What is Ski Touring? How to Get Started

by Simon Knott | Updated: October 27th, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

Ski touring’s popularity grows with each season as skiers seek out a bit of peace and calm away from the buzz of commercial resorts. At the same time, ski touring is a very physical pursuit, where you will be climbing uphill for an extended period before skiing down again. So, how do you get involved in ski touring? What sort of clothing and equipment do you need?

Ski touring involves skiing in the backcountry or off-piste areas outside resorts and excludes the use of ski lifts or transport. With comparisons to hiking, tours last from one day to several. Special bindings free the heel of the ski boot to enable easier climbing in uphill sections. Although there are some inherent risks in ski touring, by educating yourself they can be minimized.

Ski Touring

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With increasingly busy lifestyles more skiers are drawn to the relaxing effect of wild terrain. Ski touring fits the bill and once you have paid for the initial equipment day-to-day costs are minimal. Ski touring is not without danger and requires navigation skills, as well as a good awareness of the perils of avalanche terrain.

A specific characteristic of ski touring is that the heel of the skier’s boot can be disconnected, while the toe of the boot remains connected by a hinge. This enables the skier to climb uphill sections much more easily, usually with the help of skins, which attach to the base of the skis and stop the skis from slipping backward on hills. The heel of the boot can be reconnected to the binding allowing normal downhill skiing.

Who were the First Ski Tourers?

In 1855 John "Snowshoe" Thompson was a pioneer of ski touring. As a seasoned ski mountaineer, he delivered the mail for 20 years over the Sierra Nevada to remote California mining settlements. His return trip took five days, with a staggering load of 100 lbs (45kg) of mail.

A few years later in England, the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, discovered his wife had tuberculosis, which took the shine off his fame and fortune. On medical advice, they relocated to Davos in the Swiss Alps, where they hoped the clean mountain air and sanatoriums would help.

Doyle became fascinated with ski running, a precursor to ski touring, and asked two local brothers to train him. They led him on a tour up an 8000 ft mountain using snowshoes before swapping to skis to descend into the town of Arosa.

What is the attraction of Ski Touring?

Photo by Electronker licensed under CC BY 2.0

There are quite a few comparisons between hiking and ski touring. You need to be fit for both, as the uphill sections are a great aerobic workout. You are surrounded by untouched nature and apart from the wind, silence for most of the time. There is an element of danger from avalanches, rockfalls, and getting lost but with training and application, these risks can be minimized.

Where can you Ski Tour?

1. Norway

With its lengthy winter, ski touring in Norway was originally the only possible means of transportation. With this long heritage, Norwegian explorers, like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, used the technique for polar expeditions.

2. European Alps

The celebrated Haute Route starts in Chamonix, France, and continues for 75 miles (120 km) and 6000 m (20,000ft) of ascent and descent into Zermatt, Switzerland. The Tyrol in Austria offers numerous possibilities for ski touring, from beginners to experts.

3. Canada

Canada has extensive ski touring. Just a few examples include Jasper National Park, Rogers Pass, Wapta, and Revelstoke.

4. United States

The US has an abundance of ski touring opportunities where there is adequate snow. Such as Jackson Hole, Berthoud Pass, and Loveland Pass.

5. New Zealand

Arthur's Pass National Park, Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park, and Central Otago.

What Equipment Do You Need To Ski Tour?

Ski touring isn’t a sport you can jump into. It’s best to take some time to research the options and establish what’s right for you. It does involve some specialist equipment such as ski bindings and avalanche kit, so you need to read around the subject and take good training courses.

1. Touring Skis

There are three styles of touring skis, each of which is designed for different advantages. Light (Race) touring skis perform better uphill, and their lightness reduces weight.

All-round (Touring) touring skis are wider, giving better stability, with uphill performance and a more conventional downhill feel. Lastly, free touring (free tour) skis optimize downhill performance, however, they are not suited to longer tours.

2. Touring Ski Boots

Touring ski boots are designed to be comfortable walking uphill with a walk mode setting for more freedom. Lighter than mainstream ski boots, they have adapted release fittings.

