Backcountry Skiing 101
After a lifetime on the east coast, I moved to Jackson, WY, and started skiing in the big mountains. I grew up on Long Island, NY, taking childhood ski trips to ME, VT and the Catskills.
I love summer backcountry treks, so ski touring caught my attention when I moved west. But, new skis, boots, skins and avalanche gear? What’s the big deal with avalanches anyway?
During my first season in Jackson, a friend suggested I book an Avy 1 course (entry-level avalanche awareness, planning and rescue) and buy a basic touring kit. I picked up used freeride skis with frame bindings ($225), new Black Diamond skins ($130 on sale), a Mammut Avy kit ($300 on sale), and a used Ortovox airbag pack ($400). By April, I logged 40 resort days (mostly afternoon), two ~2,000’ vertical tours and a handful of sidecountry days from gates at Jackson Hole.
For the second season, I doubled down on touring. I skipped the Jackson Hole season pass, opting for Mountain Collective: 2 days at 20+ resorts, including Jackson Hole and Targhee, and 50% off thereafter. By the end of the season, I logged two big tours—a Table Mountain summit and an attempt at the Skillet (“biggest backcountry line in the US”)—and 40+ smaller uphills, including my ~nightly bootpacks/skins up Snow King. Before the Skillet, I picked up a used pair of touring skis and skins ($400) to shed weight of my frame bindings.
Read this article for more context on backcountry skiing, tips to get started without breaking the bank, and in general, to find out if the sport's a good fit for you.
A Practical Roadmap:
- Phase One: Use your resort skis to explore sidecountry terrain (outside resort gates) after taking an Avy 1 course.
- Phase Two: Invest in touring equipment and ease into shorter tours, building avalanche skills through self-study and an Avy Rescue course.
- Phase Three: Build up to longer backcountry treks and ski mountaineering with ice/rock skills and more snow science. (I'm just starting this phase.)
- I'm a skier and not as well-versed with splitboard gear. That said, the same overall logic applies. Start with sidecountry terrain after an Avy 1 using resort gear, then build up to touring.
- These phases are just one approach to get started in the backcountry. The one piece you can't skip is developing avalanche skills.
Why Leave the Resort?
There’s a big spectrum for backcountry skiing: from gates at your local resort (sidecountry) to multi-week treks deep into the backcountry (touring and even ski mountaineering).
Caution: Any skiing beyond resort boundaries requires avalanche training. In that sense, many people say, "there's no such thing as sidecountry." I have friends who've suffered severe injuries from sidecountry avalanches.
You won't have better powder days than in the backcountry. Powder can last days after a storm if temperatures stay cold.
But for each deep day in the backcountry, you’ll also get challenging snow: crusts, wind-blown, etc. Natural snowpack isn't consolidated like snow at resorts, so you have to take the good with the bad (or be selective on tour days).
Note: January–February 2022 included the “least snowy period since 1992," making for unusually mediocre snow. On the bright side, avalanche risk was low. Even with lower risk, there were multiple winter fatalities in the Tetons.
My favorite adventures are type II fun: painful in the moment, but a good story once you're home safe. Touring provides plenty of opportunities for type II fun. But, there are plenty of touring options that are all-around fun, so don’t let an aversion to type II deter you.
To read about a couple type II adventures in winter 2021-22, check out my articles on Table Mountain and the Skillet: Parts I (context/prep) and II (trip report).
Ski touring is taxing: uphill travel in winter weather with heavy packs, especially if you're using an airbag system. After my first few tours, I was light-headed, nauseous and shivering—dehydration and insufficient calories from poor planning.
Endurance athletes well-versed in fueling will find it easier to adapt. But, even long-distance runners struggle on first uphill skins from the added weight.
Downsides: Avalanches and Extreme Cold
Avalanches: Avalanches are scary. Assuming you survive trauma from trees/rocks, you’re stuck in frozen concrete, hoping to be rescued. If lucky, you'll be close to the surface. If fully-submerged, you're at risk of CO2 poisoning. In full burials, survival odds nosedive after 15 minutes.
As you're lying motionless in the dark, your partner must (1) switch their beacon from send to search, (2) initiate a sweep of the debri field, (3) hone in on your signal, (4) pinpoint your body with their probe, (4) move one ton of snow on average, (5) administer first aid and (6) potentially initiate an extraction by local search and rescue, assuming they can reach you. It's a tall order in 15 minutes, under stress and skiing through a chunky avalanche debri field.
Avalanches generally occur on 30–50 degree slopes after recent snowfall, wind loading or warming. Some common “problems” include wind slabs, persistent slabs (very dangerous), dry loose, wet loose and wet slabs.
