Backcountry skiing has a rugged reputation—one that’s pretty well-deserved.
Also known as off-piste skiing, out-of-area, or alpine touring, backcountry skiing is skiing that takes place away from ski-resort runs. Instead of riding lifts up a mountain, you hike up—in skis. Instead of descending a defined run, you make your way through natural terrain. You can backcountry ski just outside the boundaries of a resort, not too far from familiar comforts. More experienced skiers can hike into remote and completely untouched areas.
Either way, backcountry skiing involves uphill climbs, unpredictable terrain, (for the wise) and specialized gear, including skins that cover the bottoms of your skis for climbing.
Though it might all sound intimidating, it can also be exhilarating. It’s also extremely Covid-safe.
“One of the joys of backcountry skiing is that you have the freedom to carry out whatever ski tour you and your group are up for,” says Simon Montgomery, head of growth and marketing and a guide at Colorado Mountain School. “The mountains are a blank slate.”
With the right planning and experience, your ski-loving family can safely head out into the backcountry. If you’re considering making the leap, here’s what you need to know.
For families who regularly downhill ski and are looking for fewer people, more snow, more wilderness and a bigger physical challenge, backcountry skiing can be a great fit.
“If you’re new to skiing, I do not recommend you start in the backcountry,” says Kristina Ciari, communications director for the Seattle-based outdoors non-profit The Mountaineers. She also blogs about her backcountry adventures at Occasionally Epic.
Ciari suggests that aspiring backcountry skiers be comfortable on black diamond runs. Montgomery says that at the very least, skiers should be comfortable on blue square runs in all conditions, whether that be a windy day with slick and icy slopes or a sunny trip full of powder.
But backcountry skiing isn’t just about putting in hours on the lifts. “The appropriate time to introduce the kids to the backcountry is after the parents become competent backcountry travelers,” Ciari adds.
Education is important
No lift lines. Untouched powder in all directions. A sense of adventure. Backcountry skiing has plenty of upsides—but they come with risks.
Chief among them: While ski resorts are carefully managed for avalanche risks, backcountry areas are not.
Make sure your initial trips are manageable—and that you manage your expectations.
“Avalanche awareness is a must for groups going into the backcountry in winter,” Montgomery says. Colorado Mountain School and other guide companies have avalanche courses that cover avalanche basics, terrain recognition, group dynamics, and more. If your local guide company doesn’t offer these courses, they’ll know where to direct you for proper training. High school–aged kids who plan on backcountry skiing should take their own avalanche courses, and awareness classes are also recommended for younger skiers. (Know Before You Go has a free 1-hour course.)
While avalanches are the biggest danger, it’s not the only thing to keep in mind. There’s the potential to get lost, since you’re exploring off-trail. Backcountry skiing is also an exertion-heavy sport; it’s easy to get dehydrated if you don’t pack correctly or time your return right. And don’t forget about the elements. Weather can be unpredictable on the mountain—one minute you may be blasted with intense sunshine while the next you feel the need to bundle up in as many layers as you brought.
Consider a guide
For families who are new to backcountry skiing, going with a guide is a great way to ensure a fun and safe experience—that can also prepare you to set out on your own. Guides know the local terrain and conditions, and can coach you on technique and advise you on gear.
There are a number of certifications you can look for in a guide, including from the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, the American Mountain Guides Association, and the Professional Ski Instructors of America all certify guides, though your local outfitter will have insight into the best guides for your skill level.
Because of all the challenges, it’s important to make sure your initial trips are manageable—and that you manage your expectations. Just like hiking, climbing, or any other adventure sport, backcountry skiing is very different when kids are involved.
For example, an average day of backcountry skiing in Washington at the end of April would include parking at Paradise near the base of Mount Rainier. From there, it’s a 5 ½-mile trip with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain to get to Camp Muir. “It’s super fun,” Ciari says, “but you’re not going to do that same sort of thing with a 5- or 8-year-old.”
“A good rule of thumb is to think how far your family would like to hike in the summer, but then trim back a bit,” Montgomery says. You have to account for the weight you’ll be carrying, the weather, and the time you’ll spend planning and navigating, he said. Plan the course of your trip ahead of time using a reliable map to prevent getting lost.
That doesn’t mean a family trip won’t be fun; just keep in mind that parents will have to make concessions like picking shorter tours with easier terrain. Picking a destination with bathroom facilities and solid cellphone coverage is smart, too.
While it’s possible to backcountry ski with some regular gear, it’s much easier with the right equipment—including climbing skins, special boots, bindings, and lightweight skis.
Skins are strips of material that you put on your skis to allow you to climb and take off to slide back down. Backcountry ski bindings let the heel of your to come up, making it easier to go uphill. Depending on the bindings, you may also need special boots, often called Alpine Touring (AT) boots.
All that stuff can be a substantial investment—especially for a family. Rentals may be available in some locations, but kids’ gear is generally harder to come by than adult equipment. It can even be challenging to find gear for smaller women, Ciari says.
Outfitters such as Cripple Creek Backcountry and Hagan do offer junior sizes. You’ll want kid-specific boots, bindings, skis, and ski skins before heading out, though binding adaptors can serve as an in-between that let you use some regular downhill skiing gear. And depending on your child’s age and size, you can also have them snowshoe or take them in a sled on the uphill sections and use their downhill ski gear on the return.
The basics are even more important for backcountry skiing than resort skiing, Montgomery says. “If your fingers or toes get cold, it isn’t as easy as stopping in the lodge at the top, middle or bottom,” he says. “Make sure you have layers, hand/toe warmers and hot beverages to help warm your core.”
Sunglasses are easy to forget but necessary to protect your eyes from bright glares. Dressing right may sound basic, but the right clothes are an important part of a successful outing.
“Half of having a good day is regulating your own heat output,” Ciari says. “Always dress in layers, and the second you get warm, stop and take a layer off. If you’re going to stop for more than a minute, pull a jacket out because dry is warm, and if you’re hot and sweaty, you’re going to get cold.”
Encourage everyone to speak up
“Folks new to the backcountry should definitely speak up and should always ask questions,” Ciari says, adding that, “in the backcountry, everyone has a voice and that’s for the safety of the entire group. It benefits everyone when you speak up.”
Trying to power through blisters can be a safety issue, as can a skier who takes on terrain they’re not comfortable with. Communication is central to a positive experience, so encourage the young ones in the group to make their voices heard.