What is Backcountry Skiing?

Skiing may seemingly involve a pair of boards strapped around your feet while you glide across snowy slopes. However, it is more than that and there are different branches of skiing including backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, alpine touring, freestyle skiing, etc.

Backcountry skiing (also known as off-piste skiing) is a type of skiing that is done on unpatrolled terrain that is outside the designated ski areas. It is also referred to as out-of-area skiing. You need to be properly equipped and trained for backcountry skiing and need to learn avalanche safety instructions in case you encounter one.

Backcountry vs Nordic and Cross-Country Skiing: the Equipment, Terrain, and Skiing Style

The backcountry skiing is often known as alpine touring. Do not confuse alpine touring with alpine skiing, as alpine skiing is done on groomed terrain. Backcountry skiing, on the other hand, is done in remote areas and not in designated ski areas. This is what makes backcountry skiing so adventurous!

However, if you use the general downhill equipment and take a lift uphill, you can also access the backcountry terrain. For this, you must leave the side country (sometimes also known as a slack country) which is the ski area accessed by your ski resort.
Backcountry Skiing
The backcountry skiing is usually done with Tele mark gear (named after Norway’s Telemark region) or alpine touring gear where the skiers use bindings with a free heel feature as well as climbing skins so that they can ski up the hill and then downhill. A ski skin is a narrow nylon strip (sometimes made with mohair fabric as well) that is specially designed to make the skis slide forward and uphill, and not downhill and backward.

The ski bindings of backcountry skis are also different as they facilitate climbing up the hill. The same goes for boots. The backcountry boots have a ski mode as well as a walk mode. The ski mode helps in skiing going down the hill as it locks the ski boot’s cuff; whereas the walk mode lets your ankle to flex. The ski poles used in backcountry skiing can be somewhat the same as those used in cross country skiing. You can find adjustable ski poles that you can shorten or extend as per your use on the slopes – increase length for a flatter traverse and decrease the pole length for a steep uphill.

Before heading out for your backcountry skiing adventures, you need to know about avalanches, what they are, what equipment do you need and how to train yourself in case you encounter one.

A subclass of backcountry skiing is the ski mountaineering that primarily focuses on traveling to the top of the peak and then skiing downhill. The equipment used for this is generally the alpine touring equipment that helps skiers navigate through snow-covered slopes and glaciers. Along with your standard backcountry equipment, you may need ski and boot crampons, rope, and an ice axe.

On the other hand, the cross-country skiing (also referred to as Nordic skiing as it is generally done on Nordic terrain) is enjoyed on rolling snowy landscapes. Here you use your own strength to climb uphill rather than taking an uphill lift. The cross-country skis (abbreviated as XC skis) are comparatively longer and skinnier. The ski boots used in this type of skiing are specially designed to attach to the XC skis through bindings. This way, your boots become more flexible as you are free to lift your heels. The backcountry skis are wider and shorter than the cross country skis.

Different types of skiing come under the umbrella of Nordic skiing. In this family of skiing, the toe of the skier’s ski boot is fixed to the binding in a way that the skier can lift off his/ her heel. This is something you will not find in backcountry skiing where the ski boot is fully attached to the ski from toe to heel.

Since the backcountry is done on ungroomed terrain, you need to have a good amount of skiing skills and should have a proper class on your safety that covers avalanche survival and the equipment that may help you in case you encounter one.

Avalanche Safety

The backcountry skiing deals with an uncontrolled environment and ungroomed terrain. There are no ski patrols, and you cannot just find a lodge in the middle of nowhere. Even when you are a pro at skiing, there are certain dangers for which you need to be constantly aware of.

Avalanches are not a new threat to backcountry travelers who plan to enjoy the beautiful snowy winters. It is therefore highly recommended that you enroll in an avalanche safety training course or class, and that too by a professional. Sadly, most of the avalanche victims are skilled skiers who know how to hit the ungroomed slopes but have little idea about dealing with this real danger.
Backcountry Skiing
Most of the skiers who get caught in an avalanche tend to make things more difficult for themselves by traveling beneath or on the unstable slopes. For this reason, you need to learn how to practice avalanche safety training in case you encounter a situation.

The first thing to do is to register yourself in an av avalanche awareness session conducted by a professional. In many areas, this course is offered free of cost. Even if you need to pay a little fee for this course, it is worth every penny you pay as nothing is more precious than your life and wellbeing.

This course sheds light on where avalanches are more prone to occur, why do they occur, and how to avoid being a victim. You will be taught on how to gain access to your local weather reports as well as avalanche bulletins that help you recognize the signs of encountering one. Prevention is better than cure, so it is better to learn how to prevent an avalanche instead of having to deal with one!

The avalanche rescue course also focuses on teaching companion rescue. This includes knowledge on how to use a shovel, avalanche beacon (a radio transceiver powered by a battery), as well as how to search for an unfortunate companion buried by the avalanche.

Avalanche-based decision making is also taught in this course which helps you identify avalanche terrain, and then make life-saving decisions. Avalanche usually occurs on slopes that are at an angle of 30 degrees to 45 degrees. For this reason, you need to pay attention to the angles of your backcountry slopes while you are skiing or climbing out there.

Many backcountry skiers use a clinometer or a compass that is specially made for studying the snowy terrains.

It is important to note that a slope facing towards the north in the winter has a higher probability of avalanche than a slope that is facing towards the south. This is because the south-facing slope has more exposure to sunlight that slowly melts and condenses the snow, hence making it more stable to ski on.

You may find the north-facing snow-covered slopes quite tempting due to their powdered dry ice, but they are more likely to undergo an avalanche as they did not get the advantage from the sun to melt and condense them. As a result, these slopes have unstable layers that could be waiting for their next victim. Having said that, the south-facing slopes are more dangerous to glide on during the spring and (early) summer seasons. In these seasons, the slopes facing towards the north are far safer as the snow becomes more stable to ski on.

Conclusion

Backcountry skiing is a lot of fun. If you have already explored the groomed terrain of your ski resorts, you will find backcountry skiing more challenging and hence exciting. Even for beginners who do not have much idea about different branches of skiing, backcountry skiing opens the door to ungroomed terrain.

But with great skiing excitement comes greater responsibilities. There are no ski patrols and lodges in the ungroomed backcountry terrain. You must pack extra water and food. Also, you should always keep a survival kit in your backpack as accidents often happen unannounced.

Avalanche awareness is also crucial, so make sure you enroll yourself in an avalanche class before heading out with your backcountry gear. You must stay away from slopes that are steeper than 25 degrees as the risks of an avalanche are more on 30 to 45 degrees’ slopes. If you are not sure about exactly what degree a certain slope is, stay away from it. It is better to be safe than to encounter a nasty avalanche.

But that does not mean you have to stay away from the unmarked areas that call for some amazing skiing adventures. With your proper gear and safety measures, enjoy the backcountry skiing. Make lots of memories – you will cherish them in years to come.