We generally overestimate slope angles when skiing. Your typical resort days probably consist of 25-35 degree slopes with the steepest double blacks clocking ~45 degrees. The best skiing, especially on powder days, tends to be right in that 30-50 degree avalanche sweet spot.
Other hazards: Avalanches aside, whenever you enter the backcountry you need to be capable of self-rescue. With cell service or a satellite phone, you can likely contact search and rescue. But they often can’t get to you immediately. With bad weather or limited resources, they might not be able to for a day or longer. And that's assuming a true emergency. If you're dealing with broken gear or low-risk injuries, it's your responsibility to self-extract—the helicopter isn't coming.
It’s easier to survive an unexpected overnight in the summer. In the winter, hypothermia kicks in fast absent proper emergency gear (space blankets, extra layers, firestarters, etc.) and shelter skills (snow cave, lean-to, etc.).
Check out the Fine Line podcast for search and rescue stories in Jackson Hole.
Pros and Cons Recap
In summary, potential for unmatched powder, type II adventures and newfound motivation to train like an athlete, but significant risk to be managed.
Given the risks, you should start with avalanche education and sidecountry laps on low risk days, then dig deeper at a comfortable pace.
Phase One: Avy Training and Sidecountry Laps
- Develop basic avalanche knowledge and skills
- Experience backcountry skiing without a big investment in touring gear
- Decide if you’d like to dive deeper into touring
- Normal downhill skis/boots: no additional cost
- Avalanche beacon/probe/shovel: $250 on sale
- Backpack to store avalanche gear (potentially with an airbag, but that increases cost): $75 or less on sale for a small pack
- “Avy 1” course: $450-550, plus any touring rentals needed, and three days
Before dropping $2,000+ on new touring gear, you can start by taking your existing downhill gear into the sidecountry at your favorite resort. Resorts generally have non-avy controlled terrain accessible via short bootpacks, so you won't need special gear for uphill travel (tech bindings/boots and skins).
Note: Sidecountry is just as dangerous as the backcountry. It's just easier to access. The same avalanche preparation applies, but you can get away with resort skis and boots. If you're not sure whether backcountry skiing is for you, an Avy 1 course and sidecountry laps is the easiest way to find out.
First, you’ll need an Avy 1 course and avalanche gear (beacon/probe/shovel). You can rent tech bindings/skis if needed for your course. It’s worth buying a beacon/probe/shovel, so you're familiar when it counts. You can get away with renting the avalanche kit as well, but you'll need to do so each time you venture into the sidecountry.
During my Avy 1, we toured a few days in Grand Teton, so most of the group rented uphill skis/boots from the local backcountry shop. For avalanche gear, kits like the Mammut Barryvox package come on sale a few times a year (watch Evo, Backcountry.com and REI for Black Friday, spring clearance, etc., sales).
The most important part of avalanche training is avoiding avalanches. That involves understanding and applying the forecast, evaluating local terrain, communicating within your group and making conservative decisions.
After your Avy 1, you’ll need to read avalanche reports regularly, follow weather events driving those risk assessments and apply your new knowledge on terrain, reflecting after each tour. Each commonly-skied region has a center that publishes daily reports during the season. (E.g., Bridger Teton here.)
It takes time to build snow science intuition. After two seasons, I still have a ton of room for improvement.
Once you have the avy basics under your belt and find a partner on the same level, or ideally more experienced, you’re ready to slip into the sidecountry. I’ll cover the Avy Rescue course, ongoing drills and advanced courses in Phase Two. It's also best to start on "low"-risk days. (Low risk isn't no risk.)
Other Sidecountry Hazards
Ideally you have a friend with experience on your planned sidecountry route to avoid hazards or getting lost.
Example: For Granite Canyon on the north side of Jackson Hole, if you ski below the skate track leading back to Saratoga Bowl, you have a long hike home. In the Green River Canyon on the south side of Jackson Hole, you need to cut left for the Hobacks toward the bottom of the drainage, or you’re stranded on Fish Creek Road in Wilson. Even worse, if you somehow drop off the west side of the resort without skins, you might need an extraction.
The sidecountry is littered with unmarked cliffs, creeks, rocks, downed trees, etc. Maintenance crews spend a lot of time marking, roping off and/or clearing hazards in bounds. Hazard risk is highest early the season with low coverage.
If you venture into the sidecountry on a low-visibility day, it’ll be even more difficult to find your way home and avoid hazards.
