12 Things All Beginning Backcountry Skiers Should Know

Backcountry skiing is exploding in popularity. Need proof? Look no further than the new zones being created by advocacy groups, such as the Vermont Backcountry Alliance and the Granite Backcountry Alliance. Or, look toward ski resorts, which have expanded their uphill policies to take advantage of the enthusiasm people have for earning their turns. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, there is a lot to learn—new gear, new techniques, and new challenges, to name a few. But, follow these tips, and your first day will be a step closer toward being great.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Know where to go

Sure, we all have dreams of sending the headwall in Tuckerman Ravine to the cheers of the crowd below. The reality is, though, a skier’s first days in backcountry gear are best spent uphilling at the resort, getting to know their supplies, dialing in technique, and becoming accustomed to transitions and the demands of going up and back down. After a few sessions at the resort, the bottom third of the Cog Railway, Mount Cardigan, or the Carriage Road on Mount Moosilauke is great for an initial backcountry outing.

2. Pick up a partner

There is no ski patrol in the backcountry—meaning, you’re on your own in the event of anything from an injury to an avalanche. A good touring partner turns into a valuable resource, as you’ll be counting on them for a rescue. Even better, find a more experienced partner and try to learn something new from them each time you go out. And, in addition to being safer, your uphill skins will go faster, runs will be more fun, and après beverages will be far tastier.

3. Don’t bonk in the backcountry

Just because you ski from bell to bell at the resort doesn’t mean you can, or should, in the backcountry. Your body requires a lot of calories to power uphill, keep warm, and shred the descent, so be sure to stay well fed when touring. While it’s easy to take frequent snack breaks during the warmer months, finding food you can eat on the move helps you stay warm and fueled in winter. If you prefer to stop, keep your puffy at the top of your pack, and put it on while you’re snacking.

EMS -Winter-Ski Mistaya Lodge -3734

4. Fuel up

While staples like Snickers, Clif bars, and GU fuel summer adventures, they often freeze when subjected to winter temperatures, making them impossible to eat—at least without breaking your teeth. Because of this, we prefer to pack cookies, crackers, mixed nuts, tortilla chips, and other foods that won’t freeze. But, if you just need to have that summit Snickers, pack it close to your body.

5. Leave the hydration bag behind

Much like staying well-fueled, keeping well-hydrated is important. Although hydration packs are convenient during the warmer months, they are prone to freezing in the winter. As a side note, we’ve tried all the tips and gadgets to keep hydration packs from freezing and have yet to find something reliable enough to trust.

Instead, we prefer good, old-fashioned, wide-mouth Nalgene bottles—the wide mouth inhibits freezing at the top of the bottle—packed into our puffy coats. Supplement your water bottle with a Hydro Flask thermos filled with hot chocolate or tea. Drinking something warm is an easy way to keep your core warm, and beverages like hot chocolate deliver the calories to keep you going.

6. Pack an extra set of gloves

Sweating, handling skis, and digging into the snow are just some of the ways gloves get soaked while you’re skiing in the backcountry. With this in mind, we always bring an extra set. We prefer one or two pairs of lightweight leather gloves for touring, a medium-weight pair for descending, and a heavyweight pair of mittens for extreme cold conditions.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

7. Have plenty of straps

Ski straps are an essential tool in any backcountry skier’s arsenal, as their uses are seemingly limited only by your imagination. Over the years, we’ve seen ski straps used to hold skis together, in lieu of a broken bootstrap, to keep frozen skins attached to skis, and in a multitude of first aid training scenarios. So, keep a few ski straps stashed in your pack. We keep one wrapped around a ski pole, one in our first aid kit, and one in our repair kit. Ultimately, you never know when you’ll need one, or how you will end up using it.

8. Save the goggles for the descent

There’s a reason nearly every ski pack has a dedicated goggle pocket. Specifically, when they’re not being used, goggles belong in your pack. One of the easiest ways to stand out as a newbie is to hike with a pair on your forehead. Added to this, getting to the top of a run, only to realize your goggles are perilously fogged over, completely sucks the fun out of your descent.

9. Perfect your technique

Perfecting your uphill technique does wonders for your climbing efficiency. Here’s one tip for doing so: glide, rather than step. Lifting your ski off the snow is a common rookie mistake. As well, it slows you down, sucks up more energy, and makes it more likely you’ll slip on the uphill.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

10. Downhill before uphill

When transitioning from up to down, click into your downhill ski first. Doing so keeps your gear above you and helps prevent it from sliding away. Equally important, this step makes it easier to click into your uphill ski. On steeper terrain, stomp out a solid platform using your skis before you transition from uphill to downhill.

11. Don’t forget about the in-between

It’s easy to solely think of the uphill and downhill parts, but a fair amount of time is spent transitioning between the two. This is especially true if you’re running laps at the resort or skiing in a smaller zone. Practice transitioning from uphill to downhill, and vice versa, to pick up precious minutes of ski time and avoid the cold that comes with stopping. It’s also a good idea to develop a pattern for transitions—doing the same things, in the same order—to avoid pitfalls like skiing half of a run with your boots still in “walk” mode.

12. Know how your gear works

Clicking into a tech binding is hard at first, so get some practice in your living room before you head out. More significantly, carrying backcountry essentials, such as a shovel, probe, and beacon, is not enough. Instead, learn how to use these lifesaving devices before they’re needed. So, make time before and during the ski season to refresh your skills—your and your partner’s lives may depend on it.

Pro Tip: If entering avalanche terrain is on your to-do list, consider taking an avalanche class. The EMS Climbing School runs both Backcountry Skiing 101 and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) classes throughout the winter.

Do you have any backcountry skiing tips for beginners? If so, leave them in the comments.