Your 101 Guide to Backcountry Skiing

Your 101 Guide to Backcountry Skiing

Show up at a place like Teton Pass, in Wyoming, or the base of Mount Superior in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, and there’s a good chance you’ll run up against packed trailhead lots and skin tracks that look like highways. Backcountry skiing has become a sport for the masses. In some ways, that’s good news: more people are out enjoying the winter wilderness. But in other ways, there are real dangers involved, including avalanches (although some reports have attributed last season’s spike in human-triggered avalanches to expert skiers and riders, not novices).

It’s also becoming less of a quiet, peaceful experience out there. “I’m torn, because all of my favorite low-angle early-morning tours are overrun by people, but that’s how I got educated, talking to folks and checking things out,” says Niki Choo, an ambassador for WeGotNext, a nonprofit that seeks to support underrepresented communities in the outdoor space, and an avid backcountry skier who lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.

We’ve rounded up some tips on how to get started safely and ways to find terrain that’s both easy to reach and navigate—but won’t be overly crowded. The world is big, after all, and there’s plenty of room for us all.

Know Before You Go

If you’re brand-new to backcountry skiing, there are a few things you need to know before you head out, like essential gear (see our most recent recommendations here). You should also get up to speed on avalanche training, where to find your local avalanche forecast, and what safety equipment is a prerequisite. Starting at Avalanche.org is a good bet—you can get your forecast, search for avalanche-safety courses near you, and read up on the basics.

Let’s say you’ve acquired all the recommended backcountry safety geara beacon, shovel, and probe. That’s great, but do you know how to use it? Look into educational offerings that’ll help teach you to to pack and wear these items, as well as make smart decisions on things like route finding and avalanche mitigation.

Equally important is who will be joining you on your backcountry adventure. “Having a good partner is key,” says Colorado-based professional skier Chris Davenport. “Think: Is this person going to make good decisions and save me if things go wrong? If the answer is no, rethink who you’re going with. It also speaks to intentionality: What’s your intention when you’re up there?”

Davenport is also a big proponent of choosing terrain based on the conditions: slopes 30 degrees and over are more likely to see an avalanche, so selecting low-angle terrain can help reduce your risk. “I find I can ski in the backcountry all winter by managing terrain and by not exposing myself to terrain that can get me into trouble,” Davenport says. “Don’t feel like you need to step on the gas.”

Hiring a backcountry ski guide can help you locate better-quality and stabler snow, make safer decisions, and even set the skin track and kick turns for you. Seek out a ski guide near you who’s certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. Their rates will likely be higher, but even if you just go out once with a guide, you’ll be more prepared to head out on your own afterward.

Find a Backcountry Area That’s Close By

Do some homework on the backcountry ski zones near you or wherever you’re traveling. If there’s a ski resort in the region, there are places to go backcountry skiing, too. With a little digging, you can locate spots that are lesser known but still offer good terrain. By using Gaia GPS online, or its smartphone app, you can select your region and search for backcountry ski maps that include details like slope angle, snowfall data, and navigation. (Gaia GPS is owned by the same parent company as Outside, and Gaia GPS Premium is now included with an Outside+ membership.)

Or go old school and buy a guidebook to backcountry skiing in your region: Mountaineers Books has detailed, thoroughly reported guides to many popular areas that’ll clue you into specific routes unavailable via an internet search, as well as zone-specific guides. We also like this guidebook and app for Utah’s central Wasatch Range.

Another option that yields results is simply popping in to a ski shop or a post on local social media groups to ask for tips and favorite zones. Folks might just be willing to divulge the sweet spots. WeGotNext’s Choo gave us one of her go-to areas: “Elephant’s Back is close to South Lake Tahoe, and you can follow a snow-covered road part of the way up. From the peak, there’s high angle terrain that can be dicey. You can ski all the way to the lake and skate back to the parking lot.”

Ski to a Hut That’s Easy to Reach

Skiing from a backcountry hut inherently means you’ll have more empty terrain to yourself, since you’re starting from an area that’s not accessible by car. But if you’re looking for approachability, consider that not every hut is the same, nor the trails to get there. Some require long, steep climbs, while others are closer to their parking area and can be accessed in a mile or two.

Vermont Huts’ Dark Star Cabin (from $300), which sleeps up to six people, requires skiing in or snowshoeing more than a mile, but once you’ve arrived, a bounty of backcountry ski terrain beckons from the door, as well as cross-country skiing on the Catamount Trail.

In Washington, Alpine Lakes High Camp (from $235) has nine off-the-grid cabins near the Stevens Pass ski area, and staff will shuttle you in via snowmobile—no hiking in with your gear necessary. From your cabin, you can ski-tour on your own or opt for a guided outing with help from a snowcat.

Colorado has heaps of huts, including the diverse array of Tenth Mountain Division Huts, but they can often be hard to book due to high demand. Anna’s Cabin, an under-the-radar Airbnb (from $363) outside Leadville, can sleep up to eight people and requires a 1.8-mile ski tour to reach, a distance that’s doable for most entry-level backcountry skiers. The gentle slopes behind the cabin make for great easy ski laps.

Look for Former Ski Areas

Former ski resorts make for great entry-level backcountry touring areas, because the slopes have already been graded and gladed and ample parking is usually available. Colorado is full of so-called ghost ski resorts, like the now shuttered Hidden Valley, which opened in 1955 in Rocky Mountain National Park, closed in 1991, yet remains popular with backcountry skiers these days.

Or take Berthoud Pass, site of a once popular ski area on Colorado Highway 40 en route to the Winter Park ski resort. It had its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s but closed in 2003. “Berthoud has some good low-angle, easy terrain and fun gladed skiing,” Davenport says. “On the west side of the pass, there’s one skin track that services all the terrain, so it’s straightforward to park and climb up.”

In 1981, a group of skiers opened what was then called Panadero Resort, in the southern Colorado town of Cuchara. It eventually became Cuchara Mountain Resort, but the place shut down in 2000. Now it’s Cuchara Mountain Park, a public park at the site of the old ski hill. The former day lodge has a new life as a winter warming hut, and people are coming here to backcountry ski.

Bigelow Mountain, in Maine, was never actually a ski area but a proposed development once seriously considered as an Olympic ski venue in the 1960s. Today it’s an underrated spot for ski touring on the East Coast and one of the state’s highest peaks.

Or Just Stay In-Bounds

Here’s the thing: you want to go backcountry skiing, but some days, the snow or avalanche conditions or the weather or just life’s schedule can get in the way. In those cases, you don’t have to give up on getting outside. More and more ski resorts offer in-bounds uphill access, which means you get the feel of the backcountry—you’re earning your turns, after all—but not the risk of being in uncontrolled terrain. “Find anywhere with good parking and ski hills with uphill availability, like Snow King in Jackson, Wyoming,” says pro skier Max Hammer. “That’s a way to eliminate some of the factors that make backcountry skiing frustrating to begin with.”

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