well, knowing something about avalanches. Rather than blindly following someone else’s tracks up a trail (a person who may also know nothing), learn how to stay out of hazardous situations first. And also, learn what you will do if something goes wrong. This applies to avalanches, sure, but it is also a useful approach for other hazards, like gear failure, being under-dressed for the elements, getting lost, etc.

how to start backcountry skiing
Step one: Know before you go. And if you don’t know, don’t go. | PHOTO: Bianca Germain

2. Get the Gear

When you are figuring out how to start backcountry skiing, the gear part can feel like an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. That’s where we come in! As always, you can call Powder7 at 303-237-7547 to talk gear. Here are some of your options:

Get a Frame Alpine Touring Setup

Frame alpine touring bindings, like the Marker F12 Tour, Marker Baron, and Fischer Ambition 10, allow you to skin uphill without buying a touring boot. They descend as full-on alpine bindings, so you can use them confidently for all your resort skiing, too. This option requires the least commitment and is often the least expensive. The downside is that, for touring, these setups are on the heavier side. And beware the alpine-boot blisters!

Get a Full-On Touring Setup

Powder7 sells a variety of used alpine touring setups, some with frame bindings and others with tech touring bindings. Tech touring bindings help you save considerable weight, but they can only be used with touring boots, which feature walk modes, lightweight materials, and pin fittings. If you are looking to piece together a new setup, you can find lightweight skis and tech bindings on their own, allowing you to build the perfect kit for your human-powered future.

Get a Do-Everything Hybrid Setup

The newest craze in the backcountry skiing world is the advent of hybrid alpine touring bindings. These allow you to tour uphill in a relatively lightweight binding with tech pins. For the downhill, the pins stow and you descend in a full-on alpine binding. The Salomon Shift revolutionized the binding scene a couple years ago, and this year Marker has introduced its take on the hybrid AT binding: the Duke PT. Either of these bindings will pair with a lightweight ski of your choice to give you one setup to rule them all, in-bounds and out. Add a hybrid touring boot, like the Tecnica Cochise 120, Lange XT3 120, Dalbello Lupo, or K2 Mindbender to maximize the versatility of your ski kit with the fewest numbers of products. Each of these boots is available in multiple flex options.

Don’t Forget Skins and Safety Gear

First, you would be surprised at how many people buy AT setups without realizing they need climbing skins in order to go uphill. Don’t be that person.

And second, do not skip safety gear. Even if you just want to ski right now and think you will do it safely, take a moment to consider the risk. By getting into alpine touring, you’re setting yourself up for next season and beyond. A full setup isn’t complete without the gear you need to stay safe in the backcountry. At minimum, that’s a beacon, a probe, and a shovel. You also need to know how to use them and practice.

how to get into alpine touring
Nerding out over touring gear is even better when you then get to score powder turns. | SKIER: John Paul

3. Get Educated

This blog post, along with whatever similar articles or videos you have consumed online, do not substitute for formal avalanche safety training. Keep yourself, your friends, and other backcountry travelers safe by taking an AIARE Level 1 course before you ski in the backcountry.

Naturally, not all skiers who get into backcountry skiing will start with a full Level 1. Such is life. One more time: We do not recommend this approach. However, there are a few basic steps you can take on your own to begin your avalanche safety journey.

Watch this Video. Then Watch It Again.

Know Before You Go, is an industry-standard as in introduction to avalanche safety. It’s a great starting point, but it doesn’t take the place of actual avalanche education, like an AIARE Level 1 course.

Read Up.

Various books can help you turn on your radar to avalanche concerns. We recommend starting with Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard.

Study the Forecast.

Each day during the winter, professional avalanche forecasters publish avalanche forecasts for various mountain regions across the country. You can find the forecasts here. At minimum, read the forecast the day and morning before you go ski touring. By reading it daily, you will pick up valuable insight and recommendations for safe backcountry travel.

Practice Avoidance.

In those avalanche forecasts, you will quickly notice a trend, especially here in Colorado. During the winter, the gameplan is often to stick to low-angle, safe zones away from avalanche terrain. Again, you should be able to safely find these zones before you go skiing, and you should still bring the requisite safety gear in case something goes wrong. But the bottom line is this: You can go backcountry skiing without putting yourself in danger of avalanches. They key is knowing how and where to go.

how to get into backcountry skiing
Becoming a safe backcountry skier is a lifelong journey.

Practice the Skills.

What good are skills and gear if you forget how to use them? Even after you take an avalanche course, find mellow trailheads or zones and practice with your gear. That could mean skinning up a logging road to get used to how your bindings, boots, and skins work. It could also mean practicing with your avalanche gear. Time some beacon searches and make the slowest person buy a take-out six-pack from a local brewery.

4. Find Good Partners

One way to help you approach your backcountry skiing career responsibly? Pick good people to ski with. These could be more experienced skiers who help line you out and watch your back. Or, they could be people with your similar ability level who are equally as hesitant as you are and will keep you company on safe, mellow days. You can get comfortable with gear together and eventually help each other hone skills. The right partner will help you make good decisions (like, maybe only skinning at the resort until you each take a Level 1 course). Remember, if you enter avalanche terrain with someone, they need to be able to save you, and vice versa.

Oh, and a word about “experts”: Always keep your guard up. Every year, expert skiers wind up in avalanches. So, unfortunately, just because someone sounds like they know what they are doing doesn’t mean they actually do. It’s great to go out with an experienced skier for a mellow ski day where you learn the gear, the movements, and the snow. But avoid blindly skiing steeper terrain with someone you don’t know well. Keep in mind: Even the equivalents of blue-square trails at resorts can avalanche in the backcountry. A run does not have to be super scary to be dangerous.

how to start backcountry skiing
Slashing powder down low-angle meadows can be just as fun as skiing the steeper stuff. PHOTO: Bianca Germain

5. Start Slow

All right. You’ve got the gear. You’ve filled your brain with best practices on avalanche safety. You’ve got great friends to ski with. Now it’s full speed ahead, right?

Not so fast. Think about it this way: You just invested all that money and time in a new lifestyle. This is an investment in your future, not just next weekend. If you ease yourself into ski touring, gaining comfort and skills slowly and deliberately, you will find much more satisfaction than if you dive in at full speed. Not to mention, you will keep yourself and others safe.

Start by breaking in your gear and learning how to skin at resorts. Most mountains have uphill travel policies, so read up and buy a cheap pass for skinning. Plenty of skiers only ever ski tour at resorts. Why? It’s far safer and more predictable than the actual backcountry.

If you find yourself in Colorado, you may also check out the country’s first 100% human-powered ski area: Bluebird Backcountry. Here, you’ll find pre-set skin tracks, avalanche reports, low-angle terrain, lessons, and a supportive community of uphill skiers.

Neither of these an option for you? Connect with other skiers, hunt down additional resources, and build the knowledge to help you find safe, mellow zones. But be warned: Once you start earning your powder turns, you may not want to stop.

Need some stoke? We’ve got the ultimate ski movie playlist.

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