At its core, skiing involves sliding over snow-covered terrain, from there a number of nuances separate different disciplines into completely unique experiences. Ski touring, also known as backcountry or ski mountaineering, involves both ascent and descent over varied terrain traversing remote wilderness areas seeking exploration, adventure, and ungroomed off-trail challenges. In contrast, cross-country skiing typically takes place in controlled environments like groomed trails and tracks, with more focus on endurance and racing over gentler terrain with mild elevation changes, or completely flat tracks.

Backcountry Skiing vs. Cross-Country Skiing

Cross-country skiing (aka Nordic or XC) occurs primarily on groomed trails specifically prepared to facilitate smooth gliding, traversing gentle slopes of undulating terrains for skiers of varying skill levels. This terrain is characterized by its well-defined, well-marked manicured trails with parallel tracks for classic skiing or a smooth surface for skate skiing, both of which typically avoid steep descents or ascents. It’s a less taxing and more predictable outdoor experience than other ski disciplines, but can be equally beautiful and rewarding.

In stark contrast, backcountry skiing seeks untracked snowfields, remote alpine bowls, and rugged mountain slopes of untamed wilderness. It’s much more demanding and has greater risk, and is a canvas for exploration demanding adaptability, skill, and a keen sense of adventure. Unlike the controlled environment of groomed trails, backcountry terrain presents invariable risks, including avalanches, crevasses, changing weather, and outdoor conditions all of which offers an unpredictability and raw beauty.

While ski touring and cross-country skiing differ in terms of purpose, equipment, and terrain, both are done without the use of ski lifts. Cross-country uses lightweight skis that are narrower and longer than ski touring gear, with bindings that keep the heel free for efficient movement and flexible boots that enable a more natural walking-style stride. Since ski touring is a more dynamic experience, the equipment used is designed to accommodate uphill climbs and downhill descents. Removable skins are used to enable uphill climbing, an experience unique to the sport. Ski touring skis are typically wider and sturdier for better overall support, including increased surface area to help float on top of fresh powder. 

How to Get into Ski Touring?

The first step in almost any outdoor endeavor is good education and planning. The backcountry can be an unforgiving landscape full of varied terrain, unsuspecting weather, unexpected surprises, and unpredictable snow stability. Venturing into avalanche territory alone is never recommended, and in order to avoid avalanche territory, you have to know what to look for. Accredited American Institutes for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) classes are perfect for this, offering Level 1, Level 2 and Avalanche Rescue courses. These 1-3 day workshops offer a mix of classroom and on-trail opportunities to learn the principles of avalanche foundation from experts, including risk assessment and other practical tools designed for use before hitting the trails and are essential for mitigating risk and navigating emergencies.

Your AIARE classes will also educate you on using required avalanche gear, including an avalanche shovel and beacon and snow probe. Dressing for the backcountry means keeping in mind remote locations often of higher elevations subject to sudden and drastic weather changes. There’s no running to the car to grab gear, once you’re on the trail, you’re committed to at least skinning the experience. Wicking layers that stay warm when wet and are easily removable are a great strategy, along with the usual gear: waterproof pants and jacket, helmet, goggles, gloves and ski poles. 

For novices, gaining experience in the backcountry under the guidance of experienced mentors or certified guides (like CWRAG) is invaluable. Learning from seasoned guides while applying your education and planning accelerates skill development but also instills essential knowledge and judgment for navigating complex terrain and assessing risk. Otherwise, be sure to research your terrain, create a detailed trip plan, establish route objectives, estimate travel times, and plan emergency protocols just in case they are needed. For beginners, practicing your skills outside of avalanche territory is a great place to start. This lets you hone skills and gear with less risk. 

Participating in guided tours and/or joining backcountry skiing clubs and communities fosters camaraderie and mentorship opportunities, enriching the learning journey and fostering a sense of belonging within the backcountry skiing community. Want some help preparing for your backcountry adventure? We offer Avalanche Training Courses and guided trips for enthusiasts of all ages and abilities. Give us a call at 720.242.9828 or contact us to learn more. 

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