Are You Backcountry Skiing Curious?

A brief intro to the skills, gear and safety knowledge you need for backcountry skiing and backcountry snowboarding. This post is part of our Going Deeper Series.

Editor's Note: This story is by Paul Diegel, Special Projects Director for the Utah Avalanche Center.

When mountain resorts began shutting down last March as the seriousness of the COVID pandemic became apparent, something unexpected happened. Sales of backcountry gear, maps, and guidebooks which normally go to near-zero in the spring went wild. National forests in the Northwest and Colorado were closed due to overcrowding concerns. Closed resort parking lots in Utah were filled with skiers and snowboarders hoofing it under the silent lifts, and 49 human-triggered avalanches were reported in one weekend when most Utah backcountry riders are typically switching to warm-weather pursuits. This is on top of winter backcountry gear sales growing for years as traditional alpine gear sales have dropped.

 Why all the interest in backcountry skiing and backcountry splitboarding? Why are so many many of us turning away from the lifts that our parents and grandparents were so happy to take advantage of? Why would anyone slog uphill for hours in potentially dangerous and uncomfortable conditions to slide down a slope when you could take a lift? There are a lot of good reasons.  Cost. Adventure. Challenge. Real estate development. In this new world we live in, can you even safely get on a lift? And did we mention untracked powder?

If you’ve skied or snowboarded in resorts, you’ve probably seen tracks in the distance on slopes with no lifts leading to them. Or heard people talking about the backcountry, skin tracks or avalanche beacons. Maybe you’ve wondered if that’s for you, or been tempted by a friend’s invitation. Or maybe you’ve already had a taste of what it’s like outside the boundaries. With the uncertainty we’re all dealing with, maybe earning your turns is your best bet for riding this winter. If so, read on.

OR Ambassadors Dani Reyes-Acosta and Neil Provo ski uphill with a blue sky in the background.OR Ambassadors Dani Reyes-Acosta and Neil Provo ski uphill with a blue sky in the background.

There are a lot of different ways to ride in the backcountry. For some, it’s an extension of cross-country skiing – the exercise and the freedom of wandering the hills is appealing and the ability to do some turns is a bonus. For others, it’s an extension of mountaineering, complete with big objectives, esoteric gear, pre-dawn starts, and the afterglow of doing something extraordinary. For most of us, it’s as simple as parking at a trailhead with a few friends, strapping on light skis or splitboards with climbing skins and free-heel bindings, and spending the day hiking and chatting uphill, punctuated by pulling the skins off, goggles on, and flying downhill with untracked bliss blowing up in our faces. Or on other days, focusing on one careful turn after another in breakable crust.

Sometimes we do this in the sidecountry—the unpatrolled areas adjacent to resorts. Avalanche experts hate that term – you are either inbounds in terrain with risks mitigated by resort personnel or you are in the backcountry and completely outside of any resort hazard assessment or assistance. But sidecountry is a Thing, a way of getting into the backcountry by riding a lift, maybe with a little walking, and then getting back into the resort with a little effort. But if you do go into the sidecountry, you’re really in the backcountry and you and your partners are on your own. No one has used explosives to bring down waiting avalanches, assessed the snow safety, marked cliffs and rocks, or figured out how you are going to get back to your car. If you get hurt, no one is there to help you and you may not have cell service. If you get stuck with an injury, lost or with broken gear, your options for keeping yourself warm and getting home are limited to what you can do with what’s in your head and your pack.

It’s a good bet that most of the best riding terrain you’ll find is also avalanche terrain. Being a skilled rider doesn’t make you an avalanche expert. Staying safe in avalanche terrain is like driving on the freeway - if you know the basics, there is always risk but it can be managed and most of us do it without worrying too much. If you are new to driving, or no one has explained to you things like a steering wheel or which side of the road to drive on, it can be really dangerous, even when others make it look easy. If you are going into the backcountry, you need some avalanche education. The Know Before You Go program is a great place to start. The American Avalanche Center (or Avalanche Canada), or your local avalanche center or guide service can also get you pointed to introductory avalanche education.

