A Beginner's Guide to Backcountry Touring

By Mekenna Malan | December 20, 2021

Backcountry skiing or splitboarding is an exciting next step for powder-chasers that crave first tracks and wild mountain air. But before you head out, there are a few things you need to know to ensure an enjoyable and safe ride in the backcountry.

First: get educated on avalanche awareness and routinely update yourself on avalanche alerts in the area.

In uncontrolled backcountry environments, you're on your own—which means it's absolutely crucial that every member of your touring crew has avalanche safety knowledge under their belt. If you're local to Utah, Ogden Avalanche offers both free classes (like backcountry basics and beacon clinics) as well as paid courses on avalanche hazard management and companion rescue. Visit their website to find the next available program, daily avalanche forecasting, and a list of online resources.

We're hosting Know Before You Go on Tuesday, December 28th. During this free, one-hour program, you'll learn about the destructive power of avalanches, understand when and why they happen, and how you can have fun in the mountains while avoiding them. 

Next, get the right gear and familiarize yourself with your safety equipment.

Alpine touring (AT) boots. These boots are specially constructed to allow for both flexible movement uphill and stable movement downhill.

AT or hybrid bindings. These bindings differ from regular alpine bindings because they contain a pivot for free-hill climbing while hiking.

Climbing skins are easily attached to the bottom of your skis or splitboard. The mohair or synthetic "fur" on the bottom allow you to walk uphill without sliding down. 

You'll need a backcountry pack to store water, snacks, and the safety gear listed below. It's optional—but increasingly popular—for touring packs to include an airbag that inflates when a ripcord is pulled to help an avalanche victim rise to the top of avalanche debris. 

Safety equipment is essential and non-negotiable. Every member of your party will need to bring each of these items into the backcountry, as well as be confident in using them:

A transceiver. A transceiver, also known as a beacon, emits a distress signal that rescue teams will receive to find you in an emergency.

Avalanche shovel. No, you can't bring just any old shovel from the shed—a backcountry-specific avalanche shovel is manufactured with durable materials to dig out a backcountry partner in an emergency situation. The shovel can also be used to test snow conditions.

Avalanche probe. This collapsible pole is used to locate a buried victim after an avalanche. 

PoleClinometer. This slope meter—simply a sticker you put on your ski pole—is the quickest/easiest way to get accurate “on the go” slope angle measurements.

For comfort and safety in the backcountry, it's also a good idea to bring along accessories like chapstick, a buff, a hat, and sunglasses. We also recommend packing a down jacket and a pair of lightweight gloves

Take a practice run at your local resort before heading into the backcountry.

If you can easily navigate blue lines, you'll likely do fine off-piste. But it's still a good idea to practice skinning with your pack before you go out into the backcountry to assess your skill level accordingly. Many ski resorts open before sunrise for uphill travel and are a great place to practice.

Pre-plan your trip and never go alone.

Before you go, do your research. Check the weather, avalanche forecasts, and topo maps. As a beginner, it's wise to plan a trip with easy access and low avalanche risk. Go with a group who knows the area, or consult guidebooks. The Powder Project has an extensive directory of backcountry lines as well.

Listen to your instincts and prioritize safety.

The goal of backcountry skiing is just as much about having fun as it is being safe and ensuring you can ski another day. 

Shop all backcountry gear here