Whether you’re new to skiing, or have been riding lifts for decades, you’ve probably heard the term “earning your turns,” which simply means getting to the top of the ski hill on your own power—instead of via a ski lift—before skiing down. It’s how backcountry skiers access terrain outside a ski resort for alpine touring, and it can provide deep satisfaction—a fresh appreciation for each turn on the way down. Some people even race uphill and downhill on slimmer skis in “skimo” races, skimo being short for “ski mountaineering.” If you’ve never skied uphill before, you might have a few questions about how, exactly, all this works. Here’s a little info to get you started.
How to go uphill: the gear
Since skis are, obviously, designed to slide downhill, skins are attached to the bottom of skis for moving uphill. Modeled after the animal skins that old-fashioned skiers used for traction, modern-day skins are furry on one side and sticky on the other. The sticky side attaches to the bottom of the ski, and the furry side is what grips the snow–the “fur” points in one direction, like the fur on an animal, so the ski can slide forward, but when you put your weight on it, the “fur” grips into the snow, keeping you from sliding backward.
You also need boots and bindings that allow your heel to be free—alpine touring, or AT, boots and bindings. With your heel free to move up and down, you can basically walk uphill in skis, except that you’ll want to put some glide into it. Plus, most AT bindings have heel risers, which allow you to raise or lower the angle of your foot. That way, when you’re skinning up steeper terrain, your heel doesn’t have to go all the way back down against the ski on each step—it saves major energy in your leg muscles.
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Where to go
Once you’ve got your skis and skins ready, you can start planning your trip. This is where things get serious. Just because you can access a slope does not mean it’s safe. Avalanche terrain can exist right off the parking lot. Now is the time to get educated about avalanche safety. Before you even strap on your skins, sign up for an avalanche safety course and read up about risk and safety in your region.
One option for uphill skiing is to skin inbounds. Many resorts are opening their terrain to uphill skiers, which allows access to slopes that have, usually, had avalanche mitigation. Check with your local ski hill for their rules and regulations. Some will let you ski uphill during regular business hours, some only allow it before lifts start running and after they stop in the afternoon. Most of them have specific areas where uphill skiing is allowed or not allowed. And most of them will require you to sign a waiver, maybe even display a permit, while you’re doing it. Since resorts make very little money from uphill skiers, permitting skinning is a courtesy—one that could be taken away if it’s not respected. So please make sure to follow the rules and be considerate.
Backcountry Magazine put together a helpful list of resorts with uphill skiing policies. But before you go, make sure to confirm with the resort that the rules are still the same.
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What to wear
Skiing uphill requires way more energy than riding a lift—so you’ll warm up. A lot. The key to staying comfortable while skinning, and also on the descent, is to dress in layers. Depending on weather conditions, you may be able to wear significantly less while you’re skiing uphill than you would while riding lifts. Start with wicking base layers, then add ski pants that vent. On a pleasant day you may find yourself headed uphill with your vents wide open. It’s best to start off feeling a little chilly—if you start with too many layers, it’s easy to become soaked with sweat, which will leave you feeling freezing once you’re up high and stop moving. Just make sure you have plenty of warm layers with you for colder conditions at the top of the hill.
One great way to stay comfortable is to wear a hybrid jacket—like OR’s Refuge Hybrid Hooded Jacket—that keeps your core warm but lets you shed heat from under your arms. Just make sure to pack a shell and maybe a puffy jacket to put on when you get to the top. It’s amazing how quickly it can change from feeling toasty to frigid when you stop moving. So be ready to zip up those vents and add a layer or two before you head downhill.
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When it’s time to go down
When you’re ready to head downhill, simply peel your skins off your skis and click your boot heels into your bindings. Forgetting to do that—and heading downhill with your heels free—can just about guarantee a yard sale. If you’re new to skiing uphill, don’t forget that all the effort you expended on the way up will have taken a toll on your legs. If your legs aren’t used to that kind of effort, you may feel significantly more burn in your quads on the way downhill than you’re used to. But don’t let that discourage you—it’s part of the satisfaction of earning your turns. The more you do it, the better shape you’ll get in, and the more laps you can shred. Once you’ve tried skiing uphill, we bet you’ll be back for more.
Photos by Truc Allen.