If you get hurt riding in a resort, chances are, a patroller will be at your side quickly with first aid training and supplies, and communication and transportation options to help you out.  Not so in the backcountry. Tear an ACL or lose a ski miles from a road in deep snow an hour before dark with no cell reception and you suddenly have a Very Big Problem. You need to be prepared to perform first aid, contact help, and stay warm under any winter conditions. You might spend the night out. Some knowledge of first aid and making shelter, along with some emergency gear in your pack, can suddenly be priceless. 

Everyone in your group needs basic avalanche safety gear: a digital avalanche transceiver (beacon) so you can find a buried partner (or be found), a probe for pinpointing their location, and a metal shovel for digging them out. You wear the beacon on your body, against your base layer in the holster it came with or in a pants pocket intended for that purpose. And you’ll need a pack to carry the shovel, prob and emergency gear. You’ll need some training and practice to use these tools effectively. An airbag pack is a great option, buying you twice the chance of surviving an avalanche.

You should plan to check your local avalanche center forecast every time you go out to learn the current and expected avalanche danger and what to watch out for in the mountains.  Better yet, get in the habit of checking the forecast every day, whether you plan to go out or not. Knowing the snowpack history will help you understand what you are getting into when you do go out and there are tidbits of avalanche wisdom in every forecast. To find a forecast near you, go to the American Avalanche Center or Avalanche Canada.

OR Ambassadors Dani Reyes-Acosta and Neil Provo perform a beacon test before backcountry skiing.OR Ambassadors Dani Reyes-Acosta and Neil Provo perform a beacon test before backcountry skiing.

Getting around in the backcountry requires different gear. Walking to ride-able terrain with snowshoes or just in your boots is a popular option for first-timers, who very quickly see why that is a bad idea and either give up the sport or get climbing skins and a splitboard or touring skis that allow them to climb with heels free.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of buying gear ideal for firing 50 mph runs through cliff bands on big Alaska faces like you see in the videos. The reality is that you’ll spend 90% of your time walking uphill with that gear. Feather-weight touring gear is available that is capable of performance very close to the heavy high-performance stuff we’re used to using in the resort. Give some thought to your gear choices: Is it more important to you to optimize for those big lines? or to be able to keep up with your friends on the uphill and ski multiple laps? There’s a good chance you’ll be a lot happier with lighter backcountry gear. Whatever you get, you’ll need to learn new techniques, like how to use tech bindings, store your skins, and use the walk mode on your boots.

Aerobic climbs, moisture from sweating and rain or snowfall and long descents make staying warm and dry challenging. Everyone has a different comfort threshold, but at a minimum you’ll want a thin top and bottom base layer, some form of mid-layer insulation at least for your upper body, and an outer layer to protect you from wind, rain and snow. Think wool or synthetic for the base layer.  High breathability and wicking ability are key. An insulating layer like an Ascendant Hoodie will magically transport moisture away from your skin and allow your body temperature to dry you out when you get wet. 

Waterproof/breathable membrane fabric outer shells may or may not work for you. Most of those shells are water-resistant and have some breathability, but they compromise both. Where I ride in the Intermountain West, breathability is far more critical to staying dry than waterproofness. Even more so for pants. Soft shell pants are light, comfortable, breath well, and offer all the weather resistance most people ever need. I really like the Interstellar shell—it has all the water-resistance I need and breathes well enough to keep me dry in everything short of solid rain. Someone in the Northwest might find something more waterproof to their liking. Part of the learning process is figuring out what combination of layers you need for the conditions you anticipate, and getting used to peeling a layer to climb and putting it back on to descend in some conditions. Think ahead. If you’re comfortable before you start to climb, you’ll probably overheat pretty quickly once you start climbing.

Regardless of what you find works for you on a typical day, plan to carry an extra light, warm parka.  I like the Transcendent Down Hoodie.  I don’t wear it a lot, but it lives in my pack and is priceless for drying out while eating lunch, dealing with an injury or gear repair, spending the night out in an emergency, or just hitchhiking back to the car in the back of a pickup. If you have issues with cold hands or feet, electric heated mittens (like the Lucent Sensor mitts) and electric socks can change your life. Beware that they, along with other electronic devices, can hinder the searching performance of an avalanche transceiver. You’ll need to switch them off to do a transceiver search. Carry an extra set of mittens or gloves and warm hat. Those are critical and can easily get wet or lost when things aren’t going well. 

