How to Start Backcountry Skiing with no Skiing Background
Here is the Pacific Northwest, we live in the land of perennial snow, or lack thereof, depending on your view. In the lowlands, we rarely see any snow. But the high mountains remain blanketed for eight months or more out of the year. The bountiful precipitation we receive in the wetter months gives us a deep snowpack, glaciers, and the beautiful landscapes of the North Cascades. I do not know what this range would be without the snow.
As many mountaineers push deeper into the mountains and try to make adventuring a year long passion, it becomes quickly evident that backcountry skiing is necessary to enjoy all seasons in the mountains and all they have to offer. Backcountry skiing is simply so much more efficient for travel than post holing on foot or snowshoeing. As many also discover, skiing is pure bliss and enables a new perspective on experiences in the mountains.
This guide is intended for people with no skiing background who want to get into the world of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. We often hear the lies that you cannot become a good skier if you did not start at a young age, or that you must ski many years in bounds and be an elite skier before venturing into the backcountry. But in reality, it is completely possible.
The truth is, skiing is hard, and will probably be unlike any skill you have learned before, but it is possible to learn to ski as an adult and become a proficient backcountry skier within a few years. This is my story as a skier and my perspective. You may disagree. Everyone has different opinions. This is mine. Take it as you like.
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My Journey as a Skier
If you do not care about my story (no offense taken) then skip this section.
My journey as a skier began in the winter of 2016-2017. I had been mountaineering for a few years and vaguely understood the world of ski mountaineering and all. It seemed really useful and fun. But learning to ski was so intimidating. All of my friends who skied resorts had started at a young age. It was expensive; I knew nothing about the gear. I had done a little cross country skiing, but that is so different. So I was content plodding in slowshoes and mostly waiting for the high mountains to melt out, leaving me with an approximate 4 month window each year to really experience the alpine.
When I first met Kylie, I introduced her to general mountaineering and climbing. We did some spring snow climbs around Tahoe in 2016. All she could think about was how nice it would be to go down on skis instead of post holing and glissading down. I had no clue. Ignorance is bliss, right?
Kylie grew up an avid skier around Tahoe and competed in downhill races at a high level. During winter breaks, she would teach ski lessons at one of the Tahoe resorts. Partially for her own sanity, to avoid walking down snowy mountains, she offered to teach me to ski for the 16-17 winter, with the goal of going backcountry skiing together once I was ready. She was the first person to believe in me. When I told other skiers of my plan, they remarked, “One year to learn to ski, then go into the backcountry – isn’t that a little fast?” Beneath their judgements was the assumption that if you did not start as a kid, you were never going to be a good skier.
So we went to the Spokane ski swap in the fall and I bought a solid downhill (alpine) ski setup. Boots, poles, helmet, skis, and bindings for $350. I skied 10 days that winter at various resorts in the Spokane area, utilizing the affordability of night tickets ($15 at Mt. Spokane!, $5 + two cans of food donation at 49 degrees north!) and finding deals through my university’s outdoor program. Really, 10 days is not a lot for the first year, but I was taking 23 credits at the time and rock climbing was a priority. Kylie came with me some of the time, especially on my first few days but I also found other friends to ski with. Even when she could not go with me, I would record videos of myself and have her critique my form back at home. Every day there was something to improve upon. Only one thing though. Your mind cannot really focus on more than one thing at a time, especially as you are falling downhill.
Leading into the next winter, I purchased an alpine touring (backcountry) ski setup. I got a Schweitzer Resort season pass and stepped up my commitment, skiing every weekend there. Kylie and I took our AIARE (avalanche education) course there also. I started poking into the sidecountry of Schweitzer. I usually did not have a partner, so I stuck to non-avalanche terrain, which was plentiful there. I learned so much about how to deal with the variety of conditions in the backcountry, how to set a good skin track, how to manage skins, and all the other things not related to actually going downhill. Towards the winter, I started venturing into the real backcountry with a more experienced Spokane skier, Brant.
After graduation, Kylie and I had this crazy idea to go ski Gannet Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming. The approach is wickedly long and up and down. It took us two days just to reach the base. Kylie really struggled on this trip with the skinning, gear management, altitude – everything but the actual downhill. She had never used her touring skis beyond the avy course and some laps at a ski area. We both made the incorrect assumption that because she was a superior skier, she would have no trouble with ski mountaineering. We learned that ski mountaineering is so much more than simply skinning laps at a ski area. You can read her miserable tale of this 5 day outing.
We went back to the basics the next winter, ski touring at Snoqualmie, Stevens, and Baker. We needed to focus on building a base of experience in lower consequence environments. It was about learning to assess snowpack stability, making safe route decisions, executing kick turns, and dealing with breakable crust. We got destroyed more than a few times by terrible conditions and dumb route choices, but we were always learning. It was not sexy, but it was about “trusting the process”. Together, Logan, Kylie and I made such incredible progress that winter. When I look back, to me, year three is where I really turned a page. By the spring, I was comfortable, efficient, and fast. Once my touring skills reached a certain proficiency level, it finally allowed my mountaineering and fitness background to shine. Skiing Shuksan solo that spring felt like the union of mountaineering and skiing that I always desired.
