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backcountry skiing: tips and tricks

My first backcountry guide got too long, so if you’ve already gone on a tour or two, this is the perfect guide for you! It’s all the tips and tricks for a better time backcountry so you can better enjoy the downhill.

Everything I know you can know too! Just with any new skill, backcountry skiing takes time to learn. But a few tips here and there can go a long ways. Quite a few friends have given me what might be considered as unsolicited advice. And although I felt beat at the time, some of their brief statements stuck with me and helped propel me forward. As much as I can think of, I’ve written them down here, but there’s plenty more beyond this, so keep picking other people’s brains about this. 

Of course a lot of these won’t make sense until you’re actually touring, and nothing beats having feedback in the moment.

General Touring Tips

The first mistake I ever made was keeping the buckles on the boots. When they say keep it loose, literally do not buckle the buckles and let it be loose. Put your boots in walk mode. It’s okay if you have to stop and readjust again. Even in one tour, lots of adjustments will be made as your feet expand and change between going up and down. 

If you sense a blister coming on, stop earlier rather than later to put some mole skin on. By the way, mole skin goes around the blister, not on top of it. This is to create a ring thicker than the blister so your boot rubs on the mole skin instead of the blister. Apparently not everyone knew that – I learned it on the packaging!

Have snacks and water handy and don’t forget to take breaks to fuel your body. It’s usually nicer to do this at bottom of a run where it is usually less windy than the top. My luxury item is bringing a thermos of hot tea to keep me motivated and warm on breaks!

Setting a skin track

General Skinning

To waste less energy, try to keep the skis on the ground as much as possible. Think of it as dragging with your toes near the ground on only lifting your heels. I use poles to help balance and sometimes assist on the uphill similar to hiking. Poles are also good as a barrier on the downhill side to prevent slipping too far if tracks fall out from under you.

Setting Skin Tracks

There are unofficial rules about setting a skin track. You want to go up safely but also don’t want to track out where you want to ski (mostly for the enjoyment). Likewise, don’t ski on top of a skin track when possible. Although impractical to take up the whole slope, sometimes it’s more efficient to traverse a longer distance before a switch back. This is because turns require more time and unless everyone is super efficient, it’ll be overall slower. For the first person, you might feel that you can set a steep skin track and have perfect skin contact to the snow. But for everyone else following, it’ll become more slick and more difficult to stay on the track. So start by setting a slightly less inclined than what you can comfortably do. Look ahead and see what obstacles (tree, cliff band…) you’ll need to navigate so your track can point under or over it or give yourself enough space to make a turn. There is an art to setting skin tracks, and although you’re not required to, it’s super pleasing to set a neat skin track.

Kick Turns

Whether or not you’re leading, kick turns are an important uphill skill than can translate well for getting down tricky spots too! It’s a way to get a sharp turn and create a switchback on the slopes. Once I got the hang of it, skinning became much less stressful. This is hardest skill to explain in written words (and I currently have no good pictures of it). But there’s plenty of videos you can look up. Here’s a few tips for getting it every time.

  • Stop your tracks when the new track intersects with the middle of your skis/boots.
  • Firmly plant your downhill ski. You can stomp out the snow to create a more horizontal platform.
  • Pivot your uphill ski to the new track and firmly plant that. If needed, create a new horizontal platform if the track is too steep. The bottom of the uphill ski should point towards your downhill boot so it creates a “T” shape. There’s a few different methods but this one always works for me.
  • The more turned out you can get your skis the better. A narrow “V” shape is like to cause slipping. Think ballet feet turned out. Even the least flexible people can find a way to keep the skis pointing close to 120 degrees if not 180.
  • Once you’ve created the “T”, bring both poles towards your uphill ski and place them in the front and create a wide stance.
  • As you start to transfer your weight (poles will help), lift your lower foot and pivot it to match the uphill ski. The back of the ski will naturally fall bringing the tip up. However, for a true kick turn, as you lift your foot, use your heel to kick down. Sounds unintuitive until you practice it. You can even practice the kick on flat ground.
  • Try lengthening your poles to see what works best. Longer poles means an extension of your arms so you don’t have to lean forward as much (re: forward lean = sliding back).
  • If the ski tip is getting stuck, reset and be aggressive with the “kick” part of the turn. I like to tell people you’re doing it right if you can get the ski to hit your knee. No need to actually be that aggressive, but it’s a good way to know that you’ve actually kicked it.
  • Don’t be afraid to mess up the track just to get a flat platform. Sometimes people really do set bad tracks that are the steepest on the turns, which doesn’t make sense.
  • If the snow is soft, you can tuck your uphill ski under the snow below your downhill ski. That way, your feet are closer together and you won’t risk slipping backwards as you figure out bringing the other ski around.
Kick turning downhill

