Todd Passey: Professional IFMGA Mountain Guide Explains Backcountry Skiing
As a certified IFMGA mountain guide, I often get asked questions related to backcountry skiing (aka “ski touring”) such as:
- How do I get started backcountry skiing?
- What’s the best ski gear for ski touring?
- What do I need to know about avalanches in the backcountry?
- What’s the best backcountry terrain?
- What to wear while ski touring?
About Todd Passey
Before I get into answering questions about backcountry skiing, I’ll share a little about myself. I have been a professional mountain guide for over two decades. After 10 years of guiding, I finished the AMGA Rock Guide, Alpine Guide and Ski Mountaineering Guide certifications to become the 62nd IFMGA American Mountain Guide. Read more about my journey to becoming an international mountain guide.
Around the same time, I started In The Company of Guides in order to work for myself and to guide in new places. I have guided around the globe including all the “Seven Summits”, and in most of the great mountain ranges of the world.
Table of Contents
What is backcountry skiing?
BackCountry Skiing Explained
Backcountry skiing is also referred to as ski touring, alpine touring, or even splitboarding. This type of riding is defined as riding outside of the marked, controlled, and lift-served areas of ski resorts. Instead of riding lifts, backcountry skiers and riders earn their turns by hiking. Additionally, when you use lifts or trams and then exit the ski area boundary into the backcountry this is referred to as side country. Sidecountry often includes some hiking and is done out of controlled ski areas boundaries, so it is a form of Backcountry skiing.
Hiking or Skinning for your turns may sound difficult. Undoubtedly, there is a certain level of fitness that is required. However, if you are a reasonably fit active person and a strong intermediate to advanced skier, you can enjoy backcountry skiing. Getting fit for the backcountry is a great motivator for some. I often see people come back more fit each year, able to have bigger days in the backcountry. I will talk about fitness later. For now, I want to tell you about the specialized gear we use to make ski touring and splitboarding easier.
What should I wear backcountry skiing?
How To Dress Backcountry Skiing
If you are thinking about getting into backcountry skiing, you do need to know how to dress while ski touring or splitboarding. Skinning uphill has different dress requirements than riding a lift. If you dress in your thick insulated long underwear and jacket that you normally do wear skiing, you’ll quickly become soaked with sweat as you skin uphill. Once at the top of your run, however, you’ll want to add some warmth for the transition and the ski down. Having a system of layering with your clothing is key. Dressing so that you can easily add or take off a layer as your exertion level or outside temps change, will keep you comfortable throughout the day.
Start with a Base Layer. Your base layer should be a breathable synthetic that will wick the moisture away from your body. This layer will be worn all day on both your upper and lower body. I prefer a thin base layer in all but the coldest weather. I like to wear a sun hoodie up top and silk weight on the bottom.
A Shell Jacket is your protection against wind and snow. Since you have your base and mid-layers for warmth, I suggest a shell made of lightweight material, no insulation, or liner. You can choose between soft- or hardshell technology. Softshells being more breathable, and hardshells more waterproof.
What gear do I need for backcountry skiing?
Backcountry Ski Gear
Backcountry Skis; In a pinch, any ski can be used for backcountry skiing. Yet, the huge popularity of backcountry skiing has given rise to a lighter weight construction used in backcountry specific skis. Lighter weight skis ultimately translates to more vert and more powder runs in the backcountry!
I spend most of my time skiing in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah where powder is the norm. With this in mind, I tend to choose something with a good mix of lightweight construction for the uphill, and a bit of girth to make the powder on the downhill more fun. My main backcountry ski has a 102 mm waist, which is good for most conditions. Admittedly, I have acquired a quiver of skis over the years. These skis range from my ultralight 82mm waist for long and speedy ascents, to my 115mm underfoot powder skiing fatties.
I am not a snowboarder, but many of my best riding partners are. If you prefer to ride sideways you can still get into the backcountry using a split board. A splitboard is a snowboard that splits in two to be used like skis for the uphill. The board is then reconnected to make a normal shaped board for riding down. There are some other adjustments like moving the binding position, but that’s it, in a nutshell.
