These ten rules will help you and your ski partners stay safe and have fun while backcountry skiing this season
Backcountry skiing has a wealth of knowledge that can be used to help make your time in the mountains more enjoyable by spending less time hiking and more time skiing. From the extensive lists of tips and tricks found in the numerous backcountry skiing guide books and manuals, here are The Ten Commandments of Backcountry Skiing that you and your ski partners should remember to follow ensuring that you and others can stay safe and have fun off piste.
I: THOU SHALL NOT OVERDRESS WHEN TOURING
When touring uphill — especially on warm, sunny days — wearing waterproof and insulation layers can be incredibly hot. Sweating on the uphill climbs means being cold and wet on the downhill, which can end a day early if you aren’t careful. When starting your tour, remember the saying: “Be bold, start cold.”
II: THOU SHALL NOT CARRY TOO MUCH WATER OR USE BLADDER RESERVOIRS (with exceptions)
Excessive amounts of water in your backpack are extremely heavy, which can slow you down and make uphilling an exhausting endeavor. Carrying a liter of water and refilling it with snow every time you reach the halfway mark should keep you supplied with water all the way through to the end, even on long days. Bladder reservoirs have their pros and cons as well. While being an extremely efficient and easy way to pack and store water, bladder systems are notorious for freezing, especially in the hose and mouthpiece portion. If you plan on using bladders while backcountry skiing, make sure your pack has insulated tube placements in the shoulder straps. If your backcountry trip plans have you spending the night out, make sure to sleep with your bladder and hose in your sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing overnight.
III: THOU SHALL NOT OVERUSE HEEL RISER SETTINGS NOR LIFT THY SKIS OFF THE GROUND
Overuse of the heel risers, especially the highest one, can exhaust your legs muscles extremely fast, making you not stoked for the downhill or another lap. Keeping the risers down while traveling on slightly inclined and flat terrain will allow for longer strides and a faster, more efficient pace that doesn’t kill your legs. Try only using the first level of the heel riser as well. If you’re finding that you’re needing to use the highest level of riser, you might be on a track that is too steep. There’s nothing wrong with adding a couple extra switchbacks into the climb. Lifting your skis off the snow while touring will have a similar effect to keeping your heel risers up. Gliding your skis over the snow will help you move more efficiently on the uphill.
IV: THOU SHALL NOT RELY ON THEIR AIRBAG OR AVALUNG FOR SAFETY
Just because you might have an airbag or Avalung system integrated into your backpack does not mean that you are immune to avalanche danger. While these systems may help in the event of an avalanche, you should never fully assume that they will save your life. Take an AIARE avalanche course from a local guiding company to gain the knowledge you need to stay safe in the backcountry. From there, practice the skills that will continue to build your knowledge of the snowpack, terrain selection and rescue procedures so that you can make decisions to keep you and your ski partner safe.
V: THOU IS NOT ALL KNOWING OF THE SNOWPACK BY READING THE FORECAST AND PERFORMING A TEST
Being well informed about the snowpack comes from more than just reading the forecast and performing a test when you go out to ski. The snowpack changes from day-to-day and requires the knowledge of what’s happening right now as well as what’s happened in the past to truly understand the dynamics of each season’s snowpack. By actively tracking the day-to-day weather and avalanche forecasts, consistently going out and making observations about the snowpack, you will get a full grasp on what’s happening underneath your skis. If you can’t go out as consistently, make sure to read the avalanche forecast discussion from sources such as the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. This is where forecasters will take a more in depth look into what is happening with the current snowpack, allowing you to get a better understanding of what the avalanche conditions are before you adventure into the backcountry.
VI: THOU SHALL NOT HAVE EXCESSIVE ITEMS DANGLING OFF THY BACKPACK OR PERSON
Having excessive items like, ropes, helmets, water bottles and speakers dangling off of your backpack or clothes can have several unintended consequences. Trees love to grab hold of anything hanging or strapped to your pack and will cause major frustration when touring through a dense section of trees. When in the alpine, wind and subtle changes in body position can cause hanging objects to swing and throw you off balance, which could potentially be very dangerous. Save yourself from some frustration and stress by making sure everything fits on the inside of your pack and keeping only what is necessary on the outside. If you have things you need to strap to your pack, like skis or a splitboard during a boot pack, helmets or a rope, make sure to keep it tightly bound to your pack using backpack straps, or even a Voile ski strap or three.
VII: THOU SHALL PRACTICE THY KICK TURNS
Kick turns are one of the most essential parts of touring technique. They are easy to learn but difficult to master. Don’t expect to make perfect kick turns on the first try. Take some extra time to practice your kick turn technique with different body positions, snow types and slope angles so you can efficiently make the perfect switchback no matter what conditions or terrain you find yourself in.
VIII: THOU SHALL NOT TAILGATE OTHERS ON THE SKIN TRACK
Nothing can be more annoying than getting the tails of your skis stepped on while trying to walk forward. Think of it as flat tiring someone when walking on a trail. Stay at least a ski length or two behind the person in front of you, and if you do want to pass, then go around and share the stoke of the day with them as you continue on. You might just make a new friend.
IX: THOU SHALL NOT SLANDER AN EXISTING SKIN TRACK
Skin tracks can come in all shapes, sizes and steepness. If you don’t like a skin track someone else made, then make your own! That way you can customize it to your own liking, allowing you to travel in the way that’s most efficient for you and your group.
X: ENJOY AND RESPECT THE NATURE EXPERIENCE OF THY FELLOW BACKCOUNTRY USER
The winter backcountry is a beautiful thing that attracts people from all over. Everyone wants to have fun in nature and enjoy their experience as much as possible. Be courteous and respectful to others; we are all out here for similar reasons and we all love the mountains.