Before fully diving into all that there is to learn and buy for backcountry skiing and splitboarding, you need to make sure that you will even enjoy it. The backcountry has no mid-mountain lodges to warm up in. There are no ski patrollers deeming what’s safe to ski and what isn’t. And there is a lot more physical work required to ski in the backcountry compared to resort skiing and riding.The best way to dip your toes is to hire a guide. You will need a backcountry setup (skis/splitboard, touring bindings and boots, and skins), and often you can rent that from the guiding service, or maybe borrow from a friend. You will also need a backpack, beacon, shovel, and probe, which can also be rented or borrowed. This is a great introduction into the backcountry while ensuring peace of mind. Your guide has the proper knowledge to keep you safe.
Once you’ve decided that backcountry skiing and riding is indeed something you’d like to get into (trust us, you want to), it is time to educate yourself. Knowing that your life quite literally depends on you and your partners’ knowledge in the backcountry, there are some things that are vitally important for you to learn. There is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg type debate here, where education is important but so is experience. So which should come first? With experience comes a stronger intuition and applicable knowledge, but without basic knowledge like how to properly use your gear or warning signs to look for, you are blind to a lot of stimuli that can help you to make safe decisions.
It is highly recommended that everybody who wants to backcountry ski should take an avalanche course in order to truly understand the complexities of backcountry and best practices. An avalanche course will teach you the following crucial information for safe backcountry travel.
Know your gear. Putting on and taking off your skins and using your boots and bindings for uphill are the basics of backcountry skiing, so you should be well-versed with your gear before taking an avalanche course. You can practice this right outside your house, so when you take the avy course, you can focus on learning your beacon, shovel, and probe.
Companion Rescue. An avalanche class will teach you how to quickly locate a buried beacon (and, ultimately, a buried partner) as well as the most efficient way to dig out a buried victim.
Route-finding. Learn how to both plan a safe route and follow a map (physical or digital). Know how to adapt to the ever-changing conditions that you experience out in the backcountry.
Avalanche Knowledge. An avalanche course will teach you the basics of avalanches and all the various factors that cause them: slope angle, aspect, temperature variabilities in the snowpack, potential triggers, and terrain. You’ll learn about red flags as well as how to perform basic snow tests, how to read them, and how to make informed decisions in the backcountry.
Decision-Making. Group dynamics, ego, and the human psyche also come into play when making decisions in the backcountry. You’ll learn how to communicate effectively in a group, discuss options, and ultimately make good, safe choices out there.
Both Bruchez and Smithwick stressed the importance of choosing good ski partners. Obviously, your partners should be able to comfortably ski the terrain that you want to (and vice versa), but the partner-selection process goes deeper than that. Bruchez’s holistic and almost spiritual approach to backcountry skiing has a lot to do with keeping good energy amongst the group. He says to choose partners who are enthusiastic and psyched on skiing. Many times, it can be difficult to find backcountry partners when you first get into it. Check your area for local Facebook pages, clubs, and classes to get yourself out there. Talk to your local backcountry ski shop. You want to make sure that if you get cold (you will) or the weather changes (it will), you can maintain a positive atmosphere amongst the group. Make sure that your partners possess the same vision as you. This ensures that everyone is on the same page. You shouldn’t be pushing your partners past their limits and they shouldn’t be pushing you past yours.This goes without saying, but the people you head into the backcountry with should have the proper knowledge listed above, same as you. For beginning backcountry skiers, you should also make sure to head out with people who have even more knowledge than you. Their experience is invaluable in helping you understand their decision-making, what they see in the snow and weather, etc. Ask lots of questions—“What did you feel when you just tested the snow with your pole?” and “What does that tell you about the snowpack?”—and absorb as much information as possible.