Climbing skins are attached to the bottom of our skis to grip the snow as we climb. Climbing skins have two sides; a plush side and a glue side. The glue side is just that, a sticky side that will stick to the bottom of your ski. They peel off without leaving any residue on your ski and are reusable. The plush side of the skin, I like to say is like a short hair dog’s fur. If you pet it, one direction is smooth, and your hand slides easily over the dog’s back. If you move your hand the other way, the hair is pushed up and your hand’s movement is impeded. So the smooth side slides smoothly across the snow as you drag your ski forward. However, your ski won’t slide back as it is weighted, because those little hairs stand up create friction with the snow. With the skin getting full coverage on the bottom of your ski for optimal grip, and a bit of technique, you can go straight up a 30-degree slope, though this would be steep and not very efficient. I like to make a nice low angle track that zig-zags up the mountain so I can have energy all day.
Backcountry ski bindings are designed so that you can release your heels for walking uphill. The toes of your boot remain connected and pivot to help maintain a natural stride. Once at the top of your run, your heels lock back in to function like any normal Alpine binding. Backcountry bindings range from super lightweight tech bindings to much beefier frame bindings. Most bindings require you to use alpine touring specific boots.
Backcountry ski boots (aka alpine touring boots), are designed using lightweight construction and have a walk mode. Walk mode lets you extend and flex your ankle which will greatly increase comfort and mobility as you skin up the mountain. Those of us in the know also loosen or unbuckle the cuff to further increase mobility for climbing. All alpine touring boots nowadays have tech fittings in the toe and heel, as well as a Vibram or lug sole.
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What do I need to know about avalanches and safety in the backcountry?
Avalanche and Backcountry Safety Tips
Avalanches are a major concern in the backcountry. We rely on the knowledge and good decision making learned from experience to keep us safe. This experience typically begins with eudcation, e.g. avalanche training. I will talk more about avalanches and other good practices later in this article. An avalanche rescue course will teach you to use your avalanche safety gear, so you are ready if an accident does happen. An avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe are required items when skiing in the backcountry.
Avalanche beacon/transceiver is worn at all times while skiing in the backcountry. These small safety/rescue units send out an electronic ripple anytime it is turned on. If I were to be buried in an avalanche, my partner could turn his transceiver into search mode. Now, my partner will follow the signals of numbers, lights, and sound to locate my transceiver and me.
Avalanche probes are 230cm to 300cm long poles. These probe poles are collapsible, breaking into smaller sections thus fitting nicely into your backpack. Once my approximate position is determined with a transceiver, your probe can be quickly deployed to pinpoint my exact location under the snow. This is done by pushing the probe into the snow at consistent intervals until you feel your probe strike me.
Avalanche shovels are used to dig me out of the snow, once I have been located with the transceiver and then the probe. Avalanche shovels are collapsible to fit nicely into your pack. An aluminum blade and telescoping handle are useful features. In a rescue course, you will learn strategic shoveling techniques for the most efficient ways to reach me buried in the debris.
Avalanche Shovels are also used to dig observation pits, and to do stability tests. Most avalanche specific shovels have a blade tip measuring close to 30cm, which aids us in performing appropriately sized stability tests.
Backcountry-specific backpacks, while not mandatory, do have some great features. The main feature you want is a separate compartment for your shovel and probe. If you ever really need to rescue your friend from being buried in an avalanche, you want your probe and shovel easily accessible for quick deployment. This pocket should only be used for your avy gear. You don’t want to have to rummage around for this gear when time is important. Many of these packs have other useful features as well like attachments for carrying skis and a helmet. There are even packs with airbags, meant to increase your chance of staying on top if you were caught in an avalanche. and Avalungs to provide CO2-free breathing if you are buried. Packs with these safety features can be nice, but should never be considered a replacement for a transceiver and good decision making.
Ski helmets may not be on everyone’s list of avalanche safety gear, yet 19% of avalanche deaths are caused by trauma and 44% of head trauma in ski accidents could be addressed if helmets were worn. For me, these statistics and the real-life experiences of a couple of close friends, have made my decision on the matter. I wear a helmet when backcountry skiing.
