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Learn Backcountry Skiing in 3 Difficult Steps

Alex Gauthier
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Learn Backcountry Skiing in Three Difficult Steps

Maybe you’re only a so-so skier and of middling fitness. Perhaps you’ve seen people shredding the gnar in Jeremy Jones films and you assume you’ll never be “that girl” or “that guy”. These are not obstacles to you getting off the tram and onto a skin track. To learn backcountry skiing just take your existing resort skills and approach the following with plenty of enthusiasm but also caution, it’s wild out there!

The Three Steps

avalanche warning sign

The most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for skiing backcountry conditions is to become a functional decision maker in avalanche terrain. Typically, anywhere you would consider touring is going to be somewhat avalanche prone. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re putting yourself at serious risk but it is a factor that you need to consider and take seriously. Avalanches are extremely deadly. Your family, friends and dog are not going to be psyched to learn you’ve become a statistic. Get to googling and find yourself an AIRE I class in your neighborhood. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education sanctions various agencies in the United States to teach a certificate program designed to educate people who choose to enter the backcountry in winter. They have various levels of certification that will prepare you for traveling more safely in avalanche terrain and helping you make smart decisions as part of your own little backcountry posse.

hand holding avalanche beacon

Backcountry skiing is a tad more gear intensive than resort skiing. As with most mountain travel, you want to be as fast and light as possible but there is some mandatory gear that you should have. You don’t have the luxury of swinging into a warming hut for a burger and some hot cocoa so that  means you need to pack enough calories or warm drinks to cover you for the duration of your tour. You can’t stash spare layers in a locker so plan to pack and dress appropriately. You’ll want something lightweight for tackling the skin track up the mountain but also some kind of good insulation layer you can throw on during rest breaks so all that sweat doesn’t reduce you to an otter pop. Odds are good, you already own what you need to bring.

Toughest for many to accept may be the need for an avalanche beacon plus shovel and probe. These three items are the minimum you need to have with you in avalanche country and they can be expensive. Without them you aren’t much good to the rest of your friends. Choose a simple and easy to use beacon, don’t just go for the fanciest model. You need to be able to use this device well to find a buried friend very quickly in adverse conditions so keep it simple. Obviously, you’ll also need the right kind of skis. This is going to be either a telemark setup or an alpine touring rig that includes bindings that allow you to lift your heel while you ski up. You should get your hands on some skins that will stick to the snow when you are climbing upslope. Helmet. Don’t be dumb. Wear a helmet, man. If you can’t swing the ducats for a separate backcountry ski setup, then strap your normal alpine stuff on your back and look at the extra work as fitness training until you can afford lighter more specific alpine touring stuff.

group of backcountry skiers

Talk more experienced friends into taking you with them on an easy objective that won’t stretch your skiing or riding skills too much. If they seem reluctant, offer to pack the summit beers. This will likely result in shrinking your fitness gap rather quickly. Part of the fun of backcountry is enjoying the solitude and adventure one finds outside of the resort boundaries so take time to enjoy the mountains in winter. This will help offset the fact that you’ll probably be suffering if your cardio capacity isn’t quite up to snuff for long uphill snow slogs that tend to go along with alpine touring. If you’re already a runner or avid hiker, you’ll probably have an easier time but don’t let a little suffering stand in the way of you and untracked powder lines.

Alex Gauthier
Alex Gauthier is the head adventure junky for Subaru Adventure Team and part time outdoor adventure photographer. His first love is climbing of any kind but can also be spotted on mountain bike trails or working on building sea kayaks which he may or may not ever get to paddle.
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