I've said before that backcountry skiing is this awesome love-child of snowshoeing and downhill skiing. It offers the quiet, blissful experience of walking through fresh, snowy tracks far from the beaten path with the sheer exhilaration of swift, snowy descents. I love powder. I love going fast. And I love doing these things with people who love doing these things.
That said, I want to voice a note of caution: before venturing into the backcountry, you should be able to ski a black diamond run in any snow conditions. I cannot stress enough the importance of in-bounds proficiency before going into the side or backcountry. You need to be confident on variable terrain and in sub-optimal weather conditions. Spend time off-piste exploring manky-wet snow. Practice making tight turns in the trees. Learn how to navigate on ice. The backcountry won't give you a "warm up run". Trails are not marked on a map to point you toward the easy way down. You won't get a toboggan ride if you break your leg. Not to stifle your enthusiasm, but I'd rather err on the side of caution than hear about another accident out-of-bounds. Be safe and make smart decisions. The first smart decision you can make is to invest in ski lessons to hone your skills.
Get started in 10 steps*:
Set realistic expectations. This sport is expensive. It takes a while to join the community and meet regular adventure partners. Even if you're an expert skier, you are not going to be an expert backcountry skier right away. Realize your first few times out the people taking you are doing you a favor. You are a liability to them, but we will take you because we were all once a liability. Be honest about your fitness and ski ability levels. The fastest way to oust yourself from the community is to lie about your skills and end up somewhere you have no business going. Backcountry skiing should be fun, but it won’t be fun unless it’s also safe.
Sign up for an avy class. Yes. That’s right. I list this as number two before I even talk about gear. If you are going to go into the backcountry you need to take an AIARE I course. Most of the skiers I know won’t go with you unless you have taken one. Spanning three days of your life and costing around $300, this is the most important step you take in this entire process. You’ll learn the basics of avalanche behavior and how to judge snow angle and aspect. You’ll also practice doing beacon search, which is seriously the most valuable thing you can do. These classes are only offered a few times a year and can fill up quickly. Sign up now – you can find listings here and here and here. This is a great way to meet future adventure buddies.
Get the gear. For an entire list of all of the gear you may need, check out my backcountry basics blog. If you’re starting with nothing, the cost of the soft and hard goods (aka EVERYTHING) will easily run you $3,000-$5,000 (see step #1). If you already have a suitable backpack and ski clothes (and some old skis maybe you could use), you’re looking at about $1,000-$2,000 (for beacon/shovel/probe + boots, skins, and bindings). If you aren’t sure about all of this stuff, go rent the gear. For those of you in the Seattle area stop by Proski Seattle, and tell them I sent you.
Learn the landscape. This means both physical landscape and the cultural landscape in your local community. Near Seattle, we ski in the Cascades, which offer terrain from mellow to extreme. Conditions vary GREATLY depending on temperature, slope angle, aspect, elevation, and weather conditions (you’ll learn many of these things in Avy I). Luckily, we have amazing recourses available in our area to help us understand terrain and make safe decisions. For avy reports, I recommend you bookmark nwac.us (and consider making a donation). To learn about conditions and discover new backcountry routes, read the trip reports on Turns All Year. Forums like this are another great way to meet backcountry ski buddies, and pickup some cheap, used gear. Books are also a good resource – I recommend this ski guide written and published by locals.
Do a dry run. Take all of your new (or new-to-you) gear out in your living room and do a dry run. Load your pack. Practice taking layers in and out of it. Know that layering while skinning is seriously half of the battle and no one is good at it their first time. Put together a food bag – bring twice as much as you think you’ll need. Make a checklist for yourself so you won’t forget anything. No one wants to be the gaper on a powder day.
Create a trip plan. A trip plan lists where you’re going, who is going, what you’re taking in terms of safety gear, and current conditions/concerns you have about terrain. This formal planning process is important when you are new to the backcountry, and assures your emergency contact person has the necessary information in case something goes wrong. Even if you forgo this step, at the very least you need to have someone in town who knows where you’re going, who you’re going with, what car you’re driving, and when you expect to be back in town. If you aren’t back by that time, they need to know how long to wait until contacting authorities, and who to contact when they do.
Go easy. For your first trip, plan something close to the car. Something that will allow you to “yo-yo” a slope (aka go up and down multiple times). This helps you practice transitions and breaks the touring up into smaller chunks. It also gives you a quick bail strategy if something goes wrong. Touring uses different muscles than pretty much anything else. Even if you have the fitness of a Greek God, you will be tired after your first day of touring.
Take yet another class(es). Notice that “education” is a big part of backcountry enjoyment. It takes a long time to learn how to plan a trip (I am far from an expert here). This means matching your slope and aspect and elevation with the existing weather conditions. Take a Navigation course to help with this. And then take a Wilderness First Aid course in case something goes wrong.
Speak up. No one is an expert. We are all learning. Open your mouth when you have questions. Learn as much as you can from as many people as you can. Speak up when you have concerns. Backcountry skiing is a team sport and everyone has a voice.
Have fun! Oh yeah, I almost forgot this because I was too busy nagging you. That’s only because safety is paramount to fun. Backcountry skiing is dangerous and committing. It can be scary. It can also be the most exhilarating activity of your life. Learn the basics and go play. I promise the time and financial investments are worth it.
*By no means are these hard and fast rules. If you just want to give backcountry a try then rent some gear and get a friend to take you to a safe snowfield in the late spring/early summer. That'll give you a taste and let you know if this sport is for you. If it is start ticking off the above items. It'll take a while to get your kit of gear and skills together. As of this writing I have skied 50 consecutive months and have 98 days in the backcountry. I don't consider myself an expert and am actively working on improving my navigation and terrain selection skills. I do surround myself with like-minded backcountry enthusiasts who share my views on safety and acceptable risk. Finding your backcountry people will be the most difficult and rewarding part of your journey.