Last year and this year have been more of the same: slowly seeking more challenging objectives, mixing in the appropriate resort days to work on form, and exploring deeper into the Cascades. What started as a tool to access the mountains during winter and spring has become so much more than that – a true passion. I do not just ski to get to higher places; I ski because I love every kick turn and every powder stash. Above all, I am always working on something. If you improve just a little bit each time you go out, that goes a long ways over the course of an entire season.
The Merits of Backcountry Skiing
If you have read this far, you probably do not need more convincing that backcountry skiing is a useful skill. But in case you do need a few more reasons:
- In open spaces with good snow coverage, skiing is faster and more energy efficient to go uphill than snowshoeing.
- Going downhill, skiing is much faster.
- Skiing is more fun than snowshoeing or post holing.
- Skiing is much more efficient when doing long traverses across snow lopes because you can glide.
- Modern skis, bindings, and boots are surprisingly light.
- For some activities, like ice climbing approaches, skis are basically required.
- Being on skis makes you less likely to break through snow bridges on glaciers.
- Skiing opens a whole new way of looking at and experiencing the mountains.
I will admit there are a few situations where skis are not the optimal tool. If you are a peakbagger trying to bushwhack up a steep forested peak in winter, snowshoes are better. For approaching and carrying over certain ice climbs, snowshoes or simply boot packing might be lighter and less cumbersome on your back while climbing.
What About Splitboarding?
Splitboards are heavier, less available, and far less efficient than backcountry skis. Transition times are slower and they cannot maintain elevation while traversing or manage little uphills. In the backcountry, you will find there are little uphills you have to sidestep during a downhill or flats you have to skate. With a splitboard, it is nearly impossible to do this and you have to step out of your bindings and walk. I am not saying splitboarders cannot crush huge days (see what Kyle Miller has accomplished), but it is definitely harder. So unless you have a snowboarding background, do not splitboard.
If you do already know how to snowboard, the decision is more complicated. Splitboarders do fine with just general winter tours where you are going consistently up or down. They struggle with long flats or traverses. In my opinion, if ski mountaineering is your goal, it is worth the effort to switch to skiing. Don’t trust me? Hear it from Will, a splitboarder:
“Even if you know how to snowboard, you’ll be better served learning to ski in your backcountry pursuits. If learning to ski isn’t going well, stop and consider your sad and depressing future as a splitboarder where you constantly slow down all your skier friends, then redouble your efforts to learn to ski. If you really must pursue splitboarding, you’ve been warned.” – Will
What about Cross Country Skiing?
Cross Country Skis are made for groomed trails and flats or rolling hills. The boot and skis lack the beef to take on real mountain terrain. That being said, XC Skiing is great cross training. Also, I believe that my limited background in XC Skiing (my parents took me a few times a winter) helped me pick up downhill skiing faster.
Why Learning to Ski is Different Than Learning Other Mountain Skills
For most of you, learning to ski downhill will be a vastly different experience than learning how to climb or other mountain skills. The fundamental difference, in my mind, is that skiing downhill involves working with gravity instead of working against it. Because of that, you are always on the edge of control. It is much harder to consciously control your bodily motions when it feels like you are going to fall down the mountain at any moment. Skiing downhill can feel scary in a way that is paralyzing. If you have really learned to mountain bike, skiing might feel similar.
Another aspect of skiing that makes it different from, for example learning to rock climb, is that conditions play a bigger role. In my opinion, skiing an easy run in poor conditions is more challenging than a difficult run in good conditions. In rock climbing, a 5.11 is almost always harder than a 5.10 and that knowledge of ratings can help you progress in a safe manner. I struggle above 5.9 trad, but I have climbed many big alpine rock routes at the 5.8-5.9 grade and been totally fine. I just stay within myself when choosing objectives. But with backcountry skiing, an “easy” tour can become dicey in the wrong conditions. You will learn quickly that the resort rating system of “green, blue, black, double black” is extremely coarse and really not a good indicator of the true difficulty of a run.
Grade chasing, while helpful in some sports, will absolutely backfire in skiing. Although great rock climbers might disagree, it is possible to get better at rock climbing by climbing at your max grade all the time and falling a lot. It certainly is not the best way to improve; I am just saying it is possible and might lead to some progress. However, with skiing, pushing yourself beyond your abilities will cause to you become scared, revert to bad habits, and develop bad form. No one skis with good form when they are puckered, worried about falling down the entire slope.
For all the reasons above, I think you have to give yourself a greater margin of ability when backcountry skiing. You need to be even more solid in the fundamentals before pushing yourself. This means starting by riding the lifts.
Why You Should Start by Riding Lifts
The most common question I get from people like me who want to learn to ski as a compliment to their mountaineering is:
“Can I learn to ski by skinning uphill and then skiing down? I don’t want to pay for lift tickets.”
