With ski resorts shutting down or needing to control crowds on the trails this season due to COVID-19 restrictions, now’s the perfect time to test your skills out in the backcountry. And it seems as if more and more winter adventure-seekers are realizing the same thing: Michelle Parker, freeskier and Red Bull and Mammut athlete, says some stores were selling out of essential backcountry skiing gear as early as March this year, and industry friends have reported that bookings for guided backcountry experiences have increased 100 percent compared to last season.
While you might be among the eager skiers looking to get out on winter’s fresh powder, there are a few crucial first steps you need to take first in order to stay safe. If you’re a total backcountry novice, not to worry: “You don’t just know this stuff,” Parker says. People have to work to get familiar and comfortable with this type of skiing.” That’s why backcountry skiing, particularly guided excursions, are great for those who have always stuck to the trails but are interested in getting into the backcountry and don’t know where to start, she adds.
So, What’s Backcountry Skiing Exactly?
Sidecountry skiing is skiing terrain that’s accessible from a resort—say via a chair lift—but outside its boundaries. With backcountry skiing, you typically need to hike quite a ways in order to access. This means the only difference between sidecountry and backcountry skiing is how you get to that terrain, and this is exactly why Parker says she uses the word “sidecountry” with caution. “Once you exit the ski area or boundary, you’re officially in the backcountry,” she says, regardless of how you got there. They both carry the same inherent risks. “You and your team are your rescuers. You need to be equipped with backcountry gear, and you should have the knowledge to use that gear.”
How to Prepare for Backcountry Skiing
There are some important prerequisites to complete before exiting resort boundaries and heading out into relative wilderness.
First and foremost, you’re should complete the basic courses in avalanche training at least. This typically begins with an avalanche awareness course that’s essentially an introduction to the phenomenon and why they occur so you can better spot risky terrain. From there, Parker recommends signing up for a Level 1 avalanche course, which gets you out into the backcountry for hands-on experience, where you learn to problem-solve, use gear appropriately, and even help rescue. Some sort of first aid course is great to have under your belt, too, she adds.
Instructors and guides spend a lot of time going over how to use gear because packing for a backcountry skiing adventure can be life or death in the worse-case scenario. You not only want to have everything you could possibly need for a rescue, but know how to expertly use it as well. Here, the nonnegotiable backcountry gear, optional helpful tools to pack, and some other items to consider investing in when you realize you can’t get enough of the sport, according to Parker:
The Essentials for Backcountry Skiing
- Beacon (electronic device that aids rescuers in finding buried avalanche victims), shovel, and probe. “You must have these every time you’re in the backcountry,” she says. Buy It: REI Backcountry Access Kit
- Avalanche-specific backpack. These will have special pockets made to house and easily grab the aforementioned tools. Buy it: Arc’teryx Voltair 20 Avalanche Airbag Pack
- Food and water. You’re going to be far away from the civilization of the resort and exerting lots of energy.
- Extra layers. For you or, in case of emergency, for a victim being rescued.
- Alpine touring bindings. These backcountry-specific bindings can go into walk-mode for when you need to walk or hike.
- Adjustable poles. This isn’t necessary, but Parker says poles that expand offer longer reach in thicker terrain.
- Satellite communicator. This small, optional device comes in handy if you don’t have service (the mountain dispatch phone number should be programmed in your cell). Parker uses the Garmin inReach Mini.
- Hand warmers.
- Goggles and sunglasses. The former for clear vision while skiing; the latter to protect your eyes from the glare of the sun on the snow when hiking or walking.
- First aid and/or repair kit. For injuries to body or equipment.
- Helmet. No explanation needed—always wear a helmet.
Lastly, it bears mentioning that those who enter the backcountry should be skilled skiers. While you don’t need to be an Olympic-level double black diamond mogul champion, the better you are, the safer you are in the backcountry, says Parker. Again, going out with a guide can help increase your confidence on skis in this terrain.
Where to Go Backcountry Skiing
Before heading out, you’ll want to ask questions and do your homework, says Parker. Check out a resort’s website for policies on sidecountry and backcountry skiing. Does the resort have an open-boundary policy, which allows skiers into the backcountry through a gate? Are there restrictions on when that access is open? You can also seek out the ski patrol to ask if the resort does routine avalanche control, when the most recent control was done, and the results.
When in doubt (or even absent of doubts), bring a guide, says Parker, who, even with 14 years of professional skiing under her belt, enjoys learning from the pros during guided backcountry excursions. “Any time I go on a guided course, I’m drilling the guide the entire time asking questions and soaking in all the information,” she says. “You can go out and have this amazing day in a location where the public can’t go unless they’re guided.”
The Top 3 Backcountry Skiing Locations
- Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Jackson Hole, Wyoming: You can hire a guide for a full day of backcountry touring or even opt for a 4-day backcountry camp experience.
- Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort, British Columbia, Canada: Specific lifts (and tickets) grant you access to the backcountry within Garibaldi Provincial Park.
- Squaw Valley Resort, Olympics Valley, California: All backcountry access must be through guided experiences.