OR Ambassador and AMGA-certified guide Jessica Baker goes big in the backcountry.OR Ambassador and AMGA-certified guide Jessica Baker goes big in the backcountry.

Backcountry safety also requires some emergency gear. Be prepared to deal with an injury, broken binding or boot buckle, lost pole basket, and more. Consider carrying a super light bivy bag or space blanket for sheltering an injured partner or spending a night out. Pack fire-starting supplies. If you travel outside of cell range, consider getting a satellite communication device. These items are the minimum level of insurance you should carry.

Helmets are not used as much in the backcountry as they are in resorts. In the backcountry, high-speed collisions and tree strikes are not that common. I still like to wear one—it has protected my scalp from tree branches and a few rock strikes that wouldn’t have killed me but would have hurt and maybe required stitches. A normal ski helmet works, but is heavy and may be too warm for climbing. I use one certified for climbing and skiing (popular in the ski mountaineering racing world). It’s comfortable, keeps my head warm and dry in snow and rain, and is ventilated enough to climb with (including pushed-up goggles), so it speeds up my transitions on a cold day. 

OR Ambassador Santiago Guzman puts skins on his skis for backcountry skiing.OR Ambassador Santiago Guzman puts skins on his skis for backcountry skiing.

Backcountry skiing means your heart, lungs, arms, and legs get you to the top instead of your credit card. It isn’t easy. There is a lot of technique and specific muscle activity involved. If you’re a runner or cyclist or do some other aerobic activity regularly, you have an advantage. Regardless of your level of fitness, plan on doing some huffing and puffing on the way up, being tired and hungry at the end of the day, and getting stronger as you get out more. Keeping track of your mileage, vertical gain and time will give you a sense of how much mileage and vertical to count on for a full or half day outing and help you plan future days.

If you are an experienced resort rider, you need to add some new tricks to your skill set to have fun and stay safe in the backcountry. You’ll need to put more thought into your trip planning. Consider the avalanche and weather history and forecast for the day, your group capability, how much time you have, where you can park, road conditions, where others have been, and more to come up with the ideal plan for the day.

 

You’ll find skinning to be an art form of it’s own—the most efficient track steepness, how to gain elevation efficiently and safely, how to do kick turns, the benefits of warming your skins between your base layer and insulating layer while descending, and doing quick, efficient transitions to the up and down (tip: practice taking your skins off without removing your skis).

At the resort, you rely on your local knowledge, trail signs, and what you see others doing to figure out which of the limited number of runs available to ride. In the backcountry, you rely on maps, elevation, aspect, tree coverage and current snow and avalanche conditions to track down the best and safest runs.  You have many options and your choices will get better and more intuitive as you gain experience. That’s part of the sport. It’s as much an intellectual as physical challenge to find safe, high-quality, untracked powder. You and your partners make the decisions for yourselves and every day provides you a new set of challenges to figure out.

Safety is a bigger concern in the backcountry. We don’t think much about safety at the resort because professionals have provided us with lots of easy, safe choices. Every decision you make in the backcountry should be informed by current and trending avalanche danger, the snow characteristics, how much time and effort it will take to get back to the trailhead, remaining daylight and energy, the consequences of getting stuck with an injury or equipment failure, keeping track of your partners, and more.

Resorts invest millions of dollars on grooming equipment and drive them around all night for good reason. We’ve gotten used to forgiving snow, whether it is perfect blower powder on a smooth base, finely detailed corduroy, or patches of human-made snow covering bare patches.  Nature’s snowmaking is a lot different. Expect bare or barely covered rocks and stumps, heavy wet glop, deep snow that leaves you gasping to break trail, breakable crust, snow that sticks to your skins and weighs you down, or clear ice. Sometimes all on the same day. Plan your outings with an honest assessment of your riding skills. Likewise, you don’t often descend to your car at the end of a resort day on a narrow, steep, icy track with thick trees on both sides like you might on a backcountry day. Be aware that an injury or broken gear late in the afternoon can mean spending the night in a tree well. Plan your travel and your risk choices accordingly.