“Yes… but no.”
It depends what you mean by “learn to ski”. Can you learn how to slip and fall your way down a low angle slope that way? Sure. But few people can truly learn to ski well without riding lifts. Shun the lifts and there always will be a ceiling on your downhill abilities. You will bump into that ceiling very quickly in the backcountry. That will make touring much less fun, very limited, and even dangerous.
The benefits of starting by riding lifts are:
- More reps. It is easy to get 15k to 20k ft of downhill in a day riding lifts. Skinning uphill at a resort, 5k is a lot to start.
- Conditions in bounds are easier and more predictable. We all need the bunny slope to start, and then nice groomed runs for a long time after. Easier terrain allows you to get down the fundamentals before moving to harder terrain. There is simply nothing in the backcountry that is truly “easy”.
- Downhill (alpine) ski gear is cheaper and much more beginner friendly. Touring gear, at least the kind mountaineers should want, is expensive, finicky, and skis downhill terribly. This lets you try out the sport at a lower entry price.
I highly recommend finding a teacher. This can mean paying for lessons or maybe just paying for a friend’s lift ticket if they spend a few hours with you on the bunny hill. Your first few days are the most important on the slopes. Every bad habit you develop early on will be more expensive to fix down the road.
I am a firm believer in correct practice. My high school band director always told us that for every time we practiced something incorrectly, we would have to practice it 17 times correctly in a row to offset the bad habits we reinforced. 17 times! With skiing, this means staying within your abilities and practicing fundamentals correctly over and over. Volume is important, but correctness is more important, in my opinion.
As you get better and are skiing the groomers comfortably, start to push yourself. Seek out the bad snow: icy chickenheads, frozen chunder, giant moguls. Backcountry skiing is rarely as easy as a groomer, so it is good to start experiencing bad snow in bounds. Bad snow makes good skiiers. The caveat is if you push yourself too far, you might start reinforcing bad habits and then it is time to go back to easier runs and get your form and confidence back.
I understand lift tickets can seem cost prohibitive. I advocate for purchasing a season pass at the closest resort to you. Terrain does not matter; you are not going to be skiing extreme stuff in you first year anyways. Just get a pass to the closest place so you will go a lot. Night or off-peak passes are a good bargain. Snoqualmie Pass has reasonable ($400?) passes like that. Lookout Pass is $200 if you buy early. Another way to play is to buy night tickets. Mt. Spokane used to do $15 night tickets when I was starting.
Obviously everyone progresses at different paces, but I would recommend at least a full season riding lifts before even considering buying touring gear. That may seem slow, but getting into backcountry skiing does not occur overnight. It is a substantial investment in time and money. I do not have any hard rules about when you are ready (e.g. “You must be able to ski double blacks without falling”) but you should definitely be proficiently skiing most resort runs.
Let’s Talk About Gear (Updated Fall 2022)
Ski gear is incredibly diverse, complicated, and expensive. There are lots of different opinions and ways of thinking. I am going to give you my opinions and preferences, although they are still evolving.
Some people want to start by buying a touring setup to learn on, even if they are just riding lifts. I would not do this. Buying a downhill setup is cheaper, will be easier to learn on, and enforce that you should not be touring for the first year anyways.
My Touring Gear Philosophy: Throughout the next few sections, you will notice that I lean towards light, but safe and functional gear. Weight is always a tradeoff. Heavier gear allows you to ski faster and harder. Lighter gear allows you to cover more ground in a day. As a newer backcountry skier, I am assuming that you will be skiing at lower speeds and more cautiously, so lightweight gear will not limit your downhill performance as much. As I have become a better skier, I have actually moved to heavier gear because I prioritize skiing fast and hard downhill. But for certain “missions”, I will go back to lighter gear to optimize distance and vert. It is always a tradeoff and depends on your objective, personal preferences, partners, and abilities. There is no perfect solution. If you care more about downhill performance, then you might want to lean towards the beefier downhill oriented gear. Have reasonable goals and expectations.
Local Ski Shops
In the greater Seattle, we have a few great local shops:
- Pro Ski North Bend: these guys are probably the best all around touring gear experts and have a decent selection. They also offer guiding.
- Sturtevants Bellevue: they do not have much touring gear in stock, but if you buy boots online, they are my favorite boot fitters.
- Pro Ski Seattle: I have had good experiences here and oftentimes they have a sale in the fall, although they have less touring expertise than North Bend.
- Cripple Creek Backcountry: This new shop brings more of an uphill oriented focus!
- Evo Seattle / Snoqualmie Pass: They tend to have less touring specific experience, but carry a decent selection and have lots of sales online.
- Wonderland Gear Exchange: You can find plenty of used gear here.
Your First Downhill Setup
Start by buying an affordable downhill setup. A used setup (skis, boots, bindings, helmet, and poles should run you less than $400. A new setup could be had usually for $500-600.
