How to Ski Backcountry or Off-Piste (First Time? Read This)
Are you looking for a change of pace from the groomed runs? Well, backcountry skiing is the solution. I’m going to go over some of the best tips I’ve learned whenever I’ve gone off-piste. Let’s get into it.
There are several extra steps required before undertaking backcountry and off-piste skiing. It is important to assess your capabilities and knowledge beforehand to determine if you are ready for a backcountry tour. Thereafter, ensure you have the correct equipment like avalanche kits, ski skins, waterproof clothing, and energy sources.
For beginners, it is highly recommended to start slowly to avoid unnecessary danger when off-piste as the terrain can be much more challenging.
What is Backcountry/Off-Piste Skiing?
Off-piste and backcountry skiing are technically the same thing. Both of these terms are used to describe skiing or snowboarding off of the groomed runs you will typically find at a ski resort. Skiers usually choose backcountry for the challenging runs and varied terrain features.
Can You Use Regular Skis for Backcountry?
Before you run off to the backcountry, you will need some specialized equipment to transform your regular skis. This is only really true if you plan on going fully off-grid, rather than an off-piste run at a ski resort. If you are able to take a lift up the slopes at a resort, your regular skis will be just fine.
For a comprehensive list of things you should pack, at the bare minimum, we have you covered here. Let’s go over some of the most important equipment needed for backcountry skiing:
- A set of climbing skins. Ski skins are needed when ascending the backcountry. Attaching these to your skis adds grip that will help you walk in deep snow and tricky terrain. Just be sure to take them off before you ski back down.
- A set of ski crampons. These essentially provide one step greater traction than ski skins. Crampons are great when you are expecting to traverse very steep or icy terrain on an ascent in the backcountry.
- Extendable ski poles. Having a longer pole is great when climbing up the slopes, but they get in the way when skiing down. Extendable poles are a great way to have the best of both worlds.
- Extra layers of gloving. Because backcountry touring typically takes longer than a quick run down the slopes, even the best gear can get bit wet and cold. Having a fresh change of gloves and socks can make a world of difference in comfort when off-piste.
While not directly related to using regular skis for the backcountry, it is worth mentioning some other vital gear you want to take along when skiing backcountry.
The risk of avalanches is much higher than skiing on groomed runs, so you want to be prepared for the worst. An avalanche transceiver is a hugely important piece of gear you want when backcountry skiing. A good shovel and probe are also great in an emergency situation.
I cannot stress how important it is always to have these pieces of equipment when venturing into wild terrain.
Top Tips for Skiing Backcountry
Now that you have your gear sorted, let’s go over some of the best tips for backcountry and off-piste skiing.
1. Learn About Avalanche Awareness
Knowing avalanche safety is one of, if not the most important skills to have when backcountry or off-piste skiing. As mentioned, the risk of avalanches soars when compared to ski resorts and groomed runs.
It’s a good idea to seek out a qualified professional to educate and prepare you for your backcountry adventures. Avalanche awareness courses are taught at almost every ski resort where avalanches are a concern.
Once you have an avalanche awareness course under your belt, find an avalanche training course. In the US, there are a number of tiers to the avalanche training courses taught by the National Avalanche Association, with Level 1 teaching you how to make the right decisions in avalanche-prone terrain.
2. Know Your Fitness and Skill Levels
While skiing and snowboarding on groomed runs can be physically taxing, it is nothing in comparison to rugged backcountry or off-piste skiing.
One of the biggest perks of backcountry skiing is that you are not dependent on a ski lift to take you where you want to go. While that certainly is an attractive premise, it means you will have to do all the leg work. Literally.
There are also a number of skills that will be hugely beneficial when off-piste. Experienced skiers might be familiar with these techniques already, but they become almost a necessity when in backcountry terrain. Let’s go over three of the most important ones to know before you set off.
The Pole Plant
Pole plants are a great technique for off-piste skiing that will help you turn on a much tighter distance. This makes it great for avoiding hazards like trees, rocks, and unwanted drops.
The Kick Turn
Kick turns are another excellent technique you should know before heading into difficult off-piste terrain. Kick turns to allow you to turn away from hazards while stationary. They come in particularly handy when wanting to change direction at the beginning of a run.
The Hop Turn
Another technique you should know is the hop turn. These are a great way to cover large vertical distances when you do not have the luxury of wide-open space to ski normally. By alternating side stance, you never face down the slope, meaning you never go downhill.
For more in-depth information on these techniques, check out this article.
3. Pack Snacks
This is a less important one, but one you’ll be very happy you did on the longer days of backcountry skiing. High energy sports snacks are very helpful to keep you fueled as you make your way about the backcountry.