3. Skins

Climbing skins are temporarily attached with clips or glue to the base of your skis to help you climb. They are manufactured so they slip easily across the snow in one direction but won’t slide the opposite way. There are numerous styles and materials but when starting nylon skins are cheaper, longer-lasting, and more efficient.

4. Ski Poles

Ski poles should be adjustable for different conditions with long grips. Wide baskets at the base are more effective in deep snow.

5. Avalanche Transceiver

If a skier is buried after an avalanche, the rest of his party can switch their avalanche transceivers to search mode. This will help them exactly locate their companion. From $300.00 (£230.00)

6. Probe

When pinpointed by an avalanche transceiver the final search is by a probe. The long thin probe is pushed gently into the snow to find the skier. Probes collapse into several sections for easy transport. From $50.00 (£38.00)

7. Shovel

A collapsible shovel is vital to dig for a lost companion. However, they are also useful during tours for numerous other tasks. From $50.00 (£38.00)

These three items can be bought individually but you can often get a better deal when they are bought together as a safety package.

8. Backpack

Buying the right size backpack is always a compromise between buying something big enough to contain all your gear but small enough so it’s comfortable and it doesn’t affect your mobility or balance.

If, for the most part, your ski tours are a full day you will need a backpack with a volume between 30-40 liters. If you tend to go more for half-day tours, then a 20-30 liters backpack should be adequate.

Just by gathering all your equipment and clothing together, you can get a good idea of the required volume of your backpack. At a cost, you can now get backpacks that contain integral avalanche airbags, which inflate instantly on triggering.

Which Clothing Do You Need For Ski Touring?

By its nature ski touring exposes you to very different conditions. Starting from the base of the mountain, where it’s warmer, and climbing with a backpack you will soon start to feel hot. Then at the top of the mountain, where it is much colder, you might take a break and cool down very quickly.

ski layers clothing

To adapt to these changing conditions, it’s best to take several layers so you can add or remove layers as needed. Always use a polyester base layer, as this will wick your body’s moisture away better. Several layers offer much better insulation than one thick layer.

With all the movement from hiking up hills a good pair of ski socks are vital. Those with extra protection around the heel and toes are ideal. As well as ski gloves a pair of thinner liner gloves will come in handy for adjustments and removing skins easily.

How Do You Learn To Ski Tour?

To start ski touring you must have a reasonable level of skiing experience. You need to be comfortable on most red runs, blacks, and close-by off-piste skiing.

Most importantly, for your first ski tour always go with someone. While ski touring isn’t inherently dangerous, it is to someone who has no experience. Choose a simple route, and use it to get familiar with the techniques, equipment, and clothing. With luck, your companion should pass on the best techniques and safety advice.

Ideally take a training course, which introduces ski touring. This should cover reading the weather, the avalanche forecast, and basic mountain safety. Similarly, understanding how your avalanche transceiver works and recovery techniques with probe and shovel are also vital.

How Fit Do You Need To Be To Ski Tour?

Photo by SteFou licensed under CC BY 2.0

Ski touring requires a good level of stamina. You will get a good aerobic workout as you climb the mountain wearing your backpack. However, this is part of the attraction of the sport where you are conquering the mountain with only your will, before the reward of skiing down.

Good aerobic fitness doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s advisable to prepare for ski touring well beforehand. The good news is that getting fit for ski touring is enjoyable.

Any aerobic practice will be useful in the weeks running up to the skiing season, such as running, cycling, and hiking, which will all improve your lung capacity and muscle fitness.

What Are The Dangers Of Ski Touring?

Probably the biggest danger of ski touring is ignorance. Anyone can go out and buy the best equipment and clothing but if you don’t know how to use it or how to read the mountain you are just as much a liability without it.

The best message about ski touring is to get educated. There is a huge amount of information in books and online, which can give you an introduction. However, the most useful lessons you can learn are from someone who is experienced in ski touring and who can pass on that knowledge to you.