If you’re exploring backcountry skiing, you’re probably comfortable on almost all resort runs. If not, you should probably push yourself harder in the frontcountry before adding avalanche risk to the experience. Or, you can start with mellow tours (<30 degree slopes) on powder days or hire a guide service that provides emergency support (like heli-ski outfitters).
The biggest difference between skiing the backcountry and frontcountry is natural snowpack. (E.g., upside-down snow, wind-blown, sun crusts, etc.) Heavy traffic consolidates resort slopes, making it easy to edge. Natural snow varies in consistency at different depths, so you'll need to ski light on your feet and edge less. If you grew up skiing the east like me, there's a learning curve.
You can build uphill fitness as you tour, but consistent cardio and strength training lessens risk of overuse injuries. You won’t need much for resort sidecountry, but you'll feel it on 1,000’+ vertical hikes.
Some ski resorts allow uphill travel, a chance to train without avy risk. Absent skins and touring skis/boots, you’ll be limited to bootpacks (e.g., Snow King has a base-to-summit bootpack near the summit gondola).
It won't hurt to run or hit the stairmaster with a weighted pack, plus strength train via squats/lunges, pistol squats, box jumps, etc. Higher maximum lifts translate to less capacity with each endurance movement and greater time to exhaustion.
Phase Two: Touring Equipment and Short Treks
- Deepen avalanche knowledge and skills
- Get fit through short tours
- Embark on progressively bigger adventures
- Decide if you’re interested in longer treks and ski mountaineering
- Hybrid or full touring boots with tech inserts: $700-1,000 with molding/footbeds (given personalized fit, it’s hard to buy used)
- Touring skis/bindings: $300-700 used or $1,000+ new
- Skins: $150 on sale (can often find used touring skis with skins included)
- Poles with powder baskets and mid-grips: $50 used (end of season demo shops)
- Higher capacity backpack: $150 without airbag or $400+ with airbag (recommended)
- Avy Rescue course: $100 and one day
So you logged some sidecountry days and caught the bug. You’ll need to invest in proper uphill gear to tour. This stage gets pricey, so I recommend used gear for all but boots if you're budget constrained.
First off, why do we need to skin? If you’ve ever hiked in deep snow, you’ll understand the inefficiencies of postholing. Our ice-age ancestors invented skis for flotation. Beyond the relatively firm bootpacks at resorts, you need flotation to navigate long distances on natural snowpack. Slapping skins on your ski bases is the most efficient approach. Skins have fibers pointing backward that prevent you from slipping backward as you move uphill.
You’ll still bootpack from time to time when terrain is too steep. With each step, you’ll gain an appreciation for skinning.
Uphill vs. Downhill Trade-Off
Touring gear is designed for comfort on uphills: less weight and more flexibility at the ankle joint. The downside is reduced downhill performance.
Note: Each pound on your foot equals five on your back.
A personal decision you’ll need to make is your tradeoff between uphill and downhill performance. For the 80% resort skier taking occasional tours, heavier hybrid boots and frame bindings might be the answer. If you’re eyeing multi-day hut trips, you’ll probably want lightweight gear.
Caution: If you need full downhill performance, you’re probably skiing too aggressive for the backcountry. You need to be able to self-rescue and should minimize injury risk—push your limits in bounds where ski patrol can help.
There are three general buckets for touring bindings:
- Frame: Whole heel plate rises, compatible with normal downhill boots (no tech inserts required); heavy, but good downhill performance
- Shift: Tech pins for uphill, so you'll need hybrid boots; removable toe piece allowing traditional downhill lock-in; at first glance, it seems like the perfect balance between uphill/downhill, but some struggle with early release
- Tech: Pins for uphill and downhill; lightest option and many versions have DIN-equivalent settings; locked mode for skiing consequential terrain
Generally, I recommend tech when you start eyeing longer tours. If you’re concerned about downhill performance, frames get good reviews, but you’ll struggle on the skins. Shifts seem like a good compromise, but I hear enough complaints about early releases to be skeptical.
When shopping frame and shift bindings, you’ll see “MNC”. That means the bindings work in downhill mode with anything from certified alpine to touring boots. Check out this explanation of standards by Powder magazine.
Pure touring skis will generally be lighter than comparable downhill skis. With the exception of the newest, most expensive skis that incorporate materials like carbon fiber, light weight leads to more chatter.
To learn more about different models of touring bindings/skis, I recommend OutdoorGearLab, Switchback Travel and GearJunkie rankings. Ultimately, I recommend shopping used, as long as you know how to inspect for core shots and mechanical issues with bindings. Boots will make or break your experience, but skis generally work fine if they’re decent-quality last generation.