Going Up Steep Skin Tracks

This is always an issue for beginners and even advanced ski tourers. Like my friend once said, it’s all about the balance. Unlike hiking, you actually want to lean back into your heels as you go up steep tracks. This is so your weight can push down the middle of your ski so the skin will stick properly to the ski. Before beginning a steep slope, test it out. Try leaning forward and then leaning backwards. Forwards will cause slipping and backwards, it’ll stick amazingly. Whenever you start slipping, reset and feel your weight under your heel before continuing again. One trick people like to use is to keep the poles a little behind you for extra support and to remind you to have your chest up instead of leaning forward too much. If all else fails, use trees branches to help pull yourself up or set a new skin track to meet up with the existing one. It happens all the time!

Bindings will also have two additional heel settings called heel risers to assist with steeper terrain. Play around to see which feel best to use on different slopes. I am often too lazy to switch often so I usually go no risers or both risers and deal with the different balances from that. Just remember to go back to zero risers if you have downhill and flat sections or your quads will hurt.

Side Stepping

When you learn to ski, you learn to side step to get uphill. Even with your heels unlocked, you can still side step! This is useful for when you need to get higher up the slope right away and cannot kick turn or skin up. Like in downhill mode, create flat platforms with your skis as you move up. The key is to bring the entire ski up with you. Sometimes you have to kick the ski around or point your toes down to pull the tail back up. It’s not particularly easy but a nice skill to have.

Skinning Downhill

This can be scary for many people. You can’t lean forward because your heels are still unlocked and you’d fall on your face if you do lean forward. But it doesn’t mean you must sit in the backseat and lean back a lot. Again, this is about balance. It’s possible to sideslip while skinning and pizza turns are okay here too! Use all you can to get down and take it easy because you don’t have as much control with skins on and heels unlocked. 

On flat and lightly downhill slopes, try to glide and make use of the efficiency.

Icy Terrain

If snow is firm, you may benefit from booting and carrying skis on your pack. Then you can go straight up the mountain without traversing. If it’s firm but you post hole when booting, then skinning with ski crampons might be the way to go. The skis help you stay on top of the crusty layer and your ski crampons can help grab the ice. You can also try ski crampons on other icy terrain. But generally you’ll probably want to go straight to crampons on boots and an ice axe in hand.

Crampons on boots to climb up an icy, steep slope

Transition Tips

If the snow is deep, keep one foot in your ski at all times (obviously impossible for splitboarders when transitioning. You can also stomp out an area to reduce how much you sink into the snow.

It can be efficient to rip off the skins while keeping your skis on. I’ve found the best way is to lock in the heels before grabbing the tail and using the poles to balance.

Discussing the descent plan before skiing away

Downhill Tips

Make a decision who goes first and last. Put the least confident people in the middle or sometimes first so someone can be a sweeper. Depending on terrain, decide if you can all ski together or if one person goes at one time.

Side Slipping

If something is more steep than you’re comfortable with, you can always resort to side slipping. You might learn about this in a ski lesson, but essentially you’re in break mode, parallel to the slope and moving straight down as much as you can. Break and pause by turning your skis towards the mountain. To slide down use your ankles to angle the sides of the skis downhill. How much weight you put forward or back will cause you to traverse back or forwards, respectively. Keeping your center of gravity centered, you can side slip straight down the slope. Like with good skiing technique, keep your hands and upper body faced downhill but the skis still pointing to the side of the slope. Even advanced skiers will use this technique to get down narrow spots and icier terrain.

Traversing

There may be times when you’d rather not turn. But believe in yourself and it will happen. Otherwise, if the terrain allows, traverse the slope. Let your friends know where you’re going. Look for an ideal spot to turn, such as a flatter or open area. Then, using a mix of side slipping and traversing, navigate the terrain safely to the point you’ve decided to go to..

Tight turns

To make a tight turn in place, you can do a reverse kick turn. This is hard to balance, but I turn towards the downhill instead of turning uphill because the skis won’t get so caught. Another method if the snow is deep, you can stick the tail of the snow into the hill and slowly turn around that way. The snow will hold the skis in place.

Alrighty, I hope these tips and tricks can help your confidence the next time you’re out touring! Be safe and have fun!

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