Used gear: unless you are very short or tall, it should be relatively easy to find some generic, all-mountain skis and bindings. Boots can be trickier to find in your size, but you can probably find some. The best place to go is a ski swap, where there are tons of options and knowledgeable staff to help you out. Other places to look are Facebook groups (PNW Ski Classifieds is great), Craigslist, etc. You should be able to get a perfectly fine setup to learn on for well under $500. Maybe you can even borrow from friends for a season. You could rent gear, but honestly you will recoup your rental costs in just a few days by buying, and then you can resell later on.
New gear: there are actually new boots that cost $300-400. A killer pair of downhill skis can be had for a similar amount. Many shops have additional discounts in the fall. Downhill gear far cheaper than touring gear.
After a season or so riding lifts, it might be time to start looking for your first touring setup. I find that many people are selling used setups in the spring and then again in fall. Shops might have fall discounts on last year’s inventory. You can buy new, but I recommend buying used. At this point, you still really know nothing about ski gear, and you will probably mess up your first purchase. So better to make it cheap than dump $2000 on the wrong gear.
There exist an infinite amount of information on the interwebs about touring gear and I urge you to research in great detail before making purchases. Here, I will provide a rough overview.
If you know nothing about skis, you will probably judge them, like I did as a newb, purely on weight, and that is a huge mistake. Lighter skis mean faster on the up, right? Well skis are actually the last place you should try to cut weight because so much of downhill performance is dependent on ski weight. Light skis may be fast on the up, but they will take much more energy to control on the downhill. Light boots, bindings, and skins first.
If you only want one pair of touring skis to do it all (spoiler, you will quickly want multiple pairs) I would start with a mid fat, lightweight, but not too lightweight touring ski. What I mean is something between 90 and 100 mm in waist width, and probably 1400-1700 g for a 180 cm length ski. A few examples are:
- Blizzard Zero G 95
- Atomic Backland 100
- K2 Wayback 96
- Black Crow Camox Freebird
- Black Diamond Helio 95
- any of these skis in the mid-fat category at skimoco (if you don’t know skimoco, you should. It is an awesome shop with all the best ski mountaineering gear. You can email their gear heads any time and they will give you great gear advice).
Note: Buying previous year models as they go out of sale is a great way to save some money!
A touring ski in this class can handle all conditions but is not specified. It could be your first and only ski and you will do just fine.
Edit: My friend Peter has recently launched his ski company WOVN Skis. He makes high quality, lightweight touring skis here in the PNW. I have been skiing his prototypes for the last year or so. I urge you to checkout his lineup.
If you are primarily interested in ski mountaineering and spring time missions (like I was when I started), you could get by with a 80-90cm waisted ski, but your winter performance will definitely suffer. If winter powder is your primary focus, start with 100-115cm, but these fatter skis will weigh more and be harder to skin with in firm conditions. Additionally, they require a heavier boot to drive them with.
In terms of length, I would recommend sizing down a little. Shorter skis are easier to maneuver through tight trees (lots of that backcountry skiing) and much easier to kick turn with (also lots of that). The only real advantage of longer skis is greater stability at speed, but you will not be going that fast, not just as a beginner, but basically ever in the backcountry. For example, as a 5’11”, 165 lb male, my supposed ski range is 170-190cm, but I would start closer to 170cm for my first touring pair. I even have a pair of 164 cm, 79mm waisted skis now for true spring missions.
If you can afford it, I would get a two ski quiver: 85-95mm underfoot for spring “missions” and then 100-115cm for winter. I would make the spring ski shorter and lighter materials (like carbon) and not really care about weight for the winter ski, since that is more about downhill performance typically.
My first pair of touring boots was the Scarpa Maestrale, possibly the best selling AT boot of all time. It was recommended as the best all around boot in terms of uphill and downhill performance. I think this might be true for a lifelong resort skier heading into the backcountry, but for me, it completely missed the mark.
Maestrales are a class of boot that prioritizes skiing downhill. They can go uphill, but they are heavy and have relatively poor range of motion, which is key for efficient skinning. My initial goal with backcountry skiing was getting deeper in the alpine during spring months. For that reason, uphill performance was far more important. I was not an aggressive enough skier to appreciate the downhill performance of Maestrales. It just felt like I had lead weights on my feet.
I quickly got a cheap pair of La Sportiva Siderals. These boots are terrible by any metric and were discontinued years ago. But I fell in love with the light weight and range of motion. Even though the boots themselves were very subpar compared to other similar boots, simply having a lightweight boot made all the difference. These are the boots I took to the summit of Gannet, Middle Teton, Baker, Shuksan and others.
