Backcountry skiing

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A set of backcountry ski runs in the Battle Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains BackcountryDownhill.JPG
A set of backcountry ski runs in the Battle Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains

Backcountry skiing (US), also called off-piste (Europe), alpine touring, or out-of-area, is skiing in the backcountry on unmarked or unpatrolled areas either inside or outside a ski resort's boundaries. [1] This contrasts with alpine skiing which is typically done on groomed trails benefiting from a ski patrol. Unlike ski touring, backcountry skiing can include the use of ski lifts including snowcats and helicopters. Recent improvements in equipment have increased the popularity of the sport. [2]



The terms "backcountry" and "off-piste" refer to where the skiing is being done, while terms like ski touring, ski mountaineering, telemark, freeriding, and extreme skiing describe what type of skiing is being done. Terms for backcountry skiing exist according to how the terrain is accessed, and how close it is to services. Backcountry can include the following: [3]

Backcountry skiers skinning up in British Columbia Backcountry1.JPG
Backcountry skiers skinning up in British Columbia
Backcountry skiers skinning up in Norway EpicView3.jpg
Backcountry skiers skinning up in Norway


There are two commonly referred to types of gear for backcountry skiing: equipment and education. [4] Traveling on snow in the backcountry requires additional technical and safety equipment to efficiently and safely tour outside of monitored or patrolled areas. Gear choices for skiers and snowboarders depend on a variety of elements including type of skiing or snowboarding that a user will be engaging in, primary terrain and snow conditions, expense, skill level and personal skiing style, and safety concerns. [5]

Skis or Snowboard

Snowboarding in deep powder is technically easier than skiing and much faster to learn. One reason is that there is naturally no requirement to keep the skis parallel, one of the main difficulties when skiing in deep snow. Snowboarder during turn while in deep powder-ColorTemp.jpeg
Snowboarding in deep powder is technically easier than skiing and much faster to learn. One reason is that there is naturally no requirement to keep the skis parallel, one of the main difficulties when skiing in deep snow.

Alpine skiers, telemark skiers, and snowboarders all access the backcountry. The type of skis or snowboards that perform well in the backcountry are lightweight and optimized for long-distance uphill traveling. Snowboarders often use splitboards that separate down the middle of the board and allow a rider to hike uphill using skins. If not using a splitboard, snowboarders usually require snowshoes to hike in snow and winter conditions. While nearly any ski will technically suffice for backcountry skiing, a lightweight model is often preferred to reduce the amount of effort it takes to hike uphill. [6] Since a significant portion of touring in the backcountry consists of uphill hiking, increasing comfort in these scenarios makes a tour more enjoyable. Narrower skis are lighter than fat skis, but many skiers prefer lightweight, fatter models that may be heavier but do not sacrifice performance in deep snow, which is a common desire for skiing off-piste. This tradeoff is common in backcountry skis, but manufacturers attempt to narrow this gap each year.

The bindings play a significant role when touring in the backcountry. Ideally, bindings are lightweight and should have a free-pivot touring mode (of particular note for telemark bindings).


Ski skins allow skis to travel uphill. A narrow strip of nylon or mohair fabric designed to mimic sealskin and allow skis to be slid forward, uphill, but not backwards, downhill. Synthetic skins typically grip better while mohair skins made from Angora Goat hair slide better. Commonly, skins are attached to skis or a splitboard with a loop on the toe of the ski, a reusable adhesive on the base of the skin to stick to the base of the skis, and a clip on the tail. They are usually a few millimeters narrower than the skis to allow the ski edges to still grip the snow. Most skiers purchase skins to closely match the width of their ski and then cut them to a more precise fit, but there are some ski-specific skins that are usually designed to reduce weight as much as possible by optimizing ski and skin elements to fit together perfectly. [7]


Bindings for backcountry skiing are slightly different from alpine skiing in order to accommodate uphill skinning maneuvers. Telemark bindings that leave the heel free to flex off the ski developed in the 1970s contributed to the growth in popularity of skiing in the backcountry. [8] Modern alpine touring, or "A.T." bindings come in two distinct styles: tech and frame bindings. Tech bindings utilize a pin technology that lock into specialized touring ski boots. Frame bindings are compatible with any alpine ski boot. Tech bindings are lighter in weight and the boots are designed for a high degree of comfort. Frame bindings are designed for more aggressive skiing and are more often used in both the front, side, and backcountry. [9]


Backcountry skiing boots are different from alpine skiing boots primarily in that they have a "walk mode" and a "ski mode." The walk mode allows for ankle flexion while the ski mode locks the cuff of the boot into place for a ski descent. Tech binding compatible boots are also designed with additional features useful in hiking and mountaineering pursuits including a rockered sole and rubber lugs that aid in bootpacking and climbing. [10]


Poles for backcountry skiing do not differ substantially from alpine skiing. There are adjustable poles that can be lengthened and shortened for flatter traverses and steeper uphills, respectively, but they are not crucial. [11]

