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Backcountry Skiing 101


Lone skier riding through powder, British Columbia, Canada
Karl Weatherly/Digital Vision/Getty Images
From rolling hills to jagged high peaks, skiers seek out backcountry terrain for solitude, freedom and untracked powder. There has been a recent surge in the popularity of backcountry skiing due to open-gate policies at ski resorts, Big Mountain Freestyle Ski Films, rising lift ticket prices and advances in ski equipment.

What is Backcountry Skiing?

So what exactly is backcountry skiing? Put simply, it's skiing in an uncontrolled environment (ie- any area that is not actively managed for avalanches and patrolled by safety professionals). As Mike Doyle says, "Backcountry terrain isn't marked, mapped, or groomed… [It] offers skiers a chance to brave more challenging terrain in a more natural setting, and sometimes even make the first tracks in fresh powder."

Usually backcountry skiing refers to both uphill and downhill travel for the purpose of recreational skiing. Whereas most skiers utilize ski lifts, gondolas or trams at ski resorts to access downhill turns, backcountry skiers earn their own turns by hiking or skinning up the slope. Backcountry skiing is also referred to as Off-Piste Skiing, Alpine Touring (AT), Randonée, Telemark, Sidecountry, Out of Bounds, Ducking the Rope, or heading out the gates.

Types of Backcountry Skiing There are three main vessels for backcountry skiing: telemark, randonée (or A.T.), or split boarding.

Telemarkers and Randonée skiers both use downhill alpine skis, but they use different boots, bindings and skiing technique. Telemark bindings allow the heel of the ski boot to move freely both while moving uphill and skiing downhill. In order to stabilize while making downhill turns, Telemark skiers drop one knee. Telemark boots bend above the toe joints, allowing the skier to place weight on the ball of their foot.

Randonée or alpine touring (A.T.) bindings are very similar to resort-style Alpine bindings. The difference is that the heel of the binding releases and the front of the toe pivots for uphill travel. When randonée skiers are ready to make downhill turns, the binding locks into place.

Splitboarding refers to a snowboard that is cut in half along the vertical plane. It can split apart and be worn like skis for the uphill. The bindings also rotate and unlock in the heel to make uphill travel possible. Everything locks together for downhill snowboarding turns.

How do they Ski Uphill?

According to Backcountry Magazine, backcountry skiers "Gotta Get Up to Get Down!". Telemark Skiers, Randonée Skiers and Splitboarders are able to travel uphill by attaching "skins" to the bottom of their skis. Skins help grip the snow and allow the skier to move uphill (imagine velcro going against the grain to create friction), but allow for smooth glide (velcro being pulled with the grain) while moving up. They are called skins because the Norwegian founders of backcountry skiing strapped the skin and fur of marine Seals to accomplish this goal. Nowadays, most skins are made with synthetic plastics and fabrics.

If a skier or snowboarder wants to access the backcountry, but doesn't have proper equipment for uphill travel, it is also possible to travel with snowshoes (depending on the depth and softness of the snow) and carry their equipment strapped to a backpack. In very populated backcountry ski zones, snow will get packed down like a staircase, and it's possible to hike up the hill without the assistance of snowshoes or skins. If you hear someone say that they "booted" up the "boot pack", they are referring to a path uphill in the snow that has been packed down by skiers wearing boots.

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