4. Get a Good Group Together
The idea of going off for some solo exploration in the backcountry might seem exciting, but you need to fight that urge. Solo backcountry skiing can be very dangerous as there’s no one to help if something goes wrong.
The best way to start is to get a group of friends together, hopefully with some experienced backcountry skiers, and go on a more relaxed tour. This is a great learning tool in the beginning while you’re inexperienced.
5. Plan your Route
The slower pace of the uphill ascent is a great time for you and your group to plan your downhill route. Make note of avalanche conditions, hazards, as well as good skiing terrain for when you decide to come down the slope.
This becomes even more important for those who are getting the hang of backcountry skiing and are hoping to tackle the more challenging terrain that you will find off-piste, like tight chutes and big drops.
6. Take your Time
This goes twofold. Rushing on an ascent is going to leave you exhausted and can take away the pleasures of being in the quiet of the backcountry, so be sure to go at a pace the whole group is comfortable with. This also helps you plan your route better.
Tricky terrain is a common aspect of backcountry and off-piste skiing. Unless you know there definitely isn’t a hazard downslope, don’t plan on skiing at speeds similar to a groomed run. Cliffs and drops can sneak up on you if you aren’t paying attention or going too fast.
Do’s and Don’ts of Off-Piste Skiing
Following all of the above tips will definitely help you in your backcountry endeavors, but there is always more information that can help you when starting out. There are of course some dos and don’ts to remember every time you set out, no matter how comfortable you step off the groomed runs.
- Start slow. Taking enough time to learn the differences between on- and off-piste skiing is crucial to getting the most out of backcountry skiing while being safe.
- Pack the essentials, but keep it light. This might sound like a contradiction, but let me explain. Having extra layers of clothing, snacks, and skins add weight to your pack and makes the overall experience a little more physically challenging, but you will be glad you have them in a pinch.
- Plan as much as you can. This one is pretty obvious. The more you plan, the less chance there is of something unexpected going wrong.
- Let people outside of your group know your plans. If your whole group is caught in an emergency, it can be a lifesaver if someone not on the tour knows where to send emergency services.
- Go off-piste without emergency gear. It can be stressed enough how important it is to have an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe every time you go off-piste. These can truly save your and others’ lives.
- Go into the backcountry without a group. You can get away with going off-piste while still inbounds at a ski resort, but when setting off into the wilds, you have to go with a group. If you’re alone when something goes wrong, there is no one to help you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do people ski off-piste?
There are a host of reasons people decide to step off the groomed runs and into the unchartered wild terrain that is found only with backcountry skiing.
Many people are attracted to the challenging terrain, untouched powder snow, and solitude that skiing in the backcountry or off-piste offers.
Another huge perk of backcountry skiing is that you are not as limited in your options compared to skiing only at ski resorts. There is far more untouched terrain than there are ski resorts, and as such, this is a great way to change it up.
Is it safe to ski off-piste?
There is an inherent risk involved with snowboarding and skiing on even groomed runs. You are technically hurtling down a mountain.
That being said, ski resorts take certain measures to make the experience safer for all, including avalanche control and run maintenance. You will find none of these precautions when stepping off-piste. This means backcountry skiing is riskier than regular skiing.
That being said, the right education and making the correct decisions while off-piste will hugely reduce the potential for danger. Thousands of skiers enjoy safe skiing even when in the backcountry.
How difficult is off-piste skiing?
Another perk of off-piste skiing is endless possibilities. The difficulty of any run is dependent completely on the location you choose to ski and the run you plan out. Backcountry boasts the most extreme terrain you could wish for, but that isn’t to say you won’t find more relaxed beginner terrain.
How do I get better at backcountry skiing?
As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. Backcountry skiing is no exception. The more time you spend developing the skills you need for off-piste skiing, the better you’ll get over time.
These are things like your physical fitness, as well as your ability to identify important features when skiing in the backcountry. If you really want to spike your learning curve, skiing with an experienced backcountry skier will help massively.
Getting dedicated backcountry gear is also a good option to make the whole experience better. Gear like ski bindings, boots, split boards, and backcountry skis are all great ways to make backcountry adventures easier.
Backcountry and off-piste skiing is something any skier should try at some point in their life. It offers a whole new set of perks to mix it up on the slopes. The difference between groomed runs and off-pistes is almost night and day.
Before you even set foot on the slopes, be sure to have educated yourself on avalanches and do your research about where you plan on skiing. Once that is done, get the gear you’ll need for backcountry skiing, round up a good group of friends, and set off into the great outdoors.