There are some good lightweight options out there. I prefer a non-insulated helmet that I can use in all conditions. When it is cold, I wear my helmet over my beanie. On hot spring days, I skip the hat so I can feel the cool rush of wind as I ski down.
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What do I need to consider when starting backcountry skiing?
How to Get Started Backcountry Skiing
There are so many aspects of backcountry skiing, so many things to know and important skills to have that many people don’t even know how to begin. Here are some of the things to think about.
The Backcountry is no place to learn to ski. I don’t recommend new skiers get right into the backcountry. The backcountry is not like skiing in a resort:
- First, there are no groomed trails and snow conditions can vary greatly. In the backcountry you will find everything from powder to breakable crust, ice or even corn snow. Experienced backcountry riders will learn to find the best snow, because really that’s what it’s all about. That said, on some days you’ll find that skiing tough conditions for short sections might be your best option.
- There are no signs or marked hazards which makes it imperative that you are able to remain in control and to adjust your speed and direction at any time based on terrain and conditions.
- For many people an open 32-degree bowl of fresh powder is the ideal, and often here in the Wasatch that is possible. To get back home from that low angle open bowl you may have to ski some trees, hard pack, or heavy snow. For the best experience and most fun, you will want to be a confident skier.
I love to do big days, but backcountry skiing is my profession and everyone will not be able or even desire to put in a 7000’ day. Most people who get regular exercise, are a healthy body weight and have a desire can have fun backcountry skiing.
I recommend a regular exercise program of 2-3 days a week and many weekends. Cardio training like running or biking are great to get you ready, but strength training is important as well. Having regular activities like: a big hike or a long run, or experience backcountry skiing, are good indicators for adequate fitness.
Planning and Education
Where do I go to learn about safely skiing in the backcountry? There are many guide books and online resources out there. Map programs like WBS map, Gaiagps and others. My personal experience in backcountry skiing began with an interest in exploring terrain I hiked and ran during summer months. In winter seeing where others were parked and following tracks was an early method for finding where to go.
I went through this process in my early 20’s, when I had the time to learn step by step. The psych and tenacity to go through a lot of trial and error as well as surviving grueling adventures. It was only youth and good luck that I endured some near misses and avoided serious accidents.
Also fortunately it didn’t take long for me to understand this method was probably a bad idea. There was too much danger and too much that I did not know. I soon found friends and eventually mentors to guide me and teach me what I needed to know. I learned how to use a map and compass and developed navigation skills, took avalanche courses and read plenty of books. I became a student of the backcountry, instead of just a visitor.
This process was awesome for me, but many don’t have the time and maybe not even the desire to put in that kind of time commitment and suffering. For those seeking a more direct path, I suggest hiring an IFMGA or AMGA certified guide and start by taking an introductory backcountry skiing course. With a guide or instructor you can learn how to use your ski equipment, how to do efficient transitions and learn safe backcountry protocol.
Next I recommend taking an avalanche course to learn the decision making process for avoiding avalanches. Avalanche.org is a great website with lot’s of good information, including directing you to the forecast center for your region. Here in the Wasatch we use the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. The UAC, just like many forecast centers around the country and world, will post daily avalanche forecasts for the region. Simply reading the forecast on a regular basis will teach you a lot. An avalanche course will teach you how to use this forecast to make decisions on where to ski, and things to look for to help you avoid avalanches. You will even begin to learn how to find the best snow for skiing.
Finally, I recommend taking a Wilderness First Responder course. This course teaches you how to manage trauma and medical problems you may encounter in the backcountry. It is a fun course and you will learn a lot. You then do a 2-3 day refresher every 2-3 years. A less committing step is to take the Wilderness First Aid and a CPR course. CPR is a skill I want all of my partners to have. CPR has saved the lives of many avalanche victims.
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How do I prepare for a day of backcountry skiing?
How to Prepare for Day of Backcountry Skiing
There is really a lot to think about every time you go out into the backcountry. Some key questions to ask are:
- Where are you going?