Avalanche beacon

A beacon is an essential item for anyone planning on skiing in the backcountry. An avalanche beacon is a battery powered radio transceiver that is used for emergency location. Skiers activate the beacon at the outset of a ski tour. If an avalanche occurs, skiers that have remained safe switch their beacons to "receive" signals from buried victims to begin emergency search and rescue procedures. A beacon is a useless piece of gear without the knowledge to use it properly and be able to conduct an emergency search and rescue. Skiers will practice with members of a touring group to refresh skills and build confidence in the life saving capabilities of their skiing partners. An avalanche beacon is not considered a preventive measure to mitigate avalanche risk, but rather a tool to reduce the amount of time buried should one be caught in an avalanche. [12]


An avalanche probe is used in conjunction with a beacon and shovel to physically locate a buried victim. Avalanche probes are nine or ten feet long collapsible pole that is used to probe the snow for buried avalanche victims. In an avalanche, a beacon will indicate the location of a victim to within a meter or two, and the probe will pinpoint the victim's location. Strong skills and enough practice with both a beacon and probe allow backcountry skiers to more efficiently find victims, thereby increasing their chances at survival. [13]


A small, often collapsible snow shovel is used to dig out a victim in the event of an avalanche or other burial event. Avalanche shovels are also used to dig snow pits and perform stability tests to analyze the history of the snowpack, and they can also be useful for building jumps and other freestyle features in the backcountry. While avalanche shovels can vary in size and length, the one feature they all have in common is a metal blade. This is because when snow debris from an avalanche sets, it hardens into a firm pack resembling concrete and will shatter plastic blades. [14]

Miscellaneous gear

In addition to the equipment listed above, other pieces of essential gear include the ten essentials, a helmet and goggles, gloves, extra layers for variable weather conditions that can be life-threatening in the backcountry, an ice axe for steeper mountaineering-style tours, ski crampons for steep and icy ascents that skins fail on, a Voile ski strap and duct tape (which can be used for a variety of reasons including gear failures and emergency first aid), and a pack large and comfortable enough to carry all the equipment. [15]

Avalanche education

Education in how to safely travel in avalanche terrain and how to rescue ski partners in the event of an avalanche or other emergency is widely considered a vital piece of gear. The type and quality of equipment is of limited relevance in the backcountry without knowledge of how to effectively use it. Most regions with popular backcountry skiing areas have training organizations that run courses on how to mitigate avalanche risk in the backcountry. In the United States, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education runs avalanche safety courses through a network of over 100 providers in 13 states. [16] . In Canada, Avalanche Canada provides similar safety courses.


A deployed airbag. Airbagdeploy.jpg
A deployed airbag.

Backcountry and off-piste skiing can be hazardous due to avalanche, exhaustion, weather, cliffs, rock fall, and tree wells, as well as the remote and isolated location of many of the best backcountry skiing spots. Avalanches result in about one fatality per month in the United States. [17] Backcountry skiers following best practices carry avalanche transceivers, shovels and probes to perform avalanche rescues. In recent years training courses on how to use these tools and how to assess the risk of avalanches have become commonplace in North America. [18]

In Europe and Canada off-piste skiing is generally permitted at ski resorts. In the United States off-piste skiing may or may not be; regulations vary by ski area. Many ski resorts prohibit it outright and some simply post warning signs that skiers are leaving the patrolled ski area boundaries.

See also

Related Research Articles

Cross-country skiing Form of snow skiing

Cross-country skiing is a form of skiing where skiers rely on their own locomotion to move across snow-covered terrain, rather than using ski lifts or other forms of assistance. Cross-country skiing is widely practiced as a sport and recreational activity; however, some still use it as a means of transportation. Variants of cross-country skiing are adapted to a range of terrain which spans unimproved, sometimes mountainous terrain to groomed courses that are specifically designed for the sport.

Skiing Recreational activity and sport using skis

Skiing is a means of transport using skis to glide on snow. Variations of purpose include basic transport, a recreational activity, or a competitive winter sport. Many types of competitive skiing events are recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Ski Federation (FIS).

A ski is a narrow strip of semi-rigid material worn underfoot to glide over snow. Substantially longer than wide and characteristically employed in pairs, skis are attached to ski boots with ski bindings, with either a free, lockable, or partially secured heel. For climbing slopes, ski skins can be attached at the base of the ski.

Alpine skiing Sport of skiing downhill

Alpine skiing, or downhill skiing, is the pastime of sliding down snow-covered slopes on skis with fixed-heel bindings, unlike other types of skiing, which use skis with free-heel bindings. Whether for recreation or for sport, it is typically practiced at ski resorts, which provide such services as ski lifts, artificial snow making, snow grooming, restaurants, and ski patrol.

Snowshoe Footwear for walking easily across snow

A snowshoe is footwear for walking over snow. Snowshoes work by distributing the weight of the person over a larger area so that the person's foot does not sink completely into the snow, a quality called "flotation". Snowshoeing is a form of hiking.

Telemark skiing

Telemark skiing is a skiing technique that combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing. Telemark skiing is named after the Telemark region of Norway, where the discipline originated. Sondre Norheim is often credited for first demonstrating the turn in ski races, which included cross country, slalom and jumping, in Norway around 1868. Sondre Norheim also experimented with ski and binding design, introducing side cuts to skis and heel bindings.

