New To Ski

Beginners Guide to Cat Skiing (Key Tips For First Timers)

by Kenny Jarvis | Updated: October 27th, 2022
snow cat

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Snow sports are great and a lot of fun, but sometimes you get an itch to try something new. If you are a fan of everything snow then you should definitely take a look at cat skiing.

Cat skiing is a unique experience where you are taken up a mountain in a snowcat (tracked off-road vehicle) and you then ski down a backcountry run. You can then return to the snowcat and repeat this process on another slope!

This type of skiing is totally different from the regular resort slopes. Cat skiing is especially fun with a group of your friends, so read on to learn everything there is to know about cat skiing.

Why Would You Go Cat Skiing?

One of the drawbacks of skiing at a resort is that it is usually packed to the brim with people. Sometimes it can be hard to find room on the slopes with everyone out and about, and getting to experience fresh snow is a distant dream.

Luckily, many resorts are big, so there are plenty of slopes out there without a single soul in sight. That’s the perfect setting for people who want an outing without the noise of crowds around you.

Unfortunately, that also means no infrastructure, no lifts, no restaurants, and no luxurious comfort. Despite this, there are still plenty of people who want this experience of skiing in the backcountry. Even better, it’s a readily available service that will spare you the hassle of organizing it yourself.

Backcountry campers
Photo by Yellowstone National Park at licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

The main challenge of skiing in the backcountry is getting up the mountain. You have the option of hiking all the way to the top, which is painstakingly long and tiring. However, nowadays there is absolutely no reason for you to drag yourself for hours to the top of a mountain along with all your heavy gear.

Another way of getting up a mountain is by using a helicopter. This method is very convenient and fast but it is unbelievably expensive and not great for the environment. Most people simply don’t have the money for such a luxury.

Key Takeaway: Fortunately, there is a compromise between hiking and taking a helicopter. That compromise is a snowcat, which is far cheaper than a helicopter and still gets the job done with good speed and efficiency.

What is a Snowcat?

Snowcat
Photo by Pawel Biernacki under CC BY 2.0

A snowcat stands for snow caterpillar. It is a motorized vehicle that can efficiently traverse snow using tracks instead of wheels.

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Tip: This allows them to easily move on snow and as such, it is a preferred method of transportation in snowy areas without roads because any other vehicles would get stuck and be unable to get anywhere. Snowcats are also capable of withstanding rough terrain and can climb very steep angles.

This makes it a perfect form of transport to climb mountains. Furthermore, snowcats vary in size and can feature very big cabins for transporting larger groups. This is ideal because you usually want to go cat skiing with a small group of friends at least.

While snowcats are often used for grooming the slopes at resorts, they also provide an ideal way to go skiing in the backcountry.

What Exactly is Cat Skiing?

Cat skiing guide
Photo by Ruth Hartnup under CC BY 2.0

Naturally, cat skiing is a form of backcountry skiing, with the biggest difference from normal skiing being that there is no lift to take you up the mountain. Instead, a snowcat with a cabin on its back is used, which transports you to the top of the mountain.

After skiing all the way down, the snowcat picks you up again and you go back up for another round. The main attraction of this type of skiing is that it happens away from resorts. This means it is only you and the small group of people you bring with you, which means the snow you will be skiing on is absolutely untouched; an experience, unlike anything you will get at a normal skiing resort.

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The best part is that you get to ski through beautiful backcountry with only nature and your best pals around you.

Benefits of Cat Skiing

cat ski
Photo by Electronker under CC BY-SA 2.0

Key Takeaway: The first benefit of cat skiing is that you get to ride on fresh powder and fresh tracks. Because there are no ski lifts around there will be no other people you need to compete for space with.

You will not have to stand in long and boring lines waiting to get onto the ski lift. Neither will you have to rush to the slopes early to find fresh snow. Instead, you will have a relaxing time, where you don’t have to rush and can go at your own pace.

While you will have to pay more for cat skiing, it is absolutely worth it if you value space and fresh snow. Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about safety in the mountains because you will be accompanied by guides who will have expert local knowledge. You won’t have to worry about getting lost or going the wrong way.

Snowwater heli-skiing
Photo by Jean-François Renaud licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Compared to other methods of backcountry skiing, cat skiing still remains the go-to choice. When compared with heli-skiing, it is significantly cheaper. Also, there are times when due to the weather, the helicopters can’t fly, while a snowcat will have absolutely no problem.

And of course, why would you want to hike all the way up to the mountains? Not only is it very tiring, but also the amount of time you spend climbing instead of skiing is simply not worth it for most people.

Furthermore, going on a snowcat gives you a chance to relax if you are tired. The cabins in the snowcats are warm and you can store any equipment you don’t need and pick it up at the base.

