To go backcountry skiing or snowboarding in Colorado is to answer the call of the wild. Gone is the tame safety of inbounds terrain; instead you gain the satisfaction from a day spent scampering in the mountains and earning your turns. And when untracked lines take the place of lift lines, a smile is sure to spread across your face.
But take heed: Colorado’s backcountry is serious business. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
If you plan to venture into the backcountry in Colorado, you must learn how to recognize avalanche terrain and avoid it when necessary. Our continental snowpack can be dicey, with weak layers that are prone to slide. Do yourself (and everyone else) a favor and take an avalanche course.
A Level 1 course is three full days—one day in the classroom and two days in the field. This will empower you with basic knowledge to start making terrain choices, and open your eyes to how much more you need to learn. At worst, it will scare the crap out of you. At best, it will instill a healthy respect for the backcountry and inspire you to learn more.
After taking a course, you have to practice. Check Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasts, go with more experienced skiers, and ask a lot of questions. (And check out our story on the topic, Know the Snow Before You Go: Colorado Avalanche Awareness.) When in doubt, stick to slopes that are fewer than 30 degrees.
You don’t have to be an expert to go backcountry skiing or riding. But you should be comfortable in a wide variety of terrain and conditions (powder, trees, wind-blown crust, or whatever else Mother Nature throws your way). Hone your turns inbounds before venturing farther afield. And get in shape so you can rip even when your legs are wobbly from climbing. The stakes are higher out of bounds, where there is no warm hut or ski patrol to rescue you.
Unless you’re a telemark skier, you’ll need an alpine touring (AT) setup—lightweight skis with AT bindings, which allow you to lift your heels for climbing and lock them down for descents. Tech bindings are best because they are lightweight and efficient for climbing. You’ll also need alpine touring boots—lightweight boots that attach to pins in tech bindings and have two modes, “walk” and “ski”, to adjust the stiffness for uphill or downhill.
A common rookie mistake is to buy frame bindings that claim to “do it all.” These are alpine bindings on a rail with a releasable heel. At first glance, they seem like a great choice because they perform like alpine bindings and allow you to free your heels for climbing. But they’re heavy. And when you unlock the heel, the whole rear of the binding comes with it, which is a heavy load to lift with each step. Trust us: Skip the frame bindings and get a true backcountry setup.
Snowboarders use splitboards (or snowshoes) for backcountry touring. A splitboard is a snowboard that separates into two halves and has adjustable bindings for climbing. If you’ve never skied, it will take some practice to get the hang of walking on two sticks. Consider going for a few short test runs before tackling a big climb.
Whether skiing or snowboarding, you’ll need “skins” for climbing. These faux-hair strips stick to the bottom of your skis or snowboard and glide in just one direction, allowing you to “skin” (aka glide or climb) uphill.
Other essentials include avalanche safety gear—a beacon, shovel, and probe. Take an avalanche class so you know how to use them. You also might consider springing for a special airbag backpack that can inflate if you’re caught in an avalanche.
Never go backcountry skiing or riding alone. You need a buddy to dig you out or help you in an emergency. Find a friend and take an avalanche class together, then geek out about snow safety over beers afterward. Also tag along with people who have more experience than you and ask a lot of questions. But be wary of the “expert halo,” and don’t assume that someone with more experience has all the right answers for you. Ask questions to find out why they make certain decisions, learn enough to make terrain assessments on your own, and pick ski partners who have the same goals and risk tolerance as you.
The best way to learn how to backcountry ski is to go backcountry skiing. If you’re looking for company, or want a chance to pick up tips from the pros, sign up for a backcountry tour. Vail’s Paragon Guides backcountry ski club heads out at least weekly from December to April. Join for a day for $99 or sign up for a six-pack for $500.
If you want to try skiing or riding in the backcountry but don’t want to buy all the gear (yet), try cat skiing. This will give you the feel of being in remote, unpredictable terrain without having to work too hard for it. For beta, read our story, Cat Skiing in Colorado: What to Know and Where to Go.
Once you’ve had a taste of the backcountry, sink in a little deeper by spending the night. Colorado has dozens of backcountry huts where you can reserve a bed. Check out our stories, Colorado Hut Trips: 8 Insider Tips for Planning Your First and Cozy Up in a Colorado Yurt: 5 Unique Backcountry Stays, for all the intel you need to turn your backcountry outing into an overnight adventure.