Backcountry skiing is everything you love about skiing in-bounds—the rush of carving the perfect turn, the feeling of floating through a powder stash—but without the traffic, either in the parking lot or on the slopes. Sure, you have to earn those turns, but it’s worth the effort, and the hard work makes the view at the top (and the run afterward) even sweeter. Ready to see why backcountry skiing is one of the fastest-growing winter sports around? Here’s a quick guide to getting started.

What is Backcountry Skiing?

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You have to work hard to earn your downhill fun when it comes to skiing in the backcountry.

Neal Herbert

Backcountry skiing takes place outside the bounds of a ski area. That means no lifts and no ski patrol to keep avalanches at bay. But on the upside, nothing is off-limits—you can ski or snowboard down anything you’re willing to skin up—and once you have the equipment the sport is basically free.

What Gear Do I Need?

Backcountry skis are similar to the skis you’d typically use at a resort—it’s the bindings that are different. Unlike typical alpine bindings, which lock your heels to the ski, backcountry bindings allow skiers to detach their heels when moving uphill. (You’ll also attach “skins” to your skis on the trip up to prevent you from sliding downhill.) Snowboarders can use splitboards, which act like skis for the uphill but can be transformed into backcountry snowboards for the ride down. Or they can use snowshoes to climb up and carry their snowboard on their back. You’ll also want set of collapsible poles to help with the climb up. Just as crucial is avalanche rescue gear—and knowing how to use it. This includes an avalanche beacon, collapsible probe, and lightweight snow shovel.

In addition to the sport-specific equipment, backcountry skiers will also want to bring:

  • Extra layers for when you take breaks and ski or ride down
  • High-calorie snacks to keep your energy up in the cold
  • At least a liter of water (you might need to insulate this, depending on how cold the weather will be)
  • A sturdy backpack to carry it all like Gregory’s Targhee 26L, 32L and 45L
  • A thermos of hot coffee, tea, or cocoa, which is nice to have waiting in your vehicle at the end of a long run

Where Can I Backcountry Ski?

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One big benefit of backcountry skiing is that you have the mountain all to yourself.

NPS / Neal Herbert

You can backcountry ski just about anywhere that’s open to the public and holds snow. As backcountry skiing becomes more popular, there are lots of resources to help you find the best backcountry ski spots near you, including print guidebooks and online forums. Keep in mind that slopes you wouldn’t think twice about skiing in-bounds, like black and double-black runs, are likely not only a lot of work to climb up, but they also aren’t being monitored or bombed to prevent avalanches. That’s the crux of backcountry skiing—more on that in a moment.

Tips and Tricks to Get Started

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All members of your backcountry skiing party need to be trained in avalanche awareness and rescue before you go.

Paxson Woelber

Be patient with yourself as you get to know your gear: The uphill skinning adds an additional challenge—from attaching your skins to making sure your boots are in “walk” mode to using those heel risers to make uphilling a little easier.

Take an avalanche awareness class: It won’t make you a professional avalanche forecaster overnight, but it will help you identify avalanche terrain so that you can avoid it. If you’re not quite ready to shell out for a multi-day course, you can still get some education. As backcountry skiing gets more popular, lots of local gear shops, alpine clubs, and forecasting centers offer primers on avalanches, and some even offer companion rescue clinics so you have the confidence to dig your buddy out if things go sideways.

Get avalanche info ahead of time: Once you’ve got the gear and the knowledge to use it, you’ll want to check the local avalanche bulletin. If you live in an area where backcountry skiing is popular, chances are good there’s an avalanche forecast for the best powder stashes. In the United States, the best way to find your local avalanche bulletin for the day’s conditions is to visit Avalanche.org, which links to avalanche resources and alerts all over the country.

Try out your backcountry gear at the local ski area: Many resorts now allow uphill skiing—some even allow it for free. It’s often only permitted before operations start or after the lifts stop running, so check with ski patrol before you set out. Not only does this provide a killer workout, but it’s also a chance to get everything in working order before you try it for yourself in the backcountry.

Regardless of whether you ski uphill at the local resort a few times a year or end up forgoing the ski pass altogether in favor of earning your turns, you won’t be disappointed—there’s something genuinely magical about ripping off those skins at the top of the hill and cruising down the slope you just hiked up. See for yourself how much fun it can be.

Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.

Featured image provided by Johannes Gruber