How to Safely Try Backcountry Skiing


Last March, the ski season came to an abrupt halt with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Resorts around the world closed, and droves of skiers were forced into the backcountry, hiking uphill with skis on their feet in out-of-bounds terrain, or “skinning,” in an attempt to salvage the remaining season. It wasn’t long before these typically vacant areas were inundated—but not everybody knew what they were doing.

“When the ski resorts shut down in the spring, there was a lack of respect for private property and closures,” said Tyler Ray, founder of Granite Backcountry Alliance, an organization that helps develop backcountry ski zones around New Hampshire and western Maine. According to Ray, Ski Kind is a code of ethics rooted in being a “good neighbor” and accounts for situations that backcountry skiers, regardless of experience, should recognize.

The rise in popularity of backcountry skiing has continued even as resorts have reopened. But this season, people like Ray are hoping more skiers explore the sport in an informed, respectful manner. While “earning your turns”—a phrase commonly used to describe putting in the effort to walk uphill before skiing down—can be rewarding, there’s a lot of knowledge, skill, and preparation necessary to safely and responsibly make the transition from the resort to the backcountry. Before you head off the grid, here’s what to know about backcountry skiing and snowboarding. 

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Getting started

Put simply, backcountry skiing is the act of skiing in unpatrolled, unmarked, and ungroomed natural spaces. While there are multiple ways to access the backcountry, such as snowmobiles, helicopters, or even lifts that provide access to out-of-bounds terrain, many people choose the human-powered route, hiking uphill with their skis or snowboards before skiing or riding back down to their starting point.

Backcountry skiing allows skiers and riders to avoid crowds and lift lines, instead heading into often untouched terrain. Because of this, it’s important to already be comfortable with skiing moderately difficult in-bounds terrain, in addition to having basic hiking experience, a decent level of fitness, and comfort in the outdoors.

Go with a guide

When a skier gets injured or lost in the backcountry, there’s no ski patrol ready to help at a moment’s notice. As a backcountry skier, you are accepting that risk as soon as you leave the trailhead. Go with an experienced guide or group for your first excursion—at the least—so you can gather the knowledge necessary to be self-sufficient in the future.

Look for a guide with certification from the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA), which sets certain standards for guides who can be hired through outfits or their own personal companies. 

Typically, day rates for a guided outing start at $300 to $450, depending on your location and whether it’s a group or private tour, plus a tip for your guide. There are a handful of companies throughout the country that offer guided backcountry trips and courses—including Synnott Mountain Guides, Chauvin Guides International, and Northeast Mountaineering in the Northeast; Vetta Mountain Guides and Irwin Guides in Colorado; and Golden State Guiding in California—though local ski shops are a great resource for recommendations on area guides, too.

Get the appropriate gear

Guide services typically offer gear rentals, sometimes included in the day fee.

If you need to get your own setup, many ski and snowboard companies offer backcountry-specific gear, designed for both uphill and downhill travel. You can ski uphill by attaching synthetic “skins” to the bottom of your skis that allow them to slide forward but not backward. This method of skinning will help you hike up the mountain without carrying your ski gear on your back.



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