You spend a great deal of time at your nearest peak. You’ve explored many, if not all of the marked trails it has to offer. You're looking to get more out of your favourite alpine destination. The lure of the unbeaten path is irresistible to adventurous individuals such as yourselves: just the thought of wide open spaces with little to no traffic and fresh, untracked powder makes you weak at the knees.
But before you go sliding into the unknown, there are some very important details to consider. There’s a reason you won’t find much traffic in the backcountry – it can be extremely dangerous out there. Proper precautions should always be taken before venturing beyond resort boundaries. And that’s precisely why we’re sharing some of our own experiences transitioning from groomed trails to off piste skiing.
Safety is Your First Consideration
Never ever never ski off-piste on your own! There’s no ski patrol out there monitoring the slopes. If you get into trouble, who’s going to know?
On that note, everyone should have a radio, a 475 kHz avalanche transceiver and a shovel in their pack. You’re in avalanche territory, and even though it might be unlikely that one should occur, it’s best to always show up prepared.
Make sure someone else in your family or group who isn’t going off-piste knows where you’re planning on skiing, and give them a rough return time.
Find out the current snow conditions in the area of the mountain you’re planning on skiing. Check in with the ski patrol to ensure it’s safe before heading out.
Have you Considered Following a Guide?
While we can give advice from the comfort of the office, we can’t show you the best path down the fall line. If it’s your first time venturing off piste, the best thing you can do is go with a licensed guide. A guide will pick the safest lines, help you through each section in a controlled manner, and set a pace that matches your ability level.
Backcountry Skiing Techniques & Gear
You might be capable of carving perfect lines down marked ski lanes, but the technique for skiing powder can be quite different to those used on the trail.
Skiing on powder requires you to adjust your technique depending on its depth and how fresh it is. Learning to recognise different types of snow will greatly improve your success skiing off-piste. In shaded areas you might find yourself skidding across large patches of ice, while crusty, crumbly powder increases resistance and requires a lot more grunt and control to slice through.
The backcountry typically calls for wider powder or all mountain skis that allow you to float above or near the surface of the snow. Your weight will be positioned slightly further back to allow your tips to sit above the surface reducing the chance of catching an edge. As you move your weight towards your shins you’ll notice that it’s harder to ride your edges. Your weight will need to be more balanced between both skis. Adopting the classic ‘bobbing’ motion will help break through any crust and lift your skis up out of the powder as you unweight with each turn.
If you want to learn more about the different types of skis suitable to skiing off piste, check out our online ski buying guide.
You'll Need to Be Fit to Go Off-Piste
Skiing off-piste is definitely more physically demanding than skiing on a groomed trail. The demands of powder skiing and regularly switching it up with changes in terrain need to be addressed at a measured pace.
We’ve all woken up the morning after our first day on the mountain in six months and come to that not-so-surprising realisation that we really haven’t used ‘those’ muscles since our last trip. It’s easy to forget that you’re participating in an extremely physical activity when you’re having such a blast doing it. But the more you treat skiing like any other form of exercise, the longer you’ll be able to stay at peak performance and the quicker your recovery rate will become.
Building up leg and core strength prior to heading to the mountain is key. These are your biggest and most active muscle groups, especially when bobbing and weaving through deep powder and boot packing uphill.
Communication is Key
If you’ve progressed to the point where you’re going into the backcountry without a guide, you’ll quickly learn how important it is to communicate with the other members of your group. It’s important to stop regularly and pick out points down the hill where you’ll regroup and discuss your next line through the terrain. These meeting points are great for catching your breath, discussing the previous section and ensuring no-one gets lost or left behind.
Just make sure you don’t follow each other too closely! Never ski across or under another’s line. Falls can happen unexpectedly in deep powder and the last thing you want is to run over your buddy.
Plan Your Runs Ahead of Time
Right from the point where you decide to head off the beaten trail, you should be thinking about your expedition as a whole: where are you going; how long are going to be away for; where will you re-enter the patrolled part of the mountain; is there even a way to get back to your start point without ending up halfway down the mountain and needing to thumb a ride back to the main car park? You can still have an adventure even if it is a planned one.
Don’t assume that plans are set in stone, however. You should be constantly re-evaluating the situation as you ski, and adjusting your course to suit the conditions. There’s no shame in turning back, and the rest of your group needs to agree on this before you leave. There’s always one who encourages the rest to be ‘brave,’ but if you’re out of your depth and you know it, turn back. And remember, you’re a team. You only continue when everyone is prepared to.
It might seem like an intimidating idea at this point, but off piste skiing is truly rewarding and can lead to some of the best skiing experiences you’ll ever have. Remember, if you’re uncertain, organise a guide for your first time: it’s the safest way to go. Otherwise slow down, take your time, take breaks and breathe it all in. It’s not a race out here, it’s an adventure!
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