How to Become a Backcountry Skier
Backcountry skiing in the huge terrain of the Italian Alps. The Alps are one of the most magnificent ranges for backcountry skiing, boasting huge terrain and often incredible snow quality. Photo: Zeb Blais.
How do I start Backcountry skiing? This is a common question for many seasoned resort riders. Lucky, the answer is not as daunting as it might seem.
Backcountry skiing can be an intimidating sport to get into. There are a lot of hazards, a lot of unknowns, and a lot of gear. This post will give you a framework to get started. Stay safe and experience the incredible sense of accomplishment and pure joy that comes from making deep, untouched turns in the backcountry with your friends by following these guidelines. We'll refer to both skiing and snowboarding simply as skiing, so no offense to the splitboarders in the crowd, we're all just snow-sliders in the end!
A backcountry skier enjoying some perfect Japanese powder skiing in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern powder skiing paradise. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Step one: be or become a great resort skier. The backcountry is not the place to learn how to ski. There are many challenges that don't exist at ski resorts, such as variable snow surfaces including breakable crust, "schmoo," and the surface we all pray for - bottomless powder! By the time you hit the backcountry you should be an advanced to expert level resort skier. There is no ski patrol to scoop you up in the backcountry if you get injured, so the golden rule is don't fall out there!
Use the power of the chair lift to get your reps in and improve your skills. In the backcountry, you're going to spend 75% of your time, or more, going uphill. You're much better off developing your skiing skills by actually skiing, rather than hiking up hill. As an "expert" backcountry skier, I still love riding the resort for the simplicity of enjoying the descent without exerting the time and effort to hike to the top.
Backcountry skiers and splitboarders skinning in some fresh powder in the Lake Tahoe backcountry. Photo: Zeb Blais.
"Ok, ok, I'm a great skier! How do I get into the backcountry already!?" Once you feel ready to tackle the snow surfaces and terrain the backcountry is going to throw at you, it's time to get out there. The easiest way to make the leap with confidence is to rent some gear and take an Introduction to Backcountry course from a guide service. These programs are the fastest way to start building the skills and confidence needed to adventure in the backcountry safely and in style. You'll learn:
- How to find Avalanche Advisory for your area & the basics of how to understand it
- How to perform a trailhead departure check & transceiver check
- How to use your touring gear
- Skinning techniques, including some tips on how to set a skin track
- Basics of backcountry navigation
- Tons of efficiency tips from your guide
Now, with your first tour under your belt, it's time to dig deeper. The Intro to Backcountry course just provided you with a great understanding of how it all works, from the gear to the skiing back down. Now you can take the reins and continue to progress. If you plan to ski in the backcountry on your own, without a guide, you need to understand the hazards.
The hazard that most resort skiers are unfamiliar with is avalanche. Start understanding what avalanche terrain is and what makes a snowpack unstable (or more prone to avalanche) with these simple online tutorials:
Take an AIARE Avalanche Level 1 Course. An AIARE (American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education) Level 1 Avalanche Course will provide you with a foundation to understand mountain weather, a layered mountain snowpack, and small-team avalanche rescue. It also provides a framework for making good decisions in the backcountry. Make sure you pick a provider with a solid curriculum with experienced instructors that fits your schedule. The Blackbird AIARE 1 Avalanche Course provides an online course with multimedia content, quizzes and exercises that allow you to learn the material on your own time and the instructors are AIARE and AMGA trained and have decades of combined experience in the Lake Tahoe backcountry. There are plenty of options for other AIARE avalanche course providers on AIARE’s website, avtraining.org.
Students performing a snowpack test during an AIARE 1 Avalanche Course in the Truckee / Lake Tahoe Backcountry. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Take an AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course. We avoid getting into avalanches by making conservative decisions based on the decision making framework from a Level 1 avalanche course and commitment to continued avalanche education, but accidents still happen. And when they happen, they happen fast. Once a person is buried, statistics show you have less than 15 minutes to locate and dig them out before the chances of survival drop exponentially.
Mentored practice with multiple scenarios in varied and realistic terrain is the best way to dial in your rescue skills. Blackbird offers the only lift accessed Avalanche Rescue Course in North America, which provides students with more scenarios in more realistic terrain during each course. The last thing you want to be doing when your partner is buried is wondering what to do!
Continue your avalanche education - every year! There are no avalanche “experts” and understanding the phenomenon of avalanches is a lifelong pursuit. Seek mentors to tour with and make it a point to refresh your skills each season. Here are a few simple ways to build skills and continue your avalanche education:
- The California Avalanche Workshop happens every year before ski season and is a great way to prepare before the season ramps up.
- Get your friends together and take an Avalanche Skills Tour. This program helps you build your observation and decision making skills, by allowing you to plan a tour and lead the team while leveraging the knowledge and mentorship of an experienced guide. Plus you get plenty of skiing on a fun ski tour.
- Build up your experience and take an AIARE 2 Avalanche Course. AIARE 2 dives deeper into using the framework and routines we developed in AIARE 1 to improve your planning and decision making.
- Ride with others that have more experience than you! The more time you spend in the backcountry learning from people with more education and experience than you, the better!
- Take an avalanche course with your team of backcountry ski partners. Reviewing the lessons with your partners really helps drive it all home.
Expand the terrain you ride in. Try new routes and travel to new snowpacks. Hire a guide to take you into terrain that pushes your limits and builds your skill sets. Reach out to guide services with questions and ideas. Guides we love helping skiers and climbers build the skills they need to achieve their objectives and custom programs that are tailored to your team focus on the skills you need and are fun for guides too!
One final thought as you venture out into the backcountry: As you gain experience, keep in mind that uncertainty with weather, the snowpack or your group can be managed by choosing simpler terrain! If in doubt, keep scaling down the terrain until you feel confident that you and your team can manage the hazards that you’re exposing yourselves to. Terrain choice is the variable that is always in your control!
We love working with new skiers and riders, so please reach out with any suggestions or comments!