Each year, the increasing cost of lift tickets drives skiing further into the classification of being an “upper-class” sport. To ski some of the more popular resorts like Aspen-Snowmass and Stowe, skiers are shelling out well over $100 (and sometimes up to $200) at the ticket office.
But as resort prices continue to skyrocket, so is the popularity of backcountry skiing. According to the Snowsports Industry America, during the 2017-18 ski season, 703,000 people reported alpine touring and 682,000 reported snowboard touring in the backcountry. And ski manufacturers are catching on, offering more options each year for those interested in earning their turns.
With ski season rapidly approaching New England, the skis and tuning kits are starting to come out of the closet, and the latest ski edits are becoming integrated into our Netflix rotation. Regardless of whether you are looking to get into the backcountry for the first time this season or you’re a seasoned veteran, there is plenty you can do to prepare before the snow flies.
Physically prepare yourself
While riding laps at your local resort during a powder day does require an above-average level of fitness, it doesn’t compare with hauling heavy gear up a snow-covered slope — sometimes repeatedly.
Regularly participating in activities that improve endurance and cardio — like cross-country mountain biking, hiking, running and backpacking — during the offseason will be extremely helpful when it comes time to hit the skin track. Regularly stretching or attending a yoga class and engaging in muscle-strengthening routines also will reduce the risk of injury.
Scope your lines
It’s never a bad idea to lace up the hiking boots and check out a few backcountry zones you plan on skiing before the snow flies. This will help you get a feel for the approach and the descent before you’re actually ready to ski it, so you’ll know what to expect. Seeing a line before it’s covered in snow also will help you identify any hazards — like boulders or downed trees — that you may not notice once it’s covered by a thin (or hopefully thick) snowpack.
Get the appropriate clothing
When the mercury drops, many of us pull out our warmest and bulkiest jackets and pants, perfect for keeping warm on the lift ride to the summit on the coldest of New England days. But uphill travel is quite the workout and can cause you to sweat regardless of the temperature.
Having the appropriate layers — a base layer, insulated midlayer like a fleece or synthetic sweatshirt, and a lightweight, waterproof shell — allows you to layer and vent appropriately, reducing the risk of hypothermia and at the very least, an unpleasant day in the mountains.
Prepare your gear
When it comes to preparing your gear for the backcountry, there’s more involved than a simple tune-up. Create a checklist, and make sure you have everything you need for the upcoming season — emergency and first-aid kits, beacon, probe and shovel, a pack, etc. If you plan on skiing in avalanche-prone terrain, make sure your beacon (and radio, if you use one) has fresh batteries and is in working order.
Mentally prepare yourself
You’ve spent the summer trail running and mountain biking, your gear is ready to go, and the weather is ripe for a day in the backcountry. But all of the physical training and latest gear in the world won’t help you in avalanche terrain if you don’t know how to make decisions, manage risk, and act in the case of a slide. Before heading into avalanche-prone alpine terrain, make sure you have at least taken an AIARE 1 course and are familiar with how to assess skiable terrain and conduct a rescue.
Practice, practice, practice!
Once you gain the basic knowledge necessary for traveling and conducting a rescue in avalanche terrain, it is useful to keep up on your skills through early season practice. Even if you’ve been skiing in the backcountry for years, heading out with your beacon, probe and shovel during an early season snow to practice a mock-rescue will ensure you are comfortable and familiar with the process if anything were to happen during a tour.
Become involved with a local community
There are a number of backcountry skiing-related organizations throughout the Northeast that conduct trail days, host events and simply maintain an online presence to inform local skiers of what’s going on in their area. Participating in volunteer days allows you to not only meet other likeminded individuals and give back to the community, but also to gain a deeper understanding of the terrain you will likely be skiing during the upcoming season.
Find a partner
When skiing in the backcountry — especially in avalanche terrain — it is a good idea to have a reliable and competent partner to go with. If something happens in the backcountry, having a partner with backcountry travel, basic first aid and basic avalanche skills can make the difference between life and death. On the contrary, it’s important you are also competent so that you can be responsible for your partner if something were to happen to them. Even when traveling with a partner, make sure you let someone at home know your intended route, any backup plans, and when you plan on returning home.
Find resorts that allow uphill travel
As an answer to the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing and the “earn your turns” mentality, many resorts are offering cheap uphill travel passes. Having a go-to resort that allows uphill travel makes it easy to maintain that level of fitness you worked so hard for, even when the natural snowpack or conditions don’t allow backcountry travel. It also serves as a relatively safe place to test your gear and get a feel for uphill travel before heading into the backcountry.
Follow local avalanche and weather patterns
Simply watching weather patterns at certain elevations can tell you a lot about what to expect in terms of conditions in the backcountry, and what zones may or may not be skiable. While looking at the local avalanche report is helpful, staying up to date with the weather will give you a deeper understanding of the layers of snow you’ll be skiing. And of course, it can help you avoid an unnecessary haul into the alpine terrain before you even hit the trailhead, instead directing you to that local glade you worked so hard to help trim a few months prior.