This is why, for people coming from a mountaineering background, I would recommend getting a lightweight “two buckle” boot. These boots are generally 1000-1200g, have incredible uphill performance, and satisfactory downhill performance. You can climb ice, boot snow, and even walk dry trails some comfortably. Starting out, you will not be a good enough skier to appreciate stiffer, heavier boots, unless you are a bigger person (> ~180 lbs). I certainly could not until my third year. However do not go lighter than about 1000g. Race boots are a bad idea. Examples of appropriate boots are:
- Scarpa F1 LT or Womens F1 LT
- Atomic Backland Carbon
- La Sportiva Skorpius (this one skis noticeably better than the rest, but weighs a little more) or Womens La Sportiva Stellar
- Technica Zero G Peak or Womens Zero G Peak
- Dynafit TLT X or Womens TLT X
- Fischer Travers
- any of these on skimoco
You might hear the notion that these “two buckle” boots cannot “drive” bigger skis. That is true, to a certain extent. These boots are perfectly capable of driving a mid-fat ski like we discussed earlier. If you had a heavy 110mm powder ski, then these boots might not provide the adequate power transfer to ski them well. But if you have those skis, you are probably already in the market for a more downhill oriented boot like the Maestrale. You might find you need a quiver of boots, just like a quiver of skis. Here are a few of the more downhill oriented boots that can still tour well. Over the last few years, they have been making big advancements in this category:
- Technica Zero G or Womens Zero G
- Scarpa Maestrale
- Scarpa Maestrale RS
- Dynafit Radical Pro or Womens Radical Pro
- Hawk Ultra XD
Boot fit is extremely important and it differs from person to person and boot to boot. A common misconception, especially for those with a running background, is to have space in the boot. A ski boot should fit tightly, almost uncomfortably tightly, as the liner will pack out. If it is too tight in a few spots, a shop can help you “punch” the plastic shell to create space where it is needed. Your foot should be locked in, preventing blistering and sliding while skinning and improving downhill performance. In addition to length, there are other nuances about fit like volume, ankle size, heel cup. While I absolutely believe in buying used skis and bindings to save money, sometimes it pays to buy touring boots from a reputable shop because they will help you get the correct fit, and that is so important. Look for bargains elsewhere, but do not skimp on boots. Your feet will thank you.
Note: Some boots offer a women’s version while others do not. Women’s versions are usually narrower and lower volume. Sometimes women can successfully wear men’s boots and vice versa. Unfortunately there are fewer option for women but this has been improving as more women enter the sport.
Note: Some Dynafit boots have a “speed nose” (like the TLT 8). Supposedly this improves skinning efficiency. But one implication is that you cannot use fully automatic crampons. I have ice climbed extensively in the TLT7s and found them to come slightly loose over a long climb, regardless of how tight I set the semi automatic crampons. For this reason, I would avoid this line if you plan on ice climbing in ski boots.
Touring bindings are, in my opinion, the first place to reduce weight in a backcountry setup. A lightweight binding weighs 1/4 of the heavier touring bindings and provides adequate performance for less aggressive skiers. They also are, curiously, often less expensive than their heavier cousins.
As a new backcountry skier, there is no reason at all to consider frame bindings or hybrid bindings like the Solomon Shift or Marker Kingpin; you simply do not ski aggressively enough to make a difference. I only know one skier who truly needs Shifts, and that is Jon. Tech bindings may look suspect, but they have been skied by the best skiers on the hardest lines in the world. They will work. And they are so much lighter on the uphill. It would be completely inappropriate to pair a light ski and boot with a beefy Solomon Shift or such.
Assuming we got a mid-fat ski and two buckle boot, I would get a “lean” touring binding. These bindings have easy to use heel risers, usually adjustable DIN settings (useful because your ski ability will be changing rapidly), some BSL adjustment (for different length boots), and are reliable. Brakes are optional, but realize if you are skiing in no-fall terrain I would use leashes regardless because brakes will not stop your skis from falling down an icy couloir. I like the short leashes (g3, ATK, BD) for ski mountaineering, but the longer B&D leashes can be nice for general ski touring because then you never need to unclip them from your boot during transitions.
Here are a few examples of appropriate bindings:
- Marker Alpinist
- Dynafit Blacklight Plus
- Solomon Mnt Pure
- Plum Pika
- Atomic Backland Pure (same as the Solomon one, just branded differently)
- Dyanfit Speed Turn (the most affordable option)
Remember, bindings are the best place to save weight. You can cut the weight of a binding in half from the Dynafit Radical ST 2.0 or Marker Kingpin and most beginners would not notice a difference in performance. But with skis, cut 10% of the weight and it will make a big difference in downhill ability.
What is DIN? DIN is a release value (and a certification process). Generally, a lower number means that you will release from your bindings at lower forces. This is a safety feature. Not releasing results in torn ACLs and other issues. You will start out at a lower DIN and gradually increase it as you become a better skier and want to exert higher forces on your skis without popping out. Rarely will most backcountry skiers need a DIN higher than 10, but having an adjustable DIN is important. With really lightweight bindings, the releasing properties are not as trustworthy and that is why you should not start out on super light race bindings. There are DIN calculators to help you out, but ideally the ski tech who mounts your bindings will set them properly.
Note: BSL (boot sole length) is important. Each boot has a stated BSL. Bindings must be mounted for a particular BSL. They might have some range of adjustment, so a particular binding mount on your ski might fit, say, 260-300mm. This is important to know when shopping for used skis. If the BSL range will not work for you, you will have to remount the bindings. In addition to costing money, it also effects the skis. Most skis cannot be mounted more than 4 or 5 times before they are too damaged from all the drilling.
