Tips for First Time Backcountry Skiers: What NOT to Do!
Backcountry ski touring and splitboarding command respect. When I describe to people what exactly skinning up a hillside entails I usually get met with a head tilt and a “why would you ever want to do that when you can ride a chairlift?” It’s ok. We get it. Splitboarders and backcountry skiers are a strange breed who wear the term “earn your turns” on our foreheads like a bunch of self-hating idiots. But hey, we like it. And regardless if you’re a seasoned vet or a total noob here are a few common mistakes in alpine touring that every beginner backcountry skier should know..
Forgetting Your Backcountry Touring Gear: Beacon, Shovel, Probe and More
Whatever you do, never, EVER go out into the backcountry without these three essential safety tools. I’d rather tour around in a thong, fall, and get snow burn down my thighs and ass than head into the backcountry without my safety gear. Forgetting these items is non-negotiable. Always be sure to bring your beacon, shovel, and probe on a beginner backcountry skiing tour, or any tour for that matter.
Also, always be sure to do a beacon check at trailhead, not half way up the skin track. The saying goes, the beacon goes on at the car and off at the bar. Make sure your battery is at least half full before even heading to the trail.
See the video above for tips on purchasing and maintaining backcountry safety gear and alpine touring equipment.
Not Having an AIARE Course Under Your Belt
I don’t ski tour with people who don’t have the proper safety equipment and the knowledge base on how to use it. When you take an AIARE course you are investing in your safety as well as the safety of those you are traveling with. Is it expensive? Yes. But what is your life worth? If you haven’t yet taken an AIARE Course I would highly recommend taking the time to educate yourself about travel in avalanche terrain.
Choosing the Wrong Skin Track
Nothing is worse than starting up a bad skin track. At first, it may look nice and welcoming, but soon it turns on you and punishes you fully. Maybe it travels over steep grades, maybe it goes through downhill tracks, maybe it’s littered with postholes and snowshoe tracks. Whatever it is we’ve all been there. Sometimes you just have to tough it out, but other times, it might be worth the effort to lay down a new track. Every beginner backcounty skier and rider ends up in the wrong skin track, don’t fret it, simply start a new track.
Forgetting to Fuel Up and Hydrate
Skinning is work. Hard work. All of that energy needs to be replenished so don’t forget to snack often and stay hydrated. Winter is a pain when your water bladder freezes and your water bottle is out of reach. However, you don’t want to end up miles down a skin track parched and hangary. Keep snacks in your hip belt and make it a point to stop for a drink if you have to. Bonus points if you bring hot soup! I love my Hydro Flask Food Flask. I’ll heat up soup and bring it with me for a hot meal after a long skin. The perfect pick-me-up before I shred the downhill.
Falling into the Halo Syndrome
You’re out to find some fresh powder lines, but the avalanche report is telling you to ride lower angled terrain. Your friend is with you who has far more experience under their belt and she’s rearing to hit up some gnarly terrain. What do you do? SPEAK UP! Just because someone has more experience than you doesn’t mean he or she knows better. This isn’t a corporate hierarchy, this is your safety. Always say something, even if you think it sounds dumb. And it could be dumb, but who cares, because if it isn’t dumb and it costs you your life it won’t really matter now will it?
Keeping your Risers Up for too Long
You’re tired and you’ve worked hard to get up that ridge. The terrain has flattened out a bit, but you see the final pitch in front of you. Don’t be that person who stubbornly keeps their risers up. Look, I get it. I’m a splitboarder and my risers are a massive pain to use. However, by forcing your body weight forward on level terrain, you’re going to run out of steam, fast. Take the time to set them straight. Winter is all about adjusting gear to maximize efficiency.
Not Working Out Between Tours
The last tour of the 2016 season was a complete failure. To keep it short, it ended with me crying and punching a hillside while I let my splitboard float down to my friends below me. It was one of my weaker moments on the mountain, and I blame not working out. Exhausted and spent, I lost it in some mashed potato crap-a-thon snow late in May.
Backcountry touring is extremely demanding. It requires strength, stamina, and plenty of cardio. Most resorts have some sort of uphill access whether it be during operating hours or after. Make it a point to hit the uphill as often as possible. If you can’t, try walking at a brisk pace uphill on a treadmill with a weighted pack. Don’t forget to work your arms too. Bench presses, lunges, and squats are all exercises that can help you improve your uphill.
Forgetting How to Kick Turn
If you haven’t ended up in a tangled mess from kick turning, you aren’t doing it right. Kick turns, when you switch directions while going uphill, take a few tries to get right. Almost every first kick turn of the season I have to clunkily think about how to move my legs correctly to make it work. One big tip that helped me is to lift back knee up fully before swinging around. If you do fall, it helps to laugh it off. We’ve all ended up in a heap at one point or another, especially on a crummy skin track.
Now you’re armed with the know-how to avoid common alpine touring mistakes. So get out there, earn those turns with pride. When your friends look at you sideways because ya, you uphill skied that crazy mountain, shrug your shoulders and say “ya, what of it?”