Backcountry Basics for the Adventurous Ski Vacation

Written by Alexa Owen • Aug 30, 2016

My introduction to backcountry skiing was a hike up The Ridge at Bridger Bowl about ten years ago.

I was visiting my brother at Montana State University and we happened to catch the deepest powder day of the season. It had snowed over three feet in the past two days, and when we woke up that third morning to blue skies and no wind, Pat knew the gates would open, so we just kept lapping the Bridger Lift and keeping a keen eye on the access gate. Sure enough, by late morning patrol gave skiers the go-ahead, and the steady “ridge train” of people started ascending the boot pack.

I sweated and struggled my way up, stepping aside several times to let skiers three times my age whizz past. During the long 35 minutes which should have only been 20, I kept thinking to myself, I really don’t know if fresh tracks up here are going to be worth all this work. But I shoved myself along, shouldering my skinny slalom race skis and hoping there’d still be some powder left by the time I made it to the top.

And make it I did. We cruised across the ridge line to an open powder field and paused before dropping in. My brother turned to me at that point and said, “Alexa, this is the deepest powder you’ll ever ski.” Then we weaved our way down into the deepest powder I have (still) ever skied.

Since then, I’ve spent my fair share of time in the backcountry of Montana and Wyoming (after trading in my race skis for powder boards, of course). I’ve also witnessed a growing interest among in-bounds skiers to explore the serenity of the mountains that lie beyond resort boundaries. For some it’s the exercise, for others the adventure, and for many the meditative nature of being far away in the mountains. As a response to that growing interest, ski resorts are stepping up to design introductory backcountry programs for ski vacationers who want to get a taste of that sweet untouched powder in a safe, contained way. Read on for an introduction on backcountry skiing during your ski vacation, and a few tips on resort offerings in North America.

What is backcountry skiing?

Backcountry skiing: the art of exploring vast ranges of landscapes on skis, enjoying the solitude of the mountains, and dropping into some of the best terrain in the world.

Backcountry skiing is downhill skiing in its original form: adventurous folks heading out into the mountains with skis in pursuit of powder, exploration, and downhill thrills. In its current context, it refers to skiing unmarked, un-patrolled, often non-lift accessible terrain that exists beyond resort boundaries (or far away from any resorts altogether). It involves hiking or skinning up slopes, skiing down, and repeating as many times as your legs will carry you. For most skiers, the purpose is to access extreme slopes and unmarked powder; for others, backcountry skiing provides a much needed respite from the business and noise of resort life. Heading into the vastness of the mountains is a meditation – and a very active one at that.

Who will take me?

Resorts employ professional guides, either through mountain sports schools or private companies. Guides go through rigorous, multi-year training programs that teach everything from snowpack safety analysis to emergency evacuations to proper management of client needs. Basically, they’ve got you covered, and then some. Mind that you’ll have to book a trained backcountry guide as opposed to a regular instructor if you want to go beyond resort boundaries.

What do I need?

You’ll need gear that fits well – especially good ski boots that are comfortable enough to be hiking in but solid enough to charge big lines. There are entire backcountry skiing setups that include lightweight skis, boots that convert into “walking” mode for long hikes, and bindings with detachable heel piece for skinning, but they aren’t necessary for single day excursions. The guiding company supplies safety gear, including a backpack with probe and shovel, as well as an avalanche beacon to wear. Guides instruct you on how to properly use the safety gear.

When should I go?

Early season opportunities aren’t so common, as snowpack often hasn’t built up or stabilized. In the Rocky Mountains, early January through late March is dependable, but note that conditions are assessed for safety daily, and the guide always makes the final call on descents.

How should I prepare?

Preparing for a high altitude ski vacation involves getting hydrated and fit. Simply put, you’ll enjoy both in-bounds and out-of-bounds skiing more if your body is strong and healthy. Backcountry skiing specifically requires more aerobic exercise than just downhill skiing, because you’ll be traversing and/or hiking to get to certain spots outside of lift-accessible terrain. If you’re reading this weeks before your trip, start with aerobic workouts a few times per week. If you’re days away from a tour through the backcountry, stay hydrated, sleep well, and eat good food.

Which resorts offer guided backcountry skiing?

Large resorts surrounded by even larger mountain ranges offer backcountry skiing. You’ll find offerings in the entire Rocky Mountain Range from Colorado up through British Columbia, as well as in the Andes and the Alps.

Here are some of the top resorts in North America that offer backcountry guiding:

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming

The mountain sports school at Jackson Hole offers day trips into the backcountry led by professional guides. You’ll not only get a sweet little introduction into the backcountry culture of this extreme skiing mecca, but basic instruction on snow science, safety, and finding secret slopes outside the resort boundaries. They also offer 4-day backcountry camps.

Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia

Whistler Blackcomb offers skiers and riders the largest amount of lift-accessed terrain in North America, and thousands of acres of backcountry terrain accessible through boundary gates. Because of the high demand for backcountry adventures, they offer multiple day and multi-day options based on interest and ability level. Intermediates can book the basic instructional tour, while advanced skiers can opt for the Out of Bounds Bucket List to lap challenging terrain all day. The overnight trip traversing from Blackcomb Peak to Whistler Peak is popular.

Aspen Snowmass, Colorado

Aspen Powder Tours offers the luxury backcountry skiing experience, including a gourmet lunch and snowcat ride to prime terrain on the backside of Aspen Mountain. A professional guide leads groups of up to 12 skiers and riders into 1,100 acres of bowls, trees, and powder fields. This is a great option for those more interested in skiing untracked, uncrowded terrain than learning the basics of “earning your turns” via hiking and touring.