Climbing skins allow you to go uphill. Some people are super opinionated about brands (see the Pomoca cult) but it seems hit or miss in terms of quality. I would recommend mohair-nylon mix for a good compromise of glide and grip, although nylon is the cheapest and totally fine. I think “skin management” is ultimately the most important thing, but that is an article for a different day.
A few skins that work:
- Pomoca Pro S Glide
- Black Diamond Ascension Nylon
- Black Diamond Mohair Mix
- Contour Guide Mix (I do not recommend Contour Hybrid Mix, I’ve had trips ruined by them. Maybe they have improved them since, but the early iterations were awful.)
Generally, you do not need the width of the skin to be much more than your ski’s tail width. Full coverage on the widest part of your tip is not really necessary.
Avalanche Safety Gear
You should of course get your beacon, shovel, and probe. You can often buy these three items as a package for a better deal. There are plenty of reviews about this, so I will not go into great detail. What ultimately matters is that you know how to use this gear.
For day tours, a 30-35 liter pack is adequate. A ski specific pack will usually have a helmet holder, googles pocket, avy tools pocket, and good ski carry options. I definitely recommend getting a ski specific pack rather than using a climbing or hiking pack because the ski carry will usually be better.
A few simple, but effective ski packs:
- Black Diamond Cirque
- Patagonia Descenionist
- Osprey Kresta (women’s specific)
- Deuter Freerider
- Ortovox Haute Route
Goggles are highly recommended, making skiing easier in stormy conditions. But you do not need to drop $250 on the nicest pair. In nice weather, I usually just use full coverage sun glasses.
I personally like ski specific helmets for winter touring. They are warmer and more comfortable than climbing helmets, work better with goggles, and provide better protection for the side of your head. For spring ski mountaineering, I just use a climbing helmet.
Layering for ski touring is a bit different than mountaineering, but that is also a topic for another day. Get a pair of Showa gloves; you will not regret it.
Fixed length poles are lighter, stronger, and cheaper than adjustable. Just wrap grip tape along the shaft so you can choke up.
You should take an AIARE course to learn the basics of avalanche safety and rescue. It is a 3 day course normally. There are lots of options, but be sure to plan ahead because they can book up a long ways out. Keep your eye out for scholarships or discounts, especially if you are younger or part of an underrepresented community. I got a discount for my avalanche course since I was still considered “youth” at age 21.
In general, I would not recommend any “real” backcountry skiing until you take your avy course, but that does not mean you cannot get familiar with your AT gear. Skinning laps in a resort (be sure to understand and respect their uphill policy) or finding super safe, non-avalanche terrain is a great place to start. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of that terrain around Seattle, but the Inland Northwest had plentiful avy-free terrain where I started touring. That way, you do not waste everyone’s time during the avy course asking your instructor how to use tech bindings.
Easing into Backcountry Skiing
With adequate downhill abilities, gear, and the right training, you are finally ready to go backcountry skiing. Do not expect to send it big time initially; expect a lot of falling and suffering.
There is a lot that goes into touring besides actually slaying pow. This is why I believe you should be proficient at the downhill so you can worry about those other things: navigation, avalanche danger, skin tracks. You are probably going to get your butt kicked by kick turns for a while, and that is okay. I still get my butt kicked.
Start with shorter, less committing tours. The Volken Guide is, in my opinion, exceptional for providing great tour ideas from complete beginner routes to the grand Pickets Traverse. The Schonwald Guides provide nice aerial photos and line information. You can also search through my website with the tag “backcountry skiing” for trip ideas. I cannot overstate the importance of building a base of diverse experiences in less consequential terrain before ramping up. Maybe it is not what you dreamed of, but spend a lot of time touring out of Snoqualmie Pass, Crystal, Baker, Stevens, Paradise, Hood, the places where you can skin from the car and get in a lot of reps. As a hardcore evangelist of Snoqualminix, I believe that Snoqualmie Pass can teach you every skill needed to tackle the North Cascades (except, maybe, glacial travel).
Personally, I found the most difficult part about backcountry skiing to be anticipating conditions. Ski conditions are infinitely more complicated than summer alpine conditions. Is that icy slope going to soften into corn by midday? Will that aspect have a windcrust? Will the new snow bond to that rain crust down low? I have no magic formulas. The best thing you can do is get out. A lot. Watch forecasts. Take notes. Make observations. Reflect. Learn.
If you can find a more experienced partner to learn from, that is great. But lacking a mentor should not be road block, as it can often feel. During my first winter of touring, Kylie was too busy with school, I did not know anyone, and so I toured primarily by myself, staying out of avalanche terrain, but still learning a lot. Eventually, I found Brant and he taught me a lot. After I left Spokane, it was me, Kylie, and Logan together, all green, but wanting to get better and trust the process. Our strengths always complimented each other: Logan was great at ski sorcery (tight trees, death luges, hard kick turns), Kylie was the best at actual downhill, and I had the best fitness. Partnerships like that allow you to become greater than the sum of your parts.
