What is Backcountry Skiing?

Mary McMahon

Backcountry skiing or ungroomed skiing is a type of skiing which some athletes find more enjoyable and fulfilling than conventional skiing. In a simple form, backcountry skiing refers to skiing away from carefully marked out and groomed ski areas. Most extreme skiers engage in backcountry skiing, which is viewed as more challenging than traditional skiing. A growing number of ski resorts support backcountry skiing as the sport has grown in popularity.

Backcountry skiing requires a lot more technical skill than traditional skiing.
Backcountry skiing requires a lot more technical skill than traditional skiing.

Conventional skiing at a resort involves following carefully marked out trails, called pistes. A piste is an area of densely packed snow, rather than loose powder. Ski resorts groom their ski trails to keep their snow in good shape and eliminate hazards. One form of backcountry skiing is called off piste skiing, which simply refers to skiing alongside but not actually on the piste. For skiers interested in experiencing more varied snow conditions, off piste skiing is an alternative to the potentially more dangerous backcountry skiing.

Some skiers prefer the backcountry to a ski resort.
Some skiers prefer the backcountry to a ski resort.

Usually, backcountry skiing involves traveling much further from the beaten path. Backcountry skiers seek out pristine areas to ski, sometimes traveling in by helicopter for heliskiing, or hiking cross country to a ski area. Skiing in pristine areas is prized by skiers for several reasons. Conditions tend to be more demanding, because the snow is not groomed. Backcountry skiing also offers a chance to experience stunning natural beauty in an environment much more serene than a conventional ski resort.

Backcountry skiing requires more technical skill than traditional skiing. Skiers must be more aware of potential hazards on the slopes, especially in remote areas. It is advised that backcountry skiers carry transceivers to transmit their location in case of emergency, and should also make sure that they are dressed appropriately for weather conditions.

Backcountry skiing offers an opportunity to engage in extreme skiing on untouched powder, which can be an exhilarating experience. However, the powder can hide instabilities and other hazards which skiers need to be aware of. In addition, skiers should assess the risk of avalanche with care. Backcountry skiing is highly tempting for skiers of all levels of skill, but only intermediate to advanced skiers should attempt backcountry skiing.

There are a few simple precautions to make backcountry skiing more enjoyable. Start by making sure that skiing is allowed off piste. In some areas, backcountry skiing may be restricted to protect nature preserves, or because the ski resort has limited land rights. Never ski alone, and always make sure to assess the weather conditions before going out. A guide is recommended for an unfamiliar area, and for added safety, the directions of the guide should be strictly followed.

Heliskiers are airlifted to remote locations by helicopter.
Heliskiers are airlifted to remote locations by helicopter.

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