Be prepared with enough food and drink. Set the hydration bladder aside for the winter, lest you wind up carrying a useless block of ice with a frozen tube around all day, and consider using a thermos or insulated sleeve over a bottle of warm beverage instead. Bring plenty of calories to eat during the day and leave behind foods that become inedible when they’re cold or frozen.

OR Ambassador Santiago Guzman skis uphill.OR Ambassador Santiago Guzman skis uphill.
OR Ambassador Rachael Burks stops to admire snow coming down while backcountry skiing.OR Ambassador Rachael Burks stops to admire snow coming down while backcountry skiing.

Where to go is a common question. One of the great aspects of travel over snow is you can go pretty much anywhere you want, instead of where the trail-builders want you to go. That leads to a lot of choices, often with local names that don’t appear on any maps. When you’re starting out, where do you go to find the goods?

The first place to look is in local shops for winter backcountry maps and guidebooks. Look at the descriptions carefully to figure out the best slope for a sunny spring day or mid-winter after heavy snowfall accompanied by strong NW wind.

Explore. Learn to watch for and avoid avalanche terrain traps and exposure to dangerous slopes and go wander. Follow other skin tracks. Use mapping programs to identify slopes steep enough to ride without getting into the 30-40 degree avalanche risk zone, and facing towards the North side of the compass to get the least sun-affected snow. Follow your local social media and figure out where others have gone or are going. Maybe go there, or somewhere different but with similar elevation and aspect, but be aware that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “you can’t always believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Pay attention and prioritize learning. Ditch the ear buds and listen to the snow, the weather and your partners. Ask questions. Getting into backcountry riding without an experienced mentor is risky as well as not much fun. Finding or making friends with those more experienced and willing to show you around and teach you the tricks will grow your skills quickly. If you don’t have a network of backcountry-savvy friends, consider taking an avalanche class and befriending other students, looking for outdoor clubs like the Mountaineers (Seattle), Mazamas (Portland), or Wasatch Mountain Club (Salt Lake City), or just channeling your best extrovert skills and introducing yourself to those you meet on a skin track or at a trailhead. Consider spending some days with a professional guide. Following a pro who knows snow and terrain, paying attention and asking a lot of questions, can be your best bang for the buck for experiencing and learning about safe backcountry travel.

The safety and wisdom of backcountry skiing solo is constantly debated. A partner gives you a factor of safety in case of an injury or an avalanche burial and often more voices in the conversation lead to more options and better decisions. Solo backcountry travel when you are new to the game adds risk and limits your learning—we don’t recommend it.

Backcountry riding offers big rewards in exchange for hard work, climbing a steep learning curve and investing in specialized gear and training. It’s not for everyone. It trades the quantity of runs you can get with a lift ticket for the quality of untracked snow all day long. It requires you to stay alert to changing conditions and threats. Your gear choices affect your comfort and fun, even more so than when you’re riding lifts. Once you have the gear, it’s inexpensive, not counting the extra calories you’ll likely consume at the end of the day. After a few days of riding nothing but untracked powder, that smug look on your face may become permanent and you may never find the resort quite as appealing again.

 

Paul Diegel has been with the Utah Avalanche Center since 2001 as a volunteer board member, full time Executive Director responsible for communications, marketing, fundraising, strategy, and UAC business operations, and most recently as a part time advisor and creator of eLearning avalanche classes. Paul grew up skiing; racing, competing in the early days of freestyle, and speed skiing. He has degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Bioengineering, and an M.B.A.. He spent 30 years in technical and business roles focused on biotechnology product development, while skiing at every opportunity and ski instructing and patrolling. He skis and splitboards in the backcountry and competes in Ski Mountaineering and spends summers trail running, biking, and exploring whitewater. 

 

SHOP SKIING AND SNOWBOARDING

[Stay tuned for more in the Going Deeper series: A Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding Safety Q&A with AMGA Certified Ski Guide and OR Ambassador Jessica Baker, a list of Backcountry Safety Resources and a Guide To Finding Your Perfect Ski Kit.]