Onto Ski Mountaineering
For me, the end goal was always ski mountaineering: the Isolation Traverse, climbing the North Ridge of Baker and skiing down, the Pearl Necklace Tour. I wanted to move through the mountains during the snowy spring months, cruising across glaciers, pushing deeper in the North Cascades. This was my dream, and to a large extent, I feel like I got there.
Fortunately, for those of us with a mountaineering background, the mountaineering part of ski mountaineering should come pretty naturally. Once I had ski touring down, I was able to move into the world of ski mountaineering easily with good success. Things like booting steep snow, long days out, hard approaches, and overnight camping all were straightforward.
Timing is very important with ski mountaineering. Generally, I would advise to wait for springtime (April to June) for classic ski mountaineering objectives like the volcanoes, North Cascades, etc. While some of these objectives are plausible in the winter, access can be challenging (get ready to chainsaw your way to a trailhead) and a lack of observations from the community can make avalanche conditions much less predictable. Venturing into the big mountains in the dead of winter is definitely another level of commitment. In the spring, days are longer, roads are usually snow free, and the snowpack is much more stable.
Throughout the Cascades, there is a large variety in weather and snowpack. Choosing the correct ski mountaineering objective depends on the time of year. For example, the snowpack melts out earlier in the Stuart Range than the North Cascades. April might bring great corn in Ulrich’s Couloir on Stuart but still breakable mush on Eldorado. Aspect and elevation are also important. Understanding how these dynamics work together can allow you to time an objective within the season. For the Isolation Traverse, we nailed the timing, finding a perfect isothermal snowpack up high and snow coverage starting partway up the boulder field of Eldorado. A few weeks earlier and the snow might have been less consistent throughout the day. A few weeks later and there would have been more booting. Within a particular day, there is the nuance of timing “corn-o-clock” and aspect choices. Learning these particulars comes from experience, talking with others, and researching. Check out trip reports on turns-all-year.com. See Lowell Skoog’s excellent article about putting together ski traverse. And do not be afraid to go out there and give it a shot.
Ski mountaineering is awesome, exhausting, and thrilling. It brings together all the mountaineering and skiing you have developed over the years. Patience, we will get there.
Putting it All Together
Skiing has fundamentally revolutionized my relationship with the mountains. It has given me a new way of traveling and imagining the mountains for eight months of year. In less than five years, I have gone from a complete newb to a competent ski mountaineer. It has been an incredible journey – challenging, yet well worth it. I owe my success to the privilege of having these opportunities, my teachers and partners, and the mountains that inspire me.
I hope that others find inspiration from my story and knowledge from this article. There is no right way to learn to ski, but this is what I have learned and what worked for me. Ultimately, the most important factors are internal: the drive to improve, discipline to the fundamentals, and patience with yourself.
Questions? Comments? Ask me questions in the comments below! Thank you for reading!
22 thoughts on “So You Want To Learn to Backcountry Ski”
Thanks! Do you have, or know of, a list of backcountry tours near Snoqualmie Pass? I’m grateful for all your writings, but this was an especially good primer!!
Check out the Schonwald guide (I linked it in this article). I think there’s also a book on touring at Snoqualmie specifically you can find online. Otherwise, search my blog for “Snoqualmie” to find some. Some of my favorites:
* Chair Circumnavigation
* Avalanche Mt. on a powder day
* North Slopes of Chair
* Red Mt
Say your brand new and just want to practice skinning where a good spot to do some short easy laps? I know some resorts allow uphill but I can’t find much on it.
Snoqualmie is the best for that. They have historically allowed uphill access at West, Central, and Hyak. Last year you just needed to sign a waiver and get a $5 pass. They haven’t updated that policy for this year yet, but you can stay up to date at https://summitatsnoqualmie.com/uphill-travel-policy.
Good idea for an essay, Kyle. Hope it reaches some of the folks who are considering doing it.
Speaking of mountains without snow, did you happen to see the article in a recent “Economist” before your parents sent it our way, of the craze for mountain adventures in South Korea? If not, we could sent it back across the Sound.
I have not seen that article, but I can check it out next time I visit.
Great article, thanks. I learned to resort ski last winter after years of snowboarding, including occasional tours. Tried renting a splitboard a couple of times & was definitely put off by all the expense & faff for a still-inferior solution, finally decided to bite the bullet.
Fast forward to this year & it looks like the European ski season isn’t going to happen with covid & lockdowns. So will probably do another piste season to re-learn next winter before I think about moving on to the actual goal & buying touring gear.
Found your thoughts about boots & bindings particularly interesting & the opposite of what I expected. Which was more along the lines of “as a beginner I need all the support & control I can get, and I don’t mind suffering uphill. Maestrales & Shifts seem like the obvious way to go”.
Bummer the ski season is closing down. Where in Europe are you?