Buying used will save $600+ that you can invest in better boots and a decent backpack. That's the best bang for buck in my opinion, but it comes down to your budget. Also, if you're planning to ski high-consequence terrain, you might opt for newer gear.
I picked up my freeride skis with frame bindings for $225 on Facebook Marketplace and new skins for $150. I milked them for all they were worth, including a 16-mile tour. Then, I bought used Salomon touring skis with Dynafit tech bindings and skins for $400. Similar, new gear easily would've cost $1,000+, even with end-of-season clearance deals.
You should be able to find reviews for older models to make sure you’re getting quality equipment. Here’s a helpful sizing chart to reference as you shop; if you’re at this Phase in the article, you should be an advanced to expert skier.
Once you have skis, you’ll need to pick skins matching their length. If you bought used skis, owners will often throw in skins custom-cut for those skis.
If not, just buy new skins at the right length (usually within +/- 5cm via adjustable tail clips) and use the included tool to fit to your skis. You can find how-to videos on YouTube. You’ll probably want to start with nylon.
Some new skis come with manufacturer-cut skins.
I used old alpine boots for my first tour (during my Avy 1) with frame bindings. After ~2,000’ vertical, I had massive blisters on my ankles, leaving me in flip-flops for three days. At a minimum, you want boots with ankle flexibility, aka walk-to-ride mode. Generally, new boots with a walk mode also have tech inserts, or holes on the toe and heel pieces for tech binding pins.
Then the question becomes: heavier hybrid boots optimized for downhills or lighter touring boots for more comfort on uphills?
If your current downhill boots are nearing the end of their life, you should probably pay up for hybrids with tech inserts and walk mode. If you start taking longer treks, you can always buy additional touring boots. If you have non-hybrid downhill boots that you love with significant lifespan, it might make more sense to buy pure touring boots.
Either way, I’d start with the latest rankings from OutdoorGearLab, Switchback Travel or GearJunkie, then hit your local bootfitter. Unlike skis, boot fit is highly personalized. Some brands/models won’t fit your foot. A bad fit will ruin your day.
Be prepared to drop $800-1,000 for new boots, including custom footbeds and molding. Heat molding accelerates the break-in process, but don't go crazy or you’ll unnecessarily shorten the liner's life span. If the boot fits great right off the shelf, you might want to skip heat molding.
I recommend an airbag pack, even for sidecountry laps. If you’re caught in a slide, the airbag reduces risk of critical burial from 50% to 20% (according to some studies), and likely reduces burial depth within that remaining 20%. I wouldn’t call it an insurance policy, but it significantly reduces probability of full burial.
Note: An airbag pack shouldn’t lead you to ski more aggressively or take fewer precautions. And even with a back plate, it won't offer much protection from trauma. Airbag pack downsides are cost, limited capacity and weight.
I bought a used Ortovox 26L with an airbag for ~$400 and refilled its canister for $50. New systems cost closer to $1,000.
Most packs rely on compressed gas, which you need a refill after each deployment, can only deploy once in the field and can't take on an airplane. Some newer packs have electric fans and batteries that can handle five+ deployments on a single charge. Electric packs are easier to test deploy during a season and take on flights, but they’re more expensive.
I’d err toward a more pack capacity. I consistently run out of space in my 26L on full-day tours and end up adding capacity outside for skins/shell/crampons using Voile straps. It’s easy to compress an underfilled pack, but hard to add capacity.
For poles, you’ll at least want powder baskets and mid-grips for steeper bootpacks. You can find cheap used poles that’ll do the trick in end-of-season sales at rental shops. If they’re missing mid-grips, you can wrap duct tape or Voile straps around the middle. Bonus: easy tape access for repairs.
As you log more tours, you’ll naturally build more avalanche knowledge. That's assuming you consistently monitor the forecast and apply the AIARE framework in the field. That framework emphasizes continuing education, rescue practice and condition monitoring each season. For each trek, it emphasizes proactive and inclusive planning, active snowpack monitoring, adapting to conditions and debriefing to improve your risk assessment/management process.
Tip: Review printed materials from your Avy 1 and online encyclopedias (e.g., Avalanche.org and Avalanche.ca) each season.
At this stage, you’ll probably want to take an Avy Rescue course to refresh beacon/probe/shovel skills and learn about multiple burials. An Avy 1 and Avy Rescue are prerequisites for an Avy 2 or Pro 1. You’ll want to log more backcountry hours before investing in courses beyond an Avy 1 and Rescue.
Throughout the season, you should visit a beacon park (most resorts maintain) and practice searches/shoveling to build muscle memory. Parking-lot snow banks have similar consistency to avalanche debris, making for good shovel drills.
