You’ve explored the backcountry, but have you done so on skis? Backcountry skiing is experiencing a surge in recent months given COVID-19 precautions at downhill resorts. While backcountry skiing can be a breathtaking way to experience the Northeast’s mountainous beauty, beginners to the sport need to be sure they venture out with the preparation, gear, and situational awareness necessary to make it fun and safe. Follow our guide to backcountry skiing for beginners to get the most out of your first few outings.
What is Backcountry Skiing?
While backcountry skiing can technically include cross-country skiing, this guide will focus on Alpine backcountry skiing—commonly also called telemark, alpine touring, or splitboarding, depending on the equipment in use—which requires the skier to skin to the top of hill before descending down an ungroomed snow field or glade. (Read our guide to cross-country skiing for beginners.)
Telemark skiing is a form of downhill skiing in which the skier’s heels are never locked down. The free heel makes it possible for telemark skiers to use their skis like cross-country skis on the flat sections and up hills. To descend using telemark technique, skiers bend their knees into a deep lunge at each turn, causing the skis to arc gracefully across the mountain.
Alpine touring (AT) is the name for backcountry skiing done on equipment where there is a free heel walk mode for flats and uphills, but the heel can be locked down to facilitate the use of alpine technique on the downhill part of the tour. Alpine technique is carving or pivoting the skis while keeping the boots side by side, much like you would skiing at front country resort.
Splitboarding involves the use of a snowboard that has been designed or modified to be split lengthwise into two skis when climbing.
Telemark skis, Alpine Touring skis and Splitboards rely on textured pieces of fabric known as climbing skins, which attach to the bottom of the skis with reusable glue. These provide grip for skiing across flats and up hills. Once at the top of a climb, skiers must “transition” to downhill mode. This involves peeling off climbing skins and setting boots and bindings into ski mode. This process can be time consuming, so skiers prefer when there are not frequent changes between uphill or flat terrain and downhill terrain on their route.
If the notion of earning your turns or charging down steep, challenging terrain excites you then consider looking into an alpine touring, telemark, or splitboard setup, based on what technique you are most familiar with. Most people will gravitate toward alpine touring, and this advice focuses on that.
Any ski can become a touring ski with the proper bindings. However, skis designed with touring in mind will typically be much lighter and be shaped to excel in powder, steep ungroomed terrain, or a mix of both rather than on groomed inbounds terrain.
Boots are the most important piece of equipment to get right as they play a huge role in your comfort, your efficiency on the hike up, and your ability to control your skis on the way down. Like the idea of speed on the uphill or big miles? Consider a lighter and softer boot with as much range of motion as possible. Don’t mind carrying some extra weight for a better ride down? Consider a heavier, stiffer boot. Whether looking at new or second-hand equipment, always try on boots before purchasing.
Traditionally, touring bindings fall into two different categories: “tech” or “frame.” Generally lighter and thus more expensive, tech bindings engage with compatible boots via small pins at the heel and toe. The heel pins swing out of the way when not in use, allowing the user to be attached just at the toe and ski uphill like they would on a cross country ski. The system allows for a natural stride and is very light and efficient—especially when traveling uphill. Conceptually, a frame binding is like a regular alpine binding mounted on rails that pivots where it attaches to the ski at the toe. Walking requires lifting the weight of the whole binding off the ski with every step. Though less efficient in this regard, frame bindings typically are more stoutly constructed (heavier) and therefore the user will experience a more traditional alpine feel. A trait best suited for aggressive descents and/or jumps. Frame bindings make sense if the setup will be used at a ski resort most of the time and taken into the backcountry a few days a year. Some new binding models incorporate the best elements of both the tech and frame categories. Deciding how the set up will be used will be the first, and most important step in selecting a model that works best for you.
Climbing skins are typically nylon or a mix of both, called Mohair. Unless you need maximum glide for long days, default to nylon skins for better traction and durability at a lower price. Once a season, usually when spring skiing concludes, soak your climbing skins overnight in a bucket with cold water and a small amount of dish soap. Wipe of any dirt or debris the following morning, let them dry completely, then consider storing them in the fridge or freezer during the off-season. This will preserve the performance of the glue. Skin adhesive is very durable but susceptible to heat and humidity. If fridge space is limited, any cool and dry environment will do.
Where to Backcountry Ski
The Northeast features many great spots for backcountry skiers of any level. Both the AMC’s Cardigan Lodge and Pinkham Notch Visitor Center are surrounded by great trails for the new backcountry skier. Friendly and knowledgeable staff can inform you about the latest trail conditions.
Backcountry downhill skiers who are new to the sport will enjoy the moderate and scenic Duke’s Trail at Cardigan Lodge. Later, consider tackling the steeper Alexandria Trail. From Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, backcountry downhill skiers ranging in ability from intermediate to expert enjoy the John Sherburne Ski Trail, a beautiful and exciting run that is similar in difficulty to an ungroomed black diamond at a resort. The smooth top section offers a good warmup before the steep descents begin. Backcountry downhill skiers looking to try a glade run should explore one of the Granite Backcountry Alliance glade zones in the vicinity of Pinkham Notch. Maple Villa in Bartlett, for example, features terrain for all abilities.
Respect the Conditions
Early in the season, many ski trails have rocks that are not fully buried and wet areas that are not fully frozen. Closed and unplowed forest roads often offer the earliest opportunity for backcountry cross country skiing. Skiers looking for an early season down-mountain run might find it at a ski area that allows uphill travel.
Mid-winter is the most likely time to find skiable conditions on backcountry ski trails and glade areas, though sometimes a warm or dry winter in New England can result in a trail being unskiable even in the core of the season. Due to the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing, downhill trails can quickly become “skied off,” meaning stripped of new snow by ski traffic. Backcountry cross-country ski trails see much less use and tend to hold their snow much better; skiers might find some of more obscure White Mountain trails untouched even a week after a storm.
Spring generally brings a decrease in avalanche danger in the steep terrain of the ravines. Consequently, many skiers chose only to venture to the ravines in this season. At its best, spring involves skiing a layer of soft “corn snow” on top of a deep, firm base, usually brought on by above-freezing days and below-freezing nights. Spring in the ravines is not without hazards, most notably long, dangerous falls, deep cracks or holes in the snow that a skier might fall into, and chunks of ice falling from above on steep slopes. Having the experience to recognize backcountry hazards and adapt your plans accordingly is vital for backcountry skiing. A winter snowpack might last weeks longer some years than it does in others, or a late-season storm might bring winter conditions back to a slope that had been corn the day before. Reading and understanding the day’s avalanche bulletin is essential, regardless of the point in the season.
Etiquette and Safety
Before hiking up a ski trail, be sure to understand local etiquette. Walking on ski trails is considered bad form in many places. Keep to the side of the trail to reduce the chance of collisions and to avoid putting “posthole” footprints in the ski run.
Remember, you are responsible for your own safety in the backcountry. Especially in the COVID-19 era, the responsibility to recreate safely and within your own ability level in the outdoors. We all need to do our part to avoid any further strain on our first responders. Observe the backcountry skier’s code of ethics, follow all applicable etiquette and safety guidelines, and take the time to thoroughly learn about the terrain you plan to ski. Planning is part of the fun. Carry a first aid kit and extra clothing, food, and water. If broken equipment will leave you stranded, a ski repair kit is a smart addition. If you choose to ski in avalanche terrain, always read and understand the local avalanche forecast and carry avalanche rescue equipment. Consider seeking out avalanche, first aid, and or backcountry travel instruction from a reputable guiding outfit.