Ski mountaineering

Ski mountaineering is a skiing discipline that involves climbing mountains either on skis or carrying them, depending on the steepness of the ascent, and then descending on skis. There are two major categories of equipment used, free-heel Telemark skis and skis based on Alpine skis, where the heel is free for ascents, but is fixed during descent. The discipline may be practiced recreationally or as a competitive sport.

Ski touring

Ski touring is skiing in the backcountry on unmarked or unpatrolled areas. Touring is typically done off-piste and outside of ski resorts, and may extend over a period of more than one day. It is similar to backcountry skiing but excludes the use of a ski lift or transport.

Freeriding (sport)

Freeriding is a style of snowboarding or skiing performed on natural, un-groomed terrain, without a set course, goals or rules. It evolved throughout the sport's formative early years as a contrary response to the highly regimented style of ski competition prevalent at the time. Snowboarders primarily refer to freeriding as backcountry, sidecountry, or off-piste snowboarding, and sometimes big mountain or extreme riding.


Verbier is a village located in south-western Switzerland in the canton of Valais. It is a holiday resort and ski area in the Swiss Alps and is recognised as one of the premier backcountry ski resorts in the world. Some areas are covered with snow all year. Skiers have settled in the Verbier area in order to take advantage of the steep slopes, varied conditions, and resort culture.


A splitboard is a snowboard that can be separated into two ski-like parts used with climbing skins to ascend slopes the same way alpine touring or telemark skis are. The main difference is that a splitboard will have an additional metal edge for extra grip in ski mode. Unlike normal snowboards, it will also have nose and tail clips, split hooks, and touring mounts. Similar to cross country skiing, splitboarding allows free heel movement and with skins attached to the bottom of the skis, provides uphill traction. The two halves can then be connected to form a regular snowboard for descent. Splitboarding culture often focuses on the idea of using your own power to access the backcountry usually on unmaintained trails.

Bridger Bowl Ski Area

Bridger Bowl is a ski area in the western United States, near Bozeman, Montana. It serves the local population of Gallatin County, including Montana State University. The summit elevation is 8,700 feet (2,650 m) above sea level, with a vertical drop of 2,600 feet (790 m) on east-facing slopes.

Hazards of outdoor recreation

Outdoor recreation, such as hiking, camping, canoeing, cycling, or skiing, entails risks, even if participants do not recklessly place themselves in harm's way. In some circumstances, such as being in remote locations or in extreme weather conditions, even a minor accident may create a dangerous situation that requires survival skills. However, with correct precautions, even fairly adventurous outdoor recreation can be enjoyable and safe.


The RECCO rescue technology is an electronic method that facilitates organized rescue teams locating people buried by an avalanche or lost in the outdoors.

The Stanley Mitchell hut is an alpine hut located at an altitude of 2,060 metres (6,759 ft) in the Little Yoho Valley in Yoho National Park, British Columbia. It sits in a small meadow not far from the base of a mountain called The President. It serves as a base for hiking, scrambling, ski-touring and climbing the nearby mountains. The hut is maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada.

The Elk Lakes cabin is an alpine hut located between the French and Italian Military Groups in the Canadian Rockies. It resides near the Continental Divide in Elk Lakes Provincial Park, British Columbia. It is 62 km south of the Trans-Canada Highway in Kananaskis Country, Alberta and 104 km north of Sparwood, British Columbia. The area has hiking trails, and provides access to mountaineering objectives. In winter, ice climbs and skiing terrain with much powder abound. Elk Lakes terrain is similar to that near the Elizabeth Parker hut. The hut is maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada.

Backcountry snowboarding

Backcountry snowboarding is snowboarding in a sparsely inhabited rural region over ungroomed and unmarked slopes or pistes in the backcountry, frequently amongst trees, usually in pursuit of fresh fallen snow, known as powder. Often, the land and the snow pack are not monitored, patrolled, or maintained. Fixed mechanical means of ascent such as ski lifts are typically not present, but alternative means such as splitboarding, hiking, snow shoeing and helicopters ("heliskiing") are sometimes used to reach the mountain's peak.

Avalanche rescue Rescue of people buried in avalanches

Avalanche rescue involves locating and retrieving people who have been buried in avalanches.

Silverton Mountain

Silverton Mountain is a ski area near Silverton, Colorado USA that opened on January 19, 2002. Popular with skiers and snowboarders, Silverton Mountain has one chairlift that carries visitors into its terrain, which is for advanced and expert skiers or riders. Avalanche gear is required to ride the lift at all times due to the unpatrolled and ungroomed nature of Silverton. In addition to Silverton Mountain's 1,819 acres of lift accessed skiing, Silverton also serves as a base area for over 22,000 acres of helicopter accessed skiing. Uniquely, Silverton is only open Thursday through Sunday from December through April.

This glossary of skiing and snowboarding terms is a list of definitions of terms and jargon used in skiing, snowboarding, and related winter sports.


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