I guess you can think of it both ways with touring gear. My personal experience was that I was a relatively bad skier and I felt that Maestrales did not improve my skiing despite being stiffer. I needed to improve my skiing before they made a difference. Now they do and I wear my Maestrales more frequently. With bindings, I definitely believe that tech bindings are sufficient for hard skiing. Maybe if you’re hucking cliffs then Shifts are appropriate.
Agree with Kyle 100% on the bindings. “Beefier” bindings are not going to help you ski better in the backcountry as a beginner/intermediate learning to ski.
I do wonder about the boots. Sure, no need to go for the very beefiest boots (Like the XT version of the Maestrale), but I do think the very lightest boots will make it a bit harder to control your skis as a intermediate skier.
I imagine it matters a lot how tall and heavy you are (and to a certain degree, how long and wide your boots are).
Great job! Coming from a climbing background, I tried to get the ski skills by touring. Get a season pass and ski with friends that are better than you. I have an idea after covid there is going to be great deals on all the touring rigs I seen at the resort. As one local sourpuss said tech bindings for tech workers When you see what people were sking back in the day with leather boots and cable bindings you realize whats possible with a good skillset. Other great blogs are skimolife, wildsnow and with a alpinist eye coldthistle. I also got a great deal on a pair of baltoros with skins used a few times for under 200$ still rocking years later. Pomoca are great skins, used BD. G3, contour and pomoca glue and glide outshines the rest. Once again stellar write up.
I bet there will be a lot of nice used setups when people try it out and decide it is not for them. People have been complaining about how the backcountry will be more crowded this year. I have not noticed it one bit. However, I have noticed that skinning laps at Snoqualmie Ski areas is much more popular.
I am always amazed by what early pioneers like Skoog and company accomplished on such heavy, primitive gear. Even when someone like Jason Hummel was my age, the gear was still primitive. Yet Skoog skied the Cascade Crest from Rainier to Baker. They were so skilled and experienced.
I met the Hummel bros hiking up the Emmons with Volants (burly stainless steel skis) and tele bindings, Also no go with skimo race boots? Dorias brothers would not agree.
I just didn’t mention tele really because I think that AT gear is advancing more and easier probably to learn on.
Yeah the Dorais brothers might be able to ski everything in skimo race boots, but for most of us, that’s probably not the best idea.
And it’s not just descending ski performance that is a reason not to use “skimo” race boot for actual ski mountaineering, the other reasons are price (!), durability and warmth/water resistance. With thin, low cut liners and open shells, warm, dry feet are not a priority for race boot designers.
Sure, some people, in some cases can make them work, but as this is an article for mountaineers just getting into backcountry skiing, I think that recommendation is completely appropriate.
Thanks for your feedback! I agree getting a guide can be a great way to learn.
No telemark options?
I debated including a section about it. I don’t really recommend anyone without any skiing experience to start with tele since I think it’s more challenging to learn and unfortunately there has been less development in gear recently. And if they already know tele, they probably are already backcountry skiing and have been for decades already and don’t need my advice…
What a great article. The writing was fun and easy to follow, and I agreed with all the recommendations.
The one thing I would add is to go out on trips/courses with an actual, AMGA certified (or equivalent in other countries) guide. Note that this is not a requirement for guides in the US. Also note that guide companies will often make nebulous claims about their guide’s qualifications, with statements like: “AMGA certified”. If you are going backcountry skiing, the fact that your guide is a “certified AMGA Single Pitch Instructor”, is not very relevant, for example.
As climbers, we should all be aware of the fact that learning on your own, or learning from experienced friends is not always the best way, or even safe. After all, you (or your friend) doesn’t know what you don’t know. Whether that is an actual lack of knowledge/skill or just out of date knowledge, it can be dangerous.
Learning and being evaluated by a professional, who is up to date with current best practices, is very valuable.
I wanted to say thanks for this article- it was exactly what I needed to feel like I could make my dreams of skiing remote areas ( Arctic, Alaska) come true, as my inspirational heroes have written about. I’m diving in and making it happen, with this bookmarked guide constantly referenced, as I build my gear kit and buy my Snoqualmie pass. Thanks for the inspiration and solid advice!
I am so glad you found this inspiring! I hope this season goes well for you!
Wow. This is an incredible, monster post. So helpful! I live in the mountains in Idaho (surrounded) with lots of places to “ski tour” at some level, even right outside my door. With my 3 kids (5, 9, 12) we backpack in the spring/summer/fall and have been resort skiing this winter and last. They are still very much beginners, and I’m barely intermediate, if that. Eager to get into ski touring so we can enjoy the mountains all year and skip the 2 hour drive to the resort and the accompanying crowds. Ski touring won’t be any cheaper (for the kids at least, with regular new gear purchases), but seems well worth it for the amazing places we enjoy ~4 months of the year that I’d love to enjoy all year. *Your post here is amazingly helpful!* Thank you!
This makes me so happy! That’s incredible that you are taking your kids touring. I’d be curious to know how you are managing the gear and changing sizes.