What to Expect from Cat Skiing

If you do decide to give cat skiing a try, here is what an average day might look like. First, you will get up early in the morning to get briefed by your guide.

You will go over safety procedures, your equipment, and everything else you need to know. You need to pay careful attention to safety briefings about avalanche situations. After the briefing is done, you will load all your equipment in the snowcat.

It depends on the snowcat, but you can expect to bring around 12 friends with you for your cat skiing adventures. After the loading is done, you will enjoy a relaxing climb up the mountain on the snowcat.

There’s time for chatting with your friends in the cabin, as well as admiring the surrounding views, as you climb ever higher. As you arrive at the top, and the snowcat leaves you behind, you will get to admire the quiet and serene atmosphere of fresh air and blue skies.

After listening to instructions from your guide, you will split into pairs and start skiing. You will enjoy a feeling unlike any before, as you effortlessly glide across the snow. As everyone reaches the bottom, you will load back into the snowcat and head off in search of new untouched tracks to experience.

By evening, you can expect to have completed around 8 to 12 different runs. After that, you get to relax as you return to your lodgings to finish off the day.

Skill Level Required

cat skiing
Photo by Electronker under CC BY-SA 2.0

Advice: Unfortunately, you can’t just jump into cat skiing if you’re a newbie. Preferably you should be an intermediate skier and be confident in making constant turns on powder snow and uneven terrain. Due to the avalanche risk, you probably won’t be skiing anywhere extremely steep.

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At the top of the mountain, before you start skiing, you will need to chat with your guide about the different lines that you can take down. Your guide will tell you about the steepness of different lines or any obstacles you will have to be wary of.

This will allow you to avoid anything that may be super difficult. If, on the other hand, you are very proficient and are looking to try something interesting, you could choose a more difficult path.

Equipment

Because you are going to be far out in the mountains, far from any human contact you will have to bring a bit more gear than on a usual resort slope. You will be provided with essentials such as avalanche gear, a transceiver, a probe, and a shovel.

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If you are unfamiliar with the equipment, worry not, you will be shown how it works before you head out for the trip. Beyond that, you will have the option to rent out other equipment like powder skis or an avalanche airbag system.

Top Cat Skiing Destinations

snowcat ride
Photo by Electronker under CC BY-SA 2.0

Here are the different destinations you could travel to around the world to experience what cat skiing is like.

Canada

Canada is actually home to what has become known as cat skiing. It initially began in Selkirk Wilderness, located in British Columbia. There it was realized that snowcats make excellent vehicles for traversing the backcountry.

Since this discovery, cat skiing has been growing ever since, and has become more popular in the last 10 years than ever before. Selkirk region remains one of the biggest cat skiing operators in the world with 18 of them in total. One of the main benefits of going to Canada is the consistent quality and quantity of snow.

USA

The United States also has many options to choose from. There are 28 cat skiing operators in total spread across the states of California, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. California alone has eight.

Japan

WinterPark

If Japan is your destination of choice, then you will want to be going to the island of Hokkaido for skiing. Hokkaido cat skiing operations are conducted at former ski resorts so the difficulty of the terrain is not that extreme. Hokkaido is a great cat skiing destination and is especially noted for its very good powder.

Europe

Europe cat skiing is not as popular in comparison to other places but it is steadily growing. You can currently find cat skiing operations in Kosovo, Italy, Russia, Georgia, and North Macedonia. All these places offer great experiences, so be sure to check them out.

Summary 

red jacket cat ski
Photo by Electronker under CC BY-SA 2.0

Everybody loves snow sports, and for that reason, you should definitely try cat skiing. It is a unique experience that will certainly be enjoyable if you have never tried it.

It is the perfect opportunity to spend some time with your friends in the beautiful landscape of the snowy mountains, while at the same time experiencing the unforgettable thrill of skiing through the backcountry.

FAQs 

Is Cat Skiing Better Than Regular Skiing?

While this can be subjective, a lot of people would definitely prefer to ski on fresh powder, away from the big crowds that are found at resorts. Of course, cat skiing is not for everyone, some people don’t want to go beyond their comfort zone.

How Expensive Is Cat Skiing?

Cat skiing is definitely far cheaper than heli-skiing and at around $300 a day during the low season. During high season it can be as high as $800 a day.

Where Is The Best Cat Skiing In The World?

British Columbia in Canada is often considered to be the home of cat skiing and has the best range of cat skiing vehicles.

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NewToSki.com is where over 1 million people a year come to learn more about skiing. I share everything I wish someone had told me when I was learning to ski. My name is Simon & I've been skiing since 2005. This winter, our family is taking a 3-month camper ski trip across the Alps. If you enjoy our articles, please join the free email club. We'd love to have you.
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