4 Rad Places For Your First Backcountry Ski Trip
Outdoor Research is proudly partnering with Teton Gravity Research to bring you the new Backcountry Travel Guide, where you'll find all the essential info to get started with backcountry skiing: the gear, where to get the skills and knowledge, and a list of top-notch guides. And when you're ready to take your skills to the mountains, here are a guide's top choices for beginner backcountry ski trips. Cheers—have fun out there and stay safe!
So you’re doing it. You dropped the cash on the tech bindings, you’re taking a week off in March, and for the first time you’re traveling for backcountry skiing. The stoke is high! Maybe you’re also a little nervous. That’s fine. If it’s your first backcountry ski trip, don’t bite off more than you can chew—Murphy’s Law applies. Rather, set yourself up for success. Keep it domestic. Use a car to access the skiing. Split an AirBnb. Nail it this time, and you’ll find yourselves in Valdez or Revelstoke before you know it. The whole point is to have fun, right?
Here are some great choices for your first backcountry ski trip. The terrain will be the challenge this time, instead of the travel logistics—they’re probably a step up from your backyard ski tour. All of these trips have the potential to go south if you don't know what you’re doing, so make sure your whole crew has taken a level 1 avy course, wilderness first aid, CPR, and has the right gear.
I might be a little biased, but then again, there’s a good reason why over 100 mountain guides and avalanche professionals call the San Juan Mountains home. Between the sleepy old mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, and Telluride, this area is home to more mountain professionals per capita than anywhere else in the country. Clue: It’s not because of the nightlife. World-class ski terrain, plenty of annual snowfall, and unbeatable access create a backcountry skier’s paradise.
Colorado is well known for its blue skies, low-density powder—and traffic. If you prefer the first two over the last, head south and west to Red Mountain Pass, about as far from Denver as you can get in this state. At 11,075 feet (treeline is around 11,800’), this pass between Ouray and Silverton is famous for a variety of terrain, including meadows, glades, bowls, and chutes within an hour of the car. A few more minutes of skinning will land you on top of 13,000’ peaks with ski lines on all sides. Silverton, just 45 minutes from Ouray, is famous for its extreme ski area, but it’s easy to skin into terrain comparable to the inbounds stuff. Telluride ski area, an hour from Ouray, offers gate access to backcountry terrain unmatched in the United States. Between the old-growth forests and alpine terrain, the skiing here is endless. Check in with San Juan Mountain Guides on Main Street in Ouray to find out what’s skiing the best.
With so many towns poked high into the mountains, it’s rare to park lower than 10,000’ for a day of ski touring. A couple of well established hut systems house skiers anywhere from 100 yards to five miles from the trailhead, making hut-to-hut trips possible. With some creativity, the huts can link town-to-town alpine traverses. Steep couloirs and faces become safer as the winter progresses. It can be hard to keep the car on the road as you crane your neck driving over Red Mountain Pass, scoping your next objective. By the way, this isn’t a road you want to drive off— invest in winter tires before showing up.
Ski town, USA. Sun Valley has long been known for its snowy winters, empty slopes, and deeply rooted ski community. Locals have been skiing the backcountry here for a long time, and the rest of the world is slowly getting in on the fun. With access to four mountain ranges and high-elevation road access, this iconic Idaho ski town will not disappoint.
Trailheads are found in every direction from town, but to find the goods, head north. Warm up to the terrain and the snowpack on Galena summit, touring through open meadows and perfect glades. Put those fat skis to work in the deep pow of Banner summit, where you’ll ski long runs and not see another party all day. And if conditions permit, the Sawtooths are a national destination for couloir skiing. If you’re hoping to eat, sleep, ski, and repeat, consider staying in distraction-free Stanley, ID, which is closer to Banner and the Sawtooths.
Yurts are especially popular in this part of the country, and Sun Valley Trekking’s hut system will multiply the pow factor. With eight huts and yurts spread across the region, SVT enables multi-day backcountry trips with zero logistical effort. The yurts are positioned minutes away from great ski terrain, including a recently burned forest, which should be on every skier’s bucket list. They also offer porter services, so your gear reaches the yurt, and AMGA certified ski guides, so you can reach total consciousness. Which is nice.
LAKE TAHOE, CA
Despite Tahoe’s reputation for hosting the entire Bay Area each weekend, the area’s backcountry is pleasantly uncrowded. This is due to the vast amount of ski terrain available to those willing to skin for it. Spend some time here midweek, and you’ll likely be alone. Tahoe is home to some great ski areas with backcountry access gates and a couple mountain pass roads. Add on plenty of options for cheap lodging, eating, and drinking, and Tahoe quickly becomes a ski touring destination.
Long known for its powder, the Lake Tahoe region has recently gotten a bad rap for lack of snow. And this is probably how the locals like it. When the snow is falling, it’s on like Donkey Kong. Which is often. The maritime Sierra snowpack is predictable and the hazard obvious, with avalanche danger quick to rise and quick to fall. White room storm skiing on gentler slopes is followed by glorious bluebird alpine runs a couple days later. Squaw Valley and Kirkwood provide world-class lift skiing when the avy danger really spikes.
On the northern end, check out the Mt. Rose zone for endless touring near the car. The valleys around Squaw and Alpine Meadows also provide. Down south, Carson Pass is the move— Kirkwood and the surrounding area are known for Tahoe’s biggest terrain and deepest snow. Accommodations abound no matter where you plan on skiing.
NORTH CONWAY, NH
The East?! Oh yeah. Don’t be fooled, New England can deliver backcountry in spades. Rocky mountain locals privately—but fondly—harbor memories of nipple-deep pow in tight Vermont glades and spring skiing at Tuckermans Ravine. Ski culture in the East is over a century old, and if you haven’t experienced it, your life as a skier is incomplete. Armed with a motivated posse and quality technical outerwear, you are in for a treat.
On the west side, Vermont gets the pow. The Vermont Backcountry Alliance has gladed hundreds of acres of birch and maple forest, in addition to thousands of acres cut by locals all over the state. Big Jay, near the Canadian border, holds incredible backcountry tree skiing, and nearly every ski area (Mad River Glen, ever heard of it?) has backcountry terrain nearby. The Catamount Trail between Bolton and Stowe is another popular zone.
Head east to the Presidentials of New Hampshire for higher alpine missions. Check out the Gulf of Slides, Ammonoosuc Ravine, and of course, Tucks on Mt. Washington for above-treeline bowls and chutes. Kings Ravine offers steep, hidden gems for the adventurous. Well maintained trails through the forests below offer easy access and egress. Make the pilgrimage. But first, brush up on your technique. You’ll thank me later.
Washington’s Cascades: Stevens Pass, Mt. Baker Ski Area, and Snoqualmie Pass all offer great backcountry skiing, so find out where the snow is falling and pick one.
Cooke City, MT: As remote as it gets, but that’s what makes it special. Endless terrain if you have access to a snowmobile. Big and serious mountains flanked by simpler ski terrain.