A first timer’s guide to backcountry skiing and snowboarding
Feature photo by Andre Charland.
With a tinge of fall creeping into the evening air, there’s no shame in dreaming about winter’s first snowfall. And for those tired of groomers and looking to ditch local lift lines (finally), now is the time to start prepping for your first backcountry adventure.
Ask yourself the following questions:
How do I know when I’m ready for backcountry?
Maybe you clocked in over 100 days on the hill last year, mastered every double black diamond, cliff band and off-piste snow stash your local mountain has to offer and you’re ready for something new?
It’s safe to say that if you feel comfortable riding all mountain terrain in any type of conditions (moguls, ice, windblown crust, corn) you’re probably ready to explore what the highcountry has to offer.
Even if you’re not an expert level-skier / boarder, however, you can still work your way into the backcountry, starting off by venturing into terrain known as “sidecountry” or “slackcountry,” often the lower-elevation snowfields or approaches to higher peaks.
Normally, slackcountry requires less commitment than a full backcountry trip, and so is a good way to ease into the sport if you’re unsure of your skill and/or fitness level. Either way, you should still consider full backcountry safety training before heading out.
Are there safety courses I should take?
Practical knowledge and training can make the difference between an epic backcountry session and a catastrophic one.
Enroll in an avalanche safety course (most entry level courses only last a few days) and you’ll learn how to safely traverse backountry terrain, evaluate the snow pack, accurately follow weather patterns, select routes, and correctly use an avalanche beacon.
Some courses will also offer basic medical training and simulated emergency avalanche situations.
What to wear?
Comfort is the last thing you want to compromise when preparing for a backcountry trip. Invest in a jacket, pants and baselayers that keep you cool on the hike up, dry on the way down and offer you maximum mobility.
Long johns like Patagonia’s Capilene 3 baselayers do the job by wicking moisture when you start to sweat. Stay away from anything cottton.
A good pair of lightweight Gore-tex pants with leg-zippers for ventilation and a lightweight, waterproof Gore-tex jacket are essential.
Layering is the best way to keep your internal thermometer at just the right temp (and crankiness at bay). You can peel things off or put them on as you go.
It’s also a good idea to have two pairs of gloves or gloves with an insert that you can wear by itself for the hike up.
What to pack?
Getting ready to ride in the backcountry is almost like taking up a new sport; you need a lot of stuff. Take it easy on your pocket book by hitting up end of summer/Labor Day sales as well as factory outlets, and take the time to get exactly what you’re looking for.
First you’ll need a daypack that comfortably fits your frame, with enough straps for securing all gear. You’ll need a shovel, probe, and avalanche beacon (make sure the later has fully charged batteries).
Not that you’ll be running around the Aguille de Midi in Chamonix, but as you progress, you’ll want to learn how to use and carry crampons, an ice axe, harness, and rope.
It’s a good idea to have a multi-tool and spare snowboard or ski parts in your pack so you can make adjustments on the spot as well as basic medical supplies like band aids, an Ace bandage, Advil, sunscreen and lip balm with a high SPF.
CamelBaks are handy when the weather’s nice, but if it’s too cold, the water will freeze in the tube if it’s not properly insulated.
Other must haves include polarized sunglasses (for the hike), which you can swap out at the top for goggles. Even a second pair of goggles comes in handy when you wipe out and still want to see the rest of the way down.
What to ride?
You’ve got a several options when it comes to getting around in the backcountry. There’s the good old snowboard / ski boot pack if you know your hike is within 30 minutes of your car and there’s a well-established trail to follow.
Then you’ve got snowshoes, which are also handy if you find yourself breaking trail or hustling around in deep snow. If you go the snowshoe route, you’ll want to have a pair of collapsible poles. They help keep you balanced and carry stride, especially when you’re hunkered down with the weight of your board on your back.
If you’re thinking about new alpine skis this year, there’s a handy size guide for dialing in whatever types of planks you’re riding.
If you’re a snowboarder and planning on making a long-term commitment to backcountry riding, look into purchasing a splitboard. Splitboards separate lengthwise into two skis so you can ascend / traverse cross-country style.
To complete a splitboard setup, you’ll need skins (that keep your skis from sliding backwards on the uphill) and other splitboard hardware, in addition to collapsible poles. Burton makes great splitboards for men, but they don’t offer smaller sizes for the ladies.
Voile has splitboards dialed, and ranging in size from 154cm to 171cm, but you’re looking at upwards of $850. Venture Snowboards, a small company out of Colorado, has quite a few options to choose from and offers multiple gender friendly lengths, and then there’s EBay, where I saw one board go for around $500, a killer deal.
Where and when should I go?
Start small. There’s no sense in killing your legs and getting so frustrated with the terrain you’d rather snowshoe your way back down. Most classic backcountry hot spots that have a moderate slope (no 40-50 degree pitches here), minimal avalanche danger and easy hike up.
Here’s a list of North American classics , some of which you can even get turns in right now.
Your single best resource for learning where and when to go will be local experts. If you haven’t already, befriend your local ski patrol or even better, start training to become one of them.
Backcountry forums such as turns-all-year.com also provide great resources and even connection / partners for planning out trips.
Believe me, the first time you make turns in untouched pow, it won’t matter that the run is shorter than the bunny slopes. Guaranteed, your first time in the backcountry will be some of the best riding of your life.
We have a bunch of backcountry skiers and riders in our community. For a classic tale about freeskiing pioneers and general big-mountain shredding, check out Feeling Gravity’s Pull, an in-depth look at Matador member Tal Fletcher and the his original crew back in Squaw Valley.
Interested in meeting and connecting with other backcountry riders? Join us.