So you’ve decided you want to become a backcountry skier? Here at 10Adventures, our team is dedicated to exploring the most beautiful places on earth and one of our favourite way to do so—is backcountry skiing. We’ve gathered up our top tips and tricks to have you hitting the remote slopes in no time.
First thing to note, there are two types of skiers enjoying the backcountry. Those that have downhill skiing experience from the resort, and those that are completely new to skiing. There are advantages to both approaches, so don’t worry too much about which group you fit into.
One of the advantages of being new to skiing, is when you start out in the backcountry, chances are you can’t ski terrain outside of your ability. This way, you’ll slowly pick up downhill skills, like learning to evaluate avalanche hazard and slowly learn to deal with snow pack and terrain decision making.
The downside of this approach is that it may take a while to become a decent skier and unfortunately, there’s no handy snow-school in the backcountry. If you never visit resorts or use instructors to help develop your skiing skills, it typically takes longer to become a proficient skier, so a good mix between backcountry skiing and resort skiing typically strikes the right balance.
If you’re a non-skier, start off by taking lessons at a resort to get the basics down. If you can ski mostly parallel on green-blue runs at a resort, you’ll have way more fun on skis in the backcountry. It’s a great investment in your future fun! Children tend to especially pick up the skill at lightning fast speed.
If you come from a skiing background and are a strong resort skier, you might see this as a big advantage, and it can be. BUT, remember you are a total beginner in the backcountry. You have no more skill than someone that’s never skied before. Backcountry skills are all about the up, the snow, and the terrain. Not about how you can shred. Many skilled resort skiers get into trouble because they are confident on terrain that is far more advanced than their ability to manage in terms of avalanche hazards and other hazards. It can take years of backcountry skiing to get even the basic competency of travelling safely down. Backcountry skiing is about patience and enjoying amazing turns on even a mellow slope.
The main danger to any backcountry winter skier, regardless of mode of transport, is avalanches. A lot of Canadian mountains are home to continental snowpack, which tends to be thin and unstable. So, where to start? Avalanche Canada is one of the best organizations on the planet in terms of offering educational opportunities. Canada offers advanced training in terms of research, education, and public information with bulletins and coordinated reporting of conditions.
A lot of guiding and other organizations currently offer Avalanche Safety Training (AST) through two levels of courses to the public. AST1 and AST2 are the standard courses for recreational skier. AST1 is the absolute minimum you should take before you venture out into the backcountry. It’s only two days, and teaches you the basics about recognizing dangerous terrain and what to avoid. It teaches some snow pack evaluation skills, but you won’t come away with the knowledge to be able to make ski/no-ski decisions on real avalanche slopes. AST2 is 4-6 days depending on the course, and it takes you into the snow in avalanche terrain and you learn a great deal more about decision making.
One of the best ways to advance your backcountry skills is to take the AST1, and then work with a mentors willing to take you into benign terrain where you can dig pits and analyze skin tracks, along with descent routes. This will start to give you a feel for how good snow and dangerous snow feels and how to mitigate risk through avoiding terrain. From there, move on to the AST2. Practice your companion rescue skills, as well as how to properly use a beacon probe and shovel. Even the most skilled avalanche professionals are always further developing their skills.
Next thing of importance to note, backcountry skiing can be an expensive sport. While it is cheaper than some sports, like yacht racing and vintage sports car racing, compared to a lot of other backcountry pastimes, it’s on the pricey side. The first gear you want to own is your own beacon, probe and shovel. There’s loaners and rentals galore, but being competent and lightening fast with your beacon is very important, and using the same one all the time is the best way to become skilled using it.
MEC no longer rents backcountry skis, but there are still plenty of smaller, local businesses that offer rentals. Renting is a great way to save some money, especially while you try out and test the sport. The first piece of ski gear you’ll want to buy is boots. They’re the most important piece of your ski kit and well-fitted boots will make all the difference. The best fit for backcountry is a “middle of the road” boot, something between a ski-mo-racing ultralight boot and a super-burly cliff-hucking monster boot – even if you’re a cliff-hucking skier. Remember that a big part of your day is going up, so a boot that skins well is essential.
With regards to skis and bindings, this can be complicated, and very dependent on your skiing and terrain. We recommend consulting with a local ski shop to get a general idea of the best fit for the terrain in your hometown. When it comes to skins, a full nylon skin for beginners is best, as it gives the best uphill traction, meaning more confidence on skin tracks.
After you’ve taken the correct courses and loaded up on proper gear, the next best step it is to find partners who want to start hitting the slopes, while playing it safe. This is where many new backcountry skiers find themselves and it’s a tough spot. One of the best ways to meet people is to join a mountain club and find a mentor. If the budget allows, look at guided trips or private guiding. You can learn a TON in a short period of time from guides. The Alpine Club of Canada sections usually have people interested in helping new skiers. This will get you off on the right foot and start the process of building your backcountry skills.