Beginner's Guide to Alpine Touring

I once ran New York City's Central Park main loop without seeing another person: It was -11 degrees F and snowing. I'm that averse to the treadmill. But winter's chill, not to mention snowy, icy roads and trails, can put a damper on aerobic training if you refuse to head to the gym. The good news: Many winter sports offer great cross-training for runners, and alpine ski touring, where the workout is only the precursor to the thrill of defying Newton's pesky principles, is one of the best.

Alpine ski touring burns about 500 to 600 calories per hour because you use climbing skins under your skis to skate your way up snowy hills and mountains before skiing down them. The striding and sliding hones your balance and uses subtle supportive muscles you wouldn't use running, and it's a great aerobic workout. Once you rip the skins off and ski down untracked snow, it's like floating on clouds. The fresh air and natural beauty won't hurt your mental state, either.

Unlike my Central Park run, I'm not alone alpine touring. Snowsports Industries America statistics show sales of alpine touring gear have risen by about 25 percent annually for the past three years. That means it's easier to find places to learn ski touring and people to safely ski with. You might even lament the melting snow come spring.

Beginner Basics

A 15-year veteran ski guide and former ski patroller at Monarch Mountain in Colorado, Gail Bindner shares these tips.

Start smart. Ski within your ability and skill level. Before heading out on your own, take a course, hike inbounds ski area terrain or hire a guide.

Tackle crud. At ski areas, instead of taking the easy, effortless lines and groomed runs, look for chopped-up, slabby or heavy snow. Bend knees in an assertive athletic stance with your weight pressing the front of your boots. Turn gradually in variable snow conditions, allowing the snow to slow you down.

Glide up. Improve uphill efficiency by gliding skis forward instead of stepping. Keep your head and chest up to open the lungs. Use bindings with an adjustable heel for steeper assents.

Relax. Take your time and smile. Not only will you have more fun, you'll be in a clearer mind-frame to make good, safe decisions in the backcountry.

Gear Up

Extreme weather and snow safety mean your gear can be critical when alpine touring. You can rent boots and skis, and clinics and guided programs should provide you with a transceiver, probe and shovel. Bring your own backpack to carry these plus climbing skins, warm clothing, sunblock, Chapstick, snacks and water.

The Dakine Girl's Heli Pro DLX ($95, dakine.com) backpack does the trick with winterized pockets and a comfortable contoured fit. You'll sweat more on the uphill exertion, so breathable clothing matters more than in downhill skiwear. The REI Kulshan eVent jacket ($289) and pants ($229, rei.com) employ direct venting so you mitigate sweat swiftly with full waterproof protection.

Where to Play

Alpine touring safely requires snow safety knowledge and adeptness with your gear. Start by taking guided tours with qualified pros, then take a course to learn safety skills. Ski resorts and outdoor shops can hook you up with guides, clinics, programs and partners.

Resorts. Newbies should stick to inbounds or guided out-of-bounds tours led from resorts. Many resorts--from Aspen and Telluride in Colorado, Stowe in Vermont, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Whistler in British Columbia--have in-bounds terrain to get your feet powered while earning a few turns.

Reference a trail map, and be sure your skill level matches the terrain you're heading into. For example, Steamboat Mountain Resort (steamboat.com) has hike-to terrain friendly to skiers new to the backcountry experience, whereas sections of Jackson Hole (jacksonhole.com) might terrify you unless you're part bird. Ski instructors and mountain guides can guide you to new terrain based on your ski ability.

Clinics. A pioneer in women's backcountry education and empowerment, Babes in the Backcountry (babesinthebackcountry.com) offers backcountry, avalanche and ski clinics led by women in California, Colorado and Canada. Try a backcountry basics intro class ($120-$175 per day) or longer all-inclusive workshops and hut trips ($450-$750) to learn skills and safety essentials, build confidence and have fun in a safe and supportive environment.

Guided Trips. Strong skiers can test their mettle with a day trip out of bounds with qualified guides. You'll learn backcountry ski basics while being safely guided to untracked lines you'd not likely find on your own.

In Utah outside Salt Lake City, Solitude's Back Tracks (skisolitude.com) takes you into pristine snow country just beyond the resort's boundary for day trips ($185). In Colorado, Crested Butte Mountain Resort's Adventure Guide Program (skicb.com) employs Crested Butte Mountain Guides for full-day ($595) or half-day ($385) experiences in advanced and extreme terrain.


Jenn Weede is a freelance writer who quit her "real" job in New York City after learning to ride powder. She now lives in Colorado and hits the slopes every chance she gets.

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