You can also dig snow pits to get a better sense for the snowpack that's described in local avalanche forecasts. You’ll likely dig a snow pit in your Avy 1.
Caution: Don’t over rely on snow pits. Conditions change dramatically between aspects/elevations and snow pits can yield false negatives. For this reason, some Avy 1 courses skip snow pits.
Aside from avalanches, you should consider a Wilderness First Responder, or at least First Aid, course. Search and rescue can’t respond immediately (if at all), so first response falls to you and your partners. There are quality programs hosted year-round across the country. (E.g., NOLS and WMA.)
Skills to build snow caves, lean-to’s and other shelters can help you survive an unexpected overnight. Other topics: bear safety for spring skiing, ice rescue for lake crossings, managing rock falls and crevasse rescue for glaciers.
How to Plan a Tour: Teton Pass Case Study
Ideally, you have an experienced friend to show you the ropes when you’re new to an area. My first few times on Teton Pass, I was guided by friends who were familiar with the lines we were skiing.
But, you'll short-change yourself by deferring to a friend's judgment. You study topo maps, read and apply forecasts in the field, and ask for feedback to see if you’re arriving at the same conclusions.
You should think about slope angle, aspect and elevation, in the context of problems described by your local avalanche report and recent weather. That applies to both uphill and downhill travel.
Most commonly skied areas have published maps with route names. For Teton Pass, you'll find topo maps with route names in Teton Mountaineering. You can also download packs for mapping apps. Over time, you’ll piece together an area by regularly stopping, referencing your topo map and identifying surrounding slopes from terrain features.
As mentioned above, you should regularly review avalanche forecasts and anticipate changes from recent weather to accelerate your learning. Over time, you’ll be able to more accurately predict avalanche risk based on weather forecasts, especially important in early/late-season when centers aren't reporting.
Example: On days with moderate risk from wind slabs on east-facing aspects, you might choose west-facing slopes (e.g., for Mt. Glory, Calverts Ridge versus Glory Bowl). On stormy days with moderate risk of storm slabs or large dry loose slides, you might want to ski tight trees that serve as anchors (mindful of tree wells, which are also killers).
Each time you tour, you should try to follow the AIARE framework. It gets tedious and we all cut corners from time to time, but it’s the best way to control human factors in the field and ensure no one’s beyond their comfort level.
Note: It can be hard to find touring partners at first. Experienced skiers tend to keep their circles small, understandable given all the risks. Unless you already have a bunch of friends who backcountry ski, it takes time to build a crew.
Check out Training for the New Alpinism for detailed fitness recommendations for longer ski tours and off-season training.
Each time you enter the backcountry, you should be prepared to spend the night (check out Fine Line episodes for real examples). In terms of gear, I try to pack these basics on every tour, even short laps off Teton Pass:
- First aid kit (in the process of revamping after my WFR course)
- Extra Voile straps
- Repair kit (hose clamps, baling wire, extra pole baskets, skin tail clips, etc.)
- Gorilla tape
- Extra layers (with limited pack size, a dry puffer usually does the trick)
- Extra gloves
- Extra socks (for longer tours)
- Space blankets
- Backup calories/hydration (gel packs and electrolyte packets most efficient)
Check out my trip report for the Skillet for a full example list.
Phase Three: Ski Mountaineering
- Pointy stuff (axe, ski crampons and boot crampons)
- Advanced courses like Avy 2 or Pro 1
- Winter camping gear for overnights (all-weather tent and subzero mummy bag)
- Climbing gear (ropes, harness, anchors, etc.)
I’m currently transitioning from Phase Two to Three, so I’ll keep this section brief to avoid getting over my skis. Table Mountain and the Skillet were two less technical tours I checked off toward the end of my first full backcountry season. (Almost... we stopped 1,000’ short of Mt. Moran’s summit.) For the Skillet, I picked up an ice axe and ski/boot crampons for any hard snow on the ascent.
In addition to skiing more consequential terrain, I'm hoping to advance ice/rock and snow-science skills over the next few seasons, potentially taking an Avy 2 after gaining more experience.
- Start slow with sidecountry laps after basic avalanche education
- To start touring, scout for used gear to keep costs in check
- Build up with shorter tours and ongoing avalanche education
- Progressively tackle bigger objectives
- Avalanche.org: Partnership between the American Avalanche Association and the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center
- Avalanche.ca: NGO dedicated to public avalanche safety in Canada
Find links to avalanche forecasts from centers throughout the U.S. and Canada and resources like encyclopedias (very useful for ongoing learning).
Lou Dawson’s ski descent rating system
Fifty Classics project by Cody Townsend (for inspiration)