- What is the weather forecast?
- What is the avalanche forecast?
- Who am I going with and what are their skills and abilities?
- What gear do I need for my objective?
In the Morning
I typically start my day with a couple of hours of prep before I head out to go skiing. I will check the avalanche forecast and look at the weather forecast and check weather stations, all while I am drinking my first cup of coffee. I look at maps on my computer. I try to pick my objective for the day with slopes, aspects and elevations I think will be safe and ski well.
This stuff takes some time to learn, but going out with a professional or a mentor and taking an avalanche course is where it all begins.
Once I come up with a few ideas on where to ski I discuss my plans with my partners. Bouncing ideas off knowledgeable partners is a good practice that will drive discussion and learning. Especially when partners are not as experienced or knowledgeable of the area, it is important to discuss the risks, efforts and skill required. No matter my partner’s experience level everyone needs to feel free to express concerns and be honest about their abilities and risk tolerances.
At the Trailhead
I like to do a verbal gear check at the trail head, just to make sure no one leaves their phone or lunch in the car. The most important thing to do at the trailhead is a beacon check. Everyone needs to confirm the battery life on their beacon. You should never leave the trailhead with less than 50% battery life. Beacons should be working properly, and screens displaying correctly. Lastly, a range and function test should be performed. This process checks the search and send functions of everyone’s beacon.
In the beginning, it can be challenging to remember every detail. I find it helpful to have a before you go backcountry skiing checklist. I will run through checks before leaving my house and once I’m at the trailhead.
On the Trail
When I leave the trailhead, I don’t turn my brain off. It is super important to keep an open mind and continue to make observations about the environment around me. I love to break trail for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that it is a great way to get a feel what the surface of the snow is doing. I will poke at the snow on different aspects, and push my pole into the snowpack to see if I can feel any layers. I dig a lot of hasty hand pits too, many factors can be learned by looking at and feeling the snowpack layers. I look for signs of instability including recent avalanches, loading from wind or falling from the sky, cracking, and whompfing. All of this information I gather on the way up helps me to decide what’s safe to ski on the way down.
There is protocol for the backcountry, let’s call them best practices. I spread out in the skin track whenever I am traversing under or climbing a suspect slope. When I say suspect, I mean if it has snow on it and is steeper than 35 degrees. This is so, if a slide were to happen, there would be someone left on top to dig the others out.
I ski slopes one at a time, and only once the rest of my group is locked and ready as well. I always ski the entire slope or from island of safety to island of safety. I plan out my escape route, incase it all falls apart I know where I need to ski to in order to find safety.
I don’t ski above my partners or drop in on top of other parties. I seek to learn and use traditional up and down routes, and try to communicate with other groups around me.
These are all habits that I follow everyday in the backcountry. If you make these your habits, they might save your life.
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What are my favorite places to backcountry ski?
Best Backcountry Ski Locations
Best Places to Backcountry Ski in North America
Wasatch Mountains: Utah is home to the Greatest Snow on Earth, which is why I call this place home.
Valdez, Alaska: Steep couloirs in the legendry Alaskan steep and powdery terrain.
Tetons, Wyoming: Ski the Grand. Some of the steepest terrain in North America.
Haute Route, Chamonix France to Zermatt Switzerland (Hut to Hut ski trip)
Lyngen Alps, Norway: Boat based ski trip. Sleep and dine in a boat while jumping on untouched powder runs ashore.
Caucases, Russia: unique step back in time with awe-inspiring mountains.
Antarctica: endless first descents
Arctic Circle: Svalbard, Spitzbergen Norway is home to wild and untamed environments.
There are so many details to know when considering backcountry skiing. I will continue update the article. If you have a suggestion or comment, please contact me.
There are so many details to know when considering backcountry skiing. I understand this is only the beginning and so much information can be overwhelming. Reread this on a regular basis and revisit other helpful educational articles and videos. That will serve as foundational knowledge that will be invaluable as you gain backcountry skiing experience. I’ll be updating this article, so bookmark this link and checkback later.