In just about any ski town the world over, you can grab a seat at the bar in a locals’ hangout and likely encounter long, eloquent, and often exaggerated tales of life-changing backcountry ski trips. The storyteller, perhaps a rugged local with chunks of icicle still clinging to the lower tentacles of his disheveled beard, seems so cunning, so brave and accomplished, that it’s near impossible not to desire a story of conquest to bring home to your local pub.
When I first moved to Durango, Colorado in 2002, I couldn’t even get through a trip to the dining hall on the Fort Lewis College campus without encountering a story confirming that my backcountry chops needed serious honing. Wide open bowls, glorious off-piste tree cruisers, and that narrow escape from flying off an 85-foot cliff into a boulder field — everyone was doing it. The stories were as endless as the claims of secret powder stashes on the back side of Purgatory.
At the time, I’d thought I was a good snowboarder, increasingly proficient in everything from moguls to steep cruisers to park booters — but moving from Denver into the mountains put me in the company of skiers and riders on a whole new level. I was determined to up my game.
Nearly sixteen years later, I’m still learning. Still growing. Still seeking that story that I can brag about for the rest of my days.
I realize how ignorant I was back then. Backcountry touring isn’t all about steep lines and tall tales. It’s about thorough trip planning and constant progression. It’s about having proper gear, being able to read an avalanche forecast, and not being too macho to pull the plug and head back to the trailhead when conditions look sketchy.
The more experience I gain, the more I appreciate the whole process. Routing a backcountry tour is actually fun when everyone is on the same page. Planning for the trip is the perfect opportunity to get everyone together the night before, sip a hot toddy or two, and get organized.
For now, this backcountry ski planning guide serves as my “epic story.” Here we’ll take a look at necessary gear and planning techniques for backcountry touring.
How to plan a backcountry ski trip:
1. Gear list
- Splitboard or skis, of course.
- Loose-heel bindings. For the splitboarders, I recommend the Tesla T1 Arcs splitboard bindings from Spark R&D. They are super lightweight and transition very well with a simple snap-lock piece instead of the traditional pin. This makes switching into snowboard mode in icy, high altitude conditions that much easier.
- Winter-specific backpack
- Trekking poles or ski poles, even for the snowboarders! Preferably collapsible trekking poles that fit into your pack.
- Beacon, shovel, and probe. Absolutely never enter the backcountry without this lifesaving gear, and double check to make sure everyone in your group has this gear and knows how to use it. If not, they’re staying at the trailhead. No exceptions.
- Ski gear — helmet, waterproof gloves, outer layer (shell, ski pants), inner layer (preferably no cotton), boots
- AIARE field book. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) sells trip planning guidebooks that walk users through the process of planning their tour. The books also come with info on assessing snowpack and other risks of backcountry travel.
2. Preparing for the trip
A successful backcountry tour requires much more planning than a typical day at the ski hill. It’s important to know the terrain and any risks you may encounter. Avalanches can be deadly — if the group plans to hit terrain steeper than 30 degrees, be sure to check the avalanche forecast and avoid hazardous areas.
The more experienced you are in trip planning, the easier it becomes to avoid avalanche terrain altogether.
3. At home
A safe and successful backcountry tour starts at home. Before leaving the house, familiarize yourself with the terrain in your zone of choice. Topographic maps and Google are great places to start. Identify where the group plans to head, and look at avalanche and weather forecasts to figure out the best time to leave, when you need to be off the summit, any weather hazards that could come into play.
Have a plan A and plan B route solidified before heading out. Depending on weather and snow conditions, it may or may not be safe to access certain areas of the mountain. Also, be malleable! You may encounter unfriendly weather or terrain that didn’t appear in the forecast or maps.
- Study the weather in the area. Look for patterns in snowfall, wind, and avalanche hazards.
- Plan your point of attack. Know where to park, where to enter the backcountry, and the route you plan to take to your desired drop-in point. Also, have regrouping points planned along the way to stop and assess conditions.
- Have a backup route and an emergency exit noted. Often, this exit will be the same way you came up — is it safe for traversing down as well?
- Know the ability and backcountry knowledge of each person in the group. How much experience does each have? Are they able to operate their beacon, shovel, and probe in case of an emergency? The skill level of the least experienced member is going to determine where the group can go.
Websites to check out:
4. In the field
Upon arrival to the trailhead, allow ample prep time. You’re the one reading this guide — therefore you’re in the perfect place to take charge. Start by making sure everyone has their beacon on with plenty of battery life (at least 80%) for the trip. Each person should have food, water, and an extra top layer in case it gets cold or windy.
The next step is to double check that everyone is on board with the trip plan. Now is the time to voice concerns and offer ideas or that bit of insider knowledge picked up from late-night forum reading. Then it’s time to strap those skins on and hit the trail!
Stuff to keep in mind during the skin up:
- If an individual in the group is not comfortable with a decision in the field, that decision becomes the unanimous voice.
- Make decisions as a group. Each person has equal say. When discussing whether to proceed further, turn back, or move to plan B at the regrouping point, one person’s “no” vote is the entire group’s “no” vote. There is no leaving someone behind or heading back to the car alone.
- When dropping in, proceed one at a time. The other members of the group should be watching and ready to react in case of an avalanche or accident.
5. Trip recap
Adequate backcountry prep work includes stocking cold beers for the parking lot celebration of the successful trip. This is the time to reflect. I like to take notes, even if only mental, about conditions and any surprise encountered. As everyone shares laughs and stories of rollers dropped and powder slashed, pick out information that could prove useful for next time.
Did anyone hear a “whumph” along the skinning route? Any other signs of an unstable snowpack that should be noted for future trips this time of year? Who took the best line down and were there any points of avalanche concern along the way?
6. Bringing it all together
Backcountry touring is a cyclical experience. Knowledge gained from one trip can help plan the next one. I highly encourage new backcountry travelers to head out with more experienced groups at first. Be open and honest about your experience and comfort level — backcountry skiing and snowboarding works best when everyone has a voice. With proper planning and communication, those pub-worthy stories will come — and you’ll be around to tell them.