Updated: Feb 9, 2021
For most recreational skiers and riders, the backcountry is the mythical domain of pro athletes, ski patrollers, and grizzled, mountain locals. It’s a place where the skies always dump fluffy, chest deep pow. Every run is one snow-caked “face shot” after another, and every slashing turn kicks up an epic spray worthy of a ski magazine photo. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the fascination with the backcountry as skiers and snowboarders decide that this might be the perfect season to finally “earn your turns.”
Just keep in mind that skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry (“alpine touring,” “AT,” or if you’re feeling fancy, “randonnee”) is not nearly as effortless as YouTube makes it seem. Backcountry specific boots, bindings, and skis/boards can be expensive, and that doesn’t even include the essential safety equipment like a shovel, probe, and beacon. On top of that, even expert skiers and boarders need to undergo special training to learn how to read the snow and weather conditions and use their safety gear. Then, once you actually get out there, hanging over the entire endeavor is the very real, and ever-present danger of an avalanche.
For experienced, weekend warriors looking to first get a sense of the backcountry, many resorts offer natural terrain that mimics the feel of the backcountry but is still accessible by chairlift and patrolled by ski patrol. However, if you feel ready to commit to the expense and training, there are significant resources available to learn the skills needed to safely and responsibly head into the backcountry. So whether you’re simply trying to figure out how a ski goes uphill, or you’re already committed to getting your avalanche training from AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education), check out our Top 5 Reasons It’s Time To Consider the Backcountry.
1. Testing yourself against the mountain provides a new layer of challenges. With nearly 3,500 ski lifts dotting the mountains of North America alone, you might be wondering why a person would instead choose to spend hours trudging up a snow-covered mountain on foot when a ski lift could do the same job in about 10 minutes.
Even though we love that sensation of flying and the wind in our face when sliding downhill, some people also get a thrill from the physical and mental challenges of skiing and snowboarding. A chair lift might be more convenient, but adding another obstacle on the way up makes coming down even better.
The best answer is probably from English mountaineer George Mallory. When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, Mallory’s response was, “Because it’s there.”
2. Unrivaled exercise. Resort skiers and snowboarders spend a lot of time sitting around. Chairlifts. Restaurants. Bars. While downhill can be a great muscular workout, you’re probably not getting a ton of cardio unless your idea of fun is hammering down moguls or doing jump turns in the steeps all day.
Alpine touring offers a complete workout. For most people, a mountain hike is enough to get your heart rate going. Add in resistance from the snow, winter clothes, a backpack full of snacks and 20 lbs. of equipment strapped to your feet and you’ll be sweating in no time. (Proper layering is key to prevent hypothermia) Get your cardio on the way up and your strength training on the way down! And the best part, you can do the whole thing at your own pace.
3. Enjoy the same stunning views with the solitude of a more natural setting. Ski resorts offer some of the most gorgeous views in the world. Those views can come at a price: crowds of people, skiers and riders of various abilities speeding down the slopes, and the steel and concrete infrastructure cutting across the landscape.
Instead, head into the backcountry to experience the crisp, mountain air and pristine views, but without the industrialized intrusions of modern life. You won’t find a parking valet at the base, or Starbucks at the summit, or a mid-mountain bar to grab some liquid courage. There is no daycare, no rental shop, and no information booth. But that’s sort of the point.
If that’s not enough, you can usually find untouched powder even weeks after a storm passes through. Plus the backcountry is not bound by chair lift operations! If you think grabbing first chair at 9 am is pretty sweet, you’ll be amazed when you’re already at the summit watching the morning sun come over the horizon.
Remember though, you probably won’t be alone, and recent heightened interest in the backcountry is creating overcrowding, unsafe conditions, trash on trails and pressure on parking lots at trailheads. Just like mountain recreation in the summer, skiers and snowboarders need to behave like responsible stewards of the environment and help preserve those awesome views for the next person.
4. Alpine touring can be a cost effective addition to your winter activities. Admittedly, the up-front cost of preparing for the backcountry is high. For most people, alpine touring won’t replace the traditional resort, but in the long-run it can still be a cost-effective addition. At a minimum, you’ll need special ski boots and bindings (~$600), and some people will want dedicated skis or a snowboard. It is also essential that you have a beacon, shovel and probe (~$500) and training in how to use the gear and analyze the snow (another $500+).
If $1,500-$2,000 just to step onto the snow seems expensive, keep in mind that lift tickets for a ski resort vacation generally exceed $100/ day. A season pass like the Epic or Ikon pass runs ~$700 - $1,000. And you have to pay those costs each season. With alpine touring, once you have the equipment and training, it’s yours forever. For those that don’t buy a season pass, the only “cost” of snagging a few extra turns is a couple hours of sleep and the effort of getting uphill. You may even find yourself heading to the mountains for only one or two runs at a time because you don’t need a lift ticket.
5. Alpine touring is more COVID-friendly. As every resort in North America shut down due to COVID-19 early in the spring of 2020, people realized that backcountry skiing provided everything health officials were recommending: physical distance, outdoor space, and masks. Ski towns across the country witnessed a buying frenzy and store shelves were emptied of backcountry equipment.
This year, most ski resorts have released their anticipated opening dates and it looks like winter will not be cancelled. For more detail, see our winter preview here. But COVID-19 still serves as a reminder to the entire industry that there are ways of skiing and snowboarding that don’t require crowds, ski passes, and massive infrastructure.
If you’re thinking about getting into the backcountry, start making your plans for safety courses and equipment now. That way, when the first big snow falls and you’re greeted by a “lift line apocalypse" at the resort (or can’t secure a priority reservation), you can just grab your AT setup and find your own slice of alpine heaven.
If you're still on the fence about Alpine Touring, there are a growing number of places where you can sample the backcountry without a huge upfront commitment/investment. Head to our related post on 4 Ways to Start Experiencing the Backcountry.
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