For thousands of years, hardy humans have been slogging through snowy mountains in the name of something bigger. Today, you may also be motivated by an objective to conquer. Or, maybe you want to see more of the world, or connect with your friends outdoors. Regardless of the reason you’re stuffing your touring pack, there are ways to have a more meaningful, impactful experience in the mountains—to take your trip beyond the superficial.
After six seasons in the backcountry of Chile, Argentina, the PNW and the Southwest, I’ve compiled a few tips and tricks for a more mindful backcountry day—whether your goal is monster elevation gain or simply a bit of time in nature.
Take ownership and orient yourself.
We’ve all been that person: new to a spot, a little lost, tired and caffeine-deprived. You find yourself in the skintrack and the self-appointed guide gets everyone to glide by, checking beacons. A trip plan is vaguely discussed, but you’re silent. Or are you?
It’s easy to fall into patterns of passivity in the backcountry, especially with partners you know and trust. It’s easy to feel silenced (or conversely, overly trusting of others) when we don’t feel educated or experienced enough. But taking charge to access information myself has been enormously helpful in my own personal backcountry journey. It transformed my entire view and the way I approach outings.
Instead of relying on others for information, I took the move to educate myself as much as possible—which felt super empowering, particularly given that action-oriented masculine energy can permeate everything, from the tour’s vibe to the decisions made on outings. I love analog tools like the library as well as digital apps like Gaia GPS, a great tool for terrain research, trip planning, and route finding. I especially love the slope angle shading and shaded relief features to visualize what I am going to skin up and ride down.
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Try your local library to borrow guidebooks for free, or better yet, join the American Alpine Club to get access to their library-mailer service. No matter where you are in your education journey, guidebooks will be your keys to the kingdom, unless you plan on consistently relying on others. Hint: no one wants that.
(Note: you should never rely 100% on a cell phone for navigation or emergency communication while in the backcountry. Take a printed map if you do not know your terrain and/or are just developing your navigation skills.)
Learn the story of the land.
“I think many people approach the backcountry as a place separate from humans, and although you may be a visitor for the day, outside spaces are not separate from us. It’s important to remember that we are nature, no different from the trees, wildflowers or creatures,” says photographer, Natives Outdoors ambassador and Blackfoot Nation descendant Micheli Oliver.
This closeness—and the stewardship embedded into indigenous peoples’ relationships with the interconnected mountains, seas and rivers—is something we can honor and experience in our own way by acknowledging indigenous history on the land we’re traveling over. The Native Lands app and Native Lands website are helpful for this.
Tune in more closely.
Flow—also known as being “in the zone”—is a combination of focus and awareness that yields better athletic results and drives emotional stability. In the backcountry, it could mean staying more aware of shifting weather conditions, weird group dynamics and maybe even your dropping blood sugar.
So how do we access flow? Try using the B-A-S-I-C framework to start.
Can you take notice of how your body actually moves during specific activities? For example, think about how uphill form (shoulders back, trunk stacked over hips versus hunching over and leaning on your poles) impacts your ability to climb a steep slope efficiently?
Arousal (or Energy) Level:
Are you lagging from a late night or chomping at the bit to get up the mountain? Note your personal energy level (without judgement), and see if the tour’s vibe matches how you’re feeling. If you’re up for it, try leveling it up or down based on the group’s dynamic. At the very least, track shifts in your energy.
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This is a biggie if you don’t tour a lot. Pay attention to the messages running through your mind. Are you building yourself up or being self-defeating? Ask yourself, would the talk you’re giving yourself as you slide along the skin track be something you’d tell a friend? Try to quiet mental chatter by focusing on something external. Personally, I study the trees and landscape to distract myself from burning quads and cold fingertips.
This one is in line with self-talk, and has a lot to do with our own limiting beliefs. Note the images you conjure while touring and ask yourself, are they helping or hurting your task at hand? Visualize yourself completing the objective, whether that means at the peak’s summit or enjoying a picnic in a snowy meadow at the end of the tour. Engage in purposeful daydreams to set yourself up for success.
How focused are you on the task at hand? From skinning to transitioning to later skiing or riding, note how your focus shifts from broad (“what wonderful/terrible weather” or “when will I get a promotion”) to narrow (“yikes, look at all these facets” or “I need to speak up at Monday’s staff meeting more”). The goal of thinking about your concentration level isn’t to change it—instead, it’s simply to note how a broad or narrow field of focus impacts your performance. Over time, this becomes something you can cultivate when your energy (a.k.a the “A” in BASIC) tries to take over.
I always come back to these core concepts because I want my experiences in the backcountry to really count. Whether I only have an hour after work or a week in a hut, I ground through physical place and how I move through it to help me learn a lesson. Sometimes, that lesson is something I can use in the mountains, but oftentimes, it's for something bigger. Like cultivating communicative, healthy backcountry relationships that basically set the bar for every other type of human interaction I want to strive for in my life. Isn't that something we all want?
RELATED: If you're looking to hone (or perfect) your touring pack’s contents, build your basis of knowledge, or are looking for an exhaustive nationwide list of guiding services, check out our Backcountry Travel Guide, created in partnership with Teton Gravity Research.
Photos by Johnny Townsend, Kevin Carter, Alex Spychalsky and Dani Reyes-Acosta.