Yearning to blaze your own trail across the snowy slopes that beckon from beyond the ski resorts? Backcountry travel just may be the answer to your wintertime dreams.
As an energetic backcountry explorer, I've had my share of misadventures on the slopes, from bent ski poles to a dislocated shoulder. In spite of it all, the snowy hillsides, towering silences and deserted downhill runs of the backcountry never fail to bring me back for more. Read on for a look at how you can get started.
In the backcountry, there's no lodge, no bar—and no lift line. You're skiing in an uncontrolled environment, whether it's out-of-bounds of a ski area, or in the wilderness. (Not sure where those boundaries lie? Do your homework before you go to make sure you're in compliance with local land-use restrictions.)
There's no ski patrol out there, either. In the backcountry, it's just you and your buddies, testing your know-how against nature. All the preparation, safety considerations and navigational planning for a day in the snow are up to you, so take these tasks seriously.
Topping the list of safety concerns is avalanches. These pose a very real and lethal danger to backcountry travelers. Before venturing out, it's essential that you get the education and skills to recognize—and avoid—these killers. To get started, read the REI Expert Advice article avalanche basics, then seek training from avalanche experts. Your local REI store may offer such clinics during the winter season.
There are 4 primary modes of winter backcountry travel. Each skiing or boarding style equips you to ascend a slope under your own power and enjoy the thrill of the downhill as you rip your descent. Snowshoeing is a great complementary activity or offers easy-to-learn fun in its own right.
"Free-heeled" telemark ski bindings allow your feet and ankles to flex free of the skis, whether you're climbing (with skins , discussed below) or descending the steep terrain of the backcountry. Named for the Telemark region of Norway where it was developed, "tele skiing" is a challenging style that combines striding with a bent-knee technique for carving downhill turns.
Why Do It?
Read the REI Expert Advice article about how to choose telemark gear.
Also referred to as alpine touring (AT) and ski mountaineering, randoneé (which means "excursion" in French) has spiked in popularity over the past few years. Randoneé ski gear combines the distinctive features of cross-country and alpine skis. The bindings convert from free-heeled (for touring and climbing) to a locked-down position for downhill runs. No need to learn a new turning technique—with randoneé gear, you can descend backcountry slopes with the same type of turns you learned at the downhill resort.
Why Do It?
Read the REI Expert Advice article how to choose randoneé gear.
Shop REI's selection of randoneé ski gear.
By themselves, snowshoes make for an enjoyable backcountry outing, especially suited to rolling terrain. The leader breaks the trail, making it an easier activity to do as a group. Snowshoes can also be part of a 2-step approach to backcountry travel. In this scenario, you put a board on your pack and strap on snowshoes to make an ascent. Snowshoe heel lifters (on some models) make climbing steep slopes easier. At the summit, simply swap gear to float gleefully down the powder.
Why Do It?
Read the REI Expert Advice article how to choose snowshoes.
Shop REI's selection of snowshoes.
As noted above, traditional snowboards can be paired with snowshoes to hike up the slopes and then ride back down. Split boards are modified snowboards that split into 2 free-heeled skis for a backcountry approach that bypasses the lifts. With skins (discussed below) on the bottom, they climb much like skis. Once you've reached your destination, simply reassemble the board and surf the power all the way back down. Sweet!
Why Do It?
Watch the REI Expert Advice article how to choose a snowboard.
Shop REI's selection of snowboards .
A Buddy: Traveling alone in the backcountry is a high-risk endeavor. Don't do it.
Skins: Whether you travel the backcountry by ski or by split board, skins are a crucial piece of gear. Like a piece of carpeting, skins temporarily stick to the underside of a ski (or board) to provide the traction that greatly aids your climb up the backcountry slopes. Yes, these were once made from animal skins, but synthetic, adhesive-backed varieties are the norm today.
Avalanche safety gear: The must-have gear for each and every backcountry explorer in your group is a snow shovel, probe and avalanche transceiver. Equally important is the knowledge of how to use this gear. Practice before you go! Read the REI Expert Advice article on avalanche transceivers.
Proper clothing: Layering is the key to comfort when you're exerting in winter conditions. Read our separate discussion of the layering concept.
Ten essentials: For a day in the backcountry, you need to know—and, more importantly, you need to carry—the Ten Essentials. This time-honored list of emergency and safety gear has been updated in recent years to be the Ten Essentials systems. Read the REI Expert Advice article on Ten Essentials.
Repair gear: Bring items that can help you repair your gear in the field. A few basics: screwdrivers, pliers, duct tape, bailing wire and rub-on ski wax. Once armed with safety and navigational skills and outfitted with the proper gear, you're all set to explore the wide open spaces of the backcountry. Be safe, and have fun!
By Kelly Huffman
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Last updated: Thu Jan 03 14:43:16 PST 2013
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