Ditch the crowds on the groomers this ski season and go wild in the backcountry. You'll find pristine powder, unexplored slopes and stunning mountain views. And you don't have to be an expert skier: If you can make competent turns on alpine skis, you can ski "off-piste." But you do need to be ready for a workout. Instead of riding to the top of a slope on a lift, you hoof it up on skis with removable skins that provide traction. Once you make it to the top, after an hour or more of skinning, you cruise downhill through acres of unexplored powder.
The easiest set-up for backcountry skiing is called randonnee. Your heel is free to move up and down as you climb. Once you arrive at the top of the mountain, you click in and head downhill.
Although some ski areas allow backcountry access through a designated gate, this terrain is usually reserved for experts and often gets crowded quickly. To find the best backcountry skiing, hire a guide through the local ski school or outfitter. Backcountry guides are certified through the American Mountain Guides Association (amga.com
) and are trained to find safe, stable slopes. You can also consult FalconGuides' Backcountry Skiing series (falcon.com
) and Backcountry Magazine (backcountrymagazine.com
) for destinations and gear tips.Follow these tips to take charge of the mountain and stay safe in the backcountry:
Shuffle your feet. Keep your feet as close to the ground as possible when moving uphill. The higher you lift each foot, the more energy you expend.
Center your weight over your skis. The natural tendency is to lean forward as the slope gets steeper, but you'll have better traction if you keep your weight in the middle of your skis.
Adjust your heel height to match the pitch of the terrain. Randonnee bindings have at least two settings for heel height, which can be quickly changed with your ski pole tip. Adjust the heel height as you climb so your ski boot is level with the slope. This puts less strain on your Achilles tendons and calf muscles.
Swing the opposite arm forward while climbing. Like a Nordic skier, swing your right hand forward as your left foot strides uphill and vice versa to stay balanced. Don't overextend your reach--your elbow should remain slightly bent--for the most power.
Set a steady pace. It can take several hours to reach the top of a pristine slope. Climb at a pace that allows you to talk while still making forward progress.
Keep your hands forward. The steeper the slope, the more important it is to keep your hands forward, about level with your belly button and slightly wider than your hips. Your elbows should be bent slightly, too. And if you start to fall, increase your chance of recovering by driving your hands forward.
Plant your pole gently. In powder, an aggressive pole plant might send you tumbling head over heels if your pole sinks into the snow. Use a light touch, particularly if the snow is fresh and more than a few inches deep.
Press your shins against the fronts of your boots. Focus on maintaining shin-to-boot contact at all times. When you sit back, your shins pull away from your boot tongues and you increase your chance of falling. Keep your ankles flexed, which allows you to absorb bumps and react quickly.
Look between the trees, not at them. You tend to ski where you look. If you look between the trees, you'll have an easier time finding the perfect line without losing your rhythm.
Lean down the hill, not up. If you lean uphill on a steep slope, your skis won't stay edged into the snow (which provides grip and traction), and you